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What EM Forster taught us about flat and round characters and how to use it. Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

In Aspects of the Novel (1927), EM Forster wrote ideas, now cherished by many writers, about flat and round characters. Here are highlights of ideas expressed in the book.

Flat characters, in pure form, are constructed around a single idea or quality, are so consistent without change that they are easily recognized and remembered, may be summed up in a few words. not as great achievements as round characters, and are best when comic rather than tragic.  Contrary to many contemporary thinkers, flat characters are very useful to authors; they “never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere—little luminous disks of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither across the void or between the stars; most satisfactory.” The complexity of the novel “often requires flat people as well as round, and the outcome of their collisions parallels life more accurately.” “It is only round people who are fit to perform tragically for any length of time and can move us to any feelings” (except humor and appropriateness).

“All [of Austen’s] characters are round, or capable of rotundity,” are never caricatures, and are highly organized. A round character gives readers a slightly new pleasure each time they come into the story, as opposed to the merely repetitive-pleasure result of a flat character.

"The perfect novelist touches all his material directly, seems to pass the creative finger down every sentence and into every word. The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round. It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book.” Rotundity achieves the novelist’s task of acclimatization and harmonizes the human race with the fiction.

Authors immersed in telling their own process fail to achieve effective characterization. “It is [author] confidences about the individual people that do harm, and beckon the reader away from the people to an examination of the novelist’s mind.  The novelists “who betrays too much interest in their own method can never be more than interesting; [they have] given up the creation of character and summoned us to help analyze [their] own mind, and a heavy drop in the emotional thermometer results.

Forster shares good advice and admirable thinking, and here is what the contemporary novelist has to build characters: description, internal reflection; action; conflict and resolution; emotional arcs; vibrant, purposeful dialogue; motivations and desires; narration; point of view, and change. Great characterization is the gift of complexity and construction a fiction author taps to create great, lasting, memorable, and meaningful characters that populate the best of literary stories.

The attitude and skills for the writer of great literary-fiction stories are: imagine and create, not just remember and describe.


Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster (1927)



A short story, “The Miracle of Madame Villard”. Available online free to read or download (and MP3) and suggested as examples of flat and round characters.

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