Let’s review the types of characters you will encounter in your reading. When you read fiction, you will have a main character and someone who is in conflict with that character.

Image of Harry Potter, “Goblet of Fire” cover

Source: Harry Potter, Pixelsior, Flickr

The Protagonist

This is the main character in the story. Sometimes the protagonist is the hero, but that is not always the case; occasionally, the protagonist is an anti-hero or villain. Let’s think about a few stories you may have read.

In the Harry Potter series, Harry is the protagonist, and he’s a hero figure as well. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck Finn is the protagonist and also the hero.

In Shakespeare’s MacBeth, MacBeth is the protagonist, but he’s a creepy, evil character. This means you’re probably safe in identifying the protagonist as the main character, even if he or she is a villain.

The Antagonist

A photograph portrait of an actor dressed as MacBeth. He is wearing a crown and particularly evil looking.

Source: Sharifzade Macbeth, Wikimedia

The antagonist in a story is another main character who is in direct conflict with the protagonist. In some stories, it’s easy to decide who the antagonist might be. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” Red Riding Hood is the protagonist, and the wolf is the antagonist. In “Hansel and Gretel,” the children are the protagonists, and the witch is the antagonist. Of course, one of the antagonists in the Harry Potter series is Voldemort.

A caricature painting of Ebenezer Scrooge. He is an older man wearing a top hat and a stern expression.

Source: George C Scott as Scrooge, Robert Doucette, Wikimedia

Round Character

Sometimes, when you read a book or a short story, you are drawn into the book and into the characters’ lives in such a way that you think the characters are real people. The Harry Potter series is fun to read because we know the book is fantasy, and yet the skillful writing involves us so deeply in the characters’ lives that it almost seems as if Harry and Hermione are real. How does J. K. Rowling do this?

One way to answer this question is to study characters and decide whether they are round or flat. No, we’re not talking about the shape of their bodies. We are talking about how well-developed their personalities are and whether they grow and change as the story progresses.

A round character is a multidimensional character. Round characters have many character traits and are capable of growth and change. Harry Potter is an example of such a character. Harry seems very much like most boys, most of the time time striving to do the right thing but occasionally backsliding as all real children do. As the series progresses, Harry seems to learn and grow from his adventures. Ebenezer Scrooge is also a round character but in a more limited way. At the beginning of "A Christmas Carol," he is miserly and hated by most people. By the end of the story, he realizes he could die alone, forsaken by everyone. For this reason, he changes and he is thus a round character.

A photograph of a woman dressed up as a typical evil stepmother character

Source: Cinderella 018, jr_louge@sbcglobal.net, Flickr

Flat Character

A flat character only has one or two character traits and doesn’t change during the story. These characters are stereotypes, like the evil stepmother or the henpecked husband. Think of the villains in many of the stories you read. If they stay villainous throughout the story, they are generally flat characters.

A photograph of the popular Sesame Street Muppet duo Ernie and Bert

Source: B is for Bert, E is for Ernie, mobo85, Flickr

Character Foils

A character foil is a character whose qualities differ remarkably from those of the protagonist. Because of this, a foil calls attention to the characteristics of the main character’s personality. The foil may be a sidekick or an enemy. We will talk more about character foils later because they are used specifically in character development.

Let’s practice identifying flat and round characters from the list of characters' names below. Based on what you know, which of these characters are flat? Which are round? Drag and drop each character name into the “Round” or “Flat” box to respond.

icon for interactive exercise

In the next section, you will read about some ways writers choose to develop their characters.