Character is arguably fundamental to how and why we read fictional narrative. We sympathize with certain fictional characters and vilify others. We learn more about ourselves to the extent that characters resemble us; we escape our emotional, physical, and historical limitations by living lives nothing like our own. We read for character at least as much as we read for plot. At the same time, digital culture seems to problematize this notion of narrative characterization.
Take for instance the distinction of flat versus round characters. As explained by E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel (1927), flat characters are dependably predictable, while round characters are dependably surprising. While Forster argues that both types of characters are useful to the writer, creative writing instruction has tended to favor the round and dismiss the flat, reasoning that three dimensions are better than two.
Digital culture, on the other hand, presents us with a number of examples that seem to pry apart this binary of print culture. Online gamers can inhabit specific character types within virtual worlds. Are such characters flat or round? One could argue they are flat because they are generated from a preexisting bank of possibilities; their costumes, weaponry, and even their personalities are determined by type and point value. But couldn’t one also say that these flat personalities are also round, occupied as they are by human gamers, who exercise free will and autonomy with potentially surprising results?
Forster’s binary is further unsettled if one considers data like Facebook profiles. Is a Facebook profile round or flat? Flat, of course—how could anyone think otherwise of a prefabricated template for personal information? But the drama of changes in relationship status; the outrage prompted by status updates; and the flurry of traffic on birthdays and anniversaries all suggest otherwise.
What does it mean that Forster’s binary of flat and round characters is rendered questionable by digital media? The pessimistic reader and writer might see one more sign of the imminent death of print. But the optimist might see opportunity in the digital deconstruction of conventional characterization. We have yet to fully explore the creative possibilities afforded by virtual narrative. For centuries, the printed page has marked a clear boundary between the real and the fictional. Digital space is far more malleable. Writers of both print and digital narratives now have more than two choices for who should inhabit created worlds. Given that Forster’s theory of characterization is almost a century old, it’s about time.