Writers hear all about how important it is to make sure readers connect with the main character, and it’s certainly true. In fact, if your readers don’t connect with them there’s little chance of them sticking around to find out what happens. But what of secondary characters? Does the reader need to feel a connection to them as well?
There are two main types of characters in a novel (I might need to note that I’m not referring to character archetypes here). I’m talking about round characters vs. flat characters. And while flat characters are needed and useful, they should be used sparingly.
So what’s the difference? Glad you asked.
Round characters have stories, layers, and details that may or may not even be relevant to the story. More importantly they have character arcs. They change and grow as the story progresses. Character arcs aside for a moment, if you’ve read all of the Harry Potter books, you might have noticed that Harry has a bit of a thing for shepherd’s pie and treacle tart. Does this ever come into play in the books? Of course not. But we know this and more about Harry not only because he’s the main character with an amazing character arc, but because he’s a very well-rounded character.
My favorite example of a flat character also comes from the world of Harry Potter; good ol’ Argus Filch. We don’t know much about Filch except that he’s been around Hogwarts for ever, and he loves dungeons, punishments, and his cat (in no particular order). But we haven’t the slightest clue why Filch wants children punished so severely. The kind folks over at the Harry Potter Wiki have done an excellent job of chasing down additional details and stitching them all together, if you’re interested. But in the end, Filch is consistently seen doing the same thing over and over again–running through the halls of Hogwarts with a lantern yelling, “Students out of bed!” And that’s all very well, because that’s his job. His character doesn’t need to do anything else than sprinkle in a bit of additional tension when the author needs him to. Flat characters are great for this and other things like delivering information or overhearing things they’ll later repeat at the worst possible moment.
Filch was yelling about students being out of bed in the first book, and he was still screaming about it at the end of the seventh book. No character arc, no more details needed, no change. And everyone was cool with that. So why can’t you’re MC be as rounded as the noon day sun and all your other characters as flat as a penny?
Well, let’s look a bit closer…
What of our other favorite Harry Potter characters? Ron? Scared of spiders, anxious to be seen and heard by family and peers, has a sweet tooth the size of Texas, and terribly embarrassed by his family’s poverty. Hermoine? An insufferable know-it-all who stole all our hearts with her wit and commitment to friends, who also struggles with acceptance while also strongly feeling the injustice of inequality. Did we really need to know her parents were dentists? Or that her hair goes frizzy in Potions? Probably not, but the fun part is that we do. And dear Hagrid? Merely a games keeper? Hardly. His mother was a giantess, his father a human. He’s a man who sees the beauty in everything from slugs to dragons. He’s the picture of contrast; he’s as big as an ox and gentle as a lamb. We even know the entire story behind why he carries around a broken pink umbrella for crying out loud.
In fact, I’d be willing to say you’d be hard pressed to think of more than a handful of characters in the HP books that you can’t give extraneous details about. It’s what makes the world of Harry Potter to rich and unforgettable and, dare I say it, magical? (Okay, it was a bit corny but you can’t blame me. It was right there, y’all!)
My point is simply this: Don’t stop with your main character. Breathe life into each and every one of them. If you need the occasional flat character, fine. But if the character is close to your MC, or if the reader ever needs to care about what might happen to them, get busy making them as round as possible. You must give the reader a reason to care about more than just your MC in order for them to be truly invested in your story.
If your character doesn’t grow or change, is always doing the same thing, or only appears in the story to provide information, or to give the protagonist someone to talk to or care about, well, they’re a bit flat.
So how do you make your characters round?
I started out with all the character questionnaires and profile sheets you can fine online, but none of them helped me really get to know my characters. I suspect everyone has to find their own way, just as I did, but those methods felt so forced to me. They were an item to be completed, nothing more. I wanted something more organic, I guess you could say. So I’m going to give you my two secret weapons that I discovered early on. Keep in mind, I don’t usually admit to one of these unless I’ve known someone for quite some time and am reasonably sure they know I’m not insane (so feel special folks).
If making lists of all these special details about your lovely round characters doesn’t work, simply stop writing your story for a bit and write it in first person from the perspective of your other character. No one but you will ever see this document, but they’re not meant to. This exercise allows you to get directly into the other character’s head and really see the world you’ve created through different eyes. Want to really shake things up? Do this with your antagonist. It’s gold, I promise! It doesn’t take much, just a page or two. But if you’re like me you might find that you don’t want to stop.
And the other method, the one I don’t like to admit to? Go for a drive or walk, with your character. Talk to them. Out loud or in your head, it doesn’t matter. Really talk to them. Ask them how their day was, why they were wearing purple pajamas in that last scene, or why they always take the stairs. This method might sound a bit odd, but if your characters aren’t real to you, then it’s unlikely they’ll feel real to your reader.
Happy writing! 🙂