In Defense of Flat Characters: A Discussion of Their Value to Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Leo Tolstoy

In Defense of Flat Characters:
A Discussion of Their Value to Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Leo Tolstoy

George R. Clay, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Articles in how-to magazines advising beginning writers are always urging them to create fictional characters that are complex, unpredictable, developing. It is the old E. M. Forster plea to make your characters “round,” not “flat.” “Flat characters,” Forster says in his Aspects of the Novel, “are sometimes called types and sometimes caricatures. In their purest form they are constructed round a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of a curve toward the round. The really flat characters can be expressed in one sentence, such as, ‘I will never desert Mr. Micawber.’ There she is, Mrs. Micawber—she says she won’t desert Mr. Micawber, she doesn’t, and there she is.”[1]

But if they are as uninteresting as Forster makes them out to be, why are we so fond of so many flat characters? Remembering Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, for example, why do we immediately conjure up the kindly blacksmith Joe Gargery, wounded Miss Havisham, Jaggers, Wemmick, and all the others? All quite flat, but still our good friends—along with Mr. Dick, Tommy Traddles, “Lone, ’lorn” Mrs. Gummidge, and, of course, both Mr. and Mrs. Micawber in David Copperfield; Mr. Collins of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and, yes, Lady Catherine de Burgh, as well as the silly younger Bennet girls along with their sillier mother … and scores, no hundreds of others. As Edwin Muir writes in The Structure of the Novel, to banish them would be to wipe out much of English fiction—much of that being among the best.[2] How does one explain this apparent contradiction?

Muir’s explanation is that there is always more than what Forster calls “one factor,” even in the flattest of characters. Being flat, they have two sides: the side we see (Mrs. Micawber’s repeated vows of loyalty) and the side we do not see, which is private. In my opinion, to be really effective a flat character’s public side will be a touch translucent. Thus we sense that even while Mrs. Micawber means what she says about Mr. Micawber, her very repetition of the words “never” and “desert” imply that she may have thought, perhaps often, of doing just that, and rejected the possibility with all kinds of complicated feelings.

Moreover, the very obsession that Forster says makes her flat is what makes her memorable. And the same can be said of other characters’ obsessions: Tommy Traddles’s addiction to drawing skeletons; Mr. Dick’s preoccupation with King Charles’s head; Mrs. Gummidge’s endless complaints about being “lone” and “’lorn” since her husband (“the ould one”) died. Forster assumed that such repeated behavior flattened the character, reducing it to a type; but, at least in Dickens’s hands, it has the opposite effect. There is no such thing as a skeleton-doodling type or a King-Charles’s-head type. Mr. Dick, Tommy Traddles, and Dickens’s other obsessed characters are (like Flats throughout literature) incapable of development—fully formed when we first meet them, if not fully revealed—but they are utterly individual in ways that are unfathomable. We will never know the why of King Charles’s head. Moreover, while Mr. Dick has the most tenuous grip on reality of any character in David Copperfield, Aunt Betsy Trotwood (that ultimate realist) turns to him for advice whenever she is in a quandary, and his suggestions are the most down-to-earth imaginable. And Tommy Traddles is just as paradoxical. Since he is constantly being unfairly caned in the classroom at Salem House, we are tempted to conclude that his drawing skeletons expresses despair. But if so, why is he “the merriest” as well as “the most miserable of all the boys”? Even Mrs. Gummidge, so cared for by the Peggotty family, manages to surprise us. She complains endlessly about being “lone” and “’lorn,” but when we last hear of her, in Australia, she is so far from feeling forlorn in her widowhood that when a ship’s cook proposes marriage she bops him over the head with a bucket.

Tommy, Mr. Dick., Mrs. Gummidge are unforgettable. But even as forgettable a character as Mr. Mell—the put-upon junior teacher who introduced David to Salem House—is endowed with layers of individuality. As the older David tells us, he “would talk to himself sometimes, and grin, and clench his fist, and grind his teeth, and pull his hair in an unaccountable manner. But he had these peculiarities.”[3] “Peculiarities” are Dickens’s stock in trade, and they include his characters’ names (Mrs. Jellybe, Lady Dedlock, Bounderby, Swiveller, Sowberry, Bradley Headstone) as well as their often bizarre behavior.

Take the gossipy beautician, Miss Mowcher, a fun-poking midget who hops onto the table and prances around, clipping the curls and dabbing ointment on the wrinkles of David’s friends. Everything about her is in-your-face freakish; yet she defies E. M. Forster’s sense of flatness even as she seems to exemplify it. For her frantically cheerful behavior surely must have its hidden underside; to be a dwarf is to face problems unimaginable to the rest of us. And the same is true of Dickens’s other eccentrics. Not only do they have contradictory sides, but they say and do things that complement their particular obsession. Mr. Dick, wise simpleton that he is, loves playing children’s games, constructing large kites, and being read to from the dictionary (the words mean nothing to him but they sound exciting). Tommy Traddles never tells on the fellow student who actually did what he is being punished for, and fearlessly opposes cruelty in others. As Muir reminds us, Mrs. Micawber backs up her vows of marital loyalty by having one baby after another, being doggedly optimistic, sagely reckoning opportunities. Muir adds that the “truth and congruity” of such flat characters “makes them no less remarkable and imaginative creations than the round” (145–46). That may be an overstatement but, quite aside from their congruity and individuality (their thickness, if not roundness), the most memorable flat characters are indispensable for what they can contribute to their particular novel.

In his opening sentence, Dickens has David Copperfield write: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show” (49). What they show is that from about a quarter of the way through his “autobiographical” novel—once young David is free of the Murdstones and under the protection of Steerforth, then of the Micawbers, then Aunt Betsy, then a succession of others—our interest shifts from what is happening to David himself to the oddities of his surrounding world. It is a world populated by Mr. Creakle, the whispering tyrant who headmasters Salem House, his pegleg loudspeaker Tungay, Heepish Uriah Heep … and on and on, one scene-stealing character after another. David’s development has less to do with his own fortunes than with the increasingly perceptive observations with which he brings to life one spotlight-grabbing, crazily memorable Flat after another. Compared to these antic souls with their spectacular “peculiarities” and quirky shenanigans, David’s own doings are so uninteresting that he himself (in retrospect) seems bored by them.

Dredging up the memory of his early infatuations, he mentions Miss Shepherd, “a little girl with a round face and curly flaxen hair” (323); then Miss Larkins, “a tall, dark, black-eyed, fine figure of a woman” (326). These descriptions could have been written by any third-rate mid-nineteenth-century novelist. Unlike the narrator in most first-person novels, David’s love life, including his brief married life with Dora Spenlow (“Dumb Dora,” who died young), and his end-of-story joining of hearts with the patiently loving, utterly admirable Agnes Wickfield, is a yawn. As for his career (reporter to successful novelist), Dickens himself treats it as mere filler. Even the two main subplots (Wickfield–Heep–Micawber and Steerforth–Little Emily–Ham) seem strained, predictable, minimally engaging.

But it doesn’t matter. Why? Because the Flats have already taken over. They have already replaced the David narrative, which is now simply a convenient platform from which to introduce his carnival of fabulous Flats, not one of which contributes much to the coming-of-age, finding-a-career plot. Even if Mr. Dick, Tommy Traddles, Miss Mowcher, et al. were left out, the narrative concerned with David finding his way in the world would proceed as before. We know that he will grow up, try this and that, finally land on his feet, then walk into the sunset with Agnes. We also know that the novel’s essence, its real story, does not lie in that progression but in a series of virtually random adventures featuring the most astonishing collection of eccentrics. Their world exists alongside but detached from David’s doings, and for that very reason (their incidental quality) they can be as quirky, as endowed with “peculiarities” as may be, hence as unforgettable in their sparkling flatness. They replace the story of David’s career, though they do not, of course, replace David himself, for without his observations they would not exist. But their existence nearly nullifies all concerns beyond his observation of them.

In Pride and Prejudice, by contrast, Jane Austen’s flat characters are not incidental to the Elizabeth–Darcy narrative; nor is that narrative a mere framework within which to introduce the likes of Mr. Collins and Mrs. Bennet. The hero–heroine relationship provides not just the main but the whole thrust of the novel, a thrust to which Austen’s subsidiary characters contribute in crucial ways. Their function is not, as in David Copperfield, to embellish the proceedings but to propel them. Mr. Collins’s behavior when we first meet him, as well as his marriage to Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas, are absolutely vital to Austen’s plot, for it is through Mr. Collins that Lady Catherine de Burgh first comes in contact with Elizabeth. As for Lady Catherine’s typecast egocentric snobbishness, it is essential to Darcy’s two marriage proposals: the first (an odious one) when Elizabeth visits Charlotte at Rosings; then at the end of the novel when Lady Catherine inadvertently convinces Darcy to try again, that this time Elizabeth might not turn him down.

In David Copperfield, the antics performed by Flats are of little consequence beyond stirring our delight and riveting our attention. But each of the developments involving Flats in Pride and Prejudice is important precisely because of the way it affects the difficult Elizabeth–Darcy romance. Thus, while the two novels are very different in the way their authors use flat characters, in neither one could the flat characters’ contributions have been made by round characters. Their very flatness is what qualifies them to do what they do. In Dickens’s novel, their unforgettable freakishness, plus the fact that they are not developing, is what allows Dickens to create so many eccentric subsidiaries, so colorfully described that they reach a critical mass (so to speak) and are able to take over the main show. In Pride and Prejudice the Flats’ comically stubborn consistency is what allows them to exacerbate Elizabeth and Darcy’s problems, and then (think of Lydia and Wickham’s elopement) provide opportunities for resolving them. More roundness in any of these Flats would have undercut the development of Austen’s protagonists. For example, to have made Lady Catherine not consistently awful, but able to change her outlook and behavior for the better, would have taken something away from Darcy and Elizabeth.

This was demonstrated by the 1941 film, Pride and Prejudice, when Aldous Huxley and Jane Murphin, the scriptwriters, turned Edna May Oliver’s Lady Catherine into a developing character: one who sheds her egocentric self and comes around to finally approving of Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage. While this generated a warm and wooly Hollywood-style ending, it seriously detracted from Austen’s concept of Darcy’s role by undercutting the individuality, determination, strength of character, and personal development behind his decision to marry Elizabeth despite his aunt’s wholehearted disapproval and her veiled threats of disinheritance. For Darcy to develop to the extent that the novel allows him to, Lady Catherine had to remain a non-developing character: flat rather than round.

To briefly consider a third novel, let us leave England, go to Russia, and examine one of the ways that Tolstoy exploits his flat characters’ flatness in War and Peace. He uses them to track his round characters’ development through a technique which I will call taking fixes. In navigational terminology, a fix is a compass reading taken to determine the position of a moving vessel. It requires three fixes to locate present position, and intermittently repeated readings to chart a course. As I am using the term, it is an opinion expressed, felt, or thought by one character about another.

What makes taking fixes work is its echo effect. Generally speaking, every opinion is a characterization of the subject only to the extent that it is reliable, and a self-characterization of the critic to the extent that it is prejudiced. Whether we can recognize it as one or the other, or as a mixture of the two, depends largely on whether we know the subject better than the critic does. Since our knowledge of the five protagonists soon becomes intimate, any opinion expressed by a subsidiary character is almost sure to be less reliable than what we already know, and to the degree that it is unreliable the opinion will bounce off the protagonist and reflect back on the critic. Moreover, not only is the critic’s opinion self-characterization, but it is necessarily a simplification, since the protagonist is always developing. Rhetorically these two effects are quite important, for if every wrong opinion about a protagonist expressed by a subsidiary or flat character says more about the critic than it does about the protagonist—and if what it does say in truth about the protagonist is subject to revision through development, while that which it says about the critic does not change—then taking fixes is a wonderfully effective device for populating the protagonist’s world and tracking her or his development, while seeming to establish the opinionated independence of the subsidiary character.

Here, for example, is Peronskaya, a minor flat character, sparking off to the Rostovs about the protagonist, Prince Andrew, at the Grand Ball: “‘I can’t bear him. He’s all the rage just now. He’s too proud for anything. Takes after his father. And he’s hand in glove with Speranski, writing some project or other. Just look at how he treats the ladies! There’s one talking to him and he has turned away,’ she said, pointing at him. ‘I’d give it to him if he treated me the way he does those ladies.’”[4] More than anything else she says, this opinion gives Peronskaya a feisty and insistent individuality to balance her role as chorus spokeswoman for a particular faction of the St. Petersburg set. We already know, from passages earlier in the chapter, that she is “a thin and shallow maid of honor at the court of the Dowager Empress,” old, ugly, and vain. This self-characterizing remark about Prince Andrew tells us a good deal more. Obviously she is not a simpering complainer but one of those wellborn paranoids who cannot wait to have her values challenged. No doubt she would defend the upper–class Code of Amiability even if she had to smack Prince Andrew with her evening bag to do so; and anyone who becomes “the rage” she cannot bear, especially if he is an egghead commoner like Speranski, who has far too much influence over His Majesty and too little respect for ladies of the court. She shares a certain haughtiness with that other maid of honor, Anna Pavlovna Scherer, but lacks the soirée specialist’s bubbly desire to make things go smoothly; and getting to know the Peronskaya variety of elegant curmudgeon, even briefly and from her own self-characterization, has slightly filled in and firmed up our perception of the social world with which Prince Andrew must deal as he pursues his private goals. There she is, her own person, feathers bristling, and he had better mind how he behaves in her corner of the ballroom—which is not far from where he is standing right now.

What happens next neatly illustrates the efficient fix. We know that there is some truth to Peronskaya’s criticism of Prince Andrew, and we do not doubt that he has just rudely turned away from a lady while she was talking to him. Were he a subsidiary character, he would continue to bear out our initial assessment of him—the disagreeable Prince Andrew of the opening soirée at Anna Pavlovna’s. But Prince Andrew is not a subsidiary character and he has changed considerably since that soirée in 1805. During the past five years he has tasted guilt, disillusionment, hopelessness, the slow return of interest in accomplishment. Now he is at another turning point but does not know that he is. So here he is in St. Petersburg, working closely with Speranski, and tonight at this magnificent ball he is still unable to get away from shop talk, must listen to Baron Firhoff go on about the Council of State when what Prince Andrew really wants is—what? Just then Pierre comes up, catches him by the elbow, urges him to dance with his protégé, “the young Rostova”—and there, he realizes, is his answer. He is ready to drop politics and dance—ready (he will admit to himself very soon) to leave politics altogether, let accomplishment go hang, stop striving “in this narrow, confined frame,” and enjoy life: “‘Where is she? … Excuse me!’ he added, turning to the baron, ‘we will finish this conversation elsewhere—at a ball one must dance.’ He stepped forward in the direction Pierre indicated…. ‘Allow me to introduce you to my daughter,’ said the countess, with heightened color. ‘I have the pleasure of being acquainted already, if the countess remembers me,’ said Prince Andrew with a low and courteous bow, quite belying Peronskaya’s remark about his rudeness, and approaching Natasha he held out his arm to grasp her waist before he had completed his invitation” (504).

The service performed for Prince Andrew by Peronskaya is no small one. He has just turned a crucial corner in his development, and her assumption that he was as incapable of change (as flat) as she is has augmented the moment, at the same time succinctly characterizing herself.

Dickens, Austen, and now Tolstoy—each has found an invaluable use for flat characters, one that could not have been accomplished without them. Dickens uses them to replace his slack plot with a fascinating sideshow. Austen uses them to propel the central action, getting her hero and heroine into, then out of, romantic difficulties. By taking fixes, Tolstoy uses them to track his five protagonists’ development and, in the process, to populate his fictional world with more than three hundred non-developing, yet vividly rendered, subsidiaries.

The title of this essay is “In Defense of Flat Characters.” The defense rests.


[1] E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955) 135–36.
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[2] Edwin Muir, The Structure of the Novel (London: Hogarth Press, 1960) 134.
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[3] Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (London: Penguin Books, 1966) 133. All references are to this edition and appear in the text in parentheses.
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[4] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude, Norton Critical edition (New York: Norton, 1966) 502.
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