In a book I’m too lazy to look up, E. M. Foster opined that literary characters are of two types: flat & round. The former are characters who are not terribly complex and experience little or no personal growth over the course of a story. The latter are more intricate, as they evolve in the course of the plot.
Aragorn, Jay Gatsby, and old-English-poem-Beowulf are all flat characters.
Pippin, Nick Carraway, and John-Gardner-novel-Grendel are all round characters.
Okay, now that the housekeeping’s done, let’s talk about stories. What are some of your favorite stories which have only flat characters? The first one that comes to mind in my case is The Princess Bride. Speaking specifically of the movie (and ignoring the frame story of the Grandson and Grandfather), there’s no real difference between any of the characters when first we see them and when they story ends. (Except for Vizzini and Count Rugen. ;)) And I wouldn’t want there to be any character growth there anyway. I don’t want Fezzik or Inigo or Westley to decide at the end of the film that they were wrong to be murderous rogues, because I don’t want to think about that aspect of their characters. I don’t want Buttercup to say, “Hey, maybe I should fight my own battles this once.” I don’t want any of them to be that self-aware; it would just be out of place.
Anyhow, that’s just me. Anybody else?
Chauncey or “Chance the Gardner” from the novel “Being There” is a good example of a completely on-purpose flat character carrying an entire novel.
Have to disagree with the notion that Gatsby is a flat character. He’s rather single-minded in his pursuit, but that single-mindedness comes out a psychological complexity that a flat character just doesn’t have. The trick of Gatsby is that all of this insight is given at the very end of the novel, after the character’s death, and we realize that we’ve met Gatsby after he’s already evolved and changed.
I think Forester’s overly simplistic argument for flat/round characters was demolished before he was even born. The demolisher was Herman Melville and his instrument was “Bartleby the Scrivener,” whose title character is the essence of flat but who acquires great symbolic meaning as the story progresses. Under Forester’s rules, a flat character really shouldn’t be able to carry such weight. It would be like Barkis from “David Copperfield” suddenly becoming the crux of the novel, something he simply cannot do (and indeed Forester holds up Barkis as one of the best examples of the flat character).
In before somebody mentions Flatland.
To my mind, James Bond, in any of his books or movies, never experiences any kind of personal growth - except for OHMSS, the one with George Lazenby, where his wife dies, and maybe the new Casino Royale, but it was much less developed in the book. Other than that, James Bond learns nothing, discovers nothing, becomes nothing. His villains don’t change except that they die.
Oh, and of course, Tintin. Tintin never changes, except for when he learns that Chinese are people, too, but that was in 1937 and since then he’s stayed the same.
Calling Jay Gatsby flat is missing the entire point of the book. He is meant to be a cipher who we are supposed to fill in with Dreams of America.
You want flat? Read Ayn Rand - Howard Roark and John Galt have the 3 dimensions of playing cards…
You may be right, and I don’t feel like arguing the case.
I’m only interested in good stories.
A lot of characters in books that are long series are flat. The Nero Wolfe novels are often ripping tales, but neither Nero nor Archie nor any of the major characters in the series change much. Same with Sherlock Holmes, and quite a few other detectives. Some would not call them “great” but they are excellent reads.