In fiction, one common and generic way to refer to well-drawn, realistic characters is to call them “round.” As in:
“…characters as described by the course of their development in a work of literature. Flat characters are two-dimensional in that they are relatively uncomplicated and do not change throughout the course of a work. By contrast, round characters are complex and undergo development, sometimes sufficiently to surprise the reader.”
–2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
So they happen to be more fully developed, these “round” characters. But what does that mean, exactly? Does it mean that, from whichever direction you look at them, they appear to be the same? Does it mean they exhibit similar qualities across the spectrum of their actions and reactions toward the world? Do they long for things they cannot have? Do they finally obtain the object of their desire, only to learn said object is nothing at all like they expected it to be? Are there characters in fiction who are rounder than some of the actual human beings you and I interact with every day?
Or what if, by way of blogs and Twitter and other social media means, you could actually communicate with a fictional character? Like from a novel you’re reading? Even if it’s the author pretending to be said fictional character, how is it any different to you? Anyone you’ve met online but never in person could be faking their identity, and you still enjoy a friendship with them, right? So if a character’s email or blog address appeared in a novel, would you write to him? Would you follow her on Twitter? Would that make them any more round?
As a reader you know a well-drawn character when you see one. It’s obvious because you forget you’re reading a novel. You may begin to feel like you know that character, and in a really well-written story you might even wonder what character is doing long after the novel is over. But as a writer, seeing the difference between round characters and flat is not so easy. You as the novelist know exactly how the character thinks and feels and will react to certain situations, but how can you be sure you’ve conveyed that on the page?
I’ve published two novels that could be described as “high concept.” Each story places one or more characters into a fairly unbelievable situation (derived from technology), pushes their lives out of balance, and the rest of the story is driven by their desire to put things right again. And of course I tried hard to infuse life into my primary characters, make them real and believable–round, if you will–but as an author this is the area I would most like to improve.
The way to do so, or so I have always thought, is to study the works of fiction I enjoy the most and figure out how they work. Most or all of my favorite novels and films are driven by the people within them, not the concepts themselves. And further, the characters are defined by the relationships they begin and end and struggle with and become consumed by…love and hate and lust and longing, soaring happiness and dark despair. If I love these stories so much, why not figure out how to emulate them?
But more and more I’ve come to realize that perhaps the place to look is not outward but inward.
I wrote a similar blog on this site a year ago, and hopefully I’ve learned something since then. I wrote about emotions being a liability in life, that using logic was by far the best way to make decisions and pick the best course of action in any situation. And in many cases it is. But as much as I’m fascinated by high concepts, by the vast, empty universe, by science and technology and the accumulation of knowledge, what fuels our lives every day? What is the source of our daily drama? Is it supernovae? Nanotechnology? The nebulous, jiggling nature of quarks and leptons?
No. Not for most of us, anyway.
You might have a passion for golf or writing or making films or watching them. You might have a passion for running the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. There are many ways we enrich our lives beyond just the relationships we have. But even so, sharing those experiences with someone else enriches us even further.
And if you’re a fiction writer, and you’re struggling to draw “round” characters, maybe it’s because you yourself could stand to round things out a bit.
Right ’round like a record, baby.