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.