Flat and Rounded Characters in Fiction: Part One


Garvice coverHolmes

I believe EM Forster in an article somewhere wrote of ‘flat’ and ‘round’ characters, which is an intriguing definition. I must seek it out (after finishing ‘Clarissa’ and re-reading ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ for the Goodreads discussion and reading  Francis Franklin’s ‘Suzi and the Monsters’ and reading up on a bit of literary criticism of ‘King Lear’ that is- oh yes, and doing a bit of writing, almost forgot that bit…).

Presumably both sorts of character have their applications, depending on the genre. Flat characters serve a very useful function in detective stories – for instance, in Poirot and
Sherlock Holmes.

The slightly vain,  cold but  basically decent, seemingly law-abiding but occasionally law breaking  Holmes (who despises the blundering official police force)  is in fact, less of a ‘thinking machine’ than his dismissive creator believed – but more of that in a later post.

Here, more or less cardboard characters serve the best function where any individual quirks would clutter up the plot, save where they are useful in adding a useful twist to it or to foreshadow later developments – ie Major Sholto’s phobic terror of men with wooden legs in ‘The Sign of the Four’.

Then, in straight adventure stories, flat characters serve a good purpose, or in short stories- I mean, the really short ones, say 1,500 to 2,000 words – not much room for character development in that word length (still, it would be interesting to have a competition to see if it could be done alongside a separate plot – a huge achievement, surely!).

James Bond is number one of Heroes I Abhor – so it’s hard for me to describe the jerk –sorry,  whatever was I thinking – character – with any detachment – but he’s a fairly obvious example of a flat character.

He’s always meant to be heroic and never makes a fool of himself and never has any problems with – ahem his libido – and is an athlete despite his constant drinking and smoking.

To be fair to Ian Fleming – not as if I want to be – James Bond does in fact have a form of nervous breakdown at some point, showing a startling humanity for a brief space.

I’ve forgotten the name of the novel where this occurs, but after he falls in love with and marries the Countess Tracey Something Or Other who gets shot by SMERSH, he takes to drink, so that when he comes the worse for wear to an appointment with M the ever devoted Miss Moneypenny has to straighten his tie.

M promptly sends him off to a health farm, arriving in a taxi driven by an insolent youth with Teddy Boy characteristics – no doubt everything that the author considered bad about the youth of his own particular today.

I don’t remember what happened after that as I stopped reading. I think this was one of the many books I had recourse  to (OK – grammatically that should be ‘to which I had recourse’ but I ask you!) during that snowed in period in my teens in an isolated house in North Wales I’ve mentioned before where I read so much more than usual, even venturing into historical novels and nineteenth century romances, ie, ‘The Talisman Ring’ and ‘The Black Moth’ by Georgette Heyer, ‘The Outcast of the Family Or a Battle Between Love and Pride’ by Charles Garvice (1894) and even some Fu Manchu. Perhaps the thaw finally came and I could once more venture out again riding hell for leather  on my bicycle, looking for trouble and failing to find it…

In fact, right there are two incredibly successful novelists – Heyer and Garvice – who specialised in flat characters. My recollection of Heyer’s characters – and my acquaintance with her was short – was that she wrote of two sorts of males.

There is the young, hot-headed, wild, but basically good-hearted young buck (sometimes he’s a disgraced Earl) who needs to be civilized by a loving female; he’s usually fairly stupid, though Heyer is very tolerant of these macho young men’s idiocies. Then there’s the cynical, slightly older man who is too calm for the heroine’s liking, and has to be roused to a passion he struggles against.

The heroine is either an ingénue or a slightly older woman who’s got a (not too) independent streak – I think one of these was even rumoured to be a ‘bluestocking’.

In Charles Garvice, the heroes are a nineteenth century version of the same thing – as often as not they’ve squandered away a fortune. Heriot Fayne in ‘The Outcast of the Family’ takes decadence to the point of having a whisky and soda for breakfast (it being a Victorian novel, he has to be alone in bed as he orders this from his man). He is made a good deal less lovable than average by having a liking for threatening to throw Jewish moneylenders out of windows – one can imagine him, thirty years later, joining the Blackshirts – but generally the heroes are honest hearted and rather confused by a conflict between duty –(they’re usually heir to an Earldom) and their natural wildness.

The heroines are a very dull lot. As Laura Sewell Mater comments in her article on this most prolific of late Victorian/Edwardian writers, the only thing that distinguishes one from another is their hair colour, although I do recall that one – I think Margaret in ‘Wild Margaret’ is slightly less of a lay figure – she actually pokes fun at the hero, making him look a fool and bringing about his reformation through acid criticism as much as angelic example.

Most intriguing, I think, are characters who are halfway between the flat and the round; and in my next post I’m going to enjoy writing about a perplexing example of this – none other than Charley Kinraid, the dashing, opportunistic (second?) hero of ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ by my favourite Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell.

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2 thoughts on “Flat and Rounded Characters in Fiction: Part One

  1. Interesting post, Lucinda. I agree that, on occasion, flat characters can really work quite well. An example that springs to mind is ‘Dracula’. The ‘good’ characters – the colourful Van Helsing aside – are rather dull and one-dimensional. This actually works, since they seem to exist primarily to move the story along, and absolutely not to distract readers’ attention from the mesmerising, terrifying Count.

    I once read an argument to the effect that, had Stoker been a better writer, Dracula would never have become the iconic pop culture figure we know today. I feel a bit like a traitor for saying it, but I have to say that I agree!

    1. That’s an intriguing insight, Mari. Come to think of it, while I’ve always bemoaned the ‘lay figure’ women in ‘Dracula’ all the younger men are a pretty one dimensional lot, too…As you say, it’s Van Helsing and Dracula for the personalities…

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