Monday, May 12, 2008

Flat And Round

"Because round things...are boring."
aaaaa--from Francis Vincent Zappa's symphony Lumpy Gravy

As long as I’m jabbering about characterization, let’s chat a bit about ‘flat’ and ‘round.’

As far as I know, the distinction between flat and round characters originated with EM Forster in his Cambridge lectures, later published as Aspects of the Novel. That book is often referenced but apparently seldom read, since Forster is often cited as encouraging the use of ‘round’ characters and assaulting the use of ‘flat’ characters. That was not at all his point.

According to Forster, a flat character is one who can be summed up, one whose behavior is predictable in almost any situation. By definition, then, a flat character can’t have a ‘character arc,’ and develop across a novel.

Forster doesn’t mean that flat characters are to be avoided. He feels they are less of an artistic achievement than memorable round characters, but are still vital in the construction of a novel:

One great advantage of flat characters is that they are easily recognized whenever they come in—recognized by the reader’s emotional eye, not by the visual eye, which merely records the recurrence of a proper name. In Russian novels, where they so seldom occur, they would be a decided help. It is a convenience for an author when he can strike with full force at once, and flat characters are very useful to him, since they never need reintroducing, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere—little luminous disks of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither like counters across the void or between the stars; most satisfactory.

A second advantage is that they are easily remembered by the reader afterwards. They remain in the mind as unalterable for the reason that they were not changed by circumstances, which gives them in retrospect a comforting quality, and preserves them when the book that produced them may decay.

Forster cites Dickens and HG Wells as important writers who worked almost exclusively with flat characters.

Although people often reference Forster with respect to flat and round, those same people often use the words in opposition to how he meant them. It is not at all unusual to have someone say in a critique, “Bob seems kind of flat to me,” when in fact they mean Bob is boring them to tears. It’s easy to write round characters that are unutterably dull; most people, if portrayed on the page with any accuracy, will seem like lukewarm water.

At the other extreme, that same reader will often offer as a compliment the fact that someone ‘pops right off the page.’ And they are likely to go further with that metaphor, describing the character as ‘three-dimensional,’ or even ‘round’. But most frequently the characters that pop off the page are, by Forster’s definition, flat: characters that are vivid, amusing, or powerful, but are not terribly nuanced.

Is there such a thing as being “too round”? Forster thought so. He quotes the critic Norman Douglas, who attacked a biography written by DH Lawrence as using “the novelist’s touch” which is, according to Douglas:

…a failure to realize the complexities of the ordinary human mind; it selects for literary purposes two or three facets of a man or woman, generally the most spectacular, and therefore useful ingredients of their character, and disregards all the others….The facets may be correct so far as they go but there are too few of them: what the author says may be true and yet by no means the truth. That is the novelist’s touch. It falsifies life.

To which Forster responds:

Well, the novelist’s touch as thus defined is, of course, bad in biography, for no human being is simple. But in a novel it has its place: a novel that is at all complex often requires flat people as well as round, and the outcome of their collisions parallels life more accurately than Mr. Douglas implies…Part of the genius of Dickens is that he does use types and caricatures, people whom we recognize the instant they re-enter, and yet achieves effects that are not mechanical and a vision of humanity that is not shallow.

So, the next time someone says this character is flat, or that one pops off the page, ask for definitions. Chances are they’ll mention Forster, and chances are they’ll be using the terms in almost the opposite way to how he defined them.

It's probably too late to get people to stop using the terms incorrectly, and to make them realize they are not terms of praise and condemnation but instead technical terms. I haven't much hope. 'Decimate' has come to mean 'totally destroyed' (rather than 'reduced by ten percent'); and I predict that in our lifetimes, 'penultimate' will no longer mean 'next to last' but will be listed in the dictionary under its new and incredibly stupid meaning of 'most amazingly ultimate of all'.

Yet sometimes you have to yield ground. Sometimes you must retreat and live to fight another day. (Although usually you retreat and then lose the war, though no one talks about that eventuality much.)

At the minimum, perhaps we can get people to stop invoking Forster when they misuse the terms he so carefully crafted. Or at least read him.


Tim Stretton said...

Good post, David. It's long time since I read Aspects of the Novel, but I remember him as much more interesting as a critic than a novelist.

Shakespeare's comedies are peopled almost exclusively by flat characters. They're making the same half-arsed mistakes at the end of the play than the beginning, and are invariably rescued by coincidence rather than anything they've learned. The tragedies, of course, are rather different...

Maybe this is true of all/most comedy. The reader looking for character development in P.G. Wodehouse is likely to be disappointed.

Sam Taylor said...

David -- See, this is why I read your blog -- to learn why my Creative Writing teacher was wrong :) What was the definition of a "round" character. I assume it was one with a "character arc". But how did he define "character arc"?

Tim -- you may be on to something there. :)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

You're absolutely right about flat characters in comedy--from Shakespeare on down to Monty Python. Flat characters refusal to adapt (or show other factes of themselves) in response to changes in circumstances is inherently funny.

Flat characters work fine in drama, too--so long as we don't have to stare at them too long or too closely.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

Ah, as you seem to have guessed, Forster defines "round" mainly as "unflat". He says that when characters contain "more than one factor" that "we get the beginning of the curve towards the round."

He gives plenty of examples of round characters from literature, but never delivers a clear definition. What is clear about round characters is that the more we see of them, the more we know about them; with a flat character, there isn't really more to know. It is also round characters who are capable of growth or change (or an "arc"--although I'm not sure he ever uses that latter term).

He does say that round characters can surprise us (while flat ones can't) and he suggests that such characters are likely to "mutiny" or, in following their own lives, are "often engaged in treason against the main scheme of the book."

Although he doesn't discuss it, in noting that a character might have more than one "factor" beginning to round them out, Forster is admitting a continuum between the flat and round.

I suspect that most of the characters with two factors at work in them are what we would call "types"--the hooker with a heart of gold, the criminal with his own unshakeable moral code, etc.

Alis said...

David, thanks for this v. informative and thought provoking post. Must just go to the proverbial darkened room and contemplate round and flat in the wip. What happens, by the way, when you try to put round characters into square holes in your plot...?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

The holes in any plot I write are so big you can sail an ocean liner through them. So characters of any shape fit...