Must Characters Be Round?

I recently watched the Russian mini-series of Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which was wonderful and supposedly scrupulously faithful to the novel (which I haven't read). One of the remarkable things about it, as with Dostoevsky in general, is that despite the fact that there's a huge cast of characters, every single one seems incredibly real and true to life, as if they could simply step off the page (or in this case, screen).

In his book, Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forester separates characters into "round" and "flat." The difference is deceptively simple; a flat character is "constructed round a single idea or quality"; "The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as 'I never will desert Mr. Micawber.'" The round character, on the other hand, is a character "capable of surprising in a convincing way"; "It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book."

Upon first glance, it would seem like a tautology that round characters are better than flat ones, with Dostoevsky as the perfect example. But Forester does not take this view at all, rather he says, "In Russian novels, where [flat characters] so seldom occur, they would be a decided help." Further,

The case of Dickens is significant. Dickens' people are nearly all flat. ... Nearly every one can be summed up in a sentence, and yet there is this wonderful feeling of human depth. ... Part of the genius of Dickens is that he does use types and caricatures, people whom we recognize the instant they re-enter, and yet achieves effects that are not mechanical and a vision of humanity that is not shallow. Those who dislike Dickens have an excellent case. He ought to be bad. He is actually one of our big writers, and his immense success with types suggests that there may be more in flatness than the severer critics admit.

I bring up the subject of roundness versus flatness because it is relevant to a discussion floating around the blogosphere about Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day. Some critics have derided the book's characters for not being fully fleshed out. Quoth New York Times' Michiko Kakutani,

The problem is these characters are drawn in such a desultory manner that they might as well be plastic chess pieces, moved hither and yon by the author’s impervious, godlike hand. Sad to say, we really don’t give a damn what happens to them or their kith and kin.

Scott Esposito asks "What's wrong with flat characters?", and the Reading Experience agrees, rightly pointing out that the expectation for "round" characters came about with the rise of realism and, I would add, modernism. That is, the 19th century naturalists, among whom we can include Dostoevsky, but even moreso French writers like Flaubert and Zola, gave birth to twentieth century writers like Joyce, Hemingway and Faulkner, and so helped cement our contemporary expectations of absolute realism and "inner life" in fictional characters.

But the twentieth century and modernism also gave rise to writers who sought to subvert the idea of character. Kafka's characters, for instance, aren't just flat, they're practically voids on the page. The more important a character is in Kafka's work, the less we seem to understand their actions, decisions and thought processes. Or take for example Vladamir Nabokov, who in books like Invitation to a Beheading strips his characters entirely of inner life, swaps their identities and character traits all around and back again, and otherwise willfully subverts the notions-in-themselves of character and identity. And, as Scott Esposito pointed out, the post-modernists always employed flat characters in pursuit of their novels of ideas.

Further, one of the most notable writers of the last century who didn't have a single round character to his oeuvre, save perhaps himself, is Jorge Luis Borges. No one would claim, as Bookslut's Michael Schaub does about Pynchon, that Borges writes "unreadable 900-page postmodern novels that only grad students ever buy." (Thus souring me to Bookslut forever.) What Kafka, Nabokov, Pynchon, Borges and further Swift, Poe, Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick all have in common is a tendency to write books in which the ideas, story, environment and/or mood are far more important than the characters, and thus the characters don't always need to be fully realized. Books on writing often tell us that believable characters are essential to good fiction, but this obviously just isn't the case.

Of course, pulp writers have been using flat characters since as long as there have been pulp writers, but one suspects when someone like Michael Crichton or Stephen King uses them it's simply because they're not very good writers. I know that for me, like many, I think, the roundness of characters was traditionally something that I used to separate the bad writers from the good, and perhaps that has something to do with why I found Borges specifically so mind-blowing. I read a Borges story and I never think that it's missing something, or that it doesn't have enough depth.

What I find dismaying is that, in American literature at least, roundness of character has become such gospel that major critics like Kakutani not only don't understand when it's not appropriate, but don't understand that it can be inappropriate. Much as I didn't understand it myself, and for the same reason; we're generally taught that round characters are good and flat characters are bad. And I can't help but feel frustrated that the richness of different kinds of writing, with different ends and likewise different means, is not recognized by the critics, and by extension, the readers. Because if it were maybe we'd be producing a richer variety of work.


"The Idiot"

You must see Kurosawa's version, all in black and white, made in 1951. Extraordinary!

I think the distinction between flat and round characters misses the more important maxim that all characters must simply be truly themselves. Is Enoch Emery in "Wise Blood" a "round" character? Is he even believable? Perhaps neither, but he is unforgettable. Muv-see-vum!

Kakutani is not a major

Kakutani is not a major critic -- Kakutani is a major reviewer. There's a big difference.

Good point.

Good point.

Spot on and a good corrective

I'm a new writer and appalled at the character is everything we have to swallow. I would actually question though how true it is to say that for Russians their psychological realism was the main thing. For Doestevsky I think it was the idea that drove his novels.

Reading a John Braine's how to write a novel were forcefully told to forget ideology or anything like that. As a an avid reader of a lot of advanced and modern psychology I seriously wonder how relevant the charatcer drives everything assumption really is. Character is after all so strongly influenced by our relations with other and setting that there are some psychologists who credibly question what character is. Character is destinay is action is often invoked to explain it all away, yet character, composed of desires which drive actions etc are themselves formed from the environment, the world we live in and are brutally put indoctrinated and conditioned in. We are our beliefs. our beliefs drive desires. Our desires drive the plot. But, and now to get to the point, where do our beliefs come from. If the course of history is a good guide it is the ideas, capitalism vs communism, science vs religion or whatever, in other words concepts of identity that fundamentally drive charatcer. Just once example, where it not for Doetesvksy undergound man there would probably be no Nietzsche and the whole philosophical thought that sprang from it. Or Kafka as you already quoted it. Character, as you dig deeper into it, is a shibboleth, and normally a bundle or package of swallowed ideas about hoe we act. The little icings and eccentricities here and there, the blue or red car, forms the main difference between the average mass man. And to demand the write write of true individuals, the man individualized enough to stand from the crowd of mass man, that has to be the biggest shibboleth of them all: to whom do we identify with? Surely if we have no real individuality (which aplies to the majority or readers) there cannot be that illusory and much vaunted "reader identification" which is used to justify the so-called psychological realism.

More realistically the aim of fiction is to change consciousness, your belief structuires and hence your ideas held about the world and so mold your character. Thats what the underground mand and Kafka did for us and great litereature does. Leave the rest to titilate us, entertain us with bland and naseauting tales of common mundane problems.

So to summarize: thank god for a differnt opinion on this subject that you give. Almost no fiction handbook I know discusses this problem. Only one Scott Orsons charactewr book talks of the irrelevance of character in novels of ideas or where the main thing is about the setting (Brave New World, Lord of the Rings). Their it would be downright stupid to have anything other than types.

Lastly like to quote the following from a course on Russian Literature:
"In the 19th century, literature became the primary vehicle for the broad discussion of philosophical, political, and economic ideas. At the same time, literature was the means of conveying the central religious and social questions and problems of the time. As a result, many literary characters became central symbols of the Russian cultural mentality."

I think that supports your point that, thank god, there are alternatives to this silly and art destroying doctrine which forces the banal to triumph over the the significant.

Spot on

I've been of the opinion that a good story needs a solid grounding if that is in the character fine if it is in the idea itself then fine. I think much of the 'Start with well developed characters in order to have a good story' comes from instructors trying to get students to think about it and for most it is easier to start with something you know and can see, meet and read about many variations without too much trouble. If you teach them to start with this basic block and develop it fully before writing then they may slow down enough to actually craft a story worth reading instead of churnning out novels like a boy band producing jinglistic tripe.

My impression is that like most good ideas it has changed from a springboard into doctorine. Now the frustrated authors that absorbed everything they learned in creative writing classes attempt to apply the 'formula' to successful, clever, interesting writing and prove that it is bad due to its ignorance of the 'Rules'. Much like talented musicians that scoff at composition which 'I could have written' and could easily play, but do not have the spark, creativity, loose screw that allows them to form something new and exciting to call their own from the same six strings or 26 letters that the rest of us have access to.

It reminds me of an 'interesting fact' I'd read ages ago stating that according to the laws of aerodynamics, the common bumblebee cannot fly. Either nobody has told the bees or they choose to succed dispite their critics. I don't care as long as they keep providing sweet honey.