Do you have a character that doesn’t turn out the way you want? Do you have a hard time making your readers feel like they’re participating in their story? If so, you might be trying to write a flat character arc. In this article, we’ll learn what a flat character arc is and how you can write one. We’ll also give you some tips on how to get your readers excited about your characters. So if you’re struggling with your characterization, read on!
What Do We Mean by a Character Arc?
A character arc is the change or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. It’s inextricably linked to the plot because the two things influence each other – just like in real life!
The connection is so strong that some argue (Weiland, McKee) that the story structure is the arc of the characters and the theme of the story!
Whether we go that far or not, one thing is certain: to create believable and relatable characters and believable and relatable stories, it’s important to write them with character arcs.
This means that characters must grow and change over the course of the story – for better or for worse.
Positive, Negative, and Flat Character Arcs
A positive character arc means that a character grows in stature at the end of the story – emotionally, psychologically, physically, in terms of reputation, moral compass, or in some other way.
Either she begins the story in a weaker position or something happens that knocks her down and from which she must then recover and overcome. It’s a growth arc.
In a good story, they’ve grown into the hero they were always meant to be. In a positive change arc, they’ve conquered their inner demons and delusions and emerge from the story victorious and much stronger.
A negative character arc is the opposite – the character becomes weaker in some way than they were when they started. This can sometimes be a crucial element of a tragedy. The point isn’t that the hero loses the external conflict but triumphs internally, but that the protagonist may win or lose the battle but be weakened internally as a result.
That’s why a negative change arc can be a rich and moving story.
A flat character arc is a type of character development in which a character doesn’t change or grow significantly over the course of the story. She already knows who she’s, and her main task is to fight external or internal enemies while remaining true to herself.
A flat character arc is sometimes called a “static character arc.”
At first glance, a flat character arc seems like a bad thing, but it’s not that simple. Flat character arcs are surprisingly common in all sorts of popular stories.
Character Arc Is Critical to the Success of a Story
Character development – especially of the main characters – is arguably the most important part of any story, because, without it, a story lacks depth. It won’t have believable characters.
A great example of a character arc is Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. At the beginning of the story, Bilbo is a very shy, even selfish hobbit. He’s a bachelor and lives a very comfortable life with all the comforts he could ever want.
Despite his comforts, Bilbo isn’t satisfied with his current life. He wants more. We all want more, don’t we?
From the moment he’s convinced to go on an adventure with the dwarves, Bilbo begins a journey that will change him forever. He’s never left his home, the Shire, and has never done anything brave. But with the help of his new friends, Bilbo can accomplish things he never dreamed possible.
The same is true for his friends. They, too, grow and change in the course of their journey together.
Character Arc vs. Narrative Arc
Before we turn to flat character arcs, let’s briefly discuss how character arcs differ from story arcs.
Sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably, which leads to a lot of confusion when it comes to what they’re about.
A story arc is the overarching action of the story, while a character arc is the development and change that a character undergoes over the course of the story.
For example, a plot arc might follow the traditional three-part structure of beginning, middle, and end. The beginning establishes the conflict and introduces the characters. The middle is the main part of the story where the conflict is resolved. The ending is the resolution of the story and the aftermath of the conflict.
In episodic series, such as a TV series, a story arc can be a plot line that develops over several episodes.
A character arc, on the other hand, is the development that a character goes through from beginning to end. A story arc isn’t always a straight line. There can be setbacks and growth. A character can start out as one person and end up as a completely different person.
The story arc and the character arc work together to tell a well-rounded and complete story. The story arc is the framework upon which the character arc is built.
Character Arcs vs. Characterization
It’s also important to understand the difference between a “flat character” – which is generally negative because we want characters to have depth and dimensions – and a flat character arc; the former is a feature of the character, while the latter is a device of the author.
Authors go to great lengths to avoid “flat characters,” and instead do their best to create three-dimensional characters who’ve complex backgrounds and beliefs that are often at odds with each other as an integral part of the story.
In the parlance of editors, they seek to create a ’round character’.
Secondary characters should also have some depth and be “rounded.”
Most people have an ongoing internal conversation with themselves throughout their lives – a conversation that constantly evolves and influences the choices we make every day. Your characters should be doing the same!
But it’s not the same as a character arc! The way your plot affects your characters is both the lens through which we observe character change and the means by which that change happens.
The character arc is the change in character that occurs over the course of the story.
It’s important that you, as the writer, have control over the following:
- The portrayal of your character – characterization – is something you can establish in many ways in your text (character description, comments, actions, language, appearance, etc.). Writers often describe characters using a variety of techniques (e.g., “interviews” and identifying “character traits”-characteristic traits or qualities of the character).
- The journey you send the character on in your story tests their character and causes changes in their inner world (or fails to change them – as in a flat character arc).
Why Use Flat Character Arcs
Flat characters are surprisingly common in the world of fiction and film, especially in the hero or superhero genre.
We think of characters like Jack Reacher, for example. Marked by war and injustice, he removes injustices that cross his path before walking off into the sunset (and the next story).
Jack Reacher is the “strong, silent type” – that’s, the guy who doesn’t talk about himself and knows exactly who he’s. He’s a man who responds to injustice and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty when necessary. He’s a man who minds his own business and then moves on.
Changing Jack Reacher to show character development would detract from who Jack Reacher is. His essence is that he’s who he’s – confident, determined, and unafraid.
That’s not to say that a character with a flat arc doesn’t face a whole host of temptations and challenges. In fact, it’s precisely the character’s firmness to his inner condition that attracts temptation like moths to a candle.
But this character with a flat arc won’t undergo the range of changes required of a character with a positive or negative character arc.
A couple of the advantages of flat arc main characters is that the outer story is bound to be more vivid and sharply drawn, and secondary characters go through more observable changes because those changes are a necessary part of any story – that’s why they’re attributed to them!
The reader knows what to expect from the character, and there are no surprises. This can be helpful when the story is complex and the reader needs something familiar to hold on to.
Disadvantages of Flat Character Arcs
There are also some disadvantages to flat character arcs. Because the character doesn’t change, the story can seem predictable or formulaic.
And because the character is so set in their ways, the story may lack the tension that comes when characters struggle with change.
This may mean that it’s best to use flat character arcs for secondary and minor characters. Flat character arcs can also serve to provide a counterpoint to the arcs of other characters.
The character may be less sympathetic to the reader because he or she begins the story with a negative attitude or an unwarranted sense of superiority. The character may be seen as too idealized or too one-dimensional.
Another disadvantage of a flat character is that it may be difficult to write them in a way that makes the story believable.
An author might feel the need to put their main character in situations where change is needed, but they can’t because the author doesn’t want to change their main character.
In such cases, we often see the “humiliation” of the character – she’s forced to deal with an external situation that she cannot handle, and is saved by a character who’s the solution.
This happens a lot in flat character arcs.
What You Should Keep in Mind When Writing a Flat Character Arc
Knowing that our character won’t change significantly – and that we’ll lose one of the means of attracting and retaining readers to the story – we must find other ways to get the audience to invest in and stay with the character.
Character is about values, and values are observed and defined primarily in actions. This is what Blake Snyder would call “saving the cat” – we need a moment where the character shows action or reaction that leads to us liking them. And we need to do that at the beginning of our story.
This moment needs to be striking enough to be noteworthy and worth mentioning. If the behavior is even atypical for the character – all the better! It shows the depth and complexity of the character.
We need this moment so that we (as the author) understand something about the character and get an idea of how the character will react to the complex situations that follow.
The more complex the character, the more opportunities there are for this moment – that’s, the more we learn about the character in this short period of time.
Ideally, the moment should address the character’s value or skill that will enable him or her to deal with the challenge that will put him or her to the test. Not only will the skills be tested, but also the character’s core values.
Backstory is very helpful when you’re constructing a flat character arc. We need to know why the person is so entrenched in their values, in their “truth,” as KM Weiland puts it, that they won’t change no matter what comes their way.
Examples of Flat Character Arcs
- Sherlock Holmes is a wonderfully rounded character who goes through a series of trials and yet always remains the same person.
- Indiana Jones, too, has a very solid inner core. He’s afraid of snakes but is otherwise a super action hero who takes on Nazis, Soviet agents, and criminals.
- James Bond, whom both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg modeled themselves on when they developed the character and stories of Indiana Jones, is also an action hero who barely changes despite the many challenges and enemies that stand in his way.
- Batman is, for the most part, a flat arc character. The backstory is great, of course, and the actual character has a lot of depth. But his values and inner core are unshakable in his adventures.
- Another character that comes to mind is Zorro. A hero with a thousand parades, but who doesn’t change inside.
- Some think Harry Potter is a flat character, but I’d argue the opposite: his transformation is slow, but eventually he becomes the hero he was always meant to be – inside and out.