The World Is Round – People Are Flat

E. M. Forster described characters in literature as either “round” or “flat”.  He says, “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.”  Round characters are those that are dynamic, complex, and unpredictable.  They have a reckoning to come to – either with their situation or themselves.

Flat characters are, well, just that.  Flat.  Boring, static, unchanging, and a dime a dozen.  Stereotypes are often projected onto the flat character, as if it were a vehicle for the author’s prejudice.

I’m always interested in the reader’s attraction to the “bad boys” and girls of literature.  We love to hate (or love) the rebel/outcast/villain – which is evident in film, too.  Are you drawn to any unsavory characters?  And is there someone you’d rather not read about, for any reason?

Of course, real life “characters” can be described the same way.  How often have we met a person that is so predictable, so mind-numbingly dull, that we wonder how they stand to wake up to themselves every day?  And do these people tend to collect within certain areas, careers, or locations?  Do you think it is the occupation or environment that effectively “flattens” people, or are they already flat, and naturally drawn to that place?

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Narrators & Characters, or Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?

Narrators & Characters – or Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?

Dr. Tim is speaking today about the differing types of narration – primarily 1st and 3rd person.  Personally, I avoid books with a 1st person point of view (POV), largely because so many writers do it so poorly.  Edgar Allan Poe was a master at sucking the reader in to the insanity of his main characters through a 1st person perspective, but not many others manage it (for me, anyway.  I realize I’m in the minority.)

Third person narration is the he said, she said of writing.  We can inhabit multiple characters through a bit of a distance, and have that comfortable omniscient feeling, the bird’s eye view.  I prefer this style of writing because of the distance I get from the story (can you tell mysteries are my favorite?), and the almost assurance I get that the tale will be neatly tied up by the end.  First person characters almost never give you the whole picture.

Of course, there are other narrative tricks – 2nd person (remember Choose Your Own Adventure books?), and free indirect discourse (borrowing language from other characters), but they are not as common as the first two mentioned.

When it comes to characters, Tim asks, “Why do we have to read about these terrible people with their terrible lives?”  Well, the simple answer is that good people are boring.  When we get a nice guy or a decent lady that has a little bump in the road before everything is righted in the end, we have a warm, fuzzy feeling…but we tire of it quickly.  Read three serial romances in a row and you’ll see what I mean.  You see the pattern, recognize the formula, predict the ending – and you’re only on page four.

We get a little insight into Mrs. Tim, too, this time.  She’s a librarian (I love her already), and maintains that different rules apply to different books.  What works for the hero of a Western, doesn’t work for the hero of a Mystery.

  Character Conclusions

1)  A character doesn’t have to be likable or admirable to be interesting.

2)  An unlikable character can change and grow (even if we don’t like them at the beginning, remember that they may not be around by the end of the story…physically or essentially).

3)  Change and growth do not necessarily ensure a character’s happiness.

Also, some of the best writing involves us growing right along with the characters.  Neither of us should be the same by the end of the book.

Reader Tip:  Get in the habit of monitoring your responses to characters.  What is your first impression?  Do your feelings about them change, and what contributes to that change?  When and how does the story ask us to change our views?

Enjoy this and other educational series from Great Courses.

Read examples of interesting narrations and characterization from Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekhov, and E.M. Forster.

References: Aspects of the Novel, by E. M. Forster

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Narrators & Characters, or Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?

A Word About Authors

Dr. Timothy Spurgin is at it again – (May I call you Tim?  You are, after all, speaking to me from my bedroom television) – sharing his insights on books, reading, and writing.

Today I’ll share a word about authors.  Sometimes we discover that an author has a less than exemplary life story themselves.  He was a raging alcoholic, she was reported to be a witch, their love lives were the basis of entire episodes of The Young and the Restless…

But does it matter?  Does an author’s personal life make them a better or worse writer?  Is the story they have to tell tainted by the creator’s reality?

Tim suggests that we think of the author as another character of the book.  Allow the author to materialize on the page, discover who emerges over the course of the story, and find out who is revealed through the structure of the work itself.

We can find out a great deal about the author’s inner workings by asking what kind of person writes this kind of story?  Is he/she trying to instruct or entertain, or a combination of the two?  Do you see their sense of humor?  Sense of justice?  Sense of timing?

  T.S. Eliot believed that a writer’s life was unrelated to his or her writings.  He contrasts the “man who suffers” (the one who goes to the grocery store, gets divorced, enjoys tennis) with the “mind that creates” (the one that creates, shapes, and drives the writing).  As a result,  Tim states, “what you get as a reader is not the artist’s original feeling, but a rendering, or translation of it.”

So, does it matter if the author signing our favorite novel is rude, or has a bleak family history?  Since it is the author’s creation – the book – that we care about, aren’t we really more concerned with the mind of the man (or woman) rather than the man (or woman) themselves?

I believe the answer to these questions also affects how we see friends and acquaintances in our everyday lives.  With the pervasiveness of internet relationships between individuals who may never meet in “real life”, how many friendships do we now have who are “friends of the mind”.  Aren’t we all projecting the image of the people we wish to be?  I know that I am.  I don’t post about sick days or road rage or family dinners.  That is my everyday life, but it is not the life of my mind.

  And the deeper question…Which is the real life?  Is it our everyday presence in the world, or is it the life of our minds?


The Paris Review

The Rhetoric of Fiction, by Wayne C. Booth

An Experiment in Criticism, by C.S. Lewis

Related Articles:

The Art of Reading

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Narrators & Characters, or Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?