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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.


My (Helpful) Personal History with Steadfast, Flat-arc Characters


Despite wanting to work in the writing industry since I was seven, I entered the writing world like anyone else: naive. 

I had an idea for a story I wanted to write, with a protagonist that drew inspiration from some of my all-time favorite protagonists. 

What I didn't know, and what no one could explain to me, was that all these protagonists were steadfast/flat-arc characters. And that's what I wanted to write. 

I took writing classes, went to conferences, read books, and tried to soak up any piece of advice anyone could give me. But for some reason, some of the information didn't seem to work into my story or apply to the favorite stories I was drawing inspiration from

This led to a lot of questioning and challenging of "writing rules" on my part (though that was mostly internal). I was told over and over again (if not in these words) that I needed to have a change arc protagonist. It was implied, over and over again, that protagonists who didn't have change arcs were static, simple, lacking depth and dimension, and were just boring. Of course, there was always the occasional acknowledgment that 007 or Indiana Jones were successful. But I didn't want to write 007 or Indiana Jones. I still wanted to go deep into character. 

Well, over the years, I unwittingly switched my protagonist from a steadfast protagonist to a change protagonist. I've only fully realized this recently when reviewing some of those favorite protagonists from years ago. 

Not to be dramatic, but I feel a little cheated and let down by the writing world because of that. Even recently I went looking for resources on steadfast/flat-arc protagonists, and frankly, found very little. And of what I did find, 95% pulled from the same source material. I mean, it's great, but we are obviously lacking with this.

I tell this story, not for therapeutic reasons (okay, let's be honest, some of it is totally therapeutic!), but because I know there is someone out there who is struggling like I was. Someone who can't get their story to work because they are trying to apply change-arc advice to a flat-arc protagonist. This doesn't work. But you can't see that, because the people you are learning from (who have sincere intentions), don't fully understand or acknowledge steadfast protagonists.

For example, a writing book that has been making waves (that I looove and definitely recommend) is Story Genius by Lisa Cron. This book is amazing! And so helpful!

If you are writing a positive change protagonist.

It will not help you nail down your steadfast protagonist. Because its principles are founded on the protagonist changing. 

So if you are trying to apply it to the wrong type of protagonist, you are going to get frustrated. . . . or switch your protagonist's type.

Unfortunately, I myself have been guilty of perpetuating some inaccurate advice, but only because (like most people), I didn't know better. This also tends to happen because by far the most common protagonist type is the positive change protagonist. There are lots of resources on it. There are lots of people writing it. 

But this doesn't mean that the steadfast protagonist is wrong. It actually doesn't even mean that he is boring, static, or one-dimensional, nor that he doesn't grow, struggle, doubt, or change at all. He just doesn't do a direct flip in worldview. Instead, he proves his worldview true (the thematic statement).

Let's debunk some myths I've heard in the decade or so of being in the writing world.


Myth #1: Flat-arc Characters Don't Grow



The most common myth you are likely to run into, is that steadfast characters don't grow. This is inaccurate. The steadfast character doesn't drastically change her worldview. The positive steadfast protagonist has a worldview that will be proven true by the end of the story, which creates the theme. (In contrast, a negative steadfast protagonist has a worldview that will be proven untrue.)

This doesn't mean the character doesn't grow in some way. 

For example, you may have a flat-arc character who becomes more competent. Maybe he learns to become a great marksman. Or maybe she learns how to navigate law school (Legally Blonde). A steadfast protagonist can gain any kind of skill, even some that are less obvious, such as learning the art of manipulation. In Moana, Moana must learn how to sail. 

You may have a steadfast character who learns to become more proactive/assertive. It's not exactly unusual for a flat-arc character to not want to get involved in the main conflict in the beginning. He may be a reluctant hero. He may need to learn to not stand by but to stand up for what he believes in, by confronting the antagonist directly. In Disney's live-action Cinderella, Ella must become more assertive to fully thwart her wicked stepmother.

A steadfast character may grow in experience and wisdom. In Wonder Woman, Diana must experience and understand the real world in order to fully wield her truth against the antagonist. 

A steadfast character can grow in pretty much any way that doesn't totally flip his or her worldview. 

Certainly, there are flat-arc characters who don't grow at all, like 007, and that is fine, and you can write successful characters like that. But that doesn't mean that none of them grow whatsoever.


Myth #2: Steadfast Characters' Worldviews Remain Completely Static


Explained most simply, a positive steadfast character has an accurate worldview--understands the true thematic statement--from the beginning. This doesn't necessarily mean she has a perfect understanding of it. 

The character's worldview may need some refining. It may not be whole or complete. Or, as mentioned, above, it may need more wisdom (discernment) behind it. 

These things can only be realized with real-world experience--in other words, the tests and trials of the middle of the story. 

While this concept may overlap with the prior, it's slightly different, as not every way a steadfast character grows will be linked to his or her worldview. They may be two completely separate things. But they can also go hand in hand. 

For example, while Cinderella knows kindness will help her through trials (the thematic statement), her worldview needs some refining. She must realize one shouldn't let others take advantage of that kindness. She needs to stand up and be assertive with her stepmother.

In Arrival, Louise Banks knows that communication can help us understand another perspective, which enables us to avoid confrontation. However, through the story, she gains a greater, deeper, more complete understanding of that, as she learns the heptapods' language--which has the power to unit humanity and species across time.

In Wonder Woman, Diana knows from the beginning that we should fight for the world that we believe in. However, she gains more wisdom in that regard, after experiencing the gray moral complexities of humanity--does humankind deserve a better world? Only after she comes to terms with this, is she able to embrace the true thematic statement with eyes wide open. 

Sure, some steadfast characters have completely static worldviews, but many of them don't.

This concept can become all the more complex when we consider secondary themes.

First, as a quick recap, the positive steadfast character has an accurate worldview--the "truth," as some like to call it--this is also the primary thematic statement. This is the truth the story is arguing. The positive steadfast character starts the story with this.

In contrast, a positive change character will start with an inaccurate worldview--the "lie," as some like to call it--this is basically the "anti-theme"--the opposing argument to the "truth." The positive change character will change to the "truth," the accurate worldview, the true thematic statement at the end.

However, many stories have more than one theme. Many stories have secondary themes.

Because of this, it's possible for the positive steadfast character to be steadfast in the primary theme, but be a change character in the secondary theme. 

For example, Diana is steadfast in the primary theme, which is the argument that we should fight for the world we believe in (as opposed to the argument that we should allow humans to suffer the world they "deserve.") 

However, in the secondary theme, she is a change character. The secondary theme is about whether humankind is innately black and white or whether they are innately gray. Diana begins the story believing they are innately black and white (innately good, if not for the antagonist), but learns the truth: humankind is innately gray. This is an arc of disillusionment. This feeds into the primary arc and primary theme. 

I have an article on secondary themes in the works, but it's not complete yet. For now, know this: 

Many stories have multiple themes. A steadfast protagonist may or may not be steadfast for every theme (or "worldview" if you prefer). But by definition, they must be steadfast for the primary theme (obviously). 

Again, more on that in the future. However, this is why you may see writers argue over whether a particular character has a change or flat arc, and why the same character may get categorized differently--it depends entirely on what thematic thread the person is pulling. One may, in fact, argue Diana is a change character, because she arcs in disillusionment, while another may argue she has a flat arc, because she believes the primary thematic statement from beginning to end.

No worries if it sounds a little confusing. In short, a positive steadfast character's view may grow or shift in some way, but it never does a 180 flip in the primary arc and theme


Myth #3: Flat-arc Characters Always Stand Firm


Just because the steadfast character has an accurate worldview and belief system (knows the "truth"), doesn't mean she never wavers or has doubts about it. 

In most flat-arc protagonist stories, the character will have her beliefs tested through the conflicts of the middle. As the antagonistic force gets stronger, the character may experience doubts and powerful temptations (which may include conflicting wants). At some point, it may even seem that her worldview might be wrong. This, along with the cost of adhering to the truth, is almost always the meat of her internal journey. If you want your steadfast character to have a rich inner journey, this is where it's at.

For other steadfast protagonists, the internal journey isn't a major plotline (like 007). This means we won't see many (if any) moments of him having a worldview struggle. 

Ultimately, at the end of the story, the steadfast protagonist will hold onto her accurate belief system. This is what makes her steadfast. But that doesn't necessarily mean she never second guesses it. 


Myth #4: Steadfast Characters are Simple and Two-dimensional


While a steadfast character is probably more likely to be simple, they aren't necessarily. Complexity isn't strictly tied to character arc. 

What makes something complex is dichotomy. It's boundaries. It's layers of identity. I talk about this in my free booklet "Core Principles of Crafting Protagonists." But I'll review briefly.

Complex characters are most easily created when we smash together seeming contradictions. 

- An outlaw who is law-abiding

- A soldier who refuses to hurt anyone

- A vampire who doesn’t like drinking blood

. . . for example. 

Once you’ve smashed together contrasting features within the character, the gray area can be explored to find complexity. Why would an outlaw be law-abiding? How can someone be a vampire and not like blood? (These are more obvious examples, but they prove the point.)

Complexity can also be created by considering the character's personal boundaries--what it takes for him to consider doing something he wouldn't ordinarily do. We all have thresholds when it comes to our values. For example, I may have a character who proclaims that he never lies. But when the pressure gets high, I may show him lying to save the life of a loved one. This will reveal that he cares more about his loved one's life than about always being honest. In other words, he's not as simple as he first appeared. 

While within the character arc, a steadfast protagonist will largely adhere to the accurate worldview, even when the pressure kicks up, this doesn't necessarily mean she can't find herself being pressured into unusual behaviors outside of it. For example, just because Job will stick to his faith in God regardless of what is inflicted upon him, doesn't mean he won't be pushed to complaining when the trials get intense. Difficulties reveal deeper character.

Finally, a character can be made complex by differentiating layers of identity. Identity gets down to how someone is defined, and no one is defined the same way from all angles. For example, who the character thinks he is, and who he actually is, will likely be different in some way. Who he believes he is and who society believes he is may be, in fact, opposite concepts. 

While these elements can feed into character arcs--or rather, The Character Arc--they don't necessarily have to. There is no reason a steadfast character can't have some complexity.


Myth #5: Flat-arc Characters don't have Ghosts/Wounds


This isn't a myth I've heard very much, but I do feel like there are some misconceptions when it comes to the positive steadfast character and ghosts/wounds. 

A "ghost" is a past, significant, often traumatic event that motivates the character to adopt an inaccurate worldview (the "anti-theme" or the "lie" or the "misbelief"--depending on your preferred terminology). In the industry, this is also sometimes called a "wound." You can learn all about ghosts/wounds in my article, "Giving Your Protagonist a Ghost."

But in a positive steadfast protagonist, this is often flipped just a bit. The ghost is often a past, significant, sometimes traumatic event that motivates the character to adopt the accurate worldview (the "theme" or the "truth" if you prefer). 

For example, Cinderella's mother, while on her deathbed, tells Cinderella to always be kind. This motivates Cinderella to do just that. 

Of course, not every character will have a ghost addressed in the story. 

For the positive steadfast protagonist, the ghost may be largely resolved. 

But not always. They may not have complete closure and peace. And it's possible they are still traumatized by the event.

Sometimes adhering to what is true can be nearly as haunting as having regrets. It's just that the haunting will come from either the cost of the truth, or, a lack of power--a lack of control--during the ghost. Generally speaking anyway.

In The X-Files, Fox Mulder, in the overall story and theme, is a positive steadfast character. The ongoing theme is an argument of belief vs. disbelief. (The motifs, "I want to believe" and "The truth is out there" speak to that.) However, Mulder has an unresolved, traumatizing ghost: his little sister was abducted by aliens. 

This event cements him to the thematic truth of belief and motivates him to investigate anything unnatural. But this happened at the cost of his sister.

Sometimes the trauma comes from not being able to do anything, just as Mulder was powerless to stop the abduction. 

Other times it may come from not being able to stop a loved one from choosing the inaccurate worldview--the "lie," "anti-theme," or "misbelief." The steadfast character may be haunted by the outcome of someone else choosing the lie. 

So, just because you are writing a steadfast character, doesn't mean she can't have a traumatizing past. 


Myth #6: Steadfast Characters are Boring



I have sometimes heard writing instructors discourage students from creating steadfast characters because they are "static and uninteresting." By now, you probably can see for yourself that this doesn't check out. 

In reality, any kind of character becomes boring when poorly written. Sure, steadfast characters may need to be handled a little differently (they can easily become annoying when mishandled, for example), but this doesn't mean audiences aren't invested in them. A steadfast character can be just as exciting, meaningful, inspiring, and complex as most change characters. 

I mean, I don't think most of us would call Diana, Fox Mulder, Moana, or Louise Banks boring. 


In the future, I'll be breaking down this largely misunderstood character type some more. I mean . . . some of us have got to do more about the lack of resources out there, right? I don't want another person who wants to write a steadfast protagonist to be "tricked" into switching it to a change one. If you want to write a steadfast protagonist, this is me giving you permission.


6 comments:

  1. Sweet! This is great. I often think of positive steadfast characters as post-positive change arc characters. It is what a character looks like after they've had their worldview shift, and how they've adapted to and now live with it.
    Nearly any fanfic I've ever read is usually centered around this idea, of what happens 'after' the change, so that shows that there are readers hungry for that type of story.
    I think the steadfast character is also linked with the misunderstanding of redemption arcs (a personal favorite and peeve of mine) because so many redemptions end with the unnecessary death of the redeemed and I suspect the general ignorance of steadfast characters plays a big part in it.

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    1. Yeah, and I think where some writers mess up with sequels, is they try to "undo" the arc from the previous installment, so they can arc it again. That almost never works. It's sorta like trying to unlearn a truth you already learned in a life-changing way. I always feel a bit let down and cheated as an audience member with that. It doesn't mean you can't continue to arc the character, but it's rarely satisfying to *undo* an arc.

      Oh yeah, I could see how that could relate.

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  2. Great article. I can think of so many examples. Samwise Gamgee is probably one of the strongest. He does waver a bit when things get really hard, but he rises to the occasion without compromising who he is or what he believes in. The journey only makes him more steadfast. Probably one of the reasons he can go home to Hobbiton, where Frodo can't. Frodo is changed too much to belong with hobbits, but Sam is only more of a hobbit when he returns.

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    1. Samwise is definitely my favorite character in LOTR--and probably one of my favorite steadfast characters.

      I hadn't thought about that, but it makes sense. Yes, Frodo had changed too much, so he couldn't go back, while Sam was able to embrace the Hobbit life. I love that analysis.

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  3. When should a writer allow their steadfast character to achieve their goal? What determination do we use, since the character doesn't realize they were wrong/learn the truth/change?

    Can they get what they want only after having having grown in either their worldview, or, arced in their secondary theme, or something else?

    Do we show the other characters changing around the main character (and is that hard since/if we're not in secondary character's experiences (and it might be less-effective for a reader to feel a secondary character's change since we're not on their arc?))

    If the steadfast character believes the truth and seeks to apply/uphold it through the story until the problem is fixed/world changes, wouldn't them being tested throughout be a sort of perseverance and determination, and wouldn't them having to seek and attempt different methods to achieve their goal/want while navigating the problem in order to right the world's wrong be an exploration of them changing - if one thing doesn't work, they'll likely try another way, and another, and by the end, they would have learned, grown, maybe changed in order to make the world rise to the character's truth. I'm not sure if this makes sense or is how to think about a steadfast character's methods.

    Awesome info, thanks for writing it! Now I just need to learn the ins and outs on how to apply it.

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    1. Hi Snug,

      Great questions! I'm going to be answering some of those in my upcoming blog posts on this topic. I have a draft of my next one, which will hopefully be up on Monday. It's about some of the structural differences between writing with a change protagonist vs. a steadfast protagonist. After that, I plan to dissect the story structure with examples for everyone. I can't promise when I will get that all done, but hopefully in the coming weeks. I think by that point, we'll all have a clearer understanding of the steadfast protagonist story. Stay tuned!

      I will say, that like the change protagonist, the overall story goal will typically be achieved at the climax. And yes, usually the supporting cast will change their worldviews instead.

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