Round characters are complex, well-developed, genuine-sounding characters who evolve throughout the story as their complexity is explored. The term was coined by E.M. Forster as the polar opposite of a flat character, who is unchanging and only partly developed.
- Have layered personalities. They take on different roles and behaviors in the company of different people, much like we do. For example, they may be flashy and loud in the company of strangers, but authentic and shy with a close person.
- Have layered psyche. They usually want one thing, but need another (often without knowing it). In many stories, what they want slowly changes into what they need. For example, they may seek thrills and adventures, when in fact they need constancy and safety. This gap between want and need is a good way of bringing in conflict to the story.
- Have habits, body language, and quirks. These alone do not make for round characters, but they do add flavor. For example, a modern character who is also a history buff might be used to tipping an imaginary hat at people.
- Have to undergo meaningful changes in their beliefs or characteristics. They have to evolve. They start out with characteristic A, and by the end of the story, they’re on a different point on the spectrum of that characteristic. For example, they may start out insecure and cynical, and end up learning their worth and becoming more confident and authentic.
Creating round characters
Writing round characters is the best way into your readers’ hearts. Once you get the reader hooked and caring, you can confidently pull them through the story to its very end. Here are some tips on that.
“No one is perfect” is a common saying that applies doubly to fiction.
There is no perfect character. If your character is gorgeous, talented, a genius, compassionate, and good with animals, odds are you’re writing a Mary Sue* or a Gary Stu*. Most people can’t stand this kind of characters, for good reason. They’re boring. They always have the perfect solution. They’re never conflicted or stuck.
In reality, we all have flaws and internal conflict. Embrace them. They’re the stuff that makes your characters interesting. If you really love your character, burden it with some emotional or mental wounds. The more they struggle, the more readers will care about them.
* A Mary Sue for female characters and Gary Stu for male characters is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment, and is heavily frowned up.
Surprise the reader
When you choose the traits that make up your character, don’t bother with well-known combinations (unless you have a new twist on them). Choose surprising combinations that produce internal conflict and idiosyncrasies. For example, a geeky, shy, introverted programmer is cliché. But a lazy, fun-loving, and street-smart programmer will cause a lot of people to stop for a second look.
It’s a good sign if a combination of traits makes you go, “Wow, how did the character get like that?” If the combination itself is interesting, there must be an interesting story behind it, and we all love an interesting story.
Let them go
The characters you write are not you. Sure, they will always have something of you in their psyche, but they’re not you. You need to let them go.
That means your characters must have their own opinions on politics and religion. It means they can be optimistic or pessimistic, introverted or extroverted, sunny or sullen, regardless of what you are.
You’ll know when your characters are getting a separate life when you feel yourself leaving your comfort zone, or even recoil from their actions, or at least think, “Whoa, I wouldn’t do that.”
Don’t be afraid to get their hands dirty. Everyone has something she or he is ashamed of, or something they don’t want the world to see, or something that makes them ugly. So should your characters. Show them in all the glory of their naked humanity (at least metaphorically).
Make them grow
Choose a trait, a belief, or a dominant emotion of your character and write a story that credibly turns it around. Keep your transformations reasonable. The shyest kid in class will not become an extrovert stud who dates the prom queen. It’s the more subtle changes that leave the strongest impression, sometimes.
For short stories, keep the change to only one trait or emotion. For longer stories, you can introduce more intricate changes in character. But if your list of traits and beliefs is the same at the beginning and at the end of your story—you’ve missed something critical.
Make them memorable
Give them a quirk, a turn of phrase, a tic, something that makes them stand out. Don’t overuse it: don’t give a tic to every character, and don’t have your character display that tic all the time. A tic doesn’t replace personality, but it can definitely enrich it. Celebrate quirks—they’re what makes us individuals.
Summing it up
Study your characters in depth and give them an inner world rich with emotions, beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes. Create unusual combinations. Celebrate difference. That’s the fastest route into your readers’ hearts and into their favorite author lists.