Stories That Succeed With Flat Character Arcs

Let me start off by introducing my current distraction: Ishmael (Anara Call Me Ishmael RN RA RE).

Ish has a truly remarkable ability to make me stop whatever I’m doing, get up, and give him a chew toy or treat. I mean, all Cavaliers are pretty good at that, but Ish is in a class by himself. I have only myself to blame, as I bred and trained him and therefore I’m responsible for both his overwhelming cuteness and his keen, intelligent understanding of how to push my buttons.

However, let me see if I can focus on my laptop for half an hour or so, despite all possible distractions.

Okay, so, about character arcs.

I’m a character reader, mostly.

That means I want to love the protagonist of a story and follow that protagonist through their journey. That in turn means I generally expect to see a steep-ish character arc. Not necessarily a classic Hero’s Journey, but some kind of character arc. Yet from time to time, I genuinely enjoy a novel with an extremely flat character arc, a novel where the protagonist is emotionally almost exactly the same at the ending of the novel as at the beginning. How can that work?

Well, there are two basic types of characters in fiction: dramatic characters, who change over the course of the novel; and iconic characters, who don’t. Rather than undergoing dramatic development over the course of the story, iconic characters become more and more themselves over time. In his anthology featuring iconic protagonists, Robin D Laws defines this kind of hero this way: an iconic hero undertakes tasks and changes the world, restoring order to it, by remaining true to his essential self. This is a great definition! This whole post is well worth reading and clarifies why iconic heroes can appeal to me — and to plenty of other readers.

In discussions of modern SFF novels, we might tend to discuss character development a great deal and therefore sometimes lose sight of the strengths of iconic characters. For example, here’s a recent post at Jane Friedman’s blog about the central importance of character arc. This is a good, thought-provoking post, but you see how this kind of discussion completely ignores the possibility of iconic characters. Certainly I think I can easily fall into thinking that “character” means “dramatic character.” But it doesn’t have to. We probably all know and love iconic characters — in fact, if an iconic character appeals to you, you’ll probably really love that character right from the beginning and perhaps all the way through an entire series.

Mostly we do expect iconic characters to occur in series, not in standalone novels. Batman, say. Batman is iconic. If Batman changes during the course of the story, it’s to become a deeper, purer version of himself, not a different version of himself. The Star Trek characters are iconic. I love a handful of Star Trek novels far more than I ever cared about the TV series, and the success of those novels generally depends on the author capturing the characters as perfectly as possible – not putting an individual spin on them, but capturing the essence of each character. That’s a specific talent, one I don’t have at all. I could never write a Star Trek novel or any other tie-in novel. Perhaps authors who can do that well have a better ability to truly see the essence of iconic characters and capture their voices.

But not all iconic characters are found in series. Some are found in standalone novels, and those novels and characters can also work really well. Take The Bridge of Birds. There’s a story with enormous charm, even though there is no real character development for either Number Ten Ox, who carries the pov, or for Master Li, who is the protagonist – thus fitting into my previous BVC post, and thanks to Elaine T for mentioning Bridge of Birds in that context. I think one reason this story works is that both Number Ten Ox and Master Li are iconic characters, archetypes that the reader recognizes and enjoys. The story is then carried by the puzzle and the clever writing, without the need for the protagonist to show any extensive character arc or hero’s journey or anything of the kind.

Another example of a standalone novel featuring an iconic protagonist is The Martian by Andy Weir. This story – which I read in an airport and on the flight, and I can’t imagine a better novel for that purpose – is a man-against-nature story and an example of “competence porn,” both of which I often like. But even when I read The Martian for the first time, I thought how interesting it was that the story completely lacks character development, that it works so well despite that. Mark Watney is emotionally stable and calmly competent at the beginning and, despite momentary outbursts, he remains emotionally stable and calmly competent all the way through. He handles mechanical failures, potential suffocation, dust storms, and, worst of all, running out of coffee, with sheer engineering competence and unfailing good humor. The lack of character development for Watney isn’t a flaw in this novel – it’s a feature that occurs because he’s an iconic character, not a dramatic character.

By and large, I’m a character writer as well as a character reader. Most of my characters are dramatic, but thinking of my own books through this lens, I can see that some of my secondary characters are fairly iconic. Ceirfei in The Floating Islands becomes more and more himself, pretty much the way Batman becomes more and more himself. Kairaithin, the griffin mage, is perfectly himself from front to back of the trilogy. But they aren’t the protagonists of those books. The protagonists in each story are very much dramatic characters, not iconic characters.

I think that once again the Death’s Lady trilogy stands out as unusual for me. In my last BVC post, I described how occasionally the protagonist of a novel doesn’t carry the point of view. Well, one way the reader can identify Tenai as the actual protagonist of the Death’s Lady trilogy even though she never has the point of view is that she’s got the most profound character arc. Daniel, who usually carries the point of view, has a shallow character arc, but really, he’s genuinely kind and thoughtful and decent at the beginning and he stays that way, even though the challenges he faces become more difficult. His daughter Jenna picks up the pov some of the time as the story continues, but her character arc – growing up – takes place largely, though not entirely, offstage. Only Emelan has a truly dramatic character arc, and he’s a secondary character who never takes the pov role.

I wasn’t specifically thinking of this at the time I wrote it – I didn’t realize this at all, in fact – but Tenai actually spent, what, four hundred years being an iconic character in the backstory of the trilogy. That’s the person everyone in her own world remembers: Nolas-Kuomon, Death’s Lady, who was very much herself, and seriously terrifying. Tenai’s first character arc is from iconic to dramatic, with the first short book of the trilogy serving at the transition. Only then, after she’s finally begun to move toward a different version of herself, not a deeper version of Death’s Lady, can she show a dramatic character arc.

What a odd a story this is, in so many ways. No wonder the revisions stretched out and out for years. It wound up working for me – and for many readers, judging from the reviews the trilogy has picked up in the first few months of its release – but, yep, no wonder it was difficult. All that time working with it, and I still see new things about the trilogy every time I turn around.

If anyone’s got an example of a favorite iconic character from SFF, by all means drop it in the comments!

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Stories That Succeed With Flat Character Arcs — 2 Comments

  1. One of the ways that made Bridge of Birds work so well was that we’re told at the beginning of the book that Number Ten Ox is stupid, but we gradually find out that he is in fact quite smart. So though he’s iconic, by this definition, the narrative slowly discloses an arc.

    I also think that flat characters, archetypal, or “stock” are sometimes employed by writers who are mainly plot-movers. Many gallons of ink have been splashed about complaining about the flatness of Tom Clancy’s characters, or Dan Brown’s, but in both cases, readers who love their books are reading for the velocity of the story, the characters to them are just the paper dolls being moved about (or munched) by the story.

  2. This topic reminded me of the writeup they did on AVClub about Legally Blond – Elle is a character who defies expectations in staying largely unchanged. Normally a protagonist who looks and sounds like her is expected to become more “serious” by the end. Instead, the characters around her are challenged to see below the surface elements that signal frivolousness in our society, to realize that this is an intelligent, earnest woman who just happens to really like pink and “girly” things. She’s the catalyst for change in others.

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