Can you write a story with no character arc? Is that even possible? And, if it is, will the story be doomed to drabness in comparison to those that do feature rich character arcs (of the positive, flat, and negative varieties)?
These are questions I encounter frequently, and they’re absolutely valid. We often think character arc and story are synonymous—but then we go looking for the arcs in favorite stories, by trying to find the character’s Lie and Truth, and we sometimes come up short. Are we just blind to the arc the author intended? Or could it be that such a (gasp!) soulless thing as a story with no character arc actually exists?
Let’s take a look.
Is It Possible to Write a Story With No Character Arc?
In a word: yes. Totally possible. This is fiction after all. Anything’s possible!
Character arcs are centered on moments in people’s lives when they’re changing their mindsets, their worldviews, their personal paradigms. But lots of interesting things can happen without radical personal growth having to along with it.
One of my siblings’ favorite stories of our growing-up years is how’d we’d play The Great Escape. I’d always get to be Steve McQueen (hey, I was the oldest! I got to pick first), my brother would always be James Garner, and we’d always make our little sister, despite her protests, be the “other” American. (Don’t remember him, do you? We didn’t even know his name, so we called him Mickey Brown.) She’ll never ever let us forget that.
Sadly, I’m unable to report any personal growth involved. Still, it’s a good story!
What goes in real life goes for fiction as well. If you have a story in which stuff happens and it’s interesting—but there’s no character arc—that doesn’t mean you might not still have a rip-roaringly grand tale on your hands.
Character Arc = Story, No Character Arc = Situation
In his Writer article “A big-city cop moves to a small coastal town…” (September 2013), Jeff Lyons differentiates a story from a situation, using the following four criteria:
 A situation is a problem or predicament with an obvious and direct solution.  A situation does not reveal character; it tests problem-solving skills.  A situation has no (or few) subplots, twists or complications.  A situation begins and ends in the same emotional space that it started in.
Number Two is especially important. A book with no character arc will still be about a protagonist who wants something, has a goal to gain that thing, and meets up with opposition that gets in his way. He’ll no doubt learn a few facts and perhaps skills along the way. But he won’t have to undergo a fundamental personal change in order to defeat his antagonist. Whatever Lie may be present in his life won’t be challenged by the events of this story.
By Lyons’s definition, Raiders of the Lost Ark (or is it Arc?) is a situation, not a story. Indy has no character arc. He’s the same guy at the end of the movie as he was at the beginning. Did that harm the story? Not at all. Nobody (including Spielberg, who was convinced while he was making it that it was B film) would accuse it of deep thematic grist. But it’s a timeless and innovative romp that continues to charm audiences.
How to Tell the Difference Between No Arc and a Flat Arc
Flat character arcs involve no personal inner change for the protagonist. So how is that different from a story with no arc? And how can you tell the difference?
The key is that flat arc stories still incorporate a Lie/Truth. But unlike in change arcs, the protagonist already possesses the Truth and is able to use it to change the characters and world around him. By contrast, in stories with no arc, there will be no battle between a Truth and a Lie.
Arc-less stories tend to show up predominately in the action/adventure genres, where the emphasis is on the physical journey/survival of the characters. At first glance, we might want to lump the whole action milieu into this mix. However, many stories of this ilk do incorporate comparatively shallow Lies and Truths, making them flat-arc stories.
For example, Jurassic Park (to return to one of my favorite examples) is essentially as much of a situation as is Indiana Jones, even though it incorporates a positive change arc in a subplot. But, unlike Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park presents its scientist protagonists as flat-arc characters trying to use the Truth that “life won’t be contained” to protect and change the dangerous world in which they find themselves.
This type of Truth isn’t going be as thematically deep as Hamlet’s existential “to be or not to be” variety, but it can still bring an added dimension even to stories that, on the surface, don’t seem to require any type of arc.
Should You Write a Story With No Character Arc?
And now we come to the big question. Should you ever consider writing a story with no character arc?
There’s no black or white answer to this. You can write a story without a character arc, and, what’s more, you can write a fabulously entertaining story. If you have a story that works well based on its situation alone and you don’t want to mess with an arc, go for it.
However, I’ve yet to meet the story that couldn’t be improved by a thoughtful character arc, even if it’s as slight as the flat arc in Jurassic Park. As Lyons says in his article:
Situations entertain us; stories entertain and teach us what it means to be human.
Weigh your options. What would be the pros and cons of excluding an arc from your current story? Listen to your gut–but never include a character arc just because you feel you have to.
Tell me your opinion: Do you think a story with no character arc can be as good as a story with an arc?
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