The Flat, The Round, The Digital: Aspects of the New Fictional Character

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.

Image on front page by Daniel Ferencak and available on flickr


I think that one of the issues is that, when we talk about our game avatars or our Facebook profiles, we identify them with some extension of ourselves. In traditional fiction, when we "read for character," no matter how much we identify with a particular character, we still recognize them as a creation of someone else. This ties back in the the privileging of the author in the creation of texts in the Western tradition. There is also a tradition of dismissal of the tech writing abilities involved in the creation of templates, which, really, is what an avatar or a Facebook profile is. They are templates that we may adjust and customize (to certain degrees) in order to express ourselves as authors, using a combination of features to make the template our own.

I agree with Matt about the separation of identifying with a character, yet also recognizing them as a creation of someone else, and using a digital space to express ourselves in new ways.  I think another interesting example in the creation of Facebook characters is the newly identified trend of "catfishing," or creating a Facebook character that is a false representation of the self, and often used to trick another into an online relationship with who they claim to be.  This space allows the profile author to not only create a character, but to also get to live out an experience as that character, combining the identification with self and recognition of other. When someone creates a fake Facebook profile, though they may use the image of another "real" person as the profile avatar, it is still merely a representation of that other, possibly someone that the creator wants to be (or be like).  

This new type of character is like the traditional narrative character in that the profile creator becomes like the narrative author, by creating a new character in hopes that a "reader" or potential partner will identify with the created character, but now the author actually gets to merge "someone else" with "themselves" in order to act out that persona in a digital space, rather than just on the pages of a book.  I think this goes along with what Pedro says about the digital space being more malleable- this is an example of having more than two choices, because it is at once a representation of who the creator wants to be, mixed with some aspects of who they actually are, and again combined with facets of someone else (the 'them' they use as their catfish avatar). 

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