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Character development is a term that you hear or read a lot about when you discuss storytelling. This is due to the fact that it is one of the surest ways to gauge if a character has worked for the reader and viewer: Has he or she grown throughout the story? Has he or she become a much better character in terms of their abilities? And many other things that reflect the character’s evolution throughout the story.
This is all well and good, and the reality is that a story without development in its characters is not a good story. It’s that progression, whether it’s positive or negative, that helps the story reach far greater heights and connect with people on a deeper level. Therefore, when we see a main character that doesn’t have a lot of development, we tend to be critical of it and point it out as a negative trait.
Well… what if I were to tell you that there is a different type of character that can work without any major developments? This is a type of arc called the flat character arc.
What Is The Flat Character Arc?
Contrary to common conceptions of what character development is, a flat character arc is an archetype where the protagonist remains the same through most of the story and his or her inner vision of the world and values are challenged by reality and the many different ordeals that come with it.
So, in that regard, this is a character that doesn’t change, but rather changes the world around him or her and allows other people to grow.
What Is So Appealing About The Flat Character Arc?
If you are a writer starting out or a fan of stories in general, you could very well ask yourself what is the appeal of the flat character arc. After all, if character development is so interesting and allows for so many different storytelling tools, why would someone go for a flat character arc?
There are various reasons for this, actually. First and foremost, the flat character arc is usually a strong representation of an idea or an ideal, and they are meant to show their ideology in a world that is strongly against them. Marvel Comics’ Captain America is a very good example of this: him obviously being a representation of the United States already has a lot of connotations, but he is also meant to embody the best of humanity.
The Flat Character Arc in Comics
Captain America is, by all intents and purposes, a paragon virtue in the Marvel Universe and he is meant to be a positive influence on others. This fits very well with his personality: he has unshakable values, he is extremely determined and he helps bring out the best in others. That is why, when there are big Marvel crossovers, he fits so well in the leadership role.
Of course, the archetype of this approach for characters could very well be Superman and the first comics he was a part of. After all, the Man of Steel embodies everything that is good with people and is meant to inspire others to be the best versions of themselves, which is something we have seen in Superman comics, movies, series, crossovers, and a lot more. He is the definitive flat character arc.
I have discussed in the past that a lot of people try to find flaws in Superman but there aren’t any simply because he is a very stable character. Sure, he may not have the greatest of developments because many of his core values and views have remained the same since his debut in 1938, but that is the point: he is meant to be both a symbol and a character.
Having said all that, there are other elements where Superman has changed: he is now a married man, a father, and a much more established figure in the DC canon when compared to his early days in the comics. So, growth is not completely unusual for a flat character arc.
Naturally, comic books are in a unique situation where the story never ends for the most part, so having a flat character arc benefits the writer because it adds an element of consistency to an endless flow of stories. Now, how does this apply to a story that has an ending or doesn’t work in the way that comics operate?
Well, we can go to manga and anime and analyze one of the most important main characters in all of fiction, Goku from Dragon Ball.
The Flat Character Arc In Anime and Manga
A common trend in recent years has been criticizing Goku’s character, saying that he doesn’t evolve and remains the same throughout the series, becoming uninteresting and boring. While I don’t agree at all with this statement, it also shows a lack of understanding of who this character is and how his flat character arc might be one of the best and most iconic in fiction.
We start Dragon Ball with Goku as a kid and by the end of the story, he is a grown man and a grandfather. That is a sign of growth and development, but it can be said that Goku doesn’t change all that much during the series: he is still innocent, looking forward to fighting strong people, and doesn’t know much in the way of social skills and he is still a bit dumb, but all of that is consistency that adds to the fact that he is a massive game-changer in the Dragon Ball universe.
It is through Goku’s eyes that we discover the world that Akira Toriyama has created and his impact as the protagonist is felt a lot as he progresses in the series. This can be seen in the supporting cast: a lot of Goku’s allies in Dragon Ball are people that he fought against and eventually became his friends, such as Tien, Piccolo, Vegeta, the androids, and many more.
Goku remains “static” in terms of character development, but his input is felt throughout the story. In the Cell saga, the part where Gohan faces the main villain is pretty much created by Goku, and that shows how much his views of the world and his understanding of things have a profound impact on how the story goes.
This is why Dragon Ball works: Toriyama understands his protagonist (at least during the original run of the manga, that is) and he manages to create a world where Goku’s impact is felt. But this is where supporting characters are very important, which is why Piccolo, Vegeta, and Gohan have become fan favorites. And there are examples of the contrary in manga and anime as well.
Saitama, from One Punch Man, is a very similar example, with his incredible strength serving as a way to influence others and how his all-powerful abilities can impact this world filled with superheroes.
I really like the character of Jonathan Joestar from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. I think he is an excellent example of a paragon of virtue and he serves his role as the first JoJo quite well. Plus, his rivalry with Dio Brando is the stuff of legends. However, there is no denying that he is a very good example of a flat character arc done wrong, but not due to the reasons you may think.
The problem is not Jonathan himself, but rather the supporting cast. As much as I like Erina, Speedwagon or Zeppeli, the reality is that they are not characters that are very fleshed-out or developed, which means that Jonathan’s impact, is not felt throughout the first part of JoJo’s, Phantom Blood. There is a bit of a disconnect and Jonathan’s flat character arc doesn’t have the impact that the author, Hirohiko Araki, would have wanted.
One could argue that Jonathan does have character development, but I think his growth in abilities and power, and in terms of morals and values is very much the same through Phantom Blood. That is why this part of the series doesn’t have a similar reception to future installments, which is a bit of a shame because I like Jonathan and what he stands for, but, sadly, from a narrative perspective, he does fall a bit flat (pun intended) at times.
However, I would like to point out that JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure has a very good example of a flat character arc done well.
Giorno Giovanna is the protagonist of the fifth part of JoJo’s, Golden Wind, and he is, ironically, when you consider the context of this article, one of the most criticized leads of the series. One of the most common arguments is that Giorno doesn’t grow or learn much during Golden Wind, thus being an ineffective protagonist.
This is a very common situation with flat character arcs: people often say that they don’t grow or that they are boring because they remain very consistent throughout their story. However, Giorno proves to be very important to the plot, not only as the protagonist, but also as a way to inspire the rest of the main cast to push forward in their war against Diavolo, and that is a key example of the flat character arc.
A lot of people mention that Bruno Bucciarati is the real protagonist of Golden Wind, and is very ironic when you consider that it was Giorno who convinced him to betray Passione, setting in motion the events of the part. Giorno also has an impact on Fugo, Mista, and Abacchio, thus showing how much of an influence he is in the story while staying true to his values and motivations.
Giorno works in Golden Wind because he is consistent in what he does, what he believes in, and how that influences the rest. His values directly clash with Diavolo’s, which is how the entire plot of Golden Wind begins, and all of that is a very good example of this archetype.
Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star
Now that we have seen good and bad examples of this archetype in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, I think it is also important to highlight one of the series that heavily inspired Araki in his early days, Fist of the North Star, and its protagonist, Kenshiro.
Fist of the North Star takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where Kenshiro is the sole symbol of strength that is actually on the side of good, so he is traveling from city to city defeating bad guys. It’s a straightforward concept, mixed with elements of martial arts and 80s action movie looks, and Kenshiro works as the classic, stoic badass of that era.
We could easily say that Ken is just a walking weapon of mass destruction for bad guys, but he proves to be one of the few compassionate and good-natured people that have power in the series, serving as a light of hope in a very bleak world. And this is one of those situations where the flat character arc works so well.
Considering the dour, pessimistic, and savage feel of the world in Fist of the North Star, having a character like Kenshiro works so well because it is a direct contrast to the setting that the author has established and he has to will his way into survival and helping others. It is a very good example of what I have mentioned earlier of a flat character arc being someone against the established status quo.
This doesn’t mean that Fist of the North Star is a perfect example of the flat character arc because there are some critical errors, mostly due to the time that it was written. Kenshiro is, for the most part, the one character of the main cast that can actually fight and defeat the bad guys, so you know he is going to battle the enemy and most likely come out on top, thus becoming a bit repetitive.
It also falls a bit in the same situation as Jonathan Joestar in Phantom Blood, with the thing of lacking a stronger supporting cast, but I would argue that the bleak nature of Fist of the North Star helps a lot to keep it fluid. Plus, I think Fist of the North Star has Kenshiro showing greater displays of power, which is at least entertaining.
Flat character arcs are also very common and effective in short stories, particularly during the height of the pulps in the early 20th century. Characters such as Sherlock Holmes or James Bond have remained static in terms of who they are, what they do, and what they believe in, but that is part of the reason they have become timeless: it is not about how they grow, but rather how they influence the world around them.
You don’t need much context for a James Bond movie, and, yet, it continues to work when done well. Why? Because the basis of the character is timeless, and while he faces many threats in the several adaptations that Bond has had, it is fascinating to see him in different situations while remaining consistent with who he is.
The flat character arc is all about consistency, a clear understanding of who your character is, and how his or her actions impact the rest of the world and the characters in it. If you play your cards well, if you understand this narrative tool in an effective manner, you can get a lot of great results in the process.