What’s the Point of Character Anyway?


Character has taken on many iterations over the years. They are often considered the protagonist when we first think about character in our stories but character is anyone who passes through.

Authors like William Faulkner and Taylor Jenkins Reid create small worlds in which you can see characters from other stories passing through. This demonstrates the main argument about character:
No matter how small their role, they must seem like protagonists of their own story merely passing through the story you are telling.

It's easier said than done. 

Our perspective on character has changed dramatically over time. When Dickens was writing, his characters were often flat, focused on a single goal and without diversion from that goal, or a deeper understanding for the reader of their purpose. Examples from Dickens, who is considered a master of his craft, include Miss Havisham, who exists solely to get revenge for having been abandoned on her wedding day but without any complexity otherwise. 

What does this tell us about flat characters? 

It shows that a backstory does not make a character round.

It demonstrates that a character, in order to be round, must have dimension, further purpose, more thoughts than just of their singular goal. What did Miss Havisham eat for breakfast that morning? Was it her favorite? She probably consisted off a healthy diet of cigarettes and leftover moldy wedding cake because of her obsession and singular motivation. However, if we had learned that she did only eat moldy wedding cake and smoke cigarettes for breakfast, we would have learned something new about the character and felt we could see her better as a person as we questioned, "what kind of person would be so focused on being abandoned at the altar that they'd eat moldy wedding cake?"

This is the point of character. 

The character demonstrates a side of humanity we can connect with; if not connect with, at least understand.

The character doesn't have to be human but in their thoughts, actions, goals demonstrate the complexities of human emotion and beyond giving us an entity to which we connect. In Ray Bradbury's short story "There Will Come Soft Rains," people are absent from the entire narrative. 

Spoiler Alert:

The story focuses on the workings of a smart home going about its morning routine after a nuclear war has rid the world of human life.

But in its context, the home becomes a character. In its context, the absence of characters speaks to the characteristics and personality of the home. But it demonstrates a flat character, going through the motions of daily life because that it's job. If the home were a round character, it would stop and question why it's still going after all the people were gone or perhaps even talk about the family who lived in the home may had deserved the outcome.

Instead, the home moving about its business without questions or cause, only to fulfil the purpose for which it was designed, is the prime example of a flat character. Yet, within the larger context of the surprise absence of human existence (complete annihilation from the earth even), the home as a character carries a richer, deeper message even while remaining flat because of its inability to round itself. The home will not change, will not affect change, and will not become change. It is stagnant.

But if a roach arrived, and fed off the burnt toast, and found a mate, and lived in the warmth of the smart home, changing its fate as a result, then the roach becomes a round character showing us how different a story could be with a simple twist in perspective and the ability to develop complexities and dimensions. 

Is not just about having a character change

It is about demonstrating the complexities of a character, the dimensions of a character, so that we understand how and why they have changed.