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 Arcs

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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. 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?


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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Once again, you have made me think, thank you. The book I am working on now will begin as a series of short stories featuring different flat line characters who are all let down by the lie. The justice system doesn’t work. These individual experiences with “The Lie” will band them all together as they go out and seek justice on their own grounds. I eagerly await your next post for more inspiration.

  2. thomas h cullen says

    Croyan – a beholder of the pinnacle of truths.

    Consideration – even just this, will his opposite give him?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So he’s following a flat arc?

      • thomas h cullen says

        Remember my telling you, to think of The Representative as a portrait of a story rather than an actual one? In the “real-time” context of the narrative, all that’s happening is Croyan’s sat, waiting for his counterpart to arrive:

        In an even manner of regard, his could be described as a “literal flat arc”.

        Yes – relative to all else, story-related, he’s of perfect sound mind.

        (Croyan’s a most rare of character gems).

  3. Katie,
    I might need some help. I thought my protagonist had a change arc in my novel, but now, I’m not so sure.
    She has a truth and a lie at the beginning, and the lie is pervasive in the world of the novel, but it’s only something that she has to personally overcome. Changing the world comes in later in the series.
    This makes me think that I still have a change arc, but I want to get your thoughts, if you don’t mind.
    The truth: My MC knows she has a magical destiny. She has the talent to speak to the spirits of plants, animals, and elements (elementals) and in her training to date, other talents have emerged and come easily to her.
    The lie: She thinks the only way she can achieve what she believes to be her destiny, is to be initiated into a strict discipline of magic-users. She will be the first girl to be initiated in over two centuries. It’s quite a coup.
    Then war razes her village, and she is separated from her master. Alone, and bent on exacting justice on the author of her tragedy, she struggles on, relying on her talents and believing that she has no “real” magical power.
    Though she performs ever more impressive feats of magic, out of necessity, she continues to dismiss her abilities and to try to find another master who can initiate her, so she can finally be a real mage.
    In truth, she is a kind of wild mage who does not need initiation to achieve mastery. When she learns this truth, it’s devastating. She had the power all along to save the people she loved. She just didn’t believe in herself.
    How the lie manifests in society: wild magi were powerful, and many abused their powers necessitating a kind of semantic/thought experiment. The strict discipline was created to manage and control the abilities of its aspirants, and the existance of wild magi was denied and buried.
    It’s not the antagonistic force, per se, but the antagonist takes full advantage of my MC’s naivety, manipulating her belief so that he can enslave her, and the rest of her world.
    Having written it out, I think I can safely say I still have a change arc on my hands.
    Ultimately, though, so long as I’ve written a compelling and captivating story with a solid plot (and I have written it well 🙂 ) I don’t think it matters which kind of arc I have. I just need to make sure that my plot points have the appropriate impact given the kind of arc my character has.
    I learn so much about craft from your posts.
    Looking forward to the next instalment.
    And … really enjoying the ARC. Making good progress, so I should be able to meet the deadline 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I would definitely say you’re dealing with a change arc. Obviously, every story will deal with many Truths and many Lies, but the only ones that matter for the purpose of the character-arc discussion are the ones at the center of the character’s personal journey. It’s also true that many positive change arcs will feature characters who believe Lies that are ingrained in them *because* they’re also ingrained in the world around them. So you can have a world that believes the Lie in *both* the change arc and the flat arc. The difference is that, in a flat arc, the *character* always knows the Truth.

      This sounds like a good example of a first book that presents a change arc so that the second book can present a flat arc.

    • “She had the power all along to save the people she loved. She just didn’t believe in herself.”

      This reminds me of the Magic Feather from Dumbo

  4. Oh, and her truth goes a step further. The magical destiny she believes she has is to change the strict discipline and the world (for the better) because of her talents and abilities. She just doesn’t know how deep that rabbit hole goes, or how far from the ideal everything has fallen. Sorry. Just realized I didn’t flesh that out well enough. Maybe I still haven’t.
    Must get to my own bloggage.

  5. I have three of your books, Crafting Unforgettable Characters, Structuring Your Novel, and Outlining Your Novel.

    Are the comments that you are making here in this series contained in either of these books?

    I’m thinking of printing these lessons as they come in.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      They all touch on character arcs, but not directly. I do plan to collect all these articles in book form eventually, but it probably won’t be for a couple years yet.

  6. Excellent start! Despite this arc being called flat, you explain it quite dynamically. I think it’s great that you go into how the positive and flat arc can crossover in specific cases. I’m wondering, are there as many “stages” in the flat arc as the positive arc? Although a flat arc still has possibilities I reasoned that it would trim/skip over stages of a positive arc since the character already has the truth. Also, how many significant variations of flat structure are there if it crosses over with a positive arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would argue that the flat arc is easily the simplest of the arcs, because, as you say, the protagonist remains basically static. The complicated aspects of the flat arc are actually just the positive change arc as reflected in the supporting characters who are being changed by the protagonist’s Truth. This why we started with the positive change arc. Once you understand how to implement a positive change arc, not only do you understand the basic principles of all the character arcs, but you understand how to fill in the blanks in a story that is built around a flat arc.

  7. A wonderful post, one that validates a style I’m fond of.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Flat arcs can be tremendously powerful. Many of the most memorable books and movies follow this arc.

  8. Thank you. That was a great way of explaining the flat and positive arc correlation more clearly and I look forward to seeing the next post in this series.

  9. Before I read this I never thought that negative arc is popular. I’m still a bit confused though. All that my character did is to make sure that justice is served. But he’s doing it for the wrong reason, and this is not some kind of personal flaws. Everyone lied about tragedy that happened in the past that affect him deeply and made him the way he is now, obsess about justice being served. Before the inciting incident, he’s fighting the wrong enemy because he didn’t know the real story behind the tragedy. So, this is a flat arc, right? He knows justice needs to be served, this is the truth. But he’s doing it for the wrong reason at first. Please help, thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If he overcomes the wrong reason in the course the story, then he’s following a positive change arc. If he continues to do even the right things for the wrong reasons throughout the story, he may well be following a negative arc (which I’ll be discussing in another series next month).

      • So are the flaws in a flat character arc less emphasized than a positive change arc?

        For example, I want my impact character to have a flat arc, but he also has a flaw that makes him and his love interest clash.

        My impact character already has the truth figured out that the protagonist will learn through his transformation.

  10. Thanks so much! This was actually super exciting. For a while, I’ve been looking back at the first book I wrote and wondering about it because (while I think it has a lot of good points) my MC just doesn’t have a very drastic character arc. As you mentioned near the beginning of the post, she does change a lot by the end–coming to a much greater fullness and a deeper sense of reality–and she does guide/change others by her influence, but it was all much more external events she had to combat than inner struggles. I’m now thinking the whole thing might actually be a flat arc…and it’s making so much more sense! And I’m feeling so much better about it! 😉 Thank you again!

    *And now I’m off to go keep trying to actually pin down on paper my current protagonist’s positive change arc. Whew! :-)*

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I always tell writers to trust their guts. When your gut is insisting your story works, even when it doesn’t quite line up with what you think is common wisdom, chances are good you’re gut is right. It’s just a matter of eventually broadening your knowledge to figure out *how* your gut is right.

      • thomas h cullen says

        I concur. This relates to what you told me, about our innately possessing the ability to structure a story.

  11. I think you’ve solved the problem I’ve been struggling with for a couple months. I have a well-adjusted, positive character in the first two books of my series who will be the hero of the third book. My original story plan didn’t work out when I started researching it so I’ve been floundering, trying to come up with another problem for him. But he’s so good, so optimistic and confident in himself. Nothing felt right. THIS feels right. He knows the Truth already and can use it to battle the lies around him. Thank you!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Knowing the Truth doesn’t at a mean a character is perfect or has everything figured out. He should still be a flawed and struggling human. But, in a flat arc, the crux is that the protagonist already understands the *central* Truth of the story.

      • Yes, I understand that. It’s just that everything I tried required him to change who he already is. I can see him struggling with things, but he knows the Truth. That’s what has been my problem–trying to make him believe a lie when he already knows the Truth.

  12. Hi K.M, so the flat character changes the world while the positive character is changed by the world. Is that a good way to put it?

  13. This post is real food for thought. I’ve been hammering away at my WIP under the assumption that both of my potential protagonists HAD TO HAVE change arcs. Now I’m thinking that one or both are possibly in flat arcs, and this is great guidance on how to organize that.

    Given that I’m writing historical fiction, I suspect both my protagonist AND story arc will end up being the one that most closely mirrors the historical facts.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      We’ll often find characters with strong change arcs living side by side with characters with strong flat arcs. Most of my examples here are stories that feature prominent characters with change arcs that exemplify the protagonist’s ability to affect the world around him.

  14. Declan Brannigan says

    Hi Katie, you’ve made made me unsure now of whether my character should have a flat arc or a positive one. The premise is, as a child, his mother is killed during a terrorist attack. When he becomes older, having let his desire for revenge grow inside him, he joins the military to try and exact his revenge.

    Now, this would be straightforward enough, but during his attempts to gain revenge (I should meantion that this is a sci-fi adventure, and so he’s on another planet when he fights them), an ‘alien’ race arrives, themselves driven by revenge. So he has to now protect his people by fighting this new threat, and abandon his pursuit for revenge.

    So, what I’m asking is, does this sound more like a flat character, or not?

    BTW, love your articles, they’re a big help!!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Based just on what you’ve said here, this sounds like a classic opportunity for a change arc. When both the protagonist and the antagonist(ic force) are driven or deluded by the same Lie, it can create some excellent opportunities for great thematic depth. The protagonist overcomes the Lie and evolves into the Truth, while the antagonist follows a negative change arc and is destroyed by the Lie.

    • “So he has to now protect his people by fighting this new threat, and abandon his pursuit for revenge.”

      The Thing He Wants is revenge, and the Thing He Needs is to protect people?

      The Lie is “an eye for an eye” and the Truth is “pick your battles”?

      What happens when he’s done defeating the aliens? Will he go back to pursuing revenge? If not, why not?

  15. Hi K.M.,

    I am reading your structure book. It and this site are fantastic resources to me, and have renewed my faith that it is possible to communicate key concepts in clear and practical terms. Thank you for putting them out there!

    I have read some of your character arc posts and am trying to wrap my mind around and more importantly apply the concepts.

    You define 3 basic types of character arcs: change, flat, and negative.

    My current focus is on “monster” stories, and in many of them it seems there are no arcs at all, at least not in the sense of an internally generated change arc that arises due to “the lie the character believes”. The character is going about their business living their normal life and then due to no fault of their a monster appears and mucks everything up.

    A few examples of the stories I am thinking of are Alien, Predator, The Thing, The Terminator. Obviously these are in the horror/action genre and not deep character studies, but IMHO they are all entertaining well-crafted stories, with interesting story lines but also interesting (if not deep) characters.

    In The Terminator, Sarah certainly arcs, transforming from a waitress to a Terminator killer, but no in the sense of”the lie the character believes”. The only lie that I can see is her mistaken belief that there are no monsters in the world! And *all* of the characters in the above stories share this lie.

    I was thinking that the protagonists in these stories might simply have a flat arc, until I read your point: “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.” At which point, I was lost again. I just don’t get how that applies, for example, to MacReady in The Thing. He doesn’t arc. He fights and overcomes the monster and that seems to be it. I don’t get what “truth” he used to help him defeat the monster.

    In reading your posts re: character, it seems the implication is that these principals are foundational and that *all* well-crafted stories will follow them. But the stories above don’t seem to be following them, so what am I missing? Could you please clarify?

    Thanks KM, I sincerely appreciate any light you could shed on this. I really want to understand! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Actually, you *do* already understand it! Many flat arcs take place in a much less defined world than what I’m discussing here. Sometimes the the “Lie” is more a surface, plot-based element, such as Sarah Connor’s original disbelief in monsters or most action heroes belief in their righteousness and the bad guys’ evilness.

      But there’s usually also a deeper, more “spiritual” Lie at work under the surface, even when it’s not plainly visible. For example, in Jurassic Park (which also features change-arc subplot for Dr. Grant), the basic Lie of the world is that humanity can control nature, which, of course, Drs. Grant, Sadler, and Malcolm all know at the beginning of the story.

      Not all flat arc stories (or change arcs, for that matter) will explicitly state a deep theme, but there’s almost always some Lie/Truth principle at work, even in stories that seem spiritually shallow on the surface. For instance, I haven’t seen the original Terminator, so I couldn’t say for sure, but I have a feeling there’s probably a deeper principle we could identify there as well.

  16. Interesting post! I’m new to all these whole story structure, and your site is very helpful. Regarding to this flat-arc, what if my character has gone from good to bad to good again?

  17. I’ve devoured your entire series! And now I’ve gone back and used them methodically to develop my characters and my WIP. But my antagonist is giving me problems. I thought I’d figured out that he had a Flat Character Arc, but on reading this post, I find myself with more questions.

    You say in the post that the Flat Character already knows the Truth. Does this Truth have to be the same Truth as the protagonist’s Truth? In other words, is there one story Truth I’m working with?

    If my antagonist believes a Lie, that would mean he would have a Change arc instead, right? That Lie doesn’t have to be the same as the protagonist’s Lie, though, does it?

    Thank you so much for this series! I just might get this story straight this time!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The antagonist’s Truth can be a different aspect of the protagonist’s Truth. For example, the protagonist might come to believe family is the most important thing. The antagonist could easily believe this as well – but wield his Truth a destructive way (a la The Godfather).

      On the other hand, if the antagonist starts out believing a Lie, then he could well be following a negative change arc.

      • Thanks for the quick response! Great example. I better get clearer on what my antagonist’s Lie is so I can figure this out. That’s probably part of the problem, huh? Thanks so much!

      • “On the other hand, if the antagonist starts out believing a Lie, then he could well be following a negative change arc.”

        Wait, did you get that right? Negative is from Truth to Lie. Unless you’re the antagonist? Are you saying that an antagonist who starts with the Truth and ends in a Lie is following a positive arc?

  18. “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.

    • I kinda like the idea of the Mass Effect Trilogy.

      The entire galaxy doesn’t want to work with each other or believe there is an existential threat to it, despite Shepard’s warning, and even after the Reapers do arrive, they still don’t want to forget old wounds – forcing Shepard to do all the work to unify the galaxy, something they knew from the very first game.

  19. 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.

  20. Lorna G. Poston says

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

  21. 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!


  22. 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.

  23. 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).

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

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

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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?

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

    • 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.

  35. Thank you for sharing all of the character arc information. I love your book on character arcs and your blog. I feel flat arcs are difficult to capture because I must keep the character ‘true’ to their truth and yet create opportunity for their growth. Would you say the growth could be both positive and negative for a flat arc? How do I show the reader the character is staying true to their truth but at the same time?
    I have a male protagonist following a Disillusionment Arc and a female protagonist following a Flat Arc (who must hold to her truth or the male protagonist will falter).
    So far I have her acting on her truth after the midpoint when she discovers the man she loves is suffering from a healing neither of them can explain.
    All she knows is that the healing event coincides with the original formation of the tectonic plates hidden in the ocean. But he resists her attempts to help him and instead pursues a technology he feels will prevent the healing from killing him.
    Any advice is appreciated!

  36. Hi, Ma’am. Do you have a plan to make a post about analyzing Toy Story 4 structure?

  37. I have been curious about stories where I thought there was no character arc because there is not much character development, especially from one installment to the next (for example, James Bond, Dirk Pitt, Hercule Poirot, and Sherlock Holmes). Are those characters just undergoing a flat arc in each episode of the series? Or is there truly a type of story with no character arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Often, there’s at least a nominal Flat Arc in the sense that the character is enforcing a Truth of “justice” or some like. But it’s often pretty thin on a character level.

  38. christiestar74 says

    Do you think that Veronica Sawyer is a flat character arc or a positive one? What about Alice in wonderland?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Trying to remember… Veronica may have been a Disillusionment Arc. Alice in Wonderland–depends on the version. I’m familiar enough with the original to say. In the Tim Burton adaptation, she was probably a Positive Arc.

  39. christiestar74 says

    What kind of character would you say Harry Potter has?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Predominantly Flat Arc, I’d say, although he undergoes various smaller arcs over the course of the series.

  40. I have a question about Batman Begins. I have read the Dramatica story theory and it posits that every story has a Main Character and an Influence Character, and that one of them must change his point of view while the other remains steadfast. I also thought that Bruce remained steadfast in the movie because he wasn’t willing to kill but Dramatica story theory appoints Ra’s al Ghul as the Influence Character even though he also remains steadfast until he dies. So who is the Influence Character in the movie ?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Usually, if the protagonist is steadfast, the protagonist is also the Impact Character. In this instance, there isn’t a blatant Change-Arc character, but I would say that, really, it is Gotham which Bruce changes.

  41. Dramatica story theory and posits that every story has a Main Character and an Influence Character, and that one of them must change his point of view while the other remains steadfast. I also thought that Bruce Wayne remains steadfast in the movie because he is not willing to kill but Dramatica story theory appoints Ra’s al Ghul as the Influence Character even though he also remains steadfast until he dies. So who is the Influence Character in the movie ?
    Thanks in advance for your answer, i really appreciate it!

  42. How does the Climatic Moment work when using the Flat Arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Structurally, it works the same in all stories–as the deciding point in the conflict to determine whether or not the protagonist will gain the plot goal. Within character arc, the roles of the protagonist and supporting characters are flipped–and it is the supporting character(s) who will finally prove their inner change, thanks to the Flat protagonist’s impact.

  43. Jessica Arroyo says

    Do you think that Harry Potter is a flat character arc and what about legally blonde?

    • Both are positive arcs – Harry knows nothing about wizards at the beginning and Elle knows nothing about law. Both go to the new world, face challenges, and triumph over adversity (beat Voldemort, prove Callaghan wrong and win the case). They’re Hero’s Journey stories.

      A flat arc example is Princess Leia in Star Wars. Both in the originals and the Disney films she never changes: she starts as a Rebel leader and ends as a Rebel leader. She is a catalyst for change in others thought. She helps change Han and Luke into heroes. Her beliefs are tested, like when she’s captured by Vader. So it’s a flat or testing arc in that the truth is challenged but held firm.


  1. […] A flat character arc offers the opportunity for you to create a competent, committed protagonist who can transform the world around him.  […]

  2. […] better way is through a flat character arc – an arc in which, rather than the character undergoing change from the influence of the world […]

  3. […] K.M. Weiland has an excellent three-part series on how to structure flat-character-arc stories: Act One, Act Two, and Act […]

  4. […] a flat character arc story, our protagonist would know a truth that could be simplified into a high-level theme (Hard work […]

  5. […] the character changes the world rather than the world changing them, and that’s called a flat arc, but even these characters should be challenged in their viewpoints during the story.)  A story […]

  6. […] some stories, our characters might go through a flat arc (where they don’t change) or a negative arc (where they don’t get a happy ending). […]

  7. […] process that works for someone who wants write plot-focused stories with flat character arcs and lives on their own with no kids underfoot is likely to be very different from the process that […]

  8. […] 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 […]

  9. […] 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 […]

  10. […] 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. […]

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

  12. […] story follows a ‘Flat Character Arc;’ a concept he cites from K.M Weiland’s books about story/character construction. To summarize, Flat Arc characters remain the same in their beliefs and direction, experiencing […]

  13. […] Original article: The Flat Arc […]

  14. […] through all the “look at the gritty political details” parts.) Geralt was given a flat character arc, which I thought was handled quite well. He doesn’t change substantially, but events […]

  15. […] [14] Weiland, KM. “How to Write a Flat Character Arc, Pt. 1: The First Act.” Helping Writers Become June 8, 2014. ​ […]

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