How to Craft Static Character Arcs For Your Novel
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A character arc follows the inner journey a character undergoes throughout a story.
In most cases, we think of character arcs as being transformative. A protagonist overcomes a fear or flaw in an effort to achieve their goal or finds themselves falling victim to their darkest doubts and desires. But what about the arcs in which no transformation takes place? Is a character arc lacking in development if the character remains the same person they were when their story began?
Not at all, writer — or, at least, not necessarily. When crafted with intention, this type of arc can tell a powerful inner story. Today on the blog, let’s take the time to break down the major beats that bring this static arc to life.
Examining the Static Character Arc…
If you’ve been around character arc town a time or two, you may have heard static arcs called “flat arcs.” Both of these terms refer to the unchanging nature of the character in question. Through their journeys, static characters do not overcome a core flaw or fear, realize a necessary inner truth, or fall victim to a limiting belief.
When readers first meet a static character on the page, that character already has a strong sense of identity and personal belief from which they will not waver. So what lends interest to the inner journey of a static character?
Two things: transformation and temptation. Instead of undergoing an inner transformation, a static character has the power to bring about necessary transformation in the world around them. This is why many static arcs follow warriors, detectives, adventurers, and other such characters capable of fighting injustice and protecting those in danger.
Though a static character will not undergo inner transformation, that doesn’t mean they won’t be tempted. Anyone who stands firmly in a particular belief is sure to face opposition, and your static character is no exception. During their physical journey, they’ll face conflicts and stakes that test their deeply rooted beliefs, thus making their inner journey one of resistance.
Establishing a Powerful Inner Truth…
When crafting a static character arc for your novel, it’s important to begin by developing the character in question. In most cases, a writer should be able to boil that character’s identity down into a simple statement. For example:
Indiana Jones is an archaeologist and adventurer who seeks to protect ancient artifacts from authoritarian powers.
Sherlock Holmes is a highly-observant consulting detective who seeks to outwit Britain’s cleverest criminals.
At the heart of every static arc is a question: Will this character stay rooted in their truth or will they fall victim to trials and temptations?
By first establishing your character’s core identity, you set yourself up to uncover the Ultimate Truth that will guide them throughout their journey. What might that Truth be? Let’s take a second look at our examples:
Indiana Jones’ Truth is that the world’s most precious ancient artifacts must be protected.
Sherlock Holmes’ Truth is that only he is smart enough to bring such clever criminals to justice.
With this Truth at hand, you can begin mapping the trials and temptations that will lend conflict to your character’s inner journey. We’ll break down the major beats in which these trials and temptations occur below, but before we do, it’s worth taking a moment to define a few additional story elements. Ask:
Who or what will seek to undermine your character’s Truth, whether or not they do so intentionally?
What is the Lie that this antagonist believes and/or weaponizes to get what they desire?
What action will the antagonist take to undermine your character’s Truth?
What is at risk if your character does not take action against the antagonist? What is at risk if they do?
What would push your character to consider breaking from their Truth?
Mapping The Beats of a Static Character Arc
Having established the elements at the heart of a static character arc, you can now begin mapping the major beats that will define your character’s journey. Though the term “beat” typically refers to a single scene, I’ve also used it here to denote a series of related scenes that follow a similar pattern. With that said, let’s work through this internal story structure together.
BEAT #1: THE NORMAL WORLD.
Every static arc begins by revealing its primary character in their everyday world. That world may be one built upon the character’s Truth or it may be riddled by a Lie that the character refuses to believe. In either case, this first story beat should reveal your character’s Truth and showcase how they live according to its principles.
If your character lives in a Lie-ridden world, the antagonist and their Lie should be made evident to readers in this first beat, though your character won’t yet actively engage in a fight against the antagonist. If your character lives in a world built on Truth, hints of the antagonist and their dangerous Lie may crop up during this first beat or the Lie may reveal itself in dramatic fashion in the beat to come.
BEAT #2: The lie Takes Hold.
After establishing your character’s normal world, a scene will take place in which that world is turned upside down. In a normal world driven by a Lie, the antagonist and their Lie will at last catch up with your character, often directly threatening them or those they love.
In a normal world driven by Truth, this beat brings a catastrophic event in which the antagonist and their Lie threaten your character and the Truth they hold so dear. Once again, your character finds themselves drawn into conflict with the antagonist and their Lie because of the personal stakes at hand.
BEAT #3: Doubts & Disbelief.
With the antagonist and their Lie now an active threat in your character’s life, your character begins a new journey, struggling to survive as the antagonist launches a series of conflicts they cannot avoid. Often, your character lacks a key piece of information or a skillset that would enable them to fight back, leaving them to doubt whether they can truly overcome the antagonist’s threat.
As if that weren’t trial enough, your character also finds themselves surrounded by people who doubt the power of their Truth. With few supporters by their side, your character struggles to find their footing in a fight they cannot afford to lose.
BEAT #4: The lie comes to light.
The midpoint in your static character arc changes everything. So far, your character has been an underdog, barely surviving their fight against the antagonist. But at the midpoint, your character gains the information or skillset they need and/or undergoes a shift in mindset that changes the game.
Along with this gain comes the biggest conflict yet in your character’s journey. It’s in this moment that your character realizes the depth of what’s at stake and decides to fight back at any cost, save compromising the Truth they hold so dear.
BEAT #5: The Truth Strikes Back.
Now armed with the tools they need to stand a chance of succeeding, your character launches into the second half of their story, determined to defeat the antagonist and their Lie. In fact, your character now actively engages in conflict with the antagonist, seeking to chip away at their power bit by bit.
Often, as your character gains ground, others come to see and understand the power of their Truth. Thus, your character gains a few much-needed supporters and begins transforming the world around them.
BEAT #6: The Dark Night of the Soul.
Just when it seems their victory may be at hand, your character suffers a massive defeat in a moment that nearly shatters their resolve — often seeing them or those they love come to harm. It’s your character’s worst nightmare, their breaking point, and they rage against the futility of their power and their cause. What good is the Truth if it cannot overcome the Lie?
BEAT #7: A final rallying cry.
Just when all seems lost, a spark of hope ignites. In some stories, your character is encouraged to pick up the pieces by those they’ve helped to see the Truth. In others, your character seizes one last opportunity to prevent the antagonist from claiming another victim.
In either case, your character reaffirms their Truth, rallies what energy and resources remain, and prepares for one final fight against the antagonist and the Lie they believe.
BEAT #8: The Climactic Sequence.
At last, we come to the biggest moment in your static character arc, the final showdown between your character’s Truth and the antagonist’s Lie. Though the antagonist may try to weaken your character’s resolve, your character will stand firm in their beliefs — no matter what’s at stake.
By the strength of their Truth and with the help of those they’ve impacted along the way, your character will prevail against the Lie your antagonist has wielded as a weapon since page one. In some stories, however, this moment will see your character sacrifice themselves in order to defeat the Lie once and for all.
Beat #9: Planting Seeds of Truth.
With the antagonist defeated, your static arc begins to resolve. In some cases, your character or those they’ve left behind must take pains to expunge the Lie where its roots still run deep. In its place, they establish or re-establish a normal world in which the Truth allows all to live in peace. Most importantly, this beat reaffirms the power of the Truth and showcases how the Truth has positively impacted your character and the world in which they live.
As K.M. Weiland explains in her fantastic breakdown of static character arcs, your character may indeed experience inner change as a result of their journey. They’ve gone through some heavy conflict; that’s bound to have an effect. However, your character’s arc remains static because they do not overcome or fall victim to a core limiting belief. They remain rooted in their Truth from beginning to end.
If you’re looking for even more information on how to craft a static character arc, I can’t recommend K.M. Weiland’s work enough. She is truly the queen of character arcs, and I’m grateful for all that I’ve learned from her material. In Weiland’s breakdown, she uses these stories as examples of well-developed static arcs:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
True Grit by Charles Portis
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen
Dreamwork’s Chicken Run
Ridley Scott’s Gladiator
Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins
If you’re looking to craft a static character arc of your own, I highly recommend consuming as many stories featuring such arcs as you can — in addition to studying the basic structure of its beats, of course. Understanding the many ways in which a writer can manifest a static character arc is one of the best ways to brainstorm how you can bring your own to life.