Kathryn Page Camp
As a general rule, readers engage best with a story when the main characters are round rather than flat. E. M. Forster describes these terms in Chapter 4 of Aspects of the Novel.
In their purest form, [flat characters] are constructed round a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round. The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as “I never will desert Mr. Micawber.” There is Mrs. Micawber—she says she won’t desert Mr. Micawber, she doesn’t, and there she is. Or: “I must conceal, even by subterfuges, the poverty of my master’s house.” There is Caleb Balderstone in The Bride of Lammormoor. He does not use the actual phrase, but it completely describes him; he has no existence outside it, no pleasures, none of the private lusts and aches that must complicate the most consistent of servitors. Whatever he does, wherever he goes, whatever lies he tells or plates he breaks, it is to conceal the poverty of his master’s house.
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The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.
Elsewhere in the discussion, Forster says that both types of character have their place in a novel. It’s okay if some of your characters are flat. The reader doesn’t care about the maid who opens the door and then fades into the background. Major characters should be round, those with bit parts can be flat, and secondary characters may have varying degrees of roundness depending on their role in the story. Mrs. Micawber is more than a bit player in David Copperfield, but her sole purpose is to stand by her man. In that role, her flatness works fine.
If you think about your characters as balloons, they are flat until you inflate them with multiple emotions, motivations, and faults. But how do you know when you have added just enough air for their role in the story (and to keep them from exploding because you were too ambitious)?
That’s too complex a subject for a blog post. Instead, I suggest finding some good craft books on the subject, such as Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress and Plot versus Character by Jeff Gerke. To learn about the different personality types, you can read Please Understand Me II by David Keirsey.
Then there are all those character profile sheets. Writers don’t agree on how much advance work should go into developing characters. Plotters generally fill out a long form of characteristics before starting to write, while pantsers let the characters reveal themselves to the writer as the story develops, much like we learn about new friend (and enemies) in real life.* You should do what works for you.
Still, every writer should have at least a skeletal list to refer to. Otherwise, the protagonist’s green eyes in Chapter 2 may suddenly become brown in Chapter 22.
Here are some websites that include character development sheets or lists:
http://nanowrimo.org/forums/character-cafe/threads/249614—this is a list of character development websites
So blow up that balloon and inflate your characters.
* See 3/9/16 post on “Plotters v. Pantsers.”
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at www.kathrynpagecamp.com.