315 – Flat Characters
We’ve all called a character flat before, usually when we didn’t like them. “Ugh, this villain is only doing evil for evil’s sake, how flat!” But what is a flat character, really? Where did the term come from, and is it always bad? Today, we’re discussing that very subject. We talk about when it’s appropriate to use flat characters, whether characters are actually flat, and what the heck is up with MCU villains. Seriously, can anyone even remember most of them?
Generously transcribed by Darian. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Wes: Hello, you’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host, Wes, and with me today is…
Wes: And for today, you can call me Square. I’m about to take you on a journey to Flatland, where all are one- and two-dimensional, and we don’t have to worry about anything rounded. Character or otherwise. Why be round, and complex, and three dimensional, when you can be flat? Flat is fun. Flat is great. I am square. You know exactly what to expect from me. Nothing more.
Oren: Hey, now… circles can be flat.
Wes: Are you Oren the circle?
Oren: I might be! The two-dimensional circle with an infinitely thin edge.
Wes: I like that. That’s good.
Wes: I know exactly what I can expect from you. What about you, Chris? How are you journeying into Flatland?
Chris: I do not want to go to Flatland. That place is sexist. Really sexist. [laughs]
Wes: I know! It’s like… it sounds so fun, and then you read about that book and you’re like, oh no…
Chris: I think we’ve discussed Flatland before. Perhaps it was intended to be a satire, but it certainly doesn’t read that way today. And, you know… if you build a world where all the women in the world are like… inherently inferior because they are lines, and therefore only have two sides…
Chris: …Unlike the perfect circle, with an infinite number of sides… That doesn’t read as satire, because it’s built into the world. You’re saying that that’s what reality is.
Wes: The only satire from, like… decades, or hundreds of years ago, that stood the test of time is Jonathan Swift. Because everybody can agree that somebody talking about eating babies is definitely satire.
Wes: All the other ones just don’t… age.
Oren: Plus, Jonathan Swift was clever, and only put in his thing about classism, right? So like in his book, his thing is targeted at the rich. And… spoiler alert… the rich didn’t become oppressed in the last two hundred years.
Oren: And they NEVER will. So yeah, it becomes a problem when the satirist includes their views on ANYTHING ELSE that are just… way less progressive than whatever it is they’re deliberately targeting. So, you know, good note for the future. Only ever write about one thing, is what I think we’re going for here.
Wes: So anyway, steering the conversation back. We’re not going to hang out in that Flatland, but we ARE going to talk about flat characters today. You’ve probably heard this term before, but generally a character is said to be “flat” if the character is, say… one-dimensional, which kind of means lacking in complexity. A flat character, ideally, can be easily and accurately described by single words, like “scholar,” or a short sentence, like “a brave and idealistic Hobbit with a fragile heart of gold.” Any rule obviously has wiggle room and stuff, but…
Chris: Honestly, that one line description sounds a little too complex. I suppose it would depend on the implementation though.
Wes: I think the important thing is that if you can describe them… It depends on the implementation. The key thing about a flat character is that how they’re defined kind of like… sets a formula, -ish, for them? And they shouldn’t break or transcend that. If they do, they get rounded. And they get booted from Flatland.
Chris: I think that with the wording “one dimensional,” right—which is a synonym for a flat character—one of the key things is that you never see another side to that character. Usually, in most cases, they embody the same mood, like their mood doesn’t even change. Sometimes their mood changes, but if they’re still closely following the very same theme, and we never see their other side… which, normal people behave in different ways in different situations, and take on different roles depending on who they’re interacting with, et cetera, et cetera. And a flat character does not do that.
Wes: Yeah. And if we’re talking flat, they’re going to be minor characters, side characters, one or small multi-off characters, like “My cabbages!” guy.
Wes: But! I think it’s important to note that in some stories you can have the protagonist be a flat character too. That happens a lot in allegories. If your tale is instructive—that’s most Victorian short stories and things like that—but we’re not really talking about that today so much. Oh! Something else. I think that you should not assume that if somebody says a character is flat, that they are dull, or poorly written. It’s a flat character; we’re simply saying this is not a complicated character with motivations beyond what is on the surface. If you’re pointing that out to say, “Oh, that character’s flat and terrible,” it’s like, okay. But maybe… that’s the point?
Chris: I think the tricky part here is that whether or not it’s okay for a character to be one-dimensional, or whether it’s actually an asset in some situations, really depends on the role that character is playing and how they’re featuring in the story. And so in some cases calling a character flat, in which that’s clearly not an appropriate place for a character to be flat, is, I think, rightly a criticism. And it would also be a little bit redundant if, every single time, we needed to explain what was wrong with that, because usually it’s taken for granted that we want our primary characters, especially in a really long work like a novel, to be… deep. Or complex. And it’s unnecessary and would be redundant if we then went like, “Oh, they’re one-dimensional, and the problem with that is…” So usually, when we have situations where characters are appropriately one-dimensional, nobody bothers to call them that. Because it’s just a given that they should be, and nobody takes issue with it.
I see what you’re saying, though, Wes, about the fact that there are actually lots of situations in which these characters are appropriate. Maybe this shouldn’t just be… we just call them what they are, and then it’s a criticism, and there’s nothing else said. I’m not sure, at this point, what else we can do.
Wes: I think it’s also that the word “flat” has negative connotations. So I’m not entirely sure why E. M. Forster picked that in his 1927 book, Aspects of the Novel? I think he just wanted something opposite of round. ‘Cause, you know, “well-rounded” is a phrase, and he’s like, “oh yeah, flat! That’s fine, no one’s going to think that that’s a BAD thing! It’s just an uncomplicated character!” So, that didn’t age well.
Chris: Yeah. I think that instead it might be easier when we’re trying to refer to characters that have these… that are simple, that we call them something like “simple.” Or we call them “iconic.”
Or we use a different word that has a more positive connotation than “flat” or “one-dimensional.”
Wes: Yeah, “basic.” [laughs]
Chris: ‘Cause that’s just going to be the easiest way to… [laughs]
Oren: Yeah. Okay. So here’s a question. This is something that I’m trying to wrap my head around: what exactly a “flat” character is. When this comes up, we talk about characters who “don’t change,” or “aren’t overly complex,” and, okay, I feel like there are some characters that meet that description, but are, like, beloved main characters. I don’t know. I feel like Ripley’s not particularly complex as a character. I don’t think Morpheus is particularly complex, or Leia from Star Wars. I was also kind of thinking about Picard, ‘cause he doesn’t really change over the course of The Next Generation. He becomes, I guess, less of a “mean guy” after Season One, because in Season One, he’s just kind of mean, but that’s really more of a character reboot than development, and he’s pretty much the same guy. But these are all characters that people really like. And I don’t think that that’s without reason. So I’m trying to figure out… Am I missing something? Is there something that makes those characters… not flat? Or is it okay that they’re flat in this context? I don’t know. Please help!
Wes: I would point out that if they ARE flat, that’s fine. And there is another term that we can use to describe characters, which is: whether or not a character is “static.” And we have been talking about “flat” characters as being like, a type, and they shouldn’t transcend that, blah, blah, blah. But really it gets down to a matter of complexity. A flat character is not very complex. A flat character can undergo change, but we wouldn’t witness that in action. You know? It might just be filled in with some exposition that, like… after this quest, this character suddenly went from being described as “scholar” to described as “detective.” You know, like that flat character just kind of swapped one flatness for another.
Chris: Okay. To nitpick about terminology here, [laughs] as I do, because I like to be very specific about what we’re talking about, and with characters it can just get very fuzzy… I would say that there’s two different properties of character. And one is, do they change over the course of the story? And the other is whether they seem at the start of the story to be a complex character or not? And those are two separate things that have different implementations. And so I wouldn’t necessarily want to equate them with each other.
A complex character being a character that is… I love to use the example of Data. Because he’s this android where it’s like, “I don’t feel emotions.” But then we see him also painting, which seems counter-intuitive for an android who doesn’t feel emotions. And he cares for a cat. So that’s what I would call complex, where he has traits that you wouldn’t… just looking at one trait, you wouldn’t easily predict he has another one, and it’s kind of contradictory. He’s complex. But that’s different from whether over the course of The Next Generation he changes and becomes a different person. He does SLOWLY change—he doesn’t change a whole lot—but I would say that those are two different things when you’re actually implementing the character, so I would prefer to use different terms for them.
Wes: Well, I mean, really there’s… we’ve only talked about three terms. There’s complex characters, which can be considered “round” in the decades-old parlance. There’s un-complex characters, which can be considered “flat.” And then there’s simply the “do they change?” question, and if yes, “not static,” and if no, “static.”
Chris: So I think “static” is a great term for a character that just… doesn’t change. Whereas… I like the word “simple,” but unfortunately it has some connotations of being unintelligent, which is… so I don’t… That would be the natural word for, you know, the antonym of complex.
Wes: One more thing, before we move on from static characters: a complex, well-rounded character can also be static. You might have a protagonist that is very complex, and then your story might just… throw all kinds of things at them, and they don’t significantly undergo change because they… I don’t know, they were already ready for it, or something like that? So in that case, to Oren’s question about somebody like Picard, or, I don’t know, the cast of The Next Generation, [laughter]… they are all significantly complex, but they don’t undergo a ton of change. We just learn more about them. But who they are is kind of… pretty well established. So you can have complexity without great change over time. It just depends a lot on what arc you want to focus on, I suppose.
Oren: Reminds me of the much-quoted “flat arc.” And Chris had a really interesting insight on those. Chris, do you remember what I’m talking about?
Chris: Yes, I did rant about that to patrons. But that was about… I feel like that’s getting too… But this is a character that…. basically, the idea is supposed to be that they changed during the story, but they end up in the same place they started, right? So the idea is that they’re… feeling confident, and then their beliefs are challenged, and they go through a period of doubt, and at the end that their feelings are reaffirmed. I think that that is following, basically, different storytelling theory than we use, and for us, their plot actually starts when they feel the doubt. And then they become confident, and that is change. And usually, if they’re feeling confident before that, that means their arc hasn’t started yet. But technically, if we’re looking at… other arcs can start earlier, we could see them end up in the same place they started. And they wouldn’t necessarily be a static character because they are still changing at some point.
Oren: Back on the subject of flat characters. I do think that in general, I would say that in longer stories your villains can typically afford to be less complex than your protagonist. Like in general, I think your protagonist, you want at least some depth there the longer you spend with them, although blank characters are also a valid thing. Whereas villains… certainly nothing wrong with a complex villain, but especially if you aren’t taking shots inside the villain’s head, or watching them on TV or what have you, giving them a fairly simple motivation, as long as it makes sense, I’d say you’re good to go there. Not every villain needs to be complicated and have a tragic backstory. Sometimes they can just be Darth Vader from Star Wars, who is very cool. And we find out Darth Vader DOES have a tragic backstory, but if you just watch the first Star Wars movie, he doesn’t. They haven’t created that yet. He’s just a very scary guy.
Chris: I would be careful though, because I do think that a lot of writers make the mistake of making their villains exaggerated and cartoonish.
Oren: Yeah, there is that.
Chris: And this is technically different from them being a flat character. And technically they could be flat and okay, but I think that usually a lot of writers need to be pushed in the direction of giving their villain a little bit more depth. Just so that they’re encouraged to portray them a little more realistically, and not just make them, you know, cartoonish—cackling, and chopping off the heads of minions, [laughter] —doing all those other things. Whereas… I know that when you put together villains, Oren, you’re thinking of something that seems simple to you, but you ALSO know what a realistic villain looks like. [laughs]
Oren: Okay, to be fair, your experience with my villains is often over a long roleplaying campaign in which I find excuses to talk about my villain’s backstory, which is a little easier to do in roleplaying games than it is in novels, sometimes. So there is that.
Chris: Yeah. But I would just be worried about being like, “hey, your villain can be flat!” because I think a lot of writers, again, are not thinking about their villain enough or making them realistic enough. Personally, I think that the biggest guideline for whether your character can be flat or not is how much screen time they have. And I think there’s other things that affect it, like tone—flat characters are often used for comedies—but even so, if you have the character on screen enough, they usually should not be flat, because if they’re showing the same trait all the time, eventually the audience will just get tired of that and they could become annoying. They’re a lot more likely to. Like Morpheus, for instance. A movie is actually not a very long story. Shows are much longer than movies. Novels are MUCH longer than movies. And so, Morpheus is a secondary character in a movie. For his role, he doesn’t NEED to entertain the audience for that long. If he was in a novel and he just was Wise Mentor the entire time, right… [laughter] …that could get old. But if it’s short, they often have the advantage of being more distinctive and easier to remember, and they let audiences get their measure quickly, which—for something that’s really short—is, you know, better.
I think for me, the ultimate example of flat characters and where they’re appropriate is actually my comic. [laughter.] Because I have a weekly gag comic. Again, three panels. You don’t know these people, you hear them say like three lines, but they’re all designed to be trope-archetypes that you’re supposed to recognize, in a lot of them. Not all of them, but a lot of them. In fact, I have to remind you of the trope to get the punchline to work. And so the character is designed to be just kind of… Typical Superhero Character. Typical Villain Character. Because I need to make that impression and really quickly, and make them distinctive really quickly, to create certain expectations. And it’s a silly comic. It’s incredibly brief. [laughter] So those would almost always be flat by design, and much more over the top then you could get away with, even in a short story. Unless the short story is really comic. Maybe you could do that. But usually if the tone is supposed to be more realistic, and the story is longer, they’ll feel less and less realistic as time goes on and people don’t see other sides to them. If they have, like, an ongoing gag, that’s… which is a lot of times why characters become annoying, is they’re intended to be comedic. They have one-dimensional personalities, with just one running gag, and it just gets old after a while.
Oren: Rude of you to personally call out Neelix like that.
Oren: His gag is that he’s bad at cooking, but he’s the cook. Lololololol.
Oren: Every episode! Okay. I have another question. This is an important question. So the MCU has a reputation for really bad villains, with a couple of notable exceptions, and I’m just trying to figure out the reason why so many of these villains are bad—is it because they’re too flat? Like in particular, the dark elf from Thor 2, and whoever the heck that wizard was from Doctor Strange? I can’t remember either of their names, and I refuse to look them up. Like, they were very boring. Is the issue with them that they were too flat? That we just didn’t know enough about them? Or is this a flat problem?
Chris: I don’t even remember the wizard you’re talking about from Doctor Strange. I think that one… I mean, clearly we have a distinctiveness problem if I don’t even remember the character. [laughs]
Wes: The wizard guy, they tried to shoehorn some kind of tragic backstory in, where he lost a family member, maybe?
Chris: Like every other villain? [laughs]
Wes: This, I think, is a good example of a problem where they’re trying to make this villain a little bit more complex, and they’re just not really committing to it. And so the weird rationale we get for this villain’s actions doesn’t make sense, because there’s not enough time devoted to make the villain properly complex. Had the villain just been, like, Sauron… and it’s like, okay! Dark Lord. Great. We would have not even thought about it, you know? We can just move right past.
Chris: I would say that Sauron is only memorable, though, because Sauron comes from a famous work.
Wes: I would just contend that Abstract Dark Lord: totally fine as a flat character. Especially if it’s kind of just… a threat, that never really shows up. The Chronicles of Prydain, Arawn? But I think the only time you see him in person… spoilers… is in the last book, and he’s dead. You know what he is, and you know about his actions, but he’s incredibly flat. ‘Cause he’s more like… a thing. But that’s fine. We don’t need to know what’s up with him or his backstory. I think the dark elves in Thor 2 also fell prey to that by trying to… I barely remember that. It was really hard to watch.
Chris: Yeah. I think the tricky thing is, if you’re going to have a Sauron, he better be threatening, because that’s all he’s got.
Wes: And that’s good for a flat villain!
Chris: Right. And that’s totally fine. If you make your Sauron threatening, good. Power to you. But again, one of the ways that Sauron is threatening—as you pointed out in Prydain—is that he’s not present. He’s not there. So we don’t demystify him. He’s mysterious and vague and powerful. Whereas, if we do the thing that Eragon does, where we have a prologue where the Shade shows up, [laughter] …and is just comically evil, and is very flat…. I can’t take the Shade seriously after this.
Oren: Right. I was going to say that Sauron, I think, works as well as he does because he acts through minions. Who are a little more interesting, or at least a little more complex. Whereas Sauron isn’t walking around smiting the good guys. Because if he was, I think that would get very tiresome. I mean, heck—he was in the Hobbit movies for like three minutes, and I was already tired of him. [laughter] Granted, he was recursive Sauron, so who knows, but, like, Saruman, who is the big bad that we actually interact with—he’s actually a little more complicated. Right? Cause he’s, like, a wizard, he’s supposed to be good, he turned to evil, a wizard should know better… all of that.
Wes: Yeah. That’s a really good point.
Chris: I do think that if you have a villain that is onscreen a lot, it would probably benefit from being less flat. Azula, I would say, is a more complex character, a very effective villain. She’s threatening because basically every time she gets entangled with a protagonist, they have to run away, and she accomplishes some things; that’s what keeps her threatening. And she’s a little more complex and interesting. So she’s a threatening character that you can actually have on screen for a while.
Oren: Whereas, Ozai when he shows up, he’s… I don’t know, he was just a little bit less interesting to me. Like for some reason they did the similar thing in Star Wars, like when the Emperor shows up at the end as the bad guy after you’ve seen Vader for a couple of movies? And that reasonably worked for me? I think maybe because the Emperor was doing something weird and tricky. But with Ozai we’re like, all right, we’ve been fighting Azula for awhile. Now we’re fighting Ozai. What’s his deal? Well, he’s ALSO an evil fire bender.
Wes: [laughs] Yep. We know what that is.
Chris: Yeah. Ozai’s a little hard, cause I’m not sure if… Did he do anything? In the series?
Oren: I mean, he was, like, around. He made some decisions. He was going to burn down a continent, I guess, but Aang stopped him.
Chris: …Right. It sounds like he just wasn’t… And he also wasn’t necessarily responsible for a lot of the conquest the fire nation did either, because that was his father. So yeah. I mean, I think that was a “show versus tell” thing. You were saying that he was scary, but not actually showing him being scary.
Wes: It was also questionable to me just how powerful Ozai was. Especially seeing Zuko and Azula and other firebenders do stuff, and then he just shows up and yeah, sure. He’s ripped. Like, he works out.
Wes: But he’s also supercharged by, uh, the comet, right? And okay. Most of the firebenders are probably supercharged by this thing too… He’s just, I guess, super aggressive. That’s like his defining trait.
Oren: Yeah. It really feels like we should have had a little more buildup, like maybe they should have encountered a battlefield that was just, like… all the way burned down! And they were like, Oh, this is weird. And it’s like, Oh yeah, this is that time when Ozai decided to take the field and just…. burned the whole Earth Nation army that was facing him, or something.
Wes: Yeah, that would have helped.
Oren: Like, treat him like a cosmic horror monster where you don’t ever actually see the monster do anything. You only see the remnants of what it has done.
Wes: That’s a good point, because so much of the Fire Nation’s big threat are their machines. And Ozai just doesn’t quite have the same power as their “drill through the wall of Ba Sing Se” tank.
Oren: I thought Ozai was flat at a time when he shouldn’t be, because we already had a really developed villain who got shunted off to the side. So I guess that would be an instance of where this villain should probably have been a little more developed than he actually was.
Wes: That’s a good segue. Because we’ve kind of talked about “why even bother with flat characters?” Because they help keep the story moving. You know, if you’ve ever run a roleplaying game, and the party comes into a tavern, and you just try to portray some random people about it, and they really want to dig into THAT person’s backstory and you’re not ready for it, you know how you can get sidetracked by having people try to spend a lot more time on characters that should be flat. But I think it’s important if you’re writing a manuscript, and you have the chance to work with editors, or even at beta reading points, is to maybe draw attention to who gets focused on the characters. And I have a good example of this in action. Not real action. Like, in life, not MY life.
Oren: Personal life. [laughs]
Wes: I’m going to talk about Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The book. Dracula is a flat character. Jonathan Harker visits the castle. Dracula’s just kind of… gracious, but very quickly, just, you know, bloodthirsty. He can spider climb, and he can turn into a bat… And granted, it’s an epistolary novel and so that medium is important, but the point is that Dracula doesn’t have complex motivations or anything. He just kind of wants to suck blood and convert others into bloodsucking vampires. Great. But guess what? Like he’s so… weirdly compelling that almost every adaptation after that really wanted you to know more about Dracula. And the one with Keanu Reeves and Gary Oldman, that film adaptation? Put in a whole love story with Dracula, just cause they need to know WHY is he so tortured?
Wes: So be careful with flat characters, ‘cause some people are just gonna want more. Especially just seems like everybody wants to know what drives villains now. The absent Dark Lord doesn’t work as well, I guess.
Chris: Well, I do think that if they’re actually present in the story, as opposed to being vague and mysterious, that people are just kind of… bored with villains that are just flat and evil? They just want to see something that’s more interesting. I think it’s too cliche at this point. We want to see something that has more novelty. But I think that… the thing with Dracula is that he DID have a lot of novelty, at least originally. I mean, we’ve seen so many Draculas now…
Wes: Oh yeah. Yeah. High novelty. Big time.
Chris: Right. So that does make people interested in the character, and because of that, they naturally want to see more of him and learn more about him.
Wes: This is just a good example of a well-written flat character that has high novelty and a ton of power AND an opportunity for spinoffs if he doesn’t die.
Oren: Right. Although I will point out this is an example of how “flat” is not just a binary state. Your character can be more, or less, flat. It is worth noting that Dracula does have a little bit of complexity in that he, like, wants to eat you, but before that he’s very polite. And very nice to you. And a good host. Like, that’s not the most complex—that’s not super complicated—but it’s something, right? It makes him a little more interesting than if he just jumped out of the coffin like “BLUUH! Get you!” Right?
Oren: I suspect that that might have something to do with his popularity is that there’s a little bit of a contrast there. People like contrasts, okay? They just… they like them. I can’t stop readers from liking the contrasts.
Chris: It has novelty. The contrast has novelty. I would also add that even if he was a successful flat character, in this situation I can’t help but wonder if he would have been even more successful with some additional development. Because he was so interesting.
Wes: Yeah. You know, maybe they found a letter that he’d written, and there was something in there.
Oren: Ooh, Dracula epistolary. I’d read that. [laughs]
Chris: Yeah. And as a writer, you don’t know sometimes how successful a character’s going to be. And it’s like, okay, am I just going to wear their patience thin if I develop this villain more? So if you’re getting the kind of reception where everybody’s really interested in a character, yeah, go ahead. Bring them onscreen more, make them more complex. But I can imagine from Bram Stoker’s perspective—you don’t know, necessarily, what the reception is going to be. Especially with novelty, it can be hard to predict what readers find novel until you ask them.
Oren: Also, it’s not like there weren’t any vampire stories before Dracula, but they were certainly a lot less common than they are now. So I can totally see why Stoker, assuming he gave it this much conscious thought, would think that maybe we want to keep this character on the simpler side, since we’re still kind of introducing people to what a vampire is.
Wes: Okay. Well, I guess before we sign off, just a quick reminder that flat characters… that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad, and they are important to parts of the story, but if you’re writing, it’s important to note that sometimes we might inadvertently create a flat character who just ends up being a little too simple or basic for the roles that they’re given in a story. And in that circumstance, if the story seems to demand more of the character—if the story seems to demand that they be more than flat—then that’s something that ideally you could tackle in revision or something. Hopefully. It just depends. Don’t forget that your character and your plot are connected. And if the plot is asking them to be more than flat, acknowledge that. We’ll talk about that more in a future podcast.
Oren: Yeah, we’ll get there. All right, well, that’s a good thing to round us out on. Ooh, we’ve rounded out the podcast. It’s not flat anymore. (ba dum tsss.)
Oren: But before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber; he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo; she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week!