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Monday, May 3, 2021

Principles of the Steadfast, Flat-arc Protagonist

Last week I debunked six myths about the steadfast (also known as the flat-arc) character. Now, I would like to share some of the basic principles of writing a positive steadfast protagonist. 

Steadfast/flat-arc characters are characters who don't drastically change their worldviews over the course of the story. In contrast, a change character will do largely a 180 flip in worldview from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. 

For example, in Wonder Woman, Diana begins the story with the perspective that we should fight for the world we believe in. At the end of the story, she proves that true by using it to defeat the antagonist (this helps make up the story's theme). But in Frozen, Elsa begins the story with the worldview that one must be closed off to be safe and authentic. Because of the story, she learns that, actually, we must be open to be loved authentically (that might mean we get hurt, but some love is worth the hurt). This enables her to set things right, which proves that perspective true (and helps make up the story's theme).

Both flat-arc characters and change characters have negative versions: a character who remains steadfast to an inaccurate worldview and suffers punishment for it, and a character who changes from a true worldview to an inaccurate one and suffers punishment for it. Negative versions of each type are harder to find, but not nonexistent. 

Almost all protagonists are positive change-arc protagonists. This means that almost all writing resources help writers write positive change-arc protagonists. This also means there are very few resources to help writers write steadfast protagonists.

You often can't apply change-arc advice to steadfast characters. It doesn't work.

Luckily, whichever protagonist type you're writing, each story actually has pretty much the same structural pieces--they're just arranged differently. Some are reversed while others receive more emphasis.

Today I'm going to explain how these pieces are different for a positive steadfast protagonist story, in comparison to the common positive change protagonist story. 

This is a little like being left-handed in a right-handed world. That's it--the steadfast protagonists are the lefties of the storytelling world. 

First, I would like to acknowledge those in the industry who have helped me understand the flat-arc protagonist and therefore influenced this post. If you want to learn more about this protagonist, check out these resources:

K. M. Weiland's Character Arc Series (Katie is amazing and this is honestly the best resource I've found so far on flat-arc characters.)

Character Arcs by Jordan McCollum (This book has a brief section on the flat arc.)

"Character Arcs 102: Flat Arcs" at The Novel Smithy (Lewis succinctly breaks down the flat-arc protagonist's three-act structure.)

Dramatica Theory (I already mentioned last week how Dramatica uses the term "steadfast" instead of "flat arc")

Writing Characters Without Character Arcs by Just Write (Youtube video)

I'll also be doing more posts on this protagonist type in the future.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Debunking 6 Myths about Steadfast, Flat-arc Characters

Steadfast/flat-arc characters are characters who don't drastically change their worldviews over the course of the story. In contrast, a change character will do largely a 180 flip in worldview from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. 

For example, in the fable of the Little Red Hen, the Little Red Hen never changes her worldview about hard work. But in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge completely changes his worldview from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. 

In the writing community, there are a lot of misconceptions of the steadfast/flat-arc character (at least from my experience), which I'm going to talk about, debunk, and clarify today in this article. This information will still be useful to writers who have no interest in writing a steadfast protagonist--because nearly every successful story features a key character who is steadfast.

First, though, we need to visit our familiar pit stop on writing terminology. The most common term for this character is the "flat-arc" character. But it is not the only term. This character has also been called the "steadfast" character, which is what Dramatica Theory calls it. While "flat-arc" is more common, I prefer "steadfast" for a few reasons:

- It conveys that the character must struggle to hold onto something (after all, one is only "steadfast" when there is opposition)

- "Flat-arc" sorta sounds like there isn't really any growth or movement, which isn't exactly accurate.

- For much of my experience in the writing world, protagonists who don't have much of an arc have been frowned upon or treated as "lesser." The term "flat-arc" reminds me of that.

This is completely preference. You may use whichever term you want. Today, I'll be switching between the two.

Now, you can have positive and negative steadfast characters. A positive one will hold onto a true worldview throughout the story, while a negative one will hold onto an inaccurate worldview. For the sake of this article, I will be focusing on the positive one, which is more common, and may do a future article that focuses more on the negative version. 

Now, let's talk about some of the misunderstandings and myths about the positive steadfast character.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Annoyance vs. Resonance--One Small Difference

Audiences dislike story elements that are annoying. They love story elements that resonate. Surprisingly, annoyance and resonance are like two sides of the same coin. They usually appear for the same reasons, but one induces eye rolls while the other invites frisson. Let's look at these experiences in more depth, so we can bring more resonance into our stories, without annoying audiences. 

Monday, April 12, 2021

How Premise Plays into Theme

For many writers, theme is an afterthought--something they may try to figure out once the book is mostly written. But in reality, for a lot of stories, the premise actually promises a theme, or at least, a theme topic. This may not be true of all premises, but a surprising number actually have a theme already begging to be explored.

First, what do I mean by premise? Because a quick search online shows me multiple writing websites that define it slightly differently. Most will agree that a premise is the main idea of the story. It's usually 1 - 3 sentences that say what the story is about, typically the setup. This means it has a character, a goal, and a conflict. It's basically the same thing as a logline, if you are more familiar with that term.

Before we start writing, most of us have some idea of a premise, even if we haven't officially written it down and ironed it out. As we brainstorm and work on the story, that may become more defined. Here is an example of one:

When Fa Mulan learns her weakened father must go to war to fight the invading Huns, she secretly disguises herself as a man to take his place. 

So we have a character, Mulan, promised conflict with the Huns, and how that affects her family, and a sense of desire illustrated by proaction--she takes her father's place.

And would you believe it? It already has thematic elements begging to be explored!

The most obvious one is gender. The protagonist is trying to pass as the opposite gender. Just this setup already tells us that we are going to be including her personal struggles with that. How can you not? And if you didn't, the story might feel like it's lacking--like you are possibly dancing around a topic that deserves to be addressed.

So in a sense, at least one of the theme topics is already decided just by the premise.

Let's look at what else we have going on in that single sentence. We have both a personal problem and a public problem: Mulan's family life and the Huns invading China. So we will probably need to be addressing both of those. Looking at the setting and the fact that Mulan is going in her father's place, which is a no-no, we might start to get ideas for a second theme topic that should be addressed: honor.

Already, just from the basic idea, the setup of the story, we have two theme topics.

Let's look at some more examples.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Sanderson's Character Scales

Hey everyone, today I'm here to share a perspective on characters that comes from #1 New York Times best-selling author Brandon Sanderson. I love learning from Sanderson because he's prolific, experienced, and successful (Wheel of Time, Mistborn, The Way of Kings . . .). I also love learning from him because he shares concepts and techniques that I have found nowhere else. Lately, one of his concepts has been revisiting my mind--his character scales. 

So in this post, I'm going to explain what they are and how they work, while sharing my own ideas and interpretations along the way. Let's dig in!

Monday, March 29, 2021

When to Use Single Quotation Marks in Fiction

Like the semicolon, there are a lot of misconceptions about when to use single quotation marks, and also like the semicolon, the rules are actually very simple. Mainly because there is only one.

Nonetheless, I see this punctuation mark misused all the time. 

But before I get too far into this, it's important to note that I'm specifically talking about American English. British English reverses the use of double and single quotation marks--meaning British English uses single where American English uses double. Other than that, my understanding is, they are pretty similar (feel free to comment if you have more, relevant insight into British English). 

In American English, the only time you use single quotation marks is when quoting something within a quote. For fiction, this usually means within dialogue, when a character is quoting something or someone else.

For example:

Monday, March 22, 2021

The Backbone of Cliffhangers & 4 Types

I've heard a lot of audience members say that they hate cliffhangers. But do you want to know a secret? I kinda love a good cliffhanger (along with everything else I'm not supposed to love, like *cough cough* prologues *cough cough* teasers).

So today we are going to talk about cliffhangers: why we should use them, mistakes people make with them, and four different types. I'll probably be bringing up some points you hadn't thought of before, so even if you don't much like cliffhangers, you might want to stick around. Who knows, maybe you'll have more respect for them by the end. 

And in case you need a little refresher, a cliffhanger is when the narrative suddenly cuts away from showing or revealing something important to the audience. This creates suspense by leaving a critical issue unresolved. It lacks closure.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Core Principles of Crafting Protagonists (Free Download)

One of the common problems I see related to character creation is that many writers focus too much on figuring out surface details about their protagonists and don’t know how to add dimension and depth to them. They may fill out lengthy questionnaires with inquiries on everything from “What’s your character’s favorite day of the week?” to “What is your character’s computer password?”

It’s not that these questions can never be helpful. It’s just that, more often than not, they aren’t particularly useful. They lead writers to go overboard brainstorming superficial characteristics rather than taking a deep dive into character

At best, they are fun fluff that make you feel good. At worst, they are clutter that tempt you to take your story the wrong direction, as you struggle to incorporate what is actually irrelevant information.

Perhaps no character is more important than the protagonist. This is the lead of the story. This is the person the audience will most closely identify with, follow, and root for. 

Months ago I put together a ~12k booklet on protagonists, called Core Principles of Crafting ProtagonistsPart of it was a response to this problem, and part of it was because I've always been a character-focused writer at heart. (And I'll be honest--I filled out plenty of those questionnaires as a young writer, and they pretty much never helped me write a great story.)

In this booklet, you will learn about the most important protagonist component for storytelling, how to make your protagonist round and complex, and how to convey his or her personality immediately on the page.

Here are some of the concepts it includes:

- Character Arcs (The 4 Types of Protagonists)

- How Plot and Theme are Directly Influenced by the Protagonist

- Your Protagonist's Ghost

- Understanding Want vs. Need

- Making a Character Complex through (1) Contradictions, (2) Stakes and Boundaries, and (3) Identity

- How to Convey Your Character Quickly on the Page Through Voice

- Dos and Don'ts for Writing Your Character's Voice

- Effective Components to Include When Introducing Your Protagonist

- And more.

I have talked about many of these topics on my blog over the years (and several even recently), but this booklet serves as an introduction to them as well as covers a few concepts I haven't posted about on here. It also might be helpful to have all these topics in one place. 

Now, if you discovered me from the online seminar I did in January or you recently signed up to my newsletter, you may already have an early version of this booklet. The newer version simply fixes a few errors and typos. 

For everyone else, you can get a free download of Core Principles of Crafting Protagonists when you sign up for my blog via email

If you have the earlier version or are already subscribed to receive emails, simply reply to this email, and I will send you the newest version of Core Principles of Crafting Protagonists. 

I hope this booklet helps many write stronger protagonists. I have been blogging for over eight years now, and I have never had a booklet to give away. I would appreciate any help in spreading the word to other writers, or any kind of support you can give to this freebie.

Regardless, thank you for all of the support you have given me and this site over the years. It has certainly turned into something more significant than I expected. I hope it has been worthwhile to you.

Until next time, enjoy pursuing the booklet, or if you have already done that, you might find something interesting on my Writing Tip Index

Happy writing!