Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 15: Introduction to the 6 Flat Archetypes

From Writers Helping Writers:

In studying character arcs, writers easily recognize Positive-Change Arcs and Negative-Change Arcs. But somewhat more baffling can be the stories that appear to feature neither. These are stories in which the protagonist does not change or seems to have no character arc at all. How do these stories fit into the discussion of archetypal character arcs?

If you’ve studied foundational character-arc theory and practice with me before, you know there are two possible answers to the seeming conundrum of the “character with no arc.”

One is simply that he or she doesn’t arc. Both the protagonist, the supporting cast, and the story world itself remain relatively unchanged from beginning to end, despite everyone’s adventures. Indeed, the very point of their adventures might be to maintain a desirable status quo.

The other possibility is that the unchanging protagonist is in fact spearheading what I call a Flat Arc. As the name suggests, this is an arc in which the protagonist—the story’s central actor—remains thematically unchanged, but uses his or her understanding of the story’s central thematic Truth to catalyze change arcs in the supporting characters. (Flat-Arc protagonists are usually positive influences, or Impact Characters, but if their fixation is on the thematic Lie rather than the Truth, they can also be instrumental in catalyzing Negative-Change Arcs for the supporting characters.)

Over the last few months, we have explored six successive “life arcs,” represented by the Positive-Change Arcs of six primary archetypes—the Maiden, the Hero, the Queen, the King, the Crone, and the Mage. Each of these positive archetypes represents a rising above the limitations of the previous archetype in the cycle. They also inherently represent a struggle with twelve related “shadow” or negative archetypes—the Damsel/Vixen, the Coward/Bully, the Snow Queen/Sorceress, the Puppet/Tyrant, the Hermit/Witch, and the Miser/Sorcerer.

. . . .

6 Flat or “Resting” Archetypes

The six flat or resting archetypes can be seen like this:

1. Child (precedes Maiden Arc)

 2. Lover (precedes Hero Arc)

 3. Parent (precedes Queen Arc)

 4. Ruler (precedes King Arc)

 5. Elder (precedes Crone Arc)

 6. Mentor (precedes Mage Arc)

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

After reading through the OP (although not clicking on the large number links that presumably provide more detail about the various terms of art used), PG is more sympathetic to those who are intimidated when they read a publishing contract.

(PG will note that this appears to be Part 15 and expects that reading Parts 1-14 first would clarify a great many things.)

11 thoughts on “Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 15: Introduction to the 6 Flat Archetypes”

  1. Yup, that’s a thing. Nothing wrong with intellectual analysis, Heaven knows I’ve been told that I’m quite analytical. I think lots of writers end up trying to take apart the mechanics of story telling, trying to understand what elements make one story shine while another similar one feels flat.

    It’s a bit like doing a foundation course in art; learn about art history, practice the different disciplines: painting; drawing; sculpture; collage; pottery; and printing etc.

    However, after the student finds the medium that calls to them, then the next step is practice. And, while ones early work may be lacking, it’s still your work, and work that was worth doing.

    I once talked a writer, a partner of a friend of my partner. She told me she was thinking about throwing her work away, as it was not worth publishing. I replied, remember that if you had an early sketch by Picasso, it would be worth something.

    Write, learn, move on to the next story. It is the way.

    • Early work can be revisited or repurposed.

      One (currently “unmentionable”) author took an early *published* story from her early days and totally rewrote it into a top selling Hugo finalist (back when Hugos mattered) which led to an equally good sequel. The stories fit into a common timeline than benefitted from reworking several of her early works, set late in the timeline. Her skills had improved over time and the meta story that had evolved benefitted greatly.

      Quite a few SF authors from the 50’s would regularly revisit and expand published shorts into full novels. Sometimes is was through padding or bloating but many just simply rewrote with better tools and techniques.
      Also, some early works are actually very good in unconventional ways, from before the author figured out how to be commercially successful. Not everybody gets to be a Tolkien, whose every scrap and musing is studied in literary circles, but studying old works can shine light on how the author’s output has changed and not always for the better. A refresher can be useful for self-criticism.

      • I’m already a slave to my inner critic. I don’t want to nurture it more. Perfect is the enemy of good enough.

        I know, I’ve done it, and quite frankly the cost-benefit ratio was zero.

        • Well, the resulting revisited award winners are rare but it does happen. And “Author preferred editions” are a real thing. And not always because of editorial butchery.

          Just consider that the best targets for “remasters” are unpublished older works or fairly old works.
          *Something* inspired the first version. The younger author might just have bit off more than they could chew or just be ahead of the times. Times change, skills improve. Trusting the younger self can on occasion be productive.

          Revising a recent story is, yes, probably not productive absent a big boo-boo or real world develooment (The fall of tbe Soviets, a true warp drive). But a major rewrite, akin to the remasters that are suddenly popular in the gaming business? Different story.

          Think of it as a 2.0 release, more like the Ron Moore BATTLESTAR GALACTICA that took a failed product of the 80’s and successfully reworked it for a new era. (The proposed new version for NBC, though? Dubious. Too soon.)

          Careful thought is required, though: (even mildly) successful things are best left alone. (Did the world really need a Mary Poppins sequel? Nope. And the box office agreed.)

          Nothing is guaranteed but every once in a while revisits produce homeruns. Case by case, like everything else.

          • I agree. I was too lazy to write out such a full answer. Thank you for adding much needed clarity to the discussion. Most appreciated and you are correct.

            Now all I have to do is long enough that I have the skill to remaster a classic work of mine. 😉

            • Check your archives.
              See if anything makes you go: “Oooh! Arghhh!”
              Aka, “Good idea. But what was I thinking?” 😀

              From what I’ve seen a lot of veteran authors end up there eventually. Except the ones who studiously avoid their own works out of fear of cringe.
              Only Athena starts up fully formed and battle ready. 😉

    • Write, learn, move on to the next story. It is the way.

      So true. But Indie Self Pub adds another wrinkle: easy fixing of mistakes. I recently updated a first-in-series book. I’d accumulated various “errors” (e.g., my hero could see Algiers from Gibraltar, which a friend, who was raised in Algiers, pointed out was impossible) so I spent an hour fixing and re-uploading the text (including other “improvements.”) The revised book appeared in under 12 hours. No major changes but just a little bit better.

      • I agree, but a new book is another revenue stream, and as long as the old book is still earning then a cost versus benefit calculation is needed, if said corrections are going to take any substantial amount of time.

        Obviously, if you’re doing a new edition to revamp the cover, the blurb and correct typos, then have at it. But for me, unless said error were egregious, as in reducing sales then I wouldn’t. YMMV.

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