When you think of the most iconic films in cinema, odds are there is a well-rounded, memorable, maybe even complex character attached to it. However, you may be surprised that many of these great films also use simple characters that lack complexity. These are flat characters. What is a flat character arc? In this article, we’ll take a look at the flat character definition, how they differ from round characters, and why writers intentionally use these characters in their stories.
Watch: Back to the Future & the Flat Character Arc
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What is a flat character in film?
A quick flat character definition
Everything you've ever heard about character development is that change is fundamental. If your character doesn't evolve, for better or worse, you haven't done your job. While that is very true, there are exceptions to the rule. Sometimes, a character who doesn't change (but changes those around them) can be equally entertaining and valuable in storytelling.
These characters come in many varieties, but they all fall under the same definition. Let’s take a look at the flat character definition to better identify them and their function for the characters around them.
FLAT CHARACTER DEFINITION
What is a flat character?
A flat character is a character that lacks complexity and has a one-dimensional personality. Flat characters typically stem from a stereotypical character like “bully” or “boss.” They can often be described in just a few words.
Flat characters, often called stock characters, never deviate from their rather simple traits. They are the opposite of “round characters” who have complex personalities and change throughout the course of a story. These characters are often used to support main characters in a story.
Define flat character traits:
- Often conform to a stereotype
- Lack an obvious arc or development
Flat character meaning
Traits of a flat character
To better distinguish the criteria of these character and how they work, let’s look at the traits of a flat character in detail.
Flat characters are exactly that — flat. They are one dimensional and lack any complexity. These characters lack complexity in that they have no internal conflict, no complex relationships, and only a few defining qualities.
A “bully” is a common flat character example that lacks any defining qualities besides being mean and nasty. Think of Biff from Back to the Future or Deebo from Friday — bullies who serve a very important function for the protagonists' character arcs.
Flat characters usually stem from some type of stereotype or character archetype. These stereotypes assign these characters their defining qualities. A great example of this can be found in the character Crush from one of the best animated movies Finding Nemo.
Crush is a flat character example that stems from the surfer stereotype. His entire personality can be summed up as “surfer turtle.” Yet he serves an important purpose in moving the plot forward.
Crush may be a stereotype, but in the scene, the stereotype immediately informs the audience on everything they need to know about his personality.
No arc or development
These characters often share qualities with static characters. Static characters are characters that remain unchanged from the beginning to the end of a story. They have no character arc or character development. While most these characters are static characters, not all static characters are flat.
So what is the opposite of a flat character?
What is a flat character in film?
Round vs flat character
As we mentioned in the flat character literary definition, most of these characters can be described in a mere few words. These characters are usually also static characters that have no arc. Along with being rather simple, they behave rather passively in a story and do not make any critical decisions.
The opposite of this is a round character. Round characters are more fleshed out with complex personalities. Audience’s know more about a round character’s history, motivations, fears, and relationships. Round characters are also more dynamic and typically change over the course of the story as they deal with more conflict.
You might be thinking that a round character in all aspects sounds better than their flat counterparts. What is a flat character used for then? Well, despite what it may seem, they are not always uninteresting or not useful. There are many examples of iconic characters that can be defined as flay and actually are great for specific purposes.
Flat characters in movies
What is a flat character used for?
There are several reasons to use these characters in a story. The important thing is to know their purpose before you write them in. Otherwise, the character will be uninteresting and unnecessary.
Move the plot along
The first reason to use this character type is to simply move the plot along. This is common in film genres that are more plot-driven than character driven films or a character study. Using characters with a flat arc to move the plot along is effective because they do not distract the audience with any character details.
In this interview, screenwriter Travis Seppala talks more about how and why these characters are commonly used as plot devices that move a story forward.
As Seppala mentions in the interview, these characters' actions and behavior is driven by the story and plot rather than their character. This can be valuable for writers who need to use them as a device to keep the plot moving.
Symbolism and theme
Sometimes, these characters can personify an idea such as a symbol or a theme. A common example is a villain or bully being the personification of evil. Yet this is the main if not only defining quality they have.
A great flat character example of this is Colonel Quaritch from Avatar, one of James Cameron’s best movies. Firstly, the Colonel stems from a military stereotype. He is used to represent the human resistance to change, cooperation, and perhaps even peace.
Take a look at his first scene in the movie. What do we learn about him besides that he is military and about his feelings for Na'vi?
At the end of the movies, the Colonel is still unchanged and his aggression toward the Na'vi is unchanged. His role in the film is to personify a threat and the theme of human beings taking rather than cooperating.
These characters are often used for comedic effect and comedic relief. While they may lack dimension, they can serve as the writer's way to introduce comedy into a scene. This may mean they are often the butt of a joke or the one who always cracks jokes.
At the end of the day, understanding what these characters are is important so that you can avoid creating flat characters in your main characters. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that these characters can serve a purpose when used intentionally and to serve the story.
How to Write Stronger Characters
Now that you understand characters with a flat arc, you may want to learn how to write round characters. In our next article, we take a deep dive into the components of writing strong characters that are capable of carrying a story and connecting to an audience.