Next to the positive change arc, the flat character arc is the most popular storyline. Also called the “testing 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 flat-arc protagonist will be confronted with tremendous opposition. He will at times be shaken. His commitment to the Truth will be tested to the breaking point—but he will never waver from it. He will experience little inner conflict and will not change significantly as a person—although he may sometimes change externally (as per Veronica Sicoe):
…the protagonist changes his perspective, learns different skills, or gains a different role. The end-result is not “better” or more than the starting point, just different. The protagonist has not overcome a grand inner resistance or anything, he simply gained a new set of skills or assumed a new position, maybe discovered a talent he forgot he had, or a different vocation.
So how exactly does this work? Why do readers enjoy this self-proclaimed “flat” arc—this story of a static character? They enjoy it because it is still a story of change. The difference is that the character is the one changing the world around him, rather the world changing the character, as we find in change arcs.
If you’ve hung with me for the last few months, you’re already familiar with the foundational principles of the positive change arc. Most of those principles remain true for the flat arc, but with some significant variations. Over the next three weeks, we’re going to be taking a look at how flat arcs differ from positive change arcs—and how you can use them to create an awesome story.
The Truth the Character Believes
The positive change arc is all about the Lie the Character Believes—which he will spend the entire story overcoming. But the flat arc is about the Truth the Character Believes. In a flat arc, the protagonist already has a handle on the Truth, and he will use that Truth to overcome the challenges of the plot—and, probably, to transform a Lie-burdened world.
Your character may very well have a Ghost (which can be used to create interesting depth in his backstory and plausibility for his motivations), but, unlike in a positive change arc, he has already come to peace with it. A flat arc will never be a story about a character’s search for closure.
This is why we often see change arcs in the first book in a series and flat arcs in the following books. Marvel’s Thor movies are a great example. Thor overcomes his great Lie in the first movie, so that by the time his second round of adventures rolls around, he can use his new Truth to transform the world(s) around him.
The Normal World
In a flat arc, the Normal World can manifest in two ways, the first of which is as a good place that represents the character’s Truth. In this instance, the Normal World will either be destroyed at the First Plot Point, or, more likely, the character will be forced to journey away from it in order to protect it.
The second possible manifestation of the Normal World is as a less-than-satisfactory place, which has been cursed by a great Lie—against which the protagonist’s Truth will stand in direction opposition. The protagonist will use his Truth to destroy this evil world and build a better one in its place.
Just as in the positive change arc, the Normal World in which the story opens will be a symbol, either of what the protagonist is fighting to protect or what he’s fighting to overcome. It sets the stage for the story to follow.
The Characteristic Moment
The Characteristic Moment functions almost identically in all three types of arc. The only major difference in the flat arc is that the Characteristic Moment must be used to introduce your character’s Truth instead of his Lie. Ask yourself: what skills and beliefs does he possess in the beginning of the story that make him ideally suited to take on the Lie, as represented by the antagonistic force? Come up with an opening scene that illustrates these qualities in an intriguing and sympathetic way.
The First Act
Within the first quarter of a flat-arc story, your primary responsibilities are going to be setting the stage for the coming conflict. You must introduce the important characters and their respective alignments with either the Truth or the Lie. Just as in a positive change arc, this is the time to lavish some extra attention on the Lie, because within the Lie is always where we discover what is at stake for the protagonist. What horrible things will happen to him and his world if the Lie isn’t overthrown?
The character probably won’t start out the story with a knowledge of the Lie. He knows the Truth, but he may not yet have been confronted with the fact that the Lie is deeply rooted in the world around him. Most of the First Act will be spent with his growing realization that there’s something pretty stinky going in Denmark.
The protagonist may oppose the Lie from the beginning, but he won’t confront it head on in the First Act. Sometimes he may even spend the First Act actively avoiding a confrontation. He’s content in his own mastery of the Truth, and he may not see any need to try to use that Truth to protect or heal the broken world around him. He won’t become fully engaged in a battle against the antagonistic force’s Lie until the First Plot Point at the end of the First Act.
How the Does the First Act Manifest in a Flat Character Arc?
In the First Act, your flat character arc could manifest as:
- A belief that society should be based on trust and compassion, rather than fear and sadism (the Truth in opposition to the Lie). Katniss lives in a stark Normal World, where she remains in constant fear of the government and struggles to feed and protect her mother and sister. From the first line on, she is shown relentlessly sacrificing for those she cares about, which then escalates dramatically at the Inciting Event, when she takes her sister’s place in the reaping (Characteristic Moment). Via elaborations of the Hunger Games, the First Act hammers home the despicability of the Lie-ridden world in which Katniss lives. (The Hunger Games)
- A belief that it would be better to die trying to escape rather than live in captivity (the Truth in opposition to the Lie). Ginger’s Normal World is a stalag-like chicken farm, run by the villainous Mrs. Tweedy, who stymies Ginger’s every attempt to get herself and her friends to safety. The opening montage presents Characteristic Moment after Characteristic Moment, in which Ginger proves her cleverness and tenacity in trying to escape over and over again. The First Act demonstrates the general awfulness of constantly living one step away from the chop (especially when Mrs. Tweedy decides to buy a machine that will turn them all into meat pies), as well as Ginger’s absolute devotion to her Truth. (Chicken Run)
- A belief that fighting to protect family is more important than fighting for a perfidious king (the Truth in opposition to the Lie). Nathaniel’s Normal World of beautiful nature and simple but rewarding lifestyles is one worth protecting, but it is threatened by the encroaching war between the French and English and the English Army’s determination to force the colonial militia into a battle far from their endangered families. The opening deer hunt proves Nathaniel’s absolute sense of belonging with his naturalistic world (Characteristic Moment), and the First Act increasingly pits the peaceful world of his Truth against the threat of the war’s Lie. (The Last of the Mohicans)
- A belief that Rome must continue to be a light in the darkness of a barbaric world, rather than the slave of a single man (the Truth in opposition to the Lie). Maximus’s Normal World has been that of Rome, as ruled by the wise and benevolent Marcus Aurelius, but it’s already beginning to crumble: Aurelius is dying and his unstable son waits in the wings. Throughout the First Act, Maximus is faced with the choice of returning home to his family or remaining to protect Rome. (This is a good example of an instance in a flat arc, in which the Thing the Character Wants and the Thing the Character Needs actually stand in conflict, just as in a positive change arc—if only briefly.) (Gladiator)
- A belief that a sensible approach to life and love will bear greater fruits than will wild emotional abandon (the Truth in opposition to the Lie). Elinor, as the only person of strong logic left in her family, lives in a Normal World that is in constant assault by her mother’s and sister’s emotional needs—everything from her mother’s desire for a nicer house than they can afford to Marianne’s romantic passions. She is introduced as the “eldest daughter, whose advice was so effectual, [and who] possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment…” (Characteristic Moment). Elinor spends the First Act trying to manage her mother’s tangled affairs and her sisters’ heated emotions. (Sense & Sensibility)
- A belief that freedom can’t be achieved by a police state monitoring and destroying threats before they happen (the Truth in opposition to the Lie). Steve’s current Normal World is a shaky one, in which he is increasingly uncomfortable with the jobs SHIELD is asking him to do, supposedly in the name of freedom. Almost right away, he is shown distrusting the motives of those who are using him as a weapon to achieve their own ends (Characteristic Moment). After he learns what Fury has up his sleeve, he knows he can’t maintain his Truth if he remains in SHIELD, and he spends the bulk of the First Act contemplating simply walking away. (Captain American: The Winter Soldier)
Further Examples of the First Act in a Flat Character Arc
True Grit by Charles Portis: Mattie Ross is a beautiful example of a static character who bends the world around her. She never wavers from her adamant belief that justice is worth pursuing and even sacrificing for, and that a careless attitude about social justice can only create anarchy. That belief is challenged throughout by murderers, thieves, well-meaning townsfolk, and even her own lawmen allies. Her Normal World is introduced as a stark, cruel frontier, in which justice is too often sacrificed or compromised for convenience’s sake. The world in which she lives is gray; Mattie, in contrast, is as black and white as they come. From the very beginning, she sets out with the goal of bringing her father’s murderer to justice, and when, throughout the First Act, she finds the institutions of justice opposing or hindering her progress, she becomes increasingly determined to circumvent them altogether and get the job done herself.
Batman Begins directed by Christopher Nolan: Within the flashback sequences in the First Act, we actually get to see Bruce Wayne undergo a mini-change arc in which he is brought to realize the truth of Rachel’s words, that “justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better.” However, within the “real-time” chronology of the First Act, Bruce is already committed to this Truth: he just needs to be shown a way to implement it. His Normal World is a glittering façade of wealth that hides the rotten epicenter of Gotham’s corruption. After being rescued by Ducard in the opening sequence, he spends the First Act equipping himself to fight that corruption—only to learn the true depth of the stakes when it turns out that the Lie has infiltrated even the League of Shadows.
Questions to Ask About the First Act in a Flat Character Arc
1. What Truth does your character already believe at the beginning of your story?
2. Does he have a Ghost in his backstory that prompted this belief?
3. What Lie, as represented by the antagonistic force, will he have to fight?
4. Does his Normal World represent the Truth he will be fighting to protect—or does it represent the Lie he must overthrow in order to establish the Truth?
5. If the former, how can you illustrate the encroaching threat of the Lie upon that Normal World?
6. When will your protagonist first become aware of the threat of the Lie?
7. Is the protagonist initially reluctant to engage in a battle with the Lie?
8. If he is already committed to battling the Lie, what obstacles in the First Act prevent him from a full-on confrontation with the Lie?
9. What Characteristic Moment can you use to illustrate your character’s devotion to the Truth—and the resultant knowledge and skills he is able to wield?
10. How can your opening illustrate the Lie that opposes the protagonist?
11. Throughout the First Act, how can you use the Lie to prove what is at stake for the protagonist?
A flat character arc offers the opportunity for you to create a competent, committed protagonist who can transform the world around him. Many heroic stories feature flat arcs, not because they’re plot-heavy, but because flat arcs allow for explosive change within the world around the character. Don’t make the mistake of thinking flat arcs are less complicated or significant than positive change arcs. They’re every bit as exciting and powerful in their own right.
Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll be talking about the flat character arc in the Second Act.
Tell me your opinion: Have you ever used a flat character arc in any of your stories? What Truth did your protagonist understand that the world around him did not?
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