Flat Characters


Recently I’ve come to gripe with a trend I’ve been seeing in writing communities as of late. I’m not one to complain much, but when I see something I dislike and it burns in my chest with the same fire as this subject, I feel as though there’s some credence to my gripes. Therefore these instances (though rare) are not so much caviling as I would originally have led myself to believe.

So let’s get one thing out of the way. You can write characters that are queer or POC and make them interesting, compelling, and readable individuals. There’s no doubt about it. You can do it through the same mechanisms it takes to write a straight or white character and make them into something interesting, compelling, and readable. It’s a tough process to write a compelling character of any sort, don’t be mistaken. But it’s definitely possible. You can also write a plot in which a character’s skin color, sexual orientation, or gender identity carries the story’s central conflict. It’s been done before (To Kill A Mockingbird, for example) and it can be done again. It can be achieved in a fascinating and relatable way. Stories that attempt this or that pull it off are not the focus of this post, and I applaud those authors. I root for them to continue writing their stories their way.

My concern mourns characters who are notable for nothing other than being LGBTQA or POC. I’ll explain below.

I think I struggle with a related problem quite a bit, and it’s a tough cycle to escape from. When you start writing, a question will inevitably cross your mind: how do I write compelling characters? And you’ll go on blogs like this one or on subreddits for writers, where they will tell you that you need to know everything about your character. You need to know their date of birth, shoe size, favorite ice cream flavor, whatever. That certainly helps, but there’s much more to a character than his or her favorite color. What makes a character compelling is the conflict they experience! Their thoughts, machinations and relations to other characters and the environment are what makes them human and relatable. All these guides aim to teach you is that knowing everything about your character is what allows you to figure this out. You need to know how their appearance, preferences, and history shape the characters’ outlooks. I didn’t get this until recently, and I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. In part this is because I’m a new writer, but it’s also because I lacked the understanding of how to make characters human.

For a long time, I have struggled to grasp this. So I completely understand where an author is coming from when they don’t get why I have a problem with a character’s defining feature being their gender, sexual orientation, or skin color.

The truth is, I don’t have a problem with characters being LGBTQA or POC or transgender. I have a problem with flat characters. Those need work.