How to Write a Flat Character Arc: The First Act

How to Write a Flat Character Arc, Pt. 1: The First Act

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.

Creating Character ArcsThe 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. And in the meantime, here’s a great breakdown of Flat Arcs by Sage Hyden:

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?

How to Write a Flat Character Arc The First Act

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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. “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.”

    But then what’s the Special World?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The special or “adventure” world can often be nothing more or less than a change in mindset for the protagonist. It doesn’t always have to be marked by the outer metaphor of a change in setting. For example, in It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey never leaves Bedford Falls. It’s only his mindset and his position as head of the Building and Loan that changes at the First Plot Point.

  2. I think my Normal World is the psychological world in which MC is controlled by his mom–from which he must break free. (Free from which he must break?)

    The Special World is a horrible community of people who abuse each other–so it “holds up a mirror” to his relationship with his mom, “writ large.” In the horrible community he sees what his life will be like, more or less, if he stays on his present path.

    His experiences learning about the horrible community (by hearing stories–weak point!), and finally participating, give him the strength to ignore his mom.

  3. Lorna G. Poston says:

    Finally got around to watching Chicken Run. It’s brilliant and funny. Now one of my favorites.

  4. Hi there,

    I love your website. Thanks a bunch for it!! 🙂

    One question: could a flat arc be positive or negative? For example, in the positive flat arc the progression has a good result for the world and is thus:

    Flat Arc: Character Believes Truth > Sees Lie > Overcomes Lie and Spreads Truth to Others

    But what if the hero was malevolent and they still had a flat arc and corrupted the world so it was like this:

    Flat Arc: Character Believes Lie > Sees Truth > Overcomes Truth and Spreads Lie to Others

    They would still have a flat arc themselves, but it’s definitely a negative story line.

    Thanks in advance for any answer!

    Ramana

  5. Mauricio says:

    In the flat arc, would you need to show a full blown change or negative change arc for the supporting characters?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, at least some of the characters. However, some of the blow-by-blow development can happen offscreen if you’re not in the character’s POV.

  6. Could you perhaps give an example of a Ghost backstory for a character in a Flat character Arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ghosts in a Flat Arc either apply to a Change-Arc subplot (revolving around a different Lie/Truth) or are traumas the protagonist has already come to peace with. That said, almost all of the examples I’ve used in this series offer Ghosts: the death of Katniss’s father and her mother’s mental problems; Steve Rogers’s being stranded in a modern world in which almost everyone he knew and loved is gone; Bruce Wayne’s parents’ murders (which he arguably never comes to peace with, but which he also never evolves past).

  7. Kate, I have a question that I don’t see touched upon in your initial post or the subsequent Q&As.

    When discussing the Change Arc, you talk about the importance of establishing The Thing the Character Wants and The Thing the Character Needs. If, as you aptly put it, your Change character needs the truth, then does a Flat Arc character already in possession of the Truth have a Need? Or does that drop out of the equation and he is left only with what he Wants, which in essence is to live/uphold/defend his Truth?

    Thanks, as always.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Flat Arc character has already found his Need, which means his Want will be in alignment with that, with his plot goal a natural extension.

  8. mauricio says:

    How would you show characters allegiances to either the truth or the lie? Would you have them be sympathetic to the effects of the truth or be more sympathetic to the effects of the lie?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, but you can also show it through the character’s actions. “Show” readers by putting the characters in situations in which they act according their alignment with either the Truth or the Lie.

  9. Marissa says:

    Is Scarlet O’Hara from Gone with the Wind an example of a flat character arc?

  10. Sarah J. says:

    What about a protagonist that believes the truth, fights for the truth, but very few people around them come to believe the truth by the end (a few people close to them do, but the majority do not). however the protagonist becomes okay with this, knowing that change takes time and must happen individually, not as a whole city/world all at once? would that still be a flat-arch? would it be a positive arch since the protagonist changes their desired outcome for the time being?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, sounds like a Flat Arc variation, with the other characters perhaps in Disillusionment Arcs.

  11. For my current WIP, I decided giving two of my non-protagonist characters major arcs would be good for the story. My Impact Character has a Flat Arc, and I’m following the exercises in my ARC of the Creating Character Arcs Workbook. However, when it comes to events like the Inciting Incident and the First Plot Point, I’m not sure what to do. Up until the Adventure World for my protagonist, he’s only mentioned, so for a large chunk of the beginning he has nothing to do with the main conflict, and he has only a part of his own story. I can create plot points for him as a sub-plot, but that would be hard to coordinate with my protagonist’s arc, especially since I only go into my protagonist’s POV (for the sake of necessity and sub-text). Should I ignore this and create a plot for my Impact Character, even if it won’t be shown to the readers until the end? Or should I ignore it and only fill out what applies?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If the character is minor, all of his beats don’t necessarily have to occur on screen and/or you can show them in quicker succession after he’s introduced to catch him up to speed. Although it’s nice to group everyone’s arc beats together as much as possible, it’s really only the protagonist’s arc that needs to sync with the timing of the main plot structure.

  12. I love your book. Learning a lot.

    Have you seen The Thing by John Carpenter. If you have, do you think MacReady — the protagonist — is a flat or positive arc character?

  13. John Desaulniers Jr says:

    So if the beginning of the story is introducing a character as having a “newfound” Truth and the battle with the Lie is background of the story, is that a flat arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If the character himself is battling the Lie internally (i.e., he still partially believes it), then it’s a Change Arc, not a Flat Arc. But if he’s using his new Truth to battle external representations of the Lie in the the world and antagonistic force, then, yes, that would be a Flat Arc.

  14. Brian Cummings says:

    Does the primary antagonist (if a person) need an arc? It’s certainly not going to be a full bore negative change arc or anything, but I assume they need something like a negative flat arc to be both believable and compelling.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, if you’re going to concentrate on giving arcs to characters beyond your protagonist, the antagonist is a great place to start. Contrasting arcs between protag and antag is one of the best ways to create a deep and resonant theme.

  15. andre jeter says:

    I’m writing a series that doesn’t tie together, this way a reader can pick up any of my books and enjoy them. I’m writing a flat arc character for each book. Should the truth of my M.C change in each book or remain the same?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Either way has potential. But it might get hard not to re-tread the same ground if the theme is exactly the same in each book.

  16. Does the Flat Arc character, similar to a Change arc character, need an inciting incident? Would that be the event that either destroys his Normal World or forces him to leave it in order to protect it?

    In my flat arc character’s arc, he finds information that could potentially help bring down a tyrant who is out to destroy his order–his Normal World. (Debating on if I should have this onscreen as he shares the main lead with the positive change arc). This new information requires him to find the positive change arc and steal back the item he needs from the antagonist.

    He would have to face the positive change arc (who is part of his Ghost–his ex-wife, who he’s been avoiding for years in order to give her space, but has come to terms with in regards to what happened–and who he still loves) and face the antagonist.

    After he steals the journal, things become more personal for him–the antagonist is targeting him and his wife and he can’t turn back and change what he’s done. He can only move forward and bring the positive change arc character along in order to keep her safe. (This, according to the definitions, might be the First Plot Point).

    The way I have it set up, the First Plot Point happens early (rather then at 25%). Trying to avoid filler in regards to set up.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, the Inciting Event is a universal structural moment in all types of stories. In the Flat Arc, the Inciting Event/Call to Adventure is where the protagonist is first introduced to the challenge of using his or her Truth to change the Lie-ridden Normal World.

  17. Hi K.M!
    I’m creating a minor character who has a Flat Arc right now. I was thinking about the very first question, ‘What Truth does your character already believe at the beginning of your story?’?
    I was wondering how you can figure out what you character’s Truth is? I feel like there’s no groundwork to start from.
    Thanks,
    ~Mary

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Consider how other characters will be changed by the Flat-Arc character. What Lie will the Flat-Arc character help them overcome by the end of the story? The Truth will be the flip of that.

Trackbacks

  1. […] the plot is to reveal the character arc—how do plot events force the protagonist to change? With a flat arc (where they don’t change) or a negative arc (where they don’t get a happy ending), some of the […]

  2. […] the plot is to reveal the character arc—how do plot events force the protagonist to change? With a flat arc (where they don’t change) or a negative arc (where they don’t get a happy ending), some of the […]

  3. […] and readerships. I tend to talk a lot here about character arcs, but some genres frequently feature “flat arc” characters. Same with advice about using deep point-of-view or how strong or devious our antagonist should be. […]

  4. […] has a flat character arc in this film. Unlike a positive change arc, which requires the character to start out believing a […]

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