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. In this article, we’ll take a look at what a flat character is, how they differ from round characters, and why writers intentionally use flat characters in their stories. 

flat character definition

First, let’s define flat character

Flat 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 what a flat character is.

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. Flat characters are often used to support main characters in a story. 

Characteristics of a flat character:

  • One-dimensional
  • Conform to a stereotype
  • Lack an arc or development

Flat Character in detail

Traits of a Flat Character

To better distinguish what a flat character is and what defines one, let’s look at the traits of a flat character in detail.

One-dimensional

Flat characters are exactly that — flat. They are one dimensional and lack any complexity. Flat 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 that lacks any defining qualities besides being mean and nasty.

Stereotypical

Flat characters usually stem from some type of stereotype or character archetype. These stereotypes assign flat 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 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. 

Finding Nemo Marlin Meets Crush

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

Flat characters are also typically 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 flat characters are static characters, not all static characters are flat characters. So what is the opposite of a flat character?

flat character definition BY contrast

Flat vs Round Character

A flat character is a character that lacks complexity. As we mentioned in the flat character definition, most flat characters can be described in a mere few words. Flat characters are usually also static characters that have no arc. Along with being rather simple, flat characters behave rather passively in a story and do not make any critical decisions. 

The opposite of a flat character 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. For this reason, protagonists and antagonists are typically round characters. For some examples of a round character and why they are not flat, check out the video breakdown below. 

Round vs Flat Characters

You might be thinking that a round character in all aspects sounds better than a flat character. So why do writers use flat characters intentionally? Well, flat characters 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. 

how to use flat characters?

Purpose of a Flat Character

There are several reasons to use a flat character in a story. The important thing is to know the purpose of a flat character before you write them in. Otherwise, the character will be uninteresting and unnecessary. 

Move the plot along

The first reason to use a flat character is to simply move the plot along. This is common in genre stories that are more plot-driven than character driven films or a character study. Using flat characters 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 flat characters are commonly used as plot devices that move a story forward. 

Flat Characters in screenwriting

As Seppala mentioned in the interview, flat 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, flat 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 example of this type of flat character is Colonel Quaritch from one of James Cameron’s best movies Avatar. 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?

Avatar  •  Jake Meets Colonel Quaritch

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. 

Comedic effect

Flat 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 a flat character is is important so that you can avoid creating flat characters in your main characters. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that flat characters can serve a purpose when used intentionally and to serve the story. 

UP NEXT

How to Write Stronger Characters 

Now that you understand what a flat character is, 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. 

Up Next: How to Write Stronger Characters →
Solution Icon - Screenplay and Documents

Write and produce your scripts all in one place.

Write and collaborate on your scripts FREE. Create script breakdowns, sides, schedules, storyboards, call sheets and more.

Tags: , ,
  • Kyle DeGuzman graduated from San Diego State University with a Bachelor of Science in Television, Film, & New Media. He currently resides in Denver, Colorado spending his time writing, filmmaking, and traveling.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

0 Shares
Copy link