Flat Character Arcs: What Are They and How To Write Them

A character arc can take on many forms within a story. It could be positive, tracking a character’s progress towards becoming a better person, or negative, where they become more morally corrupt throughout the narrative. 

However, it’s also possible to have flat character arcs, where by the end of the story the character hasn’t undergone a change.

What are flat character arcs?

A character with a flat arc doesn’t change throughout the course of a narrative. They often hold an inner truth from the very beginning and their experiences throughout the story don’t lead them to alter their character motivations.

Flat arcs are most commonly found in thrillers and action stories. Protagonists of these stories tend to have their motivations well-established from the beginning, with no need to stray until the conclusion because the narrative provides enough excitement to keep a reader engaged.

It’s important to note that a flat arc character isn’t the same as a flat character. Characters with flat arcs can still be well-developed, nuanced, and with rich backstories that colour their personality and behaviour. Flat characters are 

A long straight road lined by trees disappears into the horizon.

Why use flat character arcs?

So if positive and negative character arcs exist, giving characters room to grow and change by the end of the story, why include flat character arcs? 

It’s important to be aware of what genre you’re writing in, as flat arcs are most common for action and thriller stories. This allows the plot beats to hook the reader without character development and changes becoming distracting or feeling out of place.

Even in other genres, not every character needs to experience a change. For example, flat arcs can work well with supporting characters who might challenge or support the change undergone by a central protagonist.

Disadvantages of flat character arcs

While flat arcs are perfectly fine to use in a story, there are some disadvantages. 

Less engaging for the reader

The most significant is how a lack of change in the central protagonist can come across as unrewarding or uninteresting to readers. They might get to the end of the novel, realise the character hasn’t changed at all, and wonder what was the point. 

If there has been no evolution, and all the events of the narrative have had no impact on them, then it may feel like a waste of time reading their story.

More difficult to create well-developed characters

If you work positive or negative character arcs into your story, you give yourself a clear direction with which to develop your character.

With a flat arc, it’s easy to forget about character development. As a writer, you have to be careful that the lack of change doesn’t lead to a one-dimensional character.

A batterang lodged into a wooden wall.

Flat character arc examples

While more transformational character arcs can be very memorable, there are also many examples of flat arcs, including with well-known characters:

  • Batman – As with many superheroes, the caped crusader is often given a flat character arc in many of the comics, TV shows, and films that he features in. As an established crime fighter, his motivations are usually unwavering and any changes aren’t necessary to make an exciting story. There are exceptions, however, with many origin stories (such as Matt Reeve’s 2022 film Batman) showing Bruce Wayne learning and having the experiences that form a new outlook and ideology required to be the Batman.
  • James Bond – The famous spy is much like a superhero in that he rarely undergoes a transformational arc in the films and novels that he features. Despite all the challenges he faces and the enemies he has to defeat, there is rarely any personal change to his character. The exception is in Casino Royale, which as a pseudo-origin story shows him gradually becoming the more cold-hearted, world-weary killer he’s known to be.
  • Llewyn Davis – The titular protagonist of Inside Llewyn Davis is a perfect example of a flat character arc. The film starts and ends with him in the same place, struggling to make ends meet in his music career. Despite what happens during the rest of the narrative, he isn’t able to break free of his situation and experiences no change that pushes him in a different direction.

How to write flat character arcs

Writing flat character arcs depends on what type of story you want to tell and other aspects such as your main theme.

  • 1. Decide if a flat arc is suitable

    Different character arcs can work well work for different stories. As already discussed, flat arcs are most commonly found in genres such as thriller, but there are others too.

    You should consider how the plot of your story could influence change in a character. It may be natural that your protagonist follows a positive or negative arc due to what they experience, but there’s no need to shoehorn in a transformation if it doesn’t make sense.

  • 2. Understand your character’s purpose

    Your main character shouldn’t be passive within the narrative and they should have a purpose, as should any supporting character.

    If you know their purpose, then you can better understand how their arc should play out. If you want to present a stoic hero, their purpose may be to remain resolved and uphold their virtues in a world that throws countless challenges their way. 

    They might feel defeated at points in the story, but by the end if they overcome those obstacles they will have upheld those beliefs they had at the beginning, thus following a flat arc.

  • 3. Know the point of your story

    The story, or more specifically the plot, will influence what type of arc is needed for your main protagonist. Define the goal of your story and that will help with deciding how a flat arc will play out.

    Identify what the plot is and distill it to just a few core elements. Then decide how this impacts your character’s motivation and inner truth, and how it might create challenges for them. Finally, focus on how the conclusion of the story also brings the character’s arc to a close.

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Flat character arc FAQs

Do flat arcs mean characters aren’t developed?

Characters with flat arcs don’t have to be undeveloped. It is possible to write complex characters who don’t change throughout the course of a narrative.

A rich, multi-layered backstory can be established early on. A clear inner truth and motivation can be laid out to make clear the reason for their actions. Character development is necessary for an interesting story, but you can achieve this with a flat character arc.

Are flat character arcs boring for readers?

When major pop culture icons like Indiana Jones and James Bond have flat character arcs, it’s clear that these arcs aren’t boring for readers and viewers. A story can be exciting even if the main protagonist doesn’t change.

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