Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Her face was that of a woman with secrets…”

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"She had never considered herself particularly Indian..."

Note: This post is the thirteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 14. You can read the previous installments here.

Of all the misconceptions that frustrate aspiring writers, one of the most insidious involves the distinction between flat and round characters. As formulated by E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, a flat character is one that expresses a single, unchanging idea or quality, while a round character has the ability to change or surprise us. One certainly sounds better than the other, and as a result, you’ll often find writers fretting over the fact that one character or another in their stories is flat, or wondering how to construct a suitably round character from scratch, as if it were a matter of submitting the proper design specifications. What all this misses is the fact that Forster’s original categories were descriptive, not prescriptive, and a round character isn’t inherently more desirable than a flat one: as with everything else in writing, it depends on execution and the role a particular character plays in the narrative as a whole. It’s true that Forster concludes by saying: “We must admit that flat people are not in themselves as big achievements as round ones.” But he also prefaces this with three full pages of reasons why flat characters can be useful—or essential—in even the greatest of novels.

So why should we ever prefer a flat character over a round? Forster notes that flat characters often linger in the memory more vividly after the novel is over; they can be brought onstage in full force, rather than being slowly developed; and they’re easily recognizable, which can serve as an organizing principle in a complicated story. (He even says that Russian novels could use more of them.) In the work of writers like Dickens, who gives us pretty much nothing but flat characters, or Proust, who uses almost as many, their interest arises from their interactions with one another and the events of the plot: “He is the idea, and such life as he possesses radiates from its edges and from the scintillations it strikes when other elements in the novel impinge.” If Forster had lived a little later, he might have also mentioned Thomas Pynchon, whose works are populated by caricatures and cartoons whose flatness becomes a kind of strategy for managing the novel’s complexity. Flat characters have their limitations; they’re more appealing when comic than tragic, and they work best when they set off a round character at the center. But most good novels, as Forster observes, contain a mixture of the two: “A novel that is at all complex often requires flat people as well as round, and the outcome of their collisions parallels life more accurately.”

"Her face was that of a woman with secrets..."

And a memorable flat character requires as much work and imagination as one seen in the round. A bad, unconvincing character is sometimes described as “flat,” but the problem isn’t flatness in itself—it’s the lack of energy or ingenuity devoted to rendering that one vivid quality, or the author’s failure to recognize when one or another category of character is required. A bad flat character can be unbearable, but a bad round character tends to dissolve into a big pile of nothing, an empty collection of notions without anything to hold it together, as we see in so much literary fiction. The great ideal is a round, compelling character, but in order to surprise the reader, he or she has to surprise the writer first. And in practice, what this usually means is that a character who was introduced to fill a particular role gradually begins to take on other qualities, not through some kind of magic, but simply as the part is extended through multiple incidents and situations. Sherlock Holmes is fairly flat as first introduced in A Study in Scarlet: he’s extraordinarily memorable, but also the expression of a single idea. It’s only when the element of time is introduced, in the form of a series of stories, that he acquires an inner life. Not every flat character evolves into roundness, but when one does, the result is often more interesting than if it were conceived that way from the ground up.

My own novels contain plenty of flat characters, mostly to fill a necessary function or story point, but the one who turned into something more is Maya Asthana. She began, as most flat characters do, purely as a matter of convenience. Wolfe needed to talk to somebody, so I gave her a friend, and most of her qualities were chosen to make her marginally more vivid in what I thought would be her limited time onstage: I made her South Asian, which was an idea left over from an early conception of Wolfe herself, and I decided that she’d be planning her wedding, since this would provide her with a few easy bits of business that could be introduced without much trouble. But as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Asthana got caught up in a radical shift in the logic of the novel itself: I needed a mole and a traitor within the agency, and after my original plan turned out to be unworkable, I cast around for someone else to fill that role. Asthana happened to be handy. And by turning her into a villain without changing a word of her initial presentation in City of Exiles, I got something far more intriguing than if I’d had this in mind from the beginning. Chapter 14 of Eternal Empire represents our first extended look at Asthana from the inside, and I like how the characteristics she acquired before I knew her true nature—her vanity, her intelligence, her perfect life with her fiancé—vibrate against what she became. Not every character turns out this way; these novels are filled with minor players content to occupy their roles. But Asthana, lucky for me and unlucky for everyone else, wanted to be more…

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