Writing Excuses 13.16: Avoiding Flat Characters
Key Points: Flat characters, in theater, a cardboard cutout, a mannequin, but in your book, a character without depth, that doesn’t feel like a real person. Spear carriers, however, are just that, a group to fill out a scene. In different situations, characters may act differently, but still be consistent because you, as author, know why they are doing it. Motivation! If readers say a character feels flat, it may mean that you haven’t put enough on the page for the reader. Layer more backstory in. Sometimes it means you as author haven’t figured out why this character is there, what role they are playing. Beware the boneyard dialogue, where you have written a scene and it is in your head, but not in the story. One fix is to make sure characters reflect on why they have done. Watch for multiple characters who all tell the same punchlines, the Marvel formula or Joss Whedon problem. If all the characters are answering the same questionnaire, it may feel flat. Let the characters ask each other questions. Ask questions that most characters are unlikely to answer the same way. Use a verbal silhouette test, to check whether your characters are different enough. Build your characters around their differences!
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 16.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Avoiding Flat Characters.
[Valynne] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Valynne] I’m Valynne.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] All right. Flat characters. This is a term that I think new writers use sometimes without knowing what it even mean. They know they’re supposed to use it, but…
[Howard] You’re supposed to use it because you don’t want to create flat characters.
[Howard] I think the term comes from theater, the idea that a character is a cardboard cutout. That the actor on stage could have been replaced with a cardboard standup, because all they were doing was filling space on the stage. In your book, flat implies that the character has no depth, that all they did was serve a very specific story purpose and they didn’t seem like a real person. They were… Spear carrier is not the same thing. This is not somebody who walks on and doesn’t have a name. This is somebody who is supposed to feel like a person and they feel like a mannequin.
[Brandon] Let’s make that distinction right now, because that’s one of the questions on my list here. Is it okay to sometimes have flat characters? What is the distinction? When do you want them to be round, when do you want them to be flat? What is a spear carrier? What do you mean by that?
[Howard] Well, spear carrier, again, is a term that comes to us from theater. You have a battle scene that needs to take place, and so you have a bunch of extras who are literally carrying spears onto the stage as a group. None of them have any dialogue, except maybe to all scream, “Yah!” and then we’re done.
[Valynne] I think when you have… Anytime you have a group of people… Where you have a high school football game or something that requires a lot of people, you don’t need to go and make one of the attendees someone that is memorable. They just… Their function is just to populate that seat.
[Howard] In fact, on stage, you could create a cardboard cutout of the Etruscan Army with all their spears and march it onto the stage and somebody screams, “Rar!” Then we have the drama, and we’re okay with that. As long as the people who are giving us the drama could not themselves be replaced with cardboard cutouts.
[Dan] I think drama is a better word to use than memorable. Because flat characters can still be very memorable.
[Brandon] They can be. Yeah.
[Dan] Here’s the one joke that I have, and I come out, and I say it every time. We’re going to remember that guy. 90s Saturday Night Live depended entirely on one-joke flat characters. But it’s when you start adding depth… You think of it in dimensional terms. We have one dimension, this is the one thing this character does. That’s what makes them flat. As soon as they start acting in a different dimension, because they also have this other interest or this other aspect of their personality, your adding more dimension and more layers and more roundness and more depth to them.
[Brandon] All right. So let me ask you this. I’m going to point this one at Valynne first.
[Brandon] How do you do this without making characters seem inconsistent? Because in your book, you have characters who act differently in different social situations quite frequently. You do this very astutely. How do you make that feel like they’re all the same character, rather than they’ve gone… Characters can feel erratic if they just act completely out of character.
[Valynne] So, once again, I think a lot of it goes back to what you know as the author and their back story. You don’t necessarily have to put all of that on the page, but you need to understand what is behind everything that character does, everything that character says, why they react to things the way that they react to them. So sometimes in different situations they may act differently, and it’s okay as long as you know why they are doing that. If you know, that will come across the page a lot stronger, and not be so inconsistent and oft… I think inconsistency often can be very offputting because we don’t know what to expect from the character.
[Brandon] So, motivation. It comes down to expressing… I would agree with you. I think that is one of the ways you can have a character who acts completely hyper one situation and completely introverted in another situation, if their motive for doing that is the same. They get uncomfortable, and sometimes when they get super uncomfortable, they just start talking. Right? In another situation, they might say, “Okay. I’ve gotta shut up now. I’m intimidated.” Or something like this. If the motivation, underlying motivations, are clear to us, characters won’t feel erratic. They’ll feel actually consistent.
[Dan] Right. And have a lot of depth to them.
[Brandon] So, let’s say that we’re writing a character, and our writing group is saying, “This character feels flat,” or alpha readers are saying that. You thought you had a rounded character. Has this ever happened to you? How did you address it, and what did you do?
[Dan] Yes. Yes. What I think I am guilty of most often when someone accuses me of having a flat character I thought was really round is that they’re round in my head, and I haven’t put it on the page. I know all of their other facets and I know that this particular line of dialogue they had was interesting because of all of their back story and how it informs what they are saying now, but I haven’t bothered to tell the reader any of that information. So often, it’ll take a quick conversation. Let me ask you about this? Why was he flat? What about this, and what about this? If I can tell that that’s the reason, the writing group or the alpha reader says, “I didn’t know any of that. That sounds cool.” Then it’s time for me to go back and layer more of that into the story so that you see all of their other facets instead of just the one.
[Valynne] I think when that happens to me, it’s because I haven’t really understood as the author why I’m putting that character in the story. So I put the character in, I haven’t completely figured out what role that character is going to play. I think sometimes that’s okay if you’re just writing and trying to figure out where it’s going to go. But usually, if you don’t figure that out early enough, then it’s just going to come across as flat because you don’t know what that character is doing in there.
[Howard] For me, most often flatness is caused by boneyard dialogue. Which is that I have written a scene, and it’s not working, and I throw it into the boneyard. But that scene is still in my head, and the reader has not gotten it. I need to remember that “No, no. This bit of back… That’s boneyard dialogue. The reader does not have that.” The solution for me is, and it’s the punchline crutch, when someone does something heroic, when someone fails at something, when a character who is supposed to do X in the story does X and that’s all they do, then they’re a flat character. But if they do X, and then in a witty, insightful sort of punchline-y way tell us how they feel about X, they now have depth. It’s… I mean, it’s a simple little trick. You existed to do one thing. They did the one thing. And then they had a feeling about it. They… It’s not just, “Oh, I was the hero.” It was, “Oh, I didn’t think I could do that.” “Oh, wow, that turned out way better than I thought.” “Oh, wow. I’m not going to try that again, am I?” Those sorts of things often give just enough depth to a character, you can look at them and say, “Oh. Oh, that’s a person.”
[Brandon] Wow, that’s a really insightful comment. Something about flat characters that’s been bothering me is something I see a lot in cinema, particularly lately, where it feels like the writer noticed that the Marvel formula of action plus humor works really well, and they’ve been going so far as to have everybody have a punchline in a lot of these films. So dramatic moment, punchline. It can work really well. Obviously, the Marvel formula has been hugely successful. But I’ve been noticing that they give the punchlines to a variety of different characters, and all those characters start to sound the same to me. Because every one of them is making the same types of punchlines to undercut, comic drop as you would say it, the dramatic moment. It’s really been bothering me. I’m seeing it in a lot of films.
[Howard] If it’s done… It’s… You have to do it for the right reason, and you have to do it well. There have been plenty of times when boneyard dialogue exists because I wrote that scene and realized, “Nope, that punchline undercuts everything that’s happening.” I just need to write something else.
[Brandon] Define boneyard dialogue again for me.
[Howard] Boneyard dialogue… If something is in my boneyard, it’s something that I’ve written…
[Brandon] And cut out.
[Howard] And I cut out and I throw it into a folder that’s… Right now, the folder is called Boneyard 2018. That is the scripts I wrote for 2018 that I am not using. I will go in there all the time, mining for bits of things that I actually need. Because I write those things in character voice. That’s part of the character voice. I’m going to keep that. So, it’s the boneyard.
[Dan] I think this is kind of a… Maybe a Masters level look at flat characters, that if you have a bunch of really well-rounded characters who are all well-rounded in exactly the same way, they’re going to look flat when you put them all in the same room. Which I had not considered before.
[Brandon] Let’s talk about that after the book of the week. Because we need to stop for that. The book of the week is Artemis.
[Dan] Artemis by Andy Weir. This is his second book after the Martian, which was awesome. I tell people… The way I recommend Artemis to people is that it feels less like a sequel to the Martian than like a prequel to Leviathan Wakes.
[Dan] It has the same kind of Andy Weir typical really fun voice, the really approachable use of extremely hard science fiction, but instead of a mission to Mars, it is a city that’s actually been established on the moon. Then he tells a… Basically a noir story there. That there’s… Things are going wrong and this woman is caught in the middle of it and trying to figure out what’s going on. Trying to figure out which shady groups are paying who to do what. All done as hard science fiction noir on the moon.
[Howard] Is it set in the Martian universe?
[Dan] It is set in the Martian universe. Although the connections… You don’t have to have read the Martian to understand it. But it’s really good and I really enjoyed it.
[Howard] The Leviathan Wakes guys and Andy Weir met at a convention and got to talking, and decided that the Martian…
[Howard] Totally functioned as a prequel for Leviathan Wakes.
[Dan] They are now, I believe, canonically… At least the authors consider them to be canonically connected. You can see that DNA in Artemis. It’s really interesting.
[Howard] That’s fascinating.
[Brandon] All right. So let’s get back to this question. What do you do if you find out you are writing the same types of characters repeatedly in your books, and it’s starting to feel flat, either in a scene, like Dan said, all the characters are feeling the same, or across your career? I’ll call this a good problem to have.
[Brandon] But the Joss Whedon problem, right? Sometimes Joss Whedon’s characters all feel the same. They’re some of these ones that always… You never can tell who will have the punchline sometimes, because they could all say the same punchline. How do you avoid this, what do you do? I’ve noticed it in my own writing.
[Howard] Let’s look at the… I don’t want to talk down to anybody, but the gradeschool version of this problem is when each of the characters appears to have filled out a questionnaire. What is your favorite color? What is your favorite pop song? What is your favorite subject in school? If that is the way your character biographies read, where they are all answering the same question, they are all going to feel like the same person, because… Yeah, I mean, even though they’ve answered differently, you’ve given us exactly the same shape of information about each of them. So, the trick is instead of having them all fill out the same questionnaire, you have them ask each other the questions as they are filling out their biography. What does John want to know about Betty? What are the three questions he would ask her? What are the three questions that Betty will ask to Mary? How will this… How will they interact? Then you end up with silhouettes that are very, very different, because the information they’re asking for is different.
[Valynne] I think in doing that, one of the things that I’ve noticed is… Well, I do some crazy things when I’m…
[Valynne] Trying to figure out a character. But the questions that I try to ask are questions that there’s less of a chance that the characters can answer the same. So if I said, “What is your favorite color?” the chance that two characters could say the same thing is… It could happen. Whereas if I say, “Okay. What is their most embarrassing moment? What is their proudest moment? What is something… What is a secret they have never told anyone?” Those are things that help me start to make them seem not like each other, and add a little… Add more facets to the character.
[Dan] Howard said something last year that I have started using all the time, which is to consider your characters in terms of a verbal silhouette test. Which comes from cartooning. The silhouette test is saying just in outline all your characters have to be distinguishable from each other. So when I’m putting together a group of characters, I always think of that, and think, “Well, I want to make sure to have very distinct personalities and very distinct wants and roles and desires,” and kind of build around the need for them all to be very different from each other.
[Brandon] All right. This has been a great episode. Listener, I didn’t mention this at the beginning. I forgot to. But this is a very similar episode to what we did two weeks ago with the Chicago team. I intentionally put a similar… Two similar topics because I wanted to see how different teams approached the same topic. So if you got a little déjà vu, that’s the reason. But I really like how this went in many ways completely different directions from that one.
[Brandon] Howard, you’re going to give us some homework.
[Howard] I’ve got the homework. We talk a lot about the flat characters. We complain about the flat characters that we’ve seen in movies or read about in books. Take a memorably flat character from something you’ve recently consumed. Identify what story purpose they are fulfilling. Then write a back story for them that would satisfactorily make them interesting while still allowing them to fulfill the story purpose they filled in that story.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.