One-dimensional Characters in Literature

Student Reading Book at Beginning of Semester. Getty Images

In literature, as in life, people often see growth, change, and internal conflict carried out in a single character. The term one-dimensional character in a book review or story refers to a character who lacks depth and who never seems to learn or grow. When a character is one-dimensional, he or she does not demonstrate a sense of learning in the course of a story. Authors may use such a character to highlight a certain trait, and usually, it is an undesirable one.

The Role of the Flat Character in a Story

One-dimensional characters are also known as flat characters or characters in fictional stories that do not change much from the start of the story to the end. It is thought that these type of characters have little to no emotional depth. Their role is often to highlight the main character, and they typically hold a simple and small perspective about life or the situation in the story. Their character is often a stereotype and may simply be used as a literary device to keep the narrative moving.

Examples of Popular One-dimensional Characters

A one-dimensional character can be summed up in a certain trait or characteristic. In All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, Paul Bäumer's high school teacher, Kantorek, maintains the role of a one-dimensional character, because he maintains a sense of idealistic patriotism despite his encounters with war atrocities. Additional one-dimension characters from famous books and plays include:

  • Benvolio from Romeo and Juliet (By William Shakespeare)
  • Elizabeth Proctor from The Crucible (By Arthur Miller)
  • Gertrude from Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
  • Miss Maudie from To Kill a Mockingbird (By Harper Lee)

How to Avoid Writing One-dimension Characters in a Story

Characters that lack internal conflict or multiple facets to their personality are often dubbed as flat or one-dimensional characters. This is often seen as a bad thing in a story, especially for first-time writers, when all of the characters are one-dimensional. However, if there are one or two characters that are simplistic in nature for a reason, it may not be perceived as a negative trait. As long as an author uses one-dimensional characters correctly, and with deliberate intention, there is nothing wrong with it. Often, a narrative is most successful with a combination of flat and rounded characters.

With that said, it's important to have strong character development overall to create rounded characters that have some depth to them. This helps characters imitate being a real human being. Being able to relate to characters in this way, as a reader, makes them far more interesting and realistic. Furthermore, the complexity that a character holds reveals the challenges they go through and shows the many sides of them, which reveals what their life is truly like to readers.

Tips for Creating Characters With Depth

Writing better characters for fiction readers help immerse them in a narrative. Below are several tips for developing multi-faceted characters:

  • Allow characters to hold strong opinions. Giving characters a mix of relatable features, such as positive traits, along with character flaws, like mistakes and fears, will keep them well-rounded.
  • Share the motivations and desires of the characters through their thoughts, actions, and obstacles, such as other characters.
  • Give some mystery to characters. Throwing too much at the reader at once is not realistic. Treat characters like a person the reader is meeting for the first time, and allow them to develop over the course of the story.