It depends. A writer needs some characters to be walk-ons whose sole function is to give scenes the feel of reality. Readers glance at these characters and move on, assuming that these walk-ons have fully dimensional lives that are not important to the telling of this particular story.
The flattest of these are window dressing: an army, a crowd, customers in a restaurant, kids in a high school hallway. Others are a bit more defined but are still one dimensional: the round-faced salesman, the mother constantly snapping her finger at her unfocused four-year-old, the librarian peering over her reading glasses as a young man steps up to check out a book. Flat or one-dimensional characters function as a writer’s shorthand in the world of the story.
The more details we add, the more dimensional a character becomes. Take the one- dimensional young man in the library example. Let’s name him Dorian. He’s still not well rounded, but his name does suggest a personality. We could rename him Gus. Or Alex. Or Bob. Each name suggests a different person and gives him more dimension. But only a little. Let’s go further. What book does he ask for? War and Peace? Knuffle Bunny? Building the Small House? The book he asks for will change how we see him.
Let’s say Dorian is asking for War and Peace. His hair is long on top, trimmed short at the neck, and he keeps flicking his head to get a forelock out of his eyes. He wears jeans with a hole in one knee, a gray tee, and flip-flops. Let’s go further and give him some dialogue. “Excuse me, but I’m looking for War and Peace. Could you direct me to the right shelf?” Or “Hey, I’ve gotta get this really big book on peace . . . and war . . . written by a Russian guy.” Either way, we get a better picture of him. He’s rounder.
Here’s the deal: The rounder we make Dorian, the more he moves into “major character” territory. In other words, the more we describe him and the more dimensional he becomes, the more the reader focuses on him and expects him to matter to the plot. If he is not a major or secondary character, we need to leave him fairly flat. Otherwise he’s simply a distraction. (Of course if you’re writing a mystery, you may want to fool the reader into thinking he is important – make him a “red herring – to draw attention away from the real villain you’ll reveal later.)
In some novels, especially action-driven stories, legal thrillers, and mysteries, even main characters can get by in a less than fully rounded state. But in a character-driven novel, the main character and any other point-of-view characters need to be fully dimensional. They need to feel real. Otherwise, readers, reviewers and editors may comment: “interesting plot, but the characters were flat and not fully developed.”
© 2012 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com