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Three Types of Character Arcs: Positive, Flat and Negative

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“Be sure you have a well-developed character arc.” This is one of those pieces of advice that I’ve heard so often that I no longer really thought about it. Yeah, character arc. Ordinary world, inciting incident, and so forth.

But then I saw a post by K.M. Weiland in which she discussed flat and negative arcs. When I saw this, I realized that normally I only think about a positive character arc where the character grows or changes. In its simplest form, it works like this:

1. Character is pushed to solve a problem or question a long held belief.
2. She meets a series of increasingly difficult challenges.
3. She solves the story problem, growing in the process.

I’ve got classics on the brain right now. Two classics with a positive character arc are The Hobbit, Bilbo learns hobbits aren’t rooted to the Shire, and A Christmas Story, Scrooge learns to value something other than wealth.

If you want to go beyond the positive arc, you can write a flat or negative arc.  
In a flat arc, the character defends her position against the world and does not change. Again, here is a simplified version:

1. The character believes a truth that somehow goes against the world view. 
2. The enemy or society attempt to “correct” the character’s perceptions.
3. The character maintains her belief. She solves the problem, changing her world.

Flat arcs exist in all types of literature but are common in thrillers (spy vs world) and mysteries. I had to think about this for a minute but it makes sense.  In a cozy mystery, someone dies.  Either the authorities don’t think it was murder or they are going after the wrong person (a world built on lies).  Thus again and again Miss Marple solved solved the murder (proved her truth). 

A negative arc leaves the character worse off than she was in the beginning. It can work in two different ways:

1. The character believes a lie.
2. Something happens that challenges this lie.
3. In the end the character may see the truth but it is horrible or the character believes an even worse lie.

OR

1. The character believes the truth.
2. Something calls this truth into question or makes it too risky.
3. The character accepts a lie as the truth.

Tragedies like Hamlet and stories where a character is disillusioned, Weiland discusses The Great Gatsby, are both negative character arcs.

Admittedly, I’m most comfortable working with a positive story arc. So of course, I am currently working with a flat arc – writing a mystery. What type of character arc are you currently writing?

If you want to read more on this topic, here are Weiland’s recent posts, parts 1 and 2, on character arcs.  Search on her site because it is a topic she writes about extensively.

–SueBE

To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards’ writing, visit her blog, One Writer’s Journey.  Sue is also the instructor for Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins September 23rd, 2019.

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