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This post is part of a series to augment the Tips for Writing Fiction available for free download.
This and other writing workshops are gathered in my Workshops Directory for you to explore.
Remember that 6th grade English class? If your school was like mine, characterization was all about the "complex" or "developing" characters, fraught with internal conflict and personality development. But what about your "flat" and "static" characters? Those shallow lone rangers drift through your scene like extras in a zombie film, with only one or two defining traits to call their own.
In many ways, flat characters help your story come to life by anchoring the tale into the bustling world-at-large. But all too often, their lack of depth interferes with the impact you're hoping to make.
A smattering of flat characters here and there bring realism to any story. There simply isn't time to explore the internal conflict of the mailman, or to demonstrate the personality changes of a barkeep who flickers through a couple paragraphs before receding into the abyss. Not every person involved in a story is important, and that's good.
There is (or should be) too much going on throughout your tale that there just isn't room for excessive characterization of your one-shot page boy, pirate, soldier, or whoever else is technically present but nowhere near necessary for the gears of plot to keep turning. The world needs its garbage men and chimney sweeps, even in fiction. But your readers don't need more than a passing glance to foster that sense of realism.
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That said, too many flat characters can absolutely ruin a story. No real person has a single trait so domineering that it supplants their personal growth under scrutiny. Even those who are dominated by a single trait bear their own struggles and interpretations of themselves, which change over time.
For the sake of brevity, that mailman's hopes and dreams, his problems and opinions, personal growth and history, all are truncated into a quick, "We watched the mailman's retreat from the side window." But never forget that he is a vibrant personality in his own right, left unexplored due to his lack of involvement in your story. He isn't "flat" at all!
Worse than an excess of flat characters is the single flat character who pops up over and over, like an incessant clown honking his bicycle horn between acts. A good rule of thumb is the more "air time" a character receives, the more deeply his personality should be explored. If the character reappears over a duration of time, demonstrate personality changes realistic for that time frame.
Life happens to all of us, no matter how relevant we are to a particular chain of events, and your writing needs to reflect that steady march of change. Try to ask yourself questions about your minor characters: "How is he feeling today?" or, "What are his current struggles and dreams?" Many of these answers can be distilled into a word or phrase that breathe life into his tenuous stroke of relevance: "We watched him retreat with an angry cut to his shoulders."
Of course, not every character can be as deep and complex as the personality behind a real person. In my Tales of the Known World saga, the need for relevance and brevity forces me to forsake extensive characterization of all but the most important personae. But so often, your story is only as deep as your flattest character. With a little effort and a handful of words, you can bring realism to your tale and a touch of humanity to the outcasts drifting across the fringes of your plotline.
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