Character Arc: Flat
Why Indiana Jones should have stopped after The Last Crusade as well as a look at dynamic flat arcs.
February 20, 2019
B. C. Marine, CAO Authors 4 Authors Publishing
We’re here at the last of the character arc series (you can read here if you want to start from the beginning), and it’s time to tackle the great oxymoron of flat arcs.
Today I’ll be discussing two types of flat arcs: the classic flat arc and what I’m calling the dynamic flat arc. Yes, that second one sounds a bit confusing, and I’ll get to that, but let’s look at a classic flat arc first. Our prime example will be Indiana Jones.
Leave Indy Alone (Classic Flat Arc)
There are few action-adventure heroes more iconic than Indiana Jones. He has his hat, his whip, his snark, and the knowledge and determination to save the day. Nobody watches these movies for deep character revelations or insight into the human spirit. It’s all about the stunts and actions scenes and a crazy archeological treasure hunt.
Part of what makes it all work so well is that Indy doesn’t change. He is a steadfast character. Since the audience can depend on him not to change, the focus of the show is on all the other moving pieces. If you break down everything that happens in a given movie in the franchise, there is a ton of action packed into the runtime, and that’s possible because they aren’t spending time on changing Indy’s character.
It’s a method that served the franchise well...for the first three movies. Then The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull happened. To be honest, I could write a lengthy post on all that was wrong with that movie, but let’s just focus on the character arc of Indiana Jones, shall we?
Where it went wrong
One of the first things to notice is the aging of Indiana Jones. Yes, yes, Harrison Ford is older, and I’m not faulting him for that. He’s actually in fabulous shape for his age. However, he’s just not up to the kind of stunts that he performed as a younger man, which means that the action-adventure main character is forced to take the backseat in several scenes to let his younger co-star do more fights. So that standard, familiar, steadfast setup is automatically interrupted.
This in and of itself wouldn’t be so bad, but a large chunk of the movie is given over to Indy meeting his son and reconnecting with Marion. To be fair, Indiana Jones movies have always had romantic subplots, but they’re as shallow as kiddie pools. They mainly consist of putting a female character in close proximity to Indy for the duration of the film and having him kiss her at some point. The relationships never really change him. In The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, these subplots take over. So we’re left with an aged Indiana Jones doing less impressive stunts and squabbling with his family. Yay.
By changing the steadfast character, the movie can no longer accomplish the kind of action-adventure that made the previous films so beloved.
To Thine Own Self Be True (Dynamic Flat Arc)
On the surface, this one might seem confusing, but it’s really quite simple. A dynamic flat arc is when a character must actively fight to not change. Because of this struggle, they aren’t truly static (hence dynamic), but ultimately, they have a flat arc. For an example, I’m going to use a character from my novel A Seer’s Daughter. If you haven’t read it yet, go do that. I’ll wait.
Now that you’ve read it (or plowed ahead anyway, you rebel, you), the character I want to look at is Odelia DiOrto. When the story opens, she’s caring, intelligent, and in love with her best friend. While she has some flaws, she’s not in need of major growth or transformation any time soon. She doesn’t need to learn to embrace who she is as a queen. She’s already there and working on getting everyone else to recognize it. What she really needs is to not fall. This is what her father tells her about her future:
“You think that King Gonfrid will just hand Vist back to us if we ask nicely? To claim the throne is to provoke a civil war. He will ransom your head for all the gold he can spare. You will fight to survive, and to hold your claim will require you to become someone I never want you to be. It will mean cruel and ruthless acts and a cold heart. And when all is said and done there will be two broken kingdoms, ripe for conquest by our neighbors because, lest you forget, Meriveria was formed for a reason. I see death. I see you wearing the crown, and alone. I want no part of this future, Odelia.”
It’s a bleak vision and a far fall from where she starts. Over the course of the story, Odelia’s given many opportunities to choose that future, and a few times, she seriously questions whether she might be stumbling into it anyway. But in acknowledging it, she actively fights to remain who she is. This is different from the classic flat arc in that the character is choosing not to change.
Have you seen other examples of a dynamic flat arc? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook. And if you haven’t already, go read A Seer’s Daughter.
Next week, join Rebecca Mikkelson for an important article on genre shaming. Why does it happen, and what should we do about it?
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