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Monday, July 19, 2021

The Steadfast, Flat-Arc Protagonist in Story: The Beginning


A couple of times, I've been asked to explain how positive steadfast, flat-arc protagonists actually work in story structure (or "beat sheets," if you prefer that term). Luckily, as I mentioned in a previous post, the flat-arc protagonist story has pretty much all the same pieces as the change-arc protagonist story--many of them are just reversed. 

This means, that frankly, a lot of the same moments happen, if a little differently.

Writing a steadfast protagonist is like being left-handed in a right-handed world. Same world. Different experience.

Since this can (like a lot of writing concepts) be a little difficult to "see," I'm gonna go ahead and guide you through a positive steadfast protagonist story. 

Well, three in fact.

And even if you never intend to write a flat-arc story, this may still be helpful to some degree, as most stories will feature a flat-arc character, even if they are not the protagonist. (However, I wouldn't recommend getting hung up on trying to make a side flat-arc character hit all the same points as a protagonist one would.)

One of the most obvious differences in structure is that the positive, steadfast, flat-arc protagonist starts on an accurate worldview--sometimes referred to as the "truth." This is almost always, more or less, the primary theme of the story. By the end of the story, this worldview will be proven true, so the protagonist ultimately doesn't flip in his or her beliefs, making him or her "steadfast." (In contrast, a positive change character will start with an inaccurate worldview--the "lie" or "misbelief" or "flaw"--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. A steadfast protagonist may or may not be steadfast for every theme. But by definition, they must be steadfast for the primary theme (obviously).

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.

For example, in The Lion King, Simba is ultimately a steadfast protagonist in the primary theme--he believes in the Circle of Life at the beginning, and even though he temporarily loses sight of that, he ultimately holds true to it at the end. However, he's a change character in the secondary theme of responsibility--he starts out believing in irresponsibility but flips into embracing responsibility at the end. Because of this, different people may get in arguments about how he arcs.

Someday I will write a post specifically on secondary themes and secondary arcs. For now, I do want to illustrate how secondary themes and arcs play out for steadfast protagonists, as I feel they can be particularly important in understanding them (Simba's structure being just one example). 


Why 3 Steadfast Story Examples?

To say I'm going to dissect three steadfast stories may seem a bit overkill, but there is a method to my madness. 

1. This will show you how a protagonist may or may not be steadfast for both primary and secondary themes. 

2. There are three categories of steadfast protagonists

- The Flat-arc Character Experiences Little to No Doubt (examples: Regan in The Quiet Place, Part II, Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2015))

-  The Flat-arc Character Doubts Applying the Accurate Worldview (examples: Moana in Moana, Peter Parker in Spider-man 2) This doubt may manifest in one of these ways:

- She may question how to actually imbue the environment with the accurate worldview. (How does she actually do what she needs to do with the truth?)

- She may question her wherewithal (Does she have what it takes to do this?)

- She may question her worthiness (Is she the right person to be doing this?)

- The Flat-arc Protagonist Doubts the Accurate Worldview (examples: Simba in The Lion King, Diana in Wonder Woman)


Having three full examples will allow us to cover each of these things. Of course, as with everything I post, don't feel like you have to read every example if you don't want to! It's just that having and studying all three will for sure give you a more comprehensive look at how this plays out--and help us all write better steadfast stories (which is the point).


In A Quiet Place, Part II, Regan acts as a steadfast protagonist (first category)


Setting up 3 Examples of Flat-arc Stories

I've decided to dissect Finding Neverland, Princess Mononoke, and Wonder Woman as examples for the above reasons. Each of these examples has a clear, accessible secondary theme. (For now, think of a secondary theme as a "lesser" theme, worldview, or truth that usually feeds into the primary theme.) Each film features a different category of protagonist. 

Finally, I've chosen them because I recently rewatched each of these films, so they are fresh on my mind. 🙃😉

Let's break their components down, shall we?


Finding Neverland

Protagonist: James Barrie

Primary Theme (Accurate Worldview): Playfulness empowers us and helps us cope by getting us to believe in something bigger.

Primary Anti-theme (Inaccurate Worldview): We should go through life seriously. Playfulness is inappropriate.

Primary Arc: James Barrie is a positive steadfast protagonist who doesn't doubt the primary theme at all.

Secondary Theme (Accurate Worldview): Sincere friendship is more important than reputation.

Secondary Anti-theme (Inaccurate Worldview): Reputation is more important than friendship.

Secondary Arc: James Barrie is a positive steadfast protagonist who entertains some doubt through the middle concerning friendship being more important than reputation.


Princess Mononoke

Protagonist: Ashitaka

Primary Theme (Accurate Worldview): We should strive to live in peace with others, by not giving into hate.

Primary Anti-theme (Inaccurate Worldview): We should use hate as fuel to defeat our enemies and get what we want.

Primary Arc: Ashitaka is a positive steadfast protagonist who is unsure how to apply the theme to the wider world.

Secondary Theme (Accurate Worldview): We should face death calmly and humbly. It's okay to seek healing and life, but we should not rage or try to cheat the inevitable. 

Secondary Anti-theme (Inaccurate Worldview): We should seek the death of our enemies, and when confronted with our own, rage onward arrogantly and destructively.

Secondary Arc: Ashitaka is a positive steadfast protagonist who never seems to doubt the secondary theme.


Wonder Woman

Protagonist: Diana

Primary Theme (Accurate Worldview): We should fight for the world we believe (which comes from choosing love/mercy)

Primary Anti-theme (Inaccurate Worldview): We should allow humans to suffer the world they deserve (which comes from choosing punishment/justice)

Primary Arc: Diana is a positive steadfast protagonist in the primary theme who doubts her accurate worldview.

Secondary Theme (Accurate Worldview): People have both good and bad in them. They are gray.

Secondary Anti-theme (Inaccurate Worldview): People are black or white (innately good or innately evil)

Secondary Arc: Diana is a positive change character in the secondary theme. She moves from having a black and white view, to seeing the gray (the truth). 



Ooooh--look at those juicy thematic arguments and strong protagonists just waiting for their plots! 

Of course, since character arc, theme, and plot, all intertwine, you probably won't see these things so clearly in your drafts--you may not figure out the theme until you've already gotten deep into the character arc and plot, for example. The creative process is messy, and it often feels like a chicken vs. egg conundrum. 

But certainly understanding what the end product is meant to look like, will help you get there.

Just to clear something up, in case you are new around here, the "anti-theme" or "inaccurate worldview" is, to put simply, the opposing argument. You may have heard this same basic concept called a "misbelief" (if you like Lisa Cron's Story Genius), a "lie" (if you like K. M. Weiland's methods), or sometimes it is even considered a "flaw" when within a character. These different terms may arguably have slightly different meanings, but they largely tap into the same idea: an opposing, inaccurate worldview. 

Anti-theme = Inaccurate Worldview = Lie = Misbelief = Flaw (to some degree)

Likewise:

Theme = Accurate Worldview = Truth (I have also sometimes heard this called the "Central Idea")

Really, I could feed any of these story examples through any of the popular structures in the creative writing world: The Hero's Journey (Vogler's version), Save the Cat!, or 7 Point Story Structure. This is because (in my opinion), these all say similar things, just from different angles, with different emphases--basically, most well-structured stories will fit any one of them, believe it or not (believe it!). 

So I'm going to just use a general hybrid version to dissect these examples.

Never forget that the following are just principles and guidelines--you don't have to have everything exact, and I will be talking about some variations along the way. You'll also see how some beats overlap. This is meant to help, not hinder.

Resources and Influences:

As always, I would like to acknowledge those in the industry who have helped me understand the flat-arc protagonist and therefore influenced this series. 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 (talks about the "steadfast" protagonist.)

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


Okay, so, with that said, I will explain how each section or "beat" plays out in general, and then show it in the examples.


The Beginning



Opening & Setup

If a story needs a prologue, it will obviously start with that. In any case, it's usually best to have a hook early on. Hooks work by getting the audience to look forward in some way, so they are anticipating what comes next in the story (hint: stakes are a great way to do this). From there, the opening scene (or scenes) is going to give the audience the first impression of the story--it's going to help set the tone and convey to the audience what kind of story this is. 

The audience is normally introduced to the protagonist right away, but in some cases, that may be delayed a chapter or two. You want to showcase the protagonist's dominating characteristics--especially those relevant to his or her character arc. 

For a steadfast, flat-arc protagonist, this means showing the character's accurate worldview, truth, belief, or strength (whichever term you prefer) that will be tested through the story


However, the tricky thing in here with writing the positive steadfast protagonist, is you don't want the character to come off as too perfect, annoying, or preachy, which can sometimes happen. Whatever kind of protagonist arc you are writing, no one is perfect, and no one makes it through life without challenges and hardships. Remember, the positive steadfast protagonist is a positive steadfast protagonist simply because he knows the true thematic statement from the beginning. This doesn't necessarily mean he doesn't have any flaws, weaknesses, or misbehaviors. In fact, if he lives in the world of the "lie," then misbehaving may be exactly what he needs to do.

From my observation, you'll probably want to either show that the protagonist's life is difficult, that she has to pay a cost for adhering to her beliefs, or that she has imperfections alongside her strengths. Or all three. 

You may want to show that the protagonist lacks competence, experience, wisdom, or assertiveness. 

Showing the character's belief more than telling it can also help avoid preachiness. 

In all, remember that while your protagonist's accurate worldview is probably the most important quality to show the audience, it's not the only quality you will show the audience. What other traits does he have? 

In the beginning, most protagonists will somehow be "set apart" from others in their society. Often he or she is a literal or figurative orphan, separated from one or both parents. Obviously that doesn't apply to all stories, but usually there is something that makes them "different" from those around them. This individualizes them, and that's worth highlighting too. 

During the setup, you will be grounding the audience in the story. Who is this story about? Where is this story taking place? When is it taking place? What's normal? And that last one is important, because one of the primary purposes of the setup is to convey a sense of normalcy to the audience (because everything is about to change). Worth noting, though, is that what is "normal" or "ordinary" can be relative--it's at least ordinary to the character or ordinary compared to what happens later.

In a flat-arc protagonist story, the inaccurate worldview (or "lie," "misbelief," "flaw," or "anti-theme") comes mostly from outside the protagonist 

The protagonist will either:

- Already live in a society riddled with the inaccurate worldview

- Have the inaccurate worldview enter their society

- Or enter a society run by the inaccurate worldview

As K. M. Weiland states, many flat-arc protagonists may not be fully aware of the inaccurate worldview (the "lie") in the beginning. In Wonder Woman, Diana doesn't understand the concept that humans don't deserve her help. And prior to that, she doesn't even know they need help. 

If the protagonist is already surrounded by the inaccurate worldview, or even has a personal history with it (perhaps from his ghost or a prior installment in a series), he may be more aware. Moana is surrounded by an entire community insisting she must stay on the island--that living on the island is who they are. In Finding Neverland, it's revealed that when his brother died, James tried to grow up too fast.

If the protagonist is aware of the inaccurate worldview, he may be content with simply applying it to his own sphere--not yet concerned with applying it to the world (or society) at large. As K. M. Weiland writes, "Sometimes he may even spend the First Act actively avoiding a confrontation." He may hope someone else will take care of the problem.

If the protagonist is aware and wants to apply it to the world at large, he probably doesn't see how to actually do that or hasn't had the opportunity to try to do that. He may even lack the necessary skills.


In Finding Neverland

The story starts with the opening night of James Barrie's latest stage play. Early on, it is shown that he is imaginative, "seeing" things that aren't actually there. He also doesn't care much about networking or his own personal reputation. What he cares about is the play. He wants the play to have a positive impact on people. 

He fears that it won't (hook). Interestingly, this is perhaps the only time he experiences any sign of doubt related to the primary theme, which I consider unusual. But it's worth noting he doesn't doubt his worldview, and it's shown he doesn't actually doubt his abilities--he is just unsure of this play.

He's not perfect either, as we already see some issues in his marriage. And he has struggles: In a world where attendees are too serious, his play bombs.


In Princess Mononoke

The setup of this story is fairly brief (because the inciting incident comes in the first scene or two). A voiceover sets the stage by explaining that in ancient times, the world was full of forests with men, beasts, and gods, who lived in peace, but eventually, contention developed. 

In the opening, a terrible boar demon threatens the safety of a peaceful village (hook). Protagonist Ashitaka must defeat it to keep the inhabitants safe. Heroic, self-sacrificing, and good with a bow, he asks the boar demon to calm his fury and leave their village in peace multiple times, but must eventually kill the demon. 


In Wonder Woman

The film opens with a prologue of Diana looking at a war photo, which promises a story (hook). We jump back to when she is a child with the Amazons on Themyscira. Right away it is made clear that Diana wants to learn how to fight (and by extension, it can be assumed, fight for what is right, which is essentially the original purpose of the Amazons). But she isn't perfect--she is shown ditching her education. And because she is discouraged from fighting, she disobediently sneaks out to learn.

Her mother tells the story of how Zeus created man, saying that men were good. Ares, however, sought to corrupt mankind, specifically through war, hoping they would destroy themselves. 



Introduce the Thematic Pendulum

Regardless of what the world is like in the beginning, somewhere in the setup (and often halfway through) the protagonist will encounter an opposing belief system. For the positive steadfast protagonist, this is an inaccurate worldview or lie, and it is almost always THE inaccurate worldview or lie of the whole story (the anti-theme). 

This can be shown, told, represented by another character, or simply voiced. You can learn more about this in my anti-theme post under the heading "In the Beginning."

It's simply a moment where the protagonist encounters the opposing worldview. 

This, in a sense, sets up a thematic pendulum, where the audience will be swinging between two opposing worldviews.

If your protagonist already lives in a world riddled with the lie, then he may be encountering this worldview multiple times. He can encounter it dozens of times, the point is that he at least encounters it once during the setup. 

(In contrast, in a change-arc story, this is often where the protagonist first encounters the true, accurate worldview.)


In Finding Neverland

After the failure of the play, James's colleague voices the problem. People are too serious. They've forgotten what a play is about--it's called a play! It's supposed to be playful, but the critics and society are too serious. They don't know what playfulness is anymore.

Also in the setup, James's wife is shown to be concerned with networking and reputations. She embodies the secondary anti-theme.


In Princess Mononoke

As the boar demon dies, the wise woman of the village wishes him peace, that he bear no hatred, but the boar threatens the villagers, telling them that they will soon feel the hatred he feels and suffer as he has, voicing the anti-theme. 

The secondary anti-theme is represented by the fact the boar sought rage and destruction when confronted with death.


In Wonder Woman

The anti-theme is obviously voiced through the story of Ares--he wants humankind to destroy itself. 

Diana's mother also taps into the opposing argument, saying Diana should not fight for the humans. She need not learn to fight at all, as what happens in the world will not really concern Diana. Her mother also fears the humans that arrive. But she won't voice the real anti-themes until later, when she reveals that she believes men are easily corrupted and she tells Diana, "They don't deserve you."

In the beginning, Steve represents the opposing worldview in regards to the secondary theme. Diana believes humans to be black and white--innately good. But Steve is a spy--someone who lies and steals, but for good reasons. Because Diana is a change character in the secondary theme, this means Steve embodies the accurate worldview, while she embodies the inaccurate worldview. 



Inciting Incident

As the protagonist is going about his or her life, something enters the story that disrupts the established normal. This will either be a problem or an opportunity or sometimes both. There is ambiguity in the writing community as to what this is actually called, but I most often see it called the "inciting incident." Save the Cat! calls this the "Catalyst," and The Hero's Journey calls this "The Call to Adventure." I've sometimes even heard it called "Plot Point 1." What you call it doesn't really matter, as long as you understand that something enters the story that challenges the protagonist's path, "calling" him in a different direction. The protagonist will begin reacting to this. The protagonist will be in a reactive state until the midpoint (about halfway through the story).

The inciting incident is usually followed by a period of hesitancy, where the protagonist either doubts the inciting incident and/or debates about what to do. (The Hero's Journey calls this "The Refusal of the Call" and Save the Cat! calls this "Debate.") This period may be as brief as half a sentence or as long as several chapters. One of the points of this is to press upon the audience the seriousness of the situation. This usually means laying out the stakes

While most protagonists will have at least a second of hesitancy, not all of them do. Whether or not the protagonist hesitates doesn't necessarily relate to character arc. However, I have found that most steadfast protagonists don't. If the protagonist doesn't hesitate, usually someone else in the story voices the hesitation so that this function is fulfilled. 

An example of a steadfast protagonist who hesitates is Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when he suggests they sell the golden ticket.


In Finding Neverland 

James goes to the park where he meets the Davies boys and their mother Sylvia. He proceeds to play into their imaginations, but one of the boys, Peter, refuses to join in, insisting that James's dog isn't a bear at all, but a dog. This meeting disrupts James's normal life as an opportunity to have a relationship with the family, play games with them, develop ideas, and perhaps win Peter over (Peter works as the change-arc Influence Character).

Soon after, James discovers that his play has been canceled, but he must write a new play because the actors and theater are already paid for. This creates a problem. (One may argue that these are two different inciting incidents for two different plotlines--the relationship plotline and the external plotline.)

Wanting to rub shoulders with the social elite, James's wife, Mary, says they should invite the Davies family over for dinner, but after the dinner turns playful, both Mary and Sylvia's mother warn against this budding friendship--it's not going to help them move up in life (they voice the hesitancy).


In Princess Mononoke

I feel like the inciting incident in here is divided into two parts--both hit early. As Ashitaka is facing the demon boar, he gets exposed to an illness the boar has. (The illness is a metaphor for hatred.) He meets with the wise woman and the elders of the village to learn his fate. Using supernatural methods, the wise woman informs him that he is fated to die and that he must journey far away to learn what caused the boar's illness and hatred (in other words, what made the boar become a "demon"). If he does this, he may find a way to be healed. For the journey, he is charged to "see the world with eyes unclouded by hate." This is his Call to Adventure.

Always calm, confident, and humble, Ashitaka immediately accepts. In contrast, the village elders object, looking for a way out, laying out why his departure and death would be devastating to their people (stakes).


In Wonder Woman

Steve Trevor's plane crashes on the coast of the Amazons' island. He is followed by the Germans, who bring battle to the Amazons. This disrupts the established normal and introduces a problem: humankind is at war, one that appears to threaten their existence altogether. 

Diana's dying aunt tells her she must go out into the world to save the humans. Once Diana gets more information from Steve, she is ready to act. But the other Amazons do not share her sentiments, especially not her mother. They will not risk themselves and their home to save humankind. Men are easily corrupted. 



Break into Two 

At the end of the beginning, the protagonist will make the decision to move forward in their journey. Even if the protagonist is characteristically passive, the stakes will usually get significant enough to lead them to choose to go on the journey. The problem must be addressed or the opportunity taken. Often there will be a climactic event or discovery that pushes them forward. 

This is usually a transitional segment, where many characters make preparations and travel to a new "world." This may be literal or figurative. It may simply be a new state of being. 

This is essentially "a point of no return"--the character can't go back to the way life was or how they themselves previously were--and it takes us into the middle of the story. It puts the character on course to confront the antagonist at the climax.

If the inciting incident comes early, this segment will usually be longer. If the inciting incident comes later, this segment will often be shorter. (Just my observation.)

(In the Hero's Journey, this is called "Crossing the Threshold." In Save the Cat! this is called "Break into Two." In 7 Point Story Structure, this usually considered part of "Plot Point 1.")


In Finding Neverland

Despite his wife's warnings of ruining reputations, James meets up with Sylvia and the boys again to fly a kite. He chooses to move forward with this friendship by playing games and teaching them the power of belief. 

The kite and the next scene where he again sees Sylvia's mother, begin to inspire his first ideas for Peter Pan. He starts working on his next play.

Peter begins to express an interest in writing fiction.

While I feel like the structural components of this part are less obvious in this film, we do see James choosing to move forward, both with the Davies and with his new play. His taking notes about what to write could be considered preparatory.


In Princess Mononoke

Immediately after being told his fate, Ashitaka prepares and leaves. Since his village embodies the accurate worldview or "truth" (peace), he naturally must enter the world of the inaccurate one or "lie" (hatred). This is also reflected in the secondary theme.

During his transitional segment, he witnesses a massacre, must avoid potential murderers, and encounters the fallout of a battle between men and wolves--all illustrating forms of hatred, as well as reactions to death. 

To top it off, his new illness (which works as a sort of "darkness within" trope) seems to be affecting his actions, making them slightly more violent. 


In Wonder Woman

After being told that none of the Amazons will return with Steve, Diana speaks with him. He re-emphasizes the seriousness of the war, which leads to Diana decide to go with him herself.

She gets the godkiller sword, and armor, then promises to help Steve off the island, if he will take her with him. They arrive at a sailboat, where Diana's mother appears. She tells Diana that if she leaves, she can never come back (point of no return), and gives her one more item--the tiara.

Diana and Steve sail away.



Points Worth Mentioning

There are a few points I want to bring up that don't exactly fit a particular heading in here. 

Often the steadfast protagonist is surrounded by people who believe a rendition of the lie, or anti-theme. However, this doesn't necessarily mean there are no other characters who share their true worldview. In Finding Neverland, most of the Davies believe the accurate worldview to some extent (though perhaps not as much as James), which is why Peter is the family member who gets special emphasis. He believes in the anti-theme. Other characters like Sylvia's mother and the theater's audience, believe in the anti-theme as well.

This is just to say that while often the steadfast protagonist is surrounded by those who embody the anti-theme, this isn't strictly a necessity. One thing is important though: the anti-theme must be powerful, however it manifests. 

The thematic statement is not the same as the plot goal. A plot is made up of specific, concrete things. Theme is about ideas and meaning. The steadfast protagonist may be wielding the true thematic statement through the story, but this doesn't necessarily make it his plot goal. 

Sure, in some stories, this is more aligned. Ashitaka's goal is to bring peace to a war-ridden land. (Interestingly, some may argue he sorta lacks a specific plot goal in that he doesn't know how to actually do that. He's just trying to do what is right.) Diana wants to fight for the world she believes in (theme) by destroying Ares with the godkiller (plot goal).

In other stories, these two things may seem more different. While James wants people to be playful (theme), his goal is to write a new play (plot). While Moana wants her people to embrace who they truly are (theme), her goal is to return the heart to Te Fiti (plot). The act of completing the plot goal will inherently be linked to theme in at least some way: James's new play inspires the audience to be playful, Moana restoring the heart to Te Fiti allows Te Fiti to remember her true identity. (Keep in mind, Moana had no idea prior that that would be the result.)

Even if the steadfast protagonist never experiences doubt, he will almost always struggle with the plot goal. The plot goal still requires time. It still requires effort. James Barrie must still figure out and write a new play. He can't instantly accomplish it. 


Previous Steadfast, Flat-arc Protagonist Articles:

Debunking 6 Myths about Steadfast, Flat-arc Characters

Principles of the Steadfast, Flat-arc Protagonist

3 Categories of Steadfast, Flat-arc Characters


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