Why Doubt Is the Key to Flat Character Arcs

Why Doubt Is the Key to Flat Character ArcsFlat Character Arcs create some of the most exciting and powerful stories. Most of the time, when people think of “character arc,” they’re likely to think of Positive Change Arcs, in which the protagonist himself undergoes an empowering personal change. Flat Arcs, by contrast, are about a protagonist who does not personally change, but who changes the world around him.

Remember, the fundamental principle of character arc is Lie vs. Truth.

In any type of positive story (i.e., Positive Change or Flat Arc—in contrast to Negative Change Arcs), the Lie will be dominant in the beginning, only to slowly and inexorably be overcome by the Truth. In a Positive-Change Arc, the protagonist himself will start out believing that Lie until he is taught by the events of the story to embrace the Truth.

Flat Arcs, however, are different. In a Flat Arc, the character starts out already in possession of the Truth—and then uses that Truth to bring positive change to the world around him.

As such, the Flat-Arc protagonist is a person who, on the specific level of the Truth, has things figured out. He’s the most with-it person in the story—and in danger of becoming one-dimensional and obnoxiously goody-goody.

The challenge of the Flat Arc is to tell a story about a protagonist who understands and claims a Truth, but who is still flawed, fluid, and interesting. The Flat-Arc character, unlike the Positive-Change Arc character, does not believe a damaging Lie. But he does have a Doubt.

How “the Doubt” Keeps Flat Character Arcs Vibrant and Relatable

Just because your Flat-Arc protagonist understands the story’s fundamental Truth doesn’t mean she will be 100% sure of that Truth or her own ability to live it. This fluidity in recognizing her own fallibility is what makes Flat-Arc protagonists endlessly compelling.

Like us, they believe in something. But also like us, they recognize they could be wrong. They could have been blinded by another Lie. They could have chosen the wrong Truth. And even if they did choose the right Truth, then maybe they won’t have the wisdom, strength, or conviction to live it.

In short, they have a Doubt—and it keeps them seeking throughout the story, even as the undeniable power of their conviction in the Truth transforms other characters around them.

For example, Wonder Woman‘s Diana Prince is a solid Flat-Arc character. From the beginning, she understands and embraces the Truth that “only love will truly save the world.” She uses that Truth to change the lives of soldier Steve Trevor and, ultimately, to end World War I.

Sameer Steve Trevor Diana Prince Wonder Woman

And she’s pretty unshakable in that Truth—to the point that her blind faith allows for some of the story’s more humorous moments.

But if that’s all Diana Prince was, she would have been a dreadful character: one-dimensional good-goody at best, psychotically single-focused at worst.

That’s where Doubt comes in. For most of the story, Diana does not doubt her Truth, but does doubt her own ability to carry it out. And in the Third Act, when faced with the true enormity of the Lie, she is also given cause to doubt the Truth itself and waver in her devotion to it before reclaiming it and acting on it with even greater conviction in destroying Ares.

Wonder Woman Final Battle

(Note, however, that her moment of Doubt after the Third Plot Point could have been better developed had that same Doubt been set up in the First Act, in addition to her Doubt about her own unworthiness. Because the story’s most important Doubt was not introduced until late the story, her comparatively brief moment of despair wasn’t undergirded or developed strongly enough to be as powerful as it might have been.)

>>Click here to read the Story Structure Database analysis of Wonder Woman.

How to Discover the Right Doubt for Your Flat Character Arcs

You must choose a thematically-pertinent Doubt for your Flat-Arc protagonist. Diana’s arc could have been stronger had it introduced earlier the Doubt that was most pertinent to her final confrontation with the Lie. Although your character can harbor multiple Doubts, the primary one should be directly related to the Truth: Is it really the Truth? Is it really worth fighting for?

Your character’s Doubt can range from being a niggling question to a full-on existential crisis. However, remember this is a Flat Arc. The character will not fundamentally change. He will believe the Truth in the beginning, and he will reaffirm that belief even more strongly in the end.

His possession of the Truth must be strong enough throughout the story to effectively impact the supporting characters and inspire them to recognize and reject the Lie. The protagonist’s Doubt can occasionally get in the supporting characters’ way, but it cannot become an insuperable obstacle.

Flat-Arc characters can be tricky to execute well, since they are often perceived as static. However, nothing could be father from the truth. Handled skillfully, Flat-Arc characters are amazingly vibrant and powerful personalities, not least because they are able to confront and conquer their own demons right alongside those the Lie has inflicted on the world around them.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Are you writing a Flat Character Arc? What Doubt will your protagonist experience in regard to the story’s Truth? Tell me in the comments!

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I have frequently toyed with the idea of self-deception. The key to making deception work is that the deceived person never realizes they’ve been deceived. In The Sting, the goal they are working toward is to convince the Villain of the deception to the point that their very lives depend on making this work.

    The worst deception is self-deception because it is so persistent and pernicious. In the New Testament, the Pharisees were convinced that they were looking for the Messiah, but when he showed up, they didn’t believe it was Him because they thought the knew who/what the Messiah would be. We characterize them as the villains of the story. But just try telling that same story in a modern setting where the Pharisee equivalent is represented by the Religious Establishment and see where that gets you. If we conclude that we are the Pharisees because we are self-deceived, then we have a far more interesting story than a lot of the current narratives.

    From the perspective of a Flat Arc hero, uncovering deception is the goal (even if the hero doesn’t realize it). That is the role of doubt, as you so aptly pointed out. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is one of the things I love about the relationship between Tony Stark and Steve Austin. In the early movies, Stark is sowing doubt in Austin and shattering his naivete. But in Civil Wars, suddenly the Lie takes on a new form and the doubt bounces back on Tony. I think there are many more years of upcoming movies where we can watch this ping pong volley with a great deal of satisfaction.

    Keep up the good work. You are a great writing teacher and I love reading your stuff.

    • Michael Saltar says:

      Good one, Rick.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. The trick, as a writer, is conveying this convincingly from within the POV, so readers are along from the ride rather than stepping back and judging the character for being too stupid to see the big picture.

      And: Steve Rogers. 😉

      • If it’s any consolation, I get my kids’s names mixed up all the time too. But yes, you got the point. Marvel is doing a fantastic job with their reveals and sticking to POV storytelling that keeps the ensemble cast from being too cumbersome.

    • Steve *Rogers. Sorry!

  2. Michael Saltar says:

    Love it. Love it.

  3. I find this very interesting, because generally, the people in my life start out with either a Positive Change Arc or a Negative Change Arc during their childhood. Eventually they will grow into a Flat-arc during their adulthood. It can be a subtle thing.

  4. I’m so glad you covered this. People have talked about stories with a flat arc before (spy series like James Bond are often used as examples), but I haven’t see too much about how to still make those characters engaging or use their faith to make the story exciting. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Not all action movies are Flat Arcs. A lot of them simply don’t have character arcs. I haven’t seen all the James Bond movies, but I have a feeling that holds true for a lot of them.

      • I think that’s true of the older Bond films, but for the Daniel Craig version they have given him arcs. I’m tempted to the say the first one, Casino Royale, was a negative arc, if I remember it correctly.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yeah, Casino Royale was a Disillusionment Arc. Don’t remember much an arc in Quantum though.

          • Actually, the character arc spanned the series. *Royale* was negative arc, in that it left him the bitter, cold “Bond”. *Quantum* was probably more of a positive arc, since it dealt with him coming to terms with his heartbreak in the previous, but only a lightly positive arc, since it didn’t really take him that terribly far. *Skyfall*, seemed fairly without an arc to me. The final one was a definite positive, finally healing the negative arc of the first.

            Far better than I expected for the genre.

  5. Insightful and heavy. I will need some time to digest this. I have a very important person who is a flat arc (without her things would really fall apart and it is related to the theme (truth). When revising my first draft (almost complete) I will use this as a lens to give the flat-arc character more depth and 3-dimentionality. Thanks!

  6. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, I believe, is a typical example of the flat (i.e. arc-less) character. I don’t think he has doubts in his own belief or his abilities in staying with it. His beliefs are rather cynical from the outset. I think he almost NOT keeps believing that the world is an awful place.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve only experienced Marlowe through Humphrey Bogart. :p But, yes, I’d agree about the Flat Arc, even though is Truth is a disillusioned one.

  7. I believe this is the same case with Captain America in Captain America Civil War if I am not mistaken in how he experienced a brief doubt in the beginning about whether going against the Accords was the right thing to do.

  8. Are there flat arcs that end in failure? Should they be treated as separate from flat arcs that end in success?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      What you’d be looking at in a situation like that is minor characters who failed to accept the protag’s Truth and change in a positive way. In most stories, this would actually signal a Disillusionment Arc for the protag, but you could definitely do a Flat Arc, as long as the protag remains stalwart in his Truth even in the face of the world’s continued rejection of it.

  9. Jeffrey Barlow says:

    Pongo, from 101 Dalmatians is a flat-arc, and gets everyone else to believe in never giving up. Perdita is the voice of Doubt. I just felt like saying that cuz my son just discovered this old classic and loves it 🙂

    Question : on a flat arc, how closely related to the Lie does the Doubt need to be? Usually the Truth and the Lie are opposing ideas. The Doubt is an internal conflict, but it seems less likely to be represented by a physical, external representation. Is it necessary, or bonus points, to sync these aspects?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Wow, Perdita–I’d never seen her that way. :p

      To keep the story as thematically tight as possible, it’s nice if the Doubt aligns with the Lie–i.e., the character has reason to doubt the Truth, part of the Truth, or whether the Truth is really worth the sacrifice.

  10. Jeffrey Barlow says:

    My graphic novel has a flat-arc antihero false-antagonist (differes by volume) character who helps change the world, even though he wields his Lie ferociously. The protagonist gains his hand as a necessary evil. Kind of an interesting dynamic I guess.

  11. Rebecca Hill says:

    This is great – before I found your blog I’d read a few articles on this subject, and all were along the lines of ‘flat arc is a cop out’ – ‘characters must change’. Clearly they don’t know what they’re talking about and you do 🙂 I’m still outlining my first book, and set out for my main character to follow a change arc, but it felt forced until I realised she was more naturally inclined to a flat arc – she grows rather than changes, and faces challenges to her core beliefs. I’ve been studying Dramatica (found it thanks to the references on your blog) and they have an interesting proposition that if the main character remains steadfast (a flat arc), the impact character changes – and vice versa – as a result of their impact on each other. I haven’t seen Wonder Woman so I can’t relate to the movie but it holds true for a number of movies/novels. I’m interested to know… how might a flat arc play out across a series (say 3 books) – would there be one over-arching doubt across the series, and smaller doubts for each? Or would it be confusing for a character to change between a flat arc and change arc in different books?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Lie is what’s always central to the change within a story. So that’s what’s going to be overarching in a series, regardless whether the protagonist is a Flat- or Change-Arc character. There’s more flexibility with the Doubt. You could have the protagonist deal with a singular Doubt throughout the story, or smaller related Doubts in each book.

  12. I’m not certain if this is the situation with my MC. She’s unhappy and worried about a situation in her society, she knows what’s wrong, but being young and just starting her profession she doesn’t think she’s in a position to do much about it.

    But a crisis in the kingdom reveals the problem is worse than she thought, and situations give her a chance to help with the crisis and in so doing have a voice about the original problem.

    Though I suppose she changes as other main characters influence her to move from her abstract world of scholarly contemplation to take a leap of faith and take action–and typing that I just realized, that’s Isabella’s story exactly from Measure for Measure.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It could be that her Lie is that she’s unable to help, or it could be, in a milder form, just a Doubt that niggles at her.

  13. Gah! I can’t read most of that because I still haven’t seen Wonder Woman. Though I think my protagonist is best off having a flat arc

  14. Tnx, still learning every day.
    I’ll guess that flat arcs and coming-of-age will get you dull, unrealistic characters.
    But ideal for grown-ups, stuck in the mud, self delusional figures.

    But wondering, if you give him/her doubt, and the MC change, doesn’t that contradict the flatness?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Flat arcs certainly don’t have to be dull. Because of the change these characters inspire in the world around them, they can create some of the most dynamic stories.

      As for your question, the Doubt does not change the character. She never denies her Truth–just explores it. She believes in the Truth in the beginning, and she still believes in it in the end. This is in contrast to a Positive-Change Arc character, who changes in that she starts out believing/living a Lie and ends by believing/living the Truth.

  15. In my story which I am rewriting my mc when she is little is bitten by an eel-like snake then someone dies around her which makes her powers awoken and also her eyes change with her mood and that moment she thinks she is cursed because people die around her. I have 18 characters and will have 19 chapters when done. My characters do live on a fictional planet.

    Is your work book of character arcs out and also get it at Barnes and noble?

    do you know of any good writing coaches?

  16. Great article! I have a flat-arc character, a half human/half demon who fights against the darker/bad demons in the modern world. I only worked on one novel with her so far and feared the flat arc she has wouldn’t work but this article gave me more confidence in her story and arc for that story and others i’m working on.

  17. Could Diana possibly have a Disillusionment arc, rather than a flat arc, in which her lie is that humans are inherently good? I might be totally off base, but it seems to fit with the movie’s structure better than a flat arc.

    Just a thought. Excellent, helpful post, as always. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Someone on FB commented that they thought she followed a Positive-Change Arc in overcoming a black and white view of the world. It is a good point. I was thinking Flat Arc, Flat Arc, Flat Arc all through the movie, but I think she could definitely be showing multiple arcs. I need to see it again.

  18. Sometimes the problem with flat arcs can be the first word–flat. If it isn’t done right, it can be flat, lifeless, boring.

  19. Great insight in this post! Thanks! I am learning something new about this craft every day! And this has inspired another idea for my story!

  20. John Lammers says:

    This was really helpful. I’d gone back and forth on whether my MC had a flat arc or a shallow positive arc. It was his doubts, the lie that that fueled them, and his overcoming these that felt positive change ish…but not quite, because he was always in possession of the truth and didn’t change in that respect. It was just very hard for him to act on the truth, and he had to kind of be dragged into doing so. I’m more comfortable thinking of this as a flat arc than I was before your post.

  21. Sue Jeffrey says:

    Thank you so much for this post. It’s made me think :). I’ve only written positive arcs for my main characters before and I’ve been working on a book where there is a definite positive ‘personal growth’ arc. I’ve been playing around with the idea of making it a trilogy but wondered how I could do that. Either the positive arc is slowed down to cover the three books (I think that would be way too slow) or I needed brand new POV characters in the same world. I don’t think that would work either in this particular case. But this post has made me wonder if I could have a positive arc for the first book and follow it up with a second (and hopefully third) book where the arc is flat. Eg., armed with the truth my characters head off to undo the dire evil that has overtaken the world. Would that work or would the flavour of the story be lost? Can you think of any examples of series where this has worked well?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, you can totally have a different arc in each book. This is very common, in fact. Marvel’s Thor movies (although not paragons in general) come to mind. In the first movie, Thor follows a Positive Act; in the second, he is on more of a Flat Arc, in which he is acting upon the Truth he learned in the first.

  22. I would never have targeted Wonder Woman as a possible “flat” arc, but you are right. She almost strays from the One Path, but catches herself in time! Good Job, Katie.

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