"She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B."
A flat character is one that has only the bare minimum number of characteristics necessary to make them interesting enough to carry off their purpose.
One example of a flat character is the pawnbroker in A Christmas Carol
, who buys Ebenezer Scrooge's bed curtains from the maid who stole them while he was lying on his bed, freshly dead. The scene with the pawnbroker consists of characters that are all so flat — other thieves selling things, the maid, the pawnbroker himself — that some productions of the book have dropped the entire scene, with little loss in the telling of the story.
It might be simpler to just have a look at Characters as Device
, to cut through all the fog of lit-crit jargon around characterization.
Being flat is not automatically bad.
Character depth should be proportional to the character's importance*
to the story. The fact that the cocktail waitress is a leukemia survivor who is working two shifts to pay off medical bills, all while trying to polish off her doctoral dissertation on Ming-era Mandarin poetry and squeeze out enough time to decide which of her three suitors will best be able to get along with her aging, beloved Pomeranian-Pug pup all comes under the heading of "too much information." By the time all that is relayed, the customer waiting for his drink has died of thirst.
Indeed, adding details to the character indicates to the audience that the character is to be important
. The Spear Carrier
, the Red Shirt
, the Bit Character
may require a Flat Character, to prevent the reader from feeling cheated. This is why we get the Fatal Family Photo
- if an otherwise interchangeable Red Shirt
takes the time to establish his hopes and dreams, it's obvious they're going to be dashed in the name of drama. Nominal Importance
is another example of this.
Characters who start out flat can be fleshed out
into Rounded Characters
with Character Development
, Hidden Depths
and/or being Rescued from the Scrappy Heap
. Or some characters can look flat until the Red Herring Shirt
reveal shows they are full characters. They can also become a Static Character
trapped in amber with repeat uses of a Reset Button
or Snap Back
, negating what little growth they manage; and they may mutate into another
sort of Flat Character with Flanderization
writers may take the liberty of developing Flat Characters from essentially whole cloth: see OC Stand In
For more fleshed out examples (for lack of a better term), see The Generic Guy
. If you were looking for the trope about characters that are literally
flat, see Paper People
, Squashed Flat
, or maybe Petite Pride
or A-Cup Angst