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Rounded Character

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Margo: Who are we now, El? We used to be glamorous, amazing mega-bitches. And now?
Eliot: We have depth. And... character.
Margo: [looks horrified]
The Magicians (2016), "Do You Like Teeth?"

One of the basic traits of a character is their depth, or how complex they are. Some characters are two-dimensional Flat Characters, with one or a few defining traits that completely define who they are. Rounded Characters go beyond being a stock character with some Backstory and Hidden Depths. They generally have a complex motivation driving them, and may act counter to what their 'type' would suggest. These are the kind of characters that have to struggle with choosing and get to go through Character Development. Fundamentally, every rounded character should have defined a few things:

  • Want: An external motivation, what the character is pursuing because they think it's what they need to improve their life (thus, they believe a Lie). The Want varies depending on the character's socio-cultural context and status, their backstory, and their philosophy of life. The Want is usually what sparked (or got the character involved with) the external conflict (aka plot).
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  • Need: An internal motivation, often unknown to the character themselves and what they actually need to improve their life and themselves as a person. The Need is deeply intertwined with how to circumvent the character's Wound and Fatal Flaw. The Need is key to creating an internal conflict that will ultimately close both the character's arc and build up the tension for the climax of the plot. The epiphany needed to do so is called the character's Truth.
  • Wound: Something that has hurt the character and made them use the Want as a coping mechanism or mistake the Want for the Need note . The Wound actively haunts the character at one point or another in the plot. To heal it, the character has to uncover and fulfill their Need.

Depending on the interaction of those three elements, the character's arc is defined. The upbeat Transformation arcs are all about healing the Wound and realizing the internal Need, thus becoming better people in the end. This is accentuated in Redemption arcs, just with a more tortuous path to get there. Those are the positive arcs, on the other hand, we have the negative arcs where the character doesn't get to heal the Wound. Disillusionment arcs follow the same structure as the Transformation arc, but the Truth the character realizes to fill his/her Need is terrible, leading to a Downer Ending. In a Corruption Arc, which inverts the Redemption Arc, the character starts out actually acknowledging the Truth, but temptations seduce him/her to reject it and embrace the Lie and Want and stop trying to heal the Wound. Fall Arcs are a subversion of the Redemption Arcs because while the character pursues his/her Want and believes his/her Lie at the start, he/she soon comes to reject his/her Need and Truth at the critical moment where he/she should have gotten his/her epiphany, thus never healing the Wound.

A Flat Character may evolve into a three-dimensional character if they are dynamic, and change according to what they experience. On the other hand, sometimes they don't need to change and remain Static Characters. The latter is what we call Flat Character Arcs where it is not the character himself/herself who changes, but the world he/she lives in, often because of his/her actions. This kind of character is more or less at peace with the Wound and acknowledges his/her Need, but may still pursue his/her Want (just without the Lie). Alternatively, the character remains troubled by the Wound but refuses to change his/her ways.

Not to be mistaken for actually rounded characters.

Alternative Title(s): Round Character