K.M Weiland, author of Creating Character Arcs, has this to say about the flat arc:
… the flat arc is about a character who does not change. He already has the Truth figured out in the beginning of the story, and he uses that Truth to help him overcome various external tests.
The Third Act is where we find arguably the greatest similarities between the flat character arc and the positive change arc, since in both types of story the protagonist will have a full grasp on the Truth by this point. The primary difference, of course, is that the protagonist in a flat character arc will have already been in possession of that Truth almost universally throughout the story.
Hmmm. Did that make sense to you? I had to read it a couple of times to get the gist. The “Truth figured out in the beginning”? The “Lie embedded in the world around him”? So, I kept reading other resources to find out more. As I read, I encountered additional phraseology that I had to puzzle out. Terms like “Crucial Element”, “Focus Element”, “Direction Element”, and more!
Weiland writes that “the fundamental principle of character arc is lie vs. truth.” The Lie the character believes and uncovers in a change arc is under the radar. It is a bedrock belief the character holds. “I’m worthless.” “I’m God’s gift to women.” And so on. That misconception is revealed and dealt with (the Truth), thus effecting character change. This Lie needs to be connected to the story organically. If the story problem and the Lie don’t connect, the story is not as compelling.
In the flat character arc, this doesn’t play out. There are still Lies and Truths, they just don’t affect the story solution substantively. Remember, the Steadfast Character knows the truth from the beginning.
It turns out that the flat character arc goes by many names and is the second most used arc for main characters. You might see it referred to as the “testing arc” or “Main Character Resolve”, or “Steadfast Character.”
It also turns out that the Steadfast Character tends to see the story conflict not as “me against the obstacle”, but rather views the obstacle as the problem by itself, apart from the Steadfast Character. The Steadfast Character moves elements around in the story to restore balance and is unaffected by the move of elements, though the story is impacted for the better.
Most antagonists in our books have flat character arcs. They are who they are. They have a job to do—disrupt the life of the main character—and they do it without changing who they are or seeking/gaining insight into themselves or others. We’re not surprised by the lack of growth of the antagonist, in fact. We expect it.
But many protagonists also demonstrate a flat character arc, and we’re fine with that in a deftly handled story. Think Kinsey Milhone, PI, the main character in Sue Grafton’s Alphabet mysteries. Kinsey knows who she is and what is True. There is little character change within and across books, but she uses her character traits to solve the crimes. Her moral compass is clear to her as are her talents. She gets ‘er done!
Dramatica.com, in their dictionary of terms, says a steadfast character “ultimately retains his essential nature from the beginning of the story to the end of the story.” They also go on to state, “There will only be one Steadfast Character in every story.”
That’s very directive, isn’t it? I wonder why that is the case. Maybe because conflict is not deeply developed when two major characters remain unchanged by events and circumstances?
Or the story conflict could be developed when the two steadfast characters are on opposite tracks. If one is on the right track, and won’t change but has to deal with someone on the wrong track, who also won’t change, isn’t that conflict enough? I wonder what it would be like to write a story flouting the “rule” of only one steadfast character? One would have to “win” (whatever winning would mean), so why not?
However, in that scenario, each Steadfast Character would have the Truth from the beginning and each have the Lie, so maybe that’s why it wouldn’t work. If both know the Truth, where is the conflict? Aaarrgh! See why I am still confused and working on this principle of only one Steadfast Character?
From what I’ve read, the Lie must be uncovered and discounted by the Truth by the end of the story. Maybe that’s not possible with two Steadfastians!
One important aspect of the Steadfast Character’s possession of the truth early on is the role of doubt. Perhaps the character isn’t 100% sure of the Truth or has trouble accepting the Truth to move on in life. Adding in doubt, even if fleeting, includes a new level of tension. Being open to questioning Truth is human and can result in second guessing or hesitating at critical moments in the story.
One important role for the Steadfast character is shis possession of the Truth inspires and props up others. Also, by the end of the story, though heesh may have had doubts or even wondered if the Truth were worth the battle, the Steadfast character will come out on the other side believing in the Truth even more strongly and support others in believing it, too.
The Steadfast Character sounds like a very interesting challenge, encouraging the writer to delve even more deeply than the positive character arc requires.
Have you written a flat character arc story? Tell me aobut it in the comments section.
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