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Character Development
May 4, 2022

What Is a Flat Character in Film?

Humans are complex, nuanced, inconsistent, contradictory beings. So why are so many film and tv characters…not?

A character that isn't a fully rounded person is often referred to as a "flat" character with no dimension.

While flat characters have their place in stories, writers should strive to make their characters as round as possible. The closer a character is to a human, the stronger the illusion of reality for the audience.

What is a flat character?

Characters are called "flat" when they seem to only exist for the film's sake. There's no hint of a person in there, and maybe they exist for a joke or to move the plot along.

Audiences go to films to experience the emotions of life, and when characters are flat, it reminds them of the veneer, so making characters round is essential.

Writers should strive to make characters multidimensional.

Tips for rounding out characters

When looking to create round characters, keep these principles in mind.

1. Find multiple dimensions

Any character that is one thing is, by definition, flat. Quite literally. One dimension = flat.

If you want to add depth to a character, look for something else a character can have an opinion on or feel about, even if it's arbitrary to the story.

A character that is always grumpy is flat; a character that is always grumpy, but adores feeding birds at the park, starts to round out.

2. Find inconsistencies

A character that says one thing but does another is a round character. 

A character that says they hate children but is so friendly and fun with them draws the audience in. Either this character is lying to themselves or others. Either one is interesting.

3. Find changes

Characters can start as one thing and then change into another. Even if they're "flat" at the beginning and "flat" at the end, the change shows that they can grow, which rounds them out. 

In essence, you're showing multiple dimensions, but across time. This is why character arcs are so important, even for supporting characters. (Character arcs also help with a three-act structure, but that's for another post.)

For more tips on creating round characters, check out Creating Characters and this Step-By-Step Character Profile.

Examples of flat and round characters in film

Let's look at some popular characters from these popular series.

Dory in Finding Nemo

Dory has multiple dimensions. She has a distinct personality that is playful and caring, but her issue with memory loss gives her an added dimension. And she's not afraid to show her vulnerable side, which provides us with another glimpse into her. What is essentially a supporting character to push Marlin along his arc is a fully fleshed-out fish!

Dory in Finding Nemo.
Dory in Finding Nemo is a well-rounded supporting character.

Snape in the Harry Potter series

Severus Snape is the kind of character that says one thing but does another. He dislikes Harry, but why does he constantly show up for him?

There's a precise moment in the first book/film when Hermione believes Snape is cursing Harry so that he falls off his broomstick. We later learn that Snape was actually protecting Harry. But he dislikes Harry? This inconsistency is what led Snape to become a fan favorite, all the way through to the full reveal of his character in the final chapter.

Haymitch in The Hunger Games

At first, Haymitch Abernathy (played by Woody Harrelson in the movies) is a relatively flat character. He's basically just a drunk. But his relationship with Katniss changes him, and he undergoes an arc, both in the first book and the series as a whole. Someone who is initially a flat character becomes one of the most fully developed and rounded characters in the entire series.

Compare the characters above to some other characters in the same stories. For example, look at flat characters like Crush the turtle, Crabbe, Goyle in Harry Potter, or any tribute in the first Hunger Games besides Katniss, Rue, or Peeta. 

Successful characters accused of being flat

Some characters are defined by their singular quality and their unwillingness to change. The stories that surround them are structured to challenge this.

Look at a character like Rudy (from Rudy) or Steve Rogers (from Captain America, The Avengers, etc.). While they don't change in their films, please recognize that they're presented with stories in which almost everyone else would change or compromise. So their struggle is dramatized by the refusal to change, which indicates an interiority that "flat" characters don't have.

Not every character can stay the same throughout their story (in fact, most shouldn't), but a story calls for it every now and then.

Round out every character

Not every character can be Hamlet. There's not the space to draw every person in your story with the true interiority of a human. But that doesn't mean they have to be cardboard cutouts.

Specificity allows flat characters to be rounded out because quirks are part of what makes us human. The Coen Brothers are excellent at this, both on the page and on the screen.

While Anton Chigurh gets a lot of attention for his part in this scene, watch the secondary character here in the following scene.

You could argue he's not a fully round character, but it feels strange to call him flat too. There seems to be a real person there, and I believe it's because of the specificity that the script (and the actor) bring.

Rounding out your characters, both your main characters and supporting, help to add more depth and color to your story. The more quirks and details, the more human the story becomes. 

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What Is a Flat Character in Film?
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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