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Why Your Story Needs Flat Character Arcs

By Chris Babcock, Student Contributor

If you’ve ever read The Lord of the Rings, imagine a Sam Gamgee who starts out selfish, petty, and cowardly. Then, over the course of the trilogy, he becomes self-sacrificing, noble, and courageous.

It’s hard to envision, right? And honestly, it makes Sam Gamgee less likable. He just wouldn’t be Sam if he didn’t start out with an intrinsic loyalty and childlike faith. His flat arc makes him a wonderful foil for Frodo’s tragic negative arc.

But aren’t flat arcs inherently bad?

Actually, no.

A flat character arc is not the same thing as a flat character.

A flat character is like a piece of cardboard—dimensionless, colorless, and leaving a bad taste in your mouth. Flat characters generally have one or two quirks or stereotypes that are subbed in for an actual personality. This is why so many people hate Jar-Jar Binks from the Star Wars prequels.

A flat arc, on the other hand, is something entirely different.

K.M. Weiland defines character arcs based upon the idea of a central “Truth” that a character must accept and a “Lie” that they must reject. If they are the main character, the plot and theme will revolve around this Truth and Lie. In the One Year Adventure Novel framework, the midpoint (Chapters 6 and 7) is normally defined by an embrace of the Truth, followed by a devastating reversion to the Lie (or the overwhelming feeling that the Lie is true) during the Black Moment of Chapter 9. In Chapters 10 and 11, the main character fully embraces the Truth and thus defeats the villain who is still chained by some version of the Lie.

In a negative arc, this progression is reversed and the climax involves a total and shattering embrace of the Lie.

In a flat arc, however, the character has already recognized the Lie for what it is and embraced their Truth. This does not mean that they have ceased growing. Sam Gamgee continues to become more brave and loyal throughout The Lord of the Rings. But Sam is growing into qualities that he already possesses, rather than waging an internal battle with an ugly side of himself. Sam’s flat arc is a beacon of hope because he refuses to be swallowed by the waves of despair that often wash over the rest of the cast. Similarly, Aragorn is an example of what it means to be a real leader and a virtuous man, and his stable influence helps Merry and Pippin become brave young Hobbits.

The trick, however, is to avoid turning your flat arc character into a propaganda mouthpiece. The reader should never feel that they are being preached at.

Additionally, a flat arc doesn’t mean that the character is perfect. By book 2 of The Hunger Games trilogy, the mentor Haymitch has already overcome his despair (the Lie) and embraced the fight against the injustice of the Capitol (the Truth). However, he still struggles with an alcohol addiction. His ability to guide Katniss and Peeta does not make him a perfect role model.

Another pitfall is settling for a specific flat arc trope that I call the “Man of Steel.” Western storytelling has an infatuation with invincible main characters who are invariably white, male, and muscular.

While films such as Bourne, Mission Impossible, and Die Hard can be fun (and are masterpieces in some respects), eventually the main characters all blend together. Such heroes are unmemorable because rather than having reached the story’s internal Truth, they reflect the external Lie perpetuated by Hollywood: that individualism is the highest good. Such stories are not ultimately about Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt—they are about the North American ideal of strong, attractive men who don’t need other people. Plus lots of gunfire and explosions and a bit of romance to spice things up.

Your characters can do better. I believe in you! If you decide to write a character with a flat arc—and I recommend you have at least one—she should add depth and meaning to the story. Show how she has wrestled with the Lie and overcome it. Show the unique way that she views the Truth. Let her still mess up sometimes. And let her Truth—no matter how messy—be a beacon for the other characters and for the reader.

If done right, flat character arcs will make your story more real. Because no matter how dark the world can be, there will always be brave souls who have overcome it. As Samwise Gamgee puts it: “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”


Do you have a favorite character who has a flat arc?


About Chris

Chris grew up in a sleepy nuclear reactor town in northern Ontario but moved to Africa with his family at the age of 9. Since then he has visited 26 countries on 4 continents, which provides him with endless fodder for his imagination as he creates new worlds in his head. He’s currently writing a near-future heist novel, and he loves reading and writing stories that deal with difficult topics while also portraying truth.

You can connect with him on instagram (@chrisbabcockwrites) or by email (

If you think it must be awkward for him to write about himself in third person—he thinks so too.

* Please note that links on The One Year Adventure Novel Blog to other websites and blogs do not constitute an official endorsement. We are not intimately familiar with all the writing and opinions contained in outside links.

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