The Trouble with Flat Characters
In life, people grow and change through experiences and internal conflict. Most forms of media attempt to mimic this by showing character development as the story progresses. However, this is not always the case. A character that is not developed by the world around them is often considered a one-dimensional or flat character. Stereotypically, flat characters are the result of poor or lazy writing and it’s easy to see why. They’re often boring and hard to relate to. Nonetheless, a well-written character can catch the audience’s attention and keep them engaged. While flat characters are usually to be avoided, they can really define a story if used correctly.
From Drago in Rocky IV to Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy, many major villains are easy examples of flat characters. While these movies are not inherently bad, it is safe to say that no one would put the villains on their “Top 10 Favorite Characters” list. A villain’s motives are incredibly easy to overlook, with “they’re evil because they’re evil’ being a common excuse for why they do what they do. When making a villain, it is important to remember that everyone’s the hero in their own perspective. An excellent example of this is Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2. Throughout the game, Jack lectures the player on how he’s the hero of the story and that you’re the villain bringing chaos and destruction. He has a very “ends justify the means” demeanor and while his actions are obviously evil, his motivation is not far-fetched. He is a perfect example of a villain with real depth, instead of just filling in the role of the bad guy.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, flat heroes can ruin a developed story. A common mistake for new writers is to make the protagonist a Mary-Sue. A Mary-Sue is a character that can do no wrong and that everyone in the story loves. While millions of examples exist in short stories or fan-fictions, a prominent example is Hercules. Like how the villains listed above were evil ‘just because’, Hercules is the hero ‘just because’ and has little depth or development. Another common mistake is to reverse this trope with the Anti-Sue, or an edgy protagonist that hates everything but everyone loves them anyways. Kirito from Sword Art Online is an Anti-Sue with little personality and development past the first few episodes. These flat protagonists seriously inhibit the progression of the storyline, but that is not true for all flat characters
Flat characters can also be used to enhance or develop a story. Personally, my favorite example of this is in the show RWBY. The main character is a naive young girl named Ruby Rose, who only wants to help people and do good. However, while this motivation seems superficial and fits the Mary-Sue stereotype, Ruby has a lot of depth and development. The world in RWBY is full of death and destruction, all of which Ruby has witnessed firsthand. Despite all of this, Ruby refuses to be demoralized. She continues marching forward with the singular goal of helping people, not being corrupted by the terrors occuring around her.
Flat characters are often criticized for being boring and unintuitive, and for good reasons. It’s hard to relate to a character that lacks development and motivation. Our lives do not work like that and most of us have reasons for what we do. However, this does not make flat characters inherently useless. They can easily portray a singular trait or ideal, and be used to make a point. Instead of being relatable, a flat character can be used to look up to or down upon. While the stereotype about flat characters holds some merit, good writing can give them as much development as any other character, if not more.