Character Flatlining

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In this link Bradley Beaulieu, courtesy of Patrick Rothfuss, asks whether character growth is mandatory. It may seem like a pretty obvious ‘yes’, but Beaulieu puts parameters on the changes. He suggests that there are certain strong character traits which the audience likes from the start, and woe betide the author who moves their character away from such bits. It’s not doing away with individual arcs, per se, but it is limiting the extent of their impact.

I have to admit, I don’t think his comments are particularly revolutionary. It seems like what he’s talking about is really just making sure the character stays recognisably the same person, whilst growing through the experience of their story. You peg a few things which are fundamentally ‘Character A’, and use them to remind yourself who you’re writing at any given point. That doesn’t mean the character can’t grow as a person.

Licensed never to change

Licensed never to change

So let’s look at a more extreme version. Is it possible to not have character growth AT ALL? Is it a modern fashion, rather than an integral part of storytelling? I think that rather depends on the format, but it certainly can work. Short stories, episodic structure, where the characters are the fixed point in an always changing adventure. James Bond is an obvious example – despite a full 23 films plus dozens of books, character development is momentary at best. His attitude to women has barely altered, despite the change in social expectations. He hasn’t grown as a person or changed his views about anything particularly. Even if there is some kind of growth or personal revelation, it’s all reset by the next film.  And yet it’s a hugely popular franchise (Quantum of Solace notwithstanding).

Can that work in a book? Again, it probably depends heavily on the format but it isn’t a flat negative. Detective pulp fiction is perfectly fine with flatlining characters – indeed, it’s almost an expectation of the genre that’s carried over into TV series. (Did Lt. Horatio Caine EVER change as a person?) In fantasy, I’m reliably informed that Conan fits this particular bill, although I’ll admit to never having read any.

So if you don’t bother with character arcs, what are the consequences? Obviously your story needs to stand up entirely on its own merits. It should be doing that anyway, but usually a hefty part of it resides within the character. If your protagonist is a flatliner then you have to do without. You also have to make sure that the character is interesting enough at the beginning that readers will remain invested all the way through. You’re not giving them any growth, redemption or lesson-learning to hang on for, so making sure your Mr. Bond is compelling enough from the get-go is pretty important.

The thing is, all the examples where flatlining is accepted are episodic formats.Can a solo outing be made to work as well? Can anyone think of any examples?

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2 responses »

  1. You were well informed Conan is an almost perfect example 🙂

    The character Druss is another from Legend but he went from being solo to episodic.

  2. Interesting point – I hear the need for character development cited so often, I’ve never questioned it until now.

    Presumably the characters who’ve become episodic started by flatlining in a stand-alone that then became popular enough to launch a series – certainly true of the Bond films, though I don’t know about the books. I wonder how many draw readers in with a little character development in the first outing, then stop there.

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