The study of characters of a literary work is as important as the study of its content because it offers a venue through which the writer’s thematic concerns are articulated and broached. In fact, critics and writers go to great lengths in drawing a well distinctive classification of characters. In the 20th century, a broad theoretical distinction was frequently made between flat and round characters. Relying on E.M Forster’s book _Aspects of the Novel_, this present essay is meant not only to delve into the features of the two aforementioned types of characters, but also to investigate the extent to which this classification is always applicable and valid. Therefore, it will be divided into three major parts: The first part is going to cast light on the traits of a round character. A study of a flat character and its features will be the focus of the second part. Finally, an account of how a flat character can be perceived as a round one will follow.
To start with, it is quite insightful to highlight the general meaning of a round character. The latter, in Forster words, is someone who is ”complex in temperament and motivation […] he is as difficult to describe with any adequacy as a person in real life”. Thus, a round character is notable for their complexity and life likeness. More to the point, this type of character should undergo a radical change throughout the literary work. For instance, the character of Pip in Charles Dickens’s_Great Expectations_ is a good example of a round character that undergoes a change from a low social status to a higher one. For instance, Newly asserts that “there is no question that in Pip, Dickens achieves […] a truly convincing evolution of character from simplicity… to a chastened, authentic self-reliance”. To crown it all, a round character “cannot be expected to fit in a square hole right away. He must have time to modify his shape” (Mark Twain 96). Thus, the multifaceted personality is essential for the roundness of a character.
Another category of character Forster defines is the flat one. Paradoxically enough, the latter runs counter the round character. As far as the study of the features of a flat is concerned, Forster maintains that “[they] must remain essentially stable or unchanged in [their] outlook and dispositions, from beginning to end of the work”. Put differently, flat characters are represented without much detail, they lack depth not only in the way they are presented but also in terms of the functions they occupy. Hence, they can be described in “a single sentence” which encapsulates all their traits. Under this stance, one can mention the example of Pozzo and Estragon in Beckett’s play _Waiting for Godot_. For instance, they are flat par excellence since they are “powerless, moneyless, questless, timeless and placeless” (Ben Halima). Therefore, they can be delineated in a single quality.
Having seen so far temperaments of round and flat characters, the question to be raised here is whether these features are always applicable in categorizing characters in literary works. Forster claims that “flat characters play a supporting role to the main character, which as a rule should be round”. Relying on this quote, how a flat character, with his stable disposition, can support a round character and remain unchanged at the same time? This categorization can be partially overthrown because when taken to certain extremes, a flat character may turn into a round one.
Take for instance the character of Horacio in Shakespeare’s _Hamlet_, the multiple functions he displays make him round in a specific way (though agreed to be flat). Although Horacio’s thought dominates over his action, he is the one who intensifies Hamlet’s dilemma and inner struggle. Thus, without him, the roundness of Hamlet cannot be achieved. Therefore, the categorization of Foster is enigmatic and unpredictable because it relies so heavily on the reader’s subjectivity and interpretation.
All in all, it can be said that in some works of art there is no such rigid classification of characters between round and flat. As has been explained previously, the stability of a flat character can be seen as the major stimulus of the roundness of another character that, in some literary works, shows deficiency and incapability to define itself independently of flat characters.