A flat character arc is a less-common arc used in literary fiction and nonfiction, as well as movies and TV shows. While dynamic character arcs are compelling in their dramatic change, shift, or focus, flat character arcs can be equally powerful when used well.
The term flat character arc can be used interchangeably with the term static character arc. You may be used to crafting dynamic characters with big changes, so let’s dive into flat character arcs and how you can use them to write a compelling story. In this article we discuss:
- What Is A Flat Character Arc?
- When To Write A Flat Character Arc?
- How To Write A Flat Character Arc?
- Examples Of Characters With Flat Arcs
Remember, good writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, uses a myriad of tools to communicate to readers. Just as it’s difficult to portray a truly heroic protagonist without a truly evil villain, without flat characters, it’s difficult to show the dichotomy of dynamic characters.
What Is A Flat Character Arc?
The definition of a flat character arc is a bit dependent on who defines it.
- The Novel Smithy defines them as, “Flat arcs are still character arcs, but instead of growing and changing as a character, flat arc characters stay the same. Instead, their journey is about learning to uphold their inner truth in a world that doesn’t accept it, allowing them to overcome the external conflict along the way.”
- Studio Binder defines them as, “Flat characters, often called stock characters, never deviate from their rather simple traits. They are the opposite of ‘round characters’ who have complex personalities and change throughout the course of a story. Flat characters are often used to support main characters in a story.”
- Literary Devices defines them as, “A flat character is a type of character in fiction that does not change too much from the start of the narrative to its end.”
- Master Class says, “A flat arc is a much less common form of character arc that can mostly be found in action and thriller stories.”
Regardless of your exact definition for a flat character arc, this specific arc can be just as compelling as a dynamic character arc. Sometimes it is more difficult for a character to hold true to who they are in difficult circumstances than it is to give in to change. Of course, the arc you give your character is largely dependent on your story’s plot and the goal of your protagonist.
For nonfiction, keep the above definitions in mind. If you are writing your memoir, consider what your personal journey has been and what type of arc best demonstrates it. If you’re writing a self-help book or an educational book, the basics of character arc can still be applied to the examples you use and the goals you have for your readers.
What is the message of your book? Do you want readers to walk away changed (dynamic character arc) or stand strong in who they were when they first started your book (flat character arc)?
When To Write A Flat Character Arc?
When to write a character arc depends on the message of your story. If you write fiction, a good place to start is with your protagonist. Do you want him to change by the end of the story, or be the same person as he was on page one? A flat character arc does not mean there is no growth. Sometimes it takes more strength to stay the same than it does to change, especially in difficult circumstances.
If you write fiction, consider the power a flat character arc may have on your protagonist if he has a dynamic character arc. Sometimes the most powerful way to demonstrate change is by showing a lack of change in another character. This dichotomy acts as a mirror, revealing the opposite in a secondary character and shining a spotlight on the dramatic change of your protagonist.
For nonfiction, the same is true. If you write a self-help book, consider using varying examples of character arcs, flat and dynamic, to demonstrate the positives and negatives of your message. If you write a book on how to be financially independent, consider demonstrating the power of staying within your budget even when surrounded by people who do not.
A flat character arc does not need to be any less inspiring than a dynamic character arc. However, a flat character arc can also be used to demonstrate the effects when someone refuses to change even when it is clearly the best choice.
If you write fiction with a theme of redemption, consider incorporating a flat character arc to show the negative effects of not accepting redemption. For nonfiction with a particular theme, consider demonstrating the repercussions of your theme by sharing an example or story of someone who refuses to change. Flat character arcs can be both compelling, revealing, and a combination of the two.
How To Write A Flat Character Arc?
How you write a flat character arc depends on the character you write it for, as well as your genre and the theme of your book. But now that you have a general understanding of what a flat character arc is, it’s time to determine exactly how to write this particular arc.
Step One: Know Your Genre And Theme
When writing your flat character arc it’s essential to know the rules by which you are playing. A fantasy with a theme of forgiveness will have a much different character arc than a historical fiction with a theme of resilience. Before crafting your characters, make sure you have a healthy understanding of the genre you write, as well as the theme you are aiming for. Writing a flat character looks much different in young adult dystopia than it does in middle-grade fiction.
Step Two: Know Your Character’s Purpose
The purpose driving your character directly impacts his or her character arc. The better you know your character’s purpose (whether protagonist or supporting), the more realistically you can tie it into their character arc.
For example, let’s say you write historical fiction. Your character is a prisoner of war, struggling to survive and maintain their moral code in the midst of desperate circumstances. This is their purpose. Knowing that you want to make them a flat or static (unchanging) character will allow you to lean into their purpose and align it with their arc. If he is eventually freed, having maintained his moral code for the entirety of his time as a prisoner of war, how much stronger will this character be? In this way, sometimes a character’s flat arc shows more than a dynamic arc could.
Step Three: Know Your Story Goal
Your story goal will drive your protagonist’s arc, so it’s important to have a firm grasp of it. Distill your story goal into a simple phrase that concisely covers the core theme (if you’ve written an elevator pitch before, follow this format). The more simply you can define your story goal, the easier it will be to use it to influence your character’s flat arc. Ask yourself:
- What is the overall plot?
- Why does it matter to the character?
- How does the goal influence my character’s arc?
Knowing your goal and distilling it into a simple statement will make writing that much easier.
Examples Of Characters With Flat Arcs
Sometimes it’s helpful to have a list of concrete examples to draw from. Whether it’s in the genre you write and helps you specifically, or gives you ideas from movies and TV shows to cross over into your genre, examples can give a specific foundation and help you build with your own creativity. It’s helpful to have something to draw on from writers who have gone before.
Diana from Wonder Woman is considered a character with a flat arc because, from beginning to end, she is firmly rooted in her conviction that “only love will truly save the world.” Her belief influences soldier Steve Trevor and even brings an end to World War I.
To continue with the superhero example, Steve Rogers from Marvel’s Captain America is also considered a flat character. Cinema Debate says,
“A flat character arc is used for a protagonist that knows the truth about himself from the start; there is no arc to find himself for better or worse. Instead, this character can change the world around them…For Marvel, Captain America holds this status. No matter the consequence, no matter the sacrifice needed, Steve Rogers always does what is right. His morals, ethics and outlook does not change or bend with circumstances.”
If you’ve read Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice, you likely have a love-hate relationship with the protagonist’s cousin, Mr. Collins. Conceited, concerned with appearances, and desperately desirous of a wife, Mr. Collins vainly pursues the female characters in the novel until one settles to marry him. His goal to “select a wife” remains throughout, and once married, he simply settles down, satisfied.
Sherlock Holmes from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is another classic literary example. Holmes is smart, witty, and drives the plot forward with his genius. He does little growing or changing but simply reveals more of who he is through every crime he solves.
J. R. R. Tolkien’s Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings is a wizard who offers sage advice, acts for the good of Middle-Earth, and fights for what he believes in. He is a mentor for the protagonist and a guide for the band of friends traveling to Mordor to destroy the one ring and defeat Sauron for good. While Gandalf does go from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White, his character remains the same throughout.
The Power Of Flat Characters
We all want to stay true to our convictions, beliefs, moral code, and the parts that make up the best of us. That said, just as we try to make our characters human, we are human and often fail to remain strong at times. Flat character arcs are powerful because they demonstrate the ability to remain true even under great suffering, difficult circumstances, peer pressure, or other negative circumstances that affect your protagonist.
While it may seem that dynamic characters get the most page or screen time, when researching in a little more depth, flat characters are just as powerful. Gandalf would not be Gandalf if he was not the steady, wise companion he was. Captain America would not be Captain America if he bent under his convictions when the stress got too high.
As you write your next character, consider creating their arc as a flat arc rather than a dynamic one––it may be more dynamic than you realize. Take your time, do your research and then give it your best. It’s worth it!