Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Understanding The Flat Arc (Because Sometimes Your Characters Don't HAVE To Change)

I'd like to start this entry off with a bit of good news. I recently put out my first novel! Crier's Knife is a sword and sorcery tale, with all the flashing blades and fell magic you'd expect from something in the genre. Our protagonist is Dirk Crier, a mountain boy from a witchbred clan, and one day his grandmother sets him the task of fetching his cousin Teller. Teller has a knack for getting into trouble, but this time he's up to his neck in real darkness; the kind you don't walk out of without leaving a little blood behind you. So Dirk rides out to either bring Teller home, or to make sure his kin has plenty of company on the long road to hell.

Seriously, the first few chapters are free, go read them!
One of the questions people keep asking me about this book is who is my protagonist, and what's his arc? Well, Dirk is a member of the Crier clan who, left to his own devices, would be happy building himself a cabin on the slopes of Ben Morgh to live a fairly quiet life. But when trouble rears its head, it's his job to put it back down again. In short, he's the family's enforcer, and the nasty work tends to end up in his lap.

As to his arc, that got me wondering. Because, you see, most folks only know about the two major types of character arcs; positive character arcs (where a character confronts and overcomes a flaw or fear to succeed and become better) and negative arcs (where a character fails to overcome a flaw or fear, and hurts themselves or others in the process).

There is a third kind of character arc, though, according to Well-Storied; the flat arc. In a flat arc a character's morals and beliefs are challenged, but they hold true to who they are and overcome.

That is a perfect description of Dirk, and the arc he has in Crier's Knife.

"Flat" Is Not Synonymous With "Bad"

Now, there's a big difference between a character being flat, and that character having a flat arc. Because flat characters are dull, boring, and one-dimensional. Characters with flat arcs, on the other hand, are some of the most famous and lauded personas in literature.

Like this guy, for example.
At his core, Batman is a character with hundreds (if not thousands) of flat arc stories. Sherlock Holmes is another character with a lot of flat arcs (this condition is particularly common among detectives and serialized characters, if you keep track). The same can be said of characters like Conan, or Solomon Kane. Sam Spade, Hawk, and even Captain America find themselves with a lot of flat arcs, as well.

Because, you see, these characters already have The Truth figured out, when it comes to their worlds and stories. They don't need to climb a mountain to talk to a sensei, to uncover their inner strength, or to learn lessons to overcome a challenge. They know what to do, and they do it. So, as readers, we get the satisfaction of fast-forwarding to what many consider the "good part" of a positive story arc. The part when the protagonist has learned their lesson, overcome their flaw, and is ready to rock and roll.

(Also, to head off any quibbles here, characters who are serialized will have different arcs in different stories. It's true that character like Batman have had positive arcs and negative arcs throughout their runs, and those story lines tend to be the memorable ones. By and large, though, the bulk of their story lines are flat arcs, with the exceptions sort of proving the rule.)

There's Nothing Wrong With Holding Steady

I will admit that flat arcs tend to be some of my favorite stories. While I understand the appeal of a positive arc (because personal growth and change to overcome obstacles is motivating and engaging) as well as a negative arc (because, as I've stated in the past, I'm a great lover of the "fuck you" ending), I find that a flat arc is often the most useful for when you already want your character to know who they are, and to have their world figured out. And since flat arc stories tend to create conflicts that fall into the No, You Move category, they can be fun and compelling without the need to do a lot of navel gazing that may not be necessary for your story.

This quote is basically a summation of the flat arc conflict.
So the next time you're writing, remember that it isn't either self-discovery and success, or crashing and burning because you didn't overcome. Sometimes your character just looks at the world, plants their feet, and says, "Bring it on."

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post! Hopefully it engaged some folks out there, and if you're curious what an engaging flat arc would look like stop on in and read the first few chapters of Crier's Knife for free!

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