Neutral Character Arc: When Nothing is Everything
By Wulf Moon
I’ve decided there are two types of people in this world: those who like riding rollercoasters, and those who like their feet planted firmly on the ground. 

I’m of the latter. Oh, I’ve been cajoled by friends and family when I was younger to join them on a ride. It will be fun, they said! Totally safe, they said! You’re a chicken, they said! And as the safety bar clamped down and I was fastened into a corkscrewing bullet train with a benign name like Iron Rattler, Twisted Colossus , or Wicked Cyclone , I realized I had literally let myself get locked into my worst nightmare once again. As I rose click-click-click-click-click into the nose-bleeding heights, I had that pregnant moment at the apogee’s pause to contemplate the meaning of life, which I quickly concluded was to avoid any contraption built by drug-addled carnie workers designed to give you a near-death experience. 

But what goes up must come down, and the only way out of that heart-hammering torpedo is to stay seated, grip the safety bar white knuckles and all, and ride that roaring track with all the screamers to its end...or yours. 

“Let’s do it again!” my maniac friends would say, rushing off to stand in another hour-long line under the blistering 100-degree sun. Me? I was down on my hands and knees kissing the popcorn-littered ground like a sailor that had just reached land after surviving Cape Horn’s violent seas. 

Rollercoaster designers know how to milk every bit of fear out of their riders as they create their high-rise tracks. Escalating tension is inherent in the design of a rollercoaster. Anticipating the screaming plummet of the descent as you go up, up, up can be more frightening than the actual drop down. At least the drop happens fast. And you no longer have time to worry about what the fall is going to be like, because once the drop begins, it’s all visceral, you’re in the adrenaline-rushed experience until you come coasting to the end.

Strong external plots are like rollercoasters. Perhaps that’s why so many critics describe books and movies as “rollercoaster thrill rides!” Powerful stories grab you in the beginning just like that safety bar that locks in place, and they never let you go. The ride up the arc of the plot keeps your mind engaged because you don’t know what’s going to happen or you fear what might happen, because just like a rollercoaster, this too looks like a near-death experience. Your palms may be sweaty, you may have white knuckles, but there’s no way you’re letting go of the story no matter how late it might be— you’re locked in for the ride, and there’s no turning back. 

This magical effect that takes over your mind is due to the neurobiology of storytelling. Just as a rollercoaster releases cortisol stress hormones, so does a thrilling plot. The mind engages and the reader gets “hooked” into the story.

But to keep you reading and to transport your psyche into the richest experience —known as immersive writing or the technical term, narrative transportation— an experienced writer recognizes it’s essential that the reader identifies in some way with the characters of the tale, especially the protagonist. Empathizing with the protagonist’s struggles and emotional state can enwrap the reader’s own feelings into the protagonist, and deep emotional binding can actually provide the catalyst to help the reader let go of the realities of their real world and enter the character’s fictional world, even transporting themselves into that character and experiencing the story through them. This is the power of creating strong internal character arcs in our stories— transportation of a real person’s psyche into our fictional world through empathizing with the avatar of our emotionally resonant hero.

This is why positive internal character arcs are used so often in fiction— these characters exude identifiable traits of people with emotional struggles that show signs of goodness, working through their fears and wounds and muddled beliefs to find greater meaning to their lives, and when they achieve their goals and overcome their fears, it gives them the power to not only help themselves, but to help those around them. If we identify with a fictional character’s struggles and motivations, we can have feelings for them, even like them in spite of their flaws. Isn’t that how it works in real life? Why would it be any different with fictional characters?

This empathetic identifying with another person, even a fictional person, is due to the release of a hormone known as oxytocin. We see an abandoned baby lying on a church doorstep, we don’t step over it and head to the nearest burger joint because we’re hungry. No, we recognize it’s vulnerable , it might even die if we don’t take it into our arms. Our own feelings engage due to the release of oxytocin, and we are moved to act to protect and care for that baby. Oh, it’s crying? We hold it even closer, patting the baby’s back, cooing softly, telling it everything is going to be alright. And because our sympathetic emotions have been triggered, we’ll stick with that baby through thick and thin to make sure that’s exactly what will happen. It’s going to be alright because we are now emotionally engaged in its welfare.

As in life, so in story, which mirrors life. External plot arc engages the mind, internal character arc engages the heart. Combine the two with expertise, and you will master the deep magic of storytelling: narrative transportation. This is the dream state where stories enchant us, and then entrance us. These are the stories that transport us from our physical world into another dimension, a fictional one. Without dipping into the emotional state of a character —seeing inside of them, understanding their feelings and beliefs whether false or true— this dream state is going to be difficult for readers to access. You need both wings to make this bird, your story, lift off the ground and soar. This is why paying attention not only to external plot but to internal character arc is critical to creating stories with deep resonance and meaning that are remembered long after the credits at the theater are over or the novel page says The End. 

In our last Super Secrets of Writing article, we discussed positive internal character arcs using the example of George McFly in the movie Back to the Future . The movie opened with George’s emotional baseline as quite low on the scale— his boss, Biff Tanner, walked all over George in front of his son Marty, and George did nothing about it. By going back in time, Marty got to influence George during events in his life that would have caused permanent emotional wounds. Instead, Marty helped George find ways to rise above the bullying, to stand up for himself, and to embrace ideals that would change his density, I mean, his destiny. 

This is what’s known as a positive internal character arc, but as mentioned in the article, it’s not the only character arc system in stories. As we’ve discussed, internal arcs are used to create immersive stories that will spellbind your readers. Internal character arcs are actually the second half of the equation to create moving stories— some would say the first half since stories are primarily about people. Therefore, one should know the complete set of internal arc tools at their disposal. 

Did you know you can still enchant readers and bind them to your protagonist even without a changing internal arc? It’s called a neutral internal arc or a flat internal arc .

Let’s examine.
The Neutral Arc or Flat Arc
What goes up must come down, right? Thank goodness that’s true with rollercoasters. But sending something up into the air and then catapulting it down is not the only way to move cars forward. A train moves along on a level plain with great power once it gets rolling, right? Right! I hate rollercoasters— nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things, make you late for dinner! Or make you throw up your dinner. What a waste! 

But I love riding trains.

 As trains build up speed along a level grade, why do you enjoy the ride? I’ll tell you why I enjoy one particular ride. There’s a famous train in my neck of the woods called the Coast Starlight. I’ve taken my wife on it a few times on our anniversaries, splurging for a sleeper car. This West Coast train runs from Seattle to Los Angeles. The scenery along the Coast Starlight route is breathtaking. There’s the dramatic snow-covered peaks of the Cascade Range, the lush evergreen forests, and the emerald valleys along the Pacific Ocean shoreline that provide stunning changes of scenery on the journey. The rocking of the train is mesmerizing as you sit in the Sightseer Lounge car with floor-to-ceiling windows from which to enjoy the mountain views. No click-click-click to the tops, no screaming drops. But you are transported along a track, and taken to worlds you cannot access without riding that train. You go on a breathtaking journey without the journey squeezing the breath out of you through plummeting G-forces. It’s a different type of journey, but one many find enjoyable. 

How does a train ride relate to a flat internal arc, what I call a neutral internal arc? The arc doesn’t require starting from a low state, having one’s emotional wounds exposed by crises in the plot, casting aside emotional shields formerly used to protect oneself, and riding back down to earth with new internal strength through conquering one’s fears or changing one’s beliefs. In neutral internal arc stories, the protagonist does not change. What you see is what you get. WYSIWYG in the beginning; WYSIWYG at the end. 

“Wait one rootin’ tootin’ minute, Moon!” I hear you say. (What? Have you been watching Westerns again?) “I know I’ve heard you say good stories require the protagonist to change. Aren’t you the guy that said most stories can be summed up as ‘From a weak state made powerful’? What gives? And while I’m at it, what’s your beef against rollercoasters? I love them!”

You’re right. Most stories follow an internal arc that can be summed up as: “From a weak state made powerful.” Thanks for reading my Super Secrets. As for rollercoasters, different strokes for different folks. As for stories, there’s another saying: There are exceptions to every rule. Neutral internal character arcs are one of those exceptions. Quite an interesting exception at that. Not all protagonists require internal change. Not all protagonists need to change. 
Straight as an Arrow
While it’s true we’re all a work in progress, many of us know people we admire, perhaps even emulate because we love their good qualities. We enjoy spending time with them, maybe even going on trips with them (I’m quite ready for another adventure!) because of their strengths. These people bring out the best in us, they bring out the best in others, and life’s moments are enhanced when we’re around them. We don’t need drama to enjoy their company, in fact, we relish the understanding and peace we enjoy while spending time with them. Some people just make us feel better when we’re with them, and we long for more people like them in our world. 

This, too, is an important aspect of human nature. Not just the struggle against our wounds and weaknesses and survival beliefs, but also seeing people that appear to have made it, at least a solid measure of whatever we believe “it” is. Most of us want to see stand-up people holding to higher ideals in our society— as long as they’re humble about it. It’s encouraging, it gives us hope, not just for ourselves, but for humanity in general. And it’s true we have to have a measure of belief and love for ourselves in order to have anything in our well to share and upbuild others with. Whether you call them role models or mentors or simply good friends, they have strengths that make them the good people they are, and you don’t want to see any of those strengths change. Their very existence makes the world a better place.

The best example I can think of to represent a neutral character arc in story is DC Comics’ Superman. He is represented as the ultimate ideal of upholding good, of fighting for the downtrodden, of standing up for humanity by using his power to fight against those that seek to harm others. Superman starts out as an upstanding hero with the highest of ideals at the start of the story, and nothing internally changes— he ends the tale as the same upstanding hero. The Lone Ranger is another character with the same neutral arc throughout. WYSIWYG. What you see is what you get. From start to finish. No emotional revelations. No false beliefs that need to be shattered. No spineless characters like George McFly, that through the trials and the choices they make in the story grow a spine.

Why do these stories about altruistic, noble characters work? Why do many enjoy reading and watching stories about them again and again?

Because humanity does need heroes. As we watch the news and see the horrors of war or the oppression of dictators, we long for someone with the power to do something about it, someone with the ability to make things better for those that are suffering under injustice. We know absolute power can corrupt absolutely, but just once, might someone use such power for good and not be corrupted? And in standing up for the oppressed, might others be moved to do the same, ending the long history of human misery where those with power oppress those that have little power? What do these unchangeable altruistic heroes give us? Hope. And hope is what keeps us all going. Why wouldn’t we want to read or watch stories about characters that give us hope? 

So how do we keep up the tension if we have a hero that doesn’t have an internal struggle that’s weighing them down? How do we create that feeling of satisfying victory for the reader, releasing that final hormone of dopamine that makes us feel good all over at the end of a story for what is sure to be a guaranteed win from the start? 
You Don’t Need Kryptonite to Create Escalating Tension
The easiest way to bring a mighty hero down to earth is to create a thing of power that can strip power away from your mighty hero. Think of Lex Luther getting his hands on kryptonite, utilizing it to make Superman vulnerable. This is really a magic sword, but it’s a magic sword or power talisman wielded by the antagonist of the story to defeat what appears to be an invulnerable protagonist. However, in a neutral arc story, while the villain may be able to weaken the protagonist’s external power, they’ll never be able to diminish the protagonist’s internal beliefs and moral fiber. This is inviolable in such neutral arc characters. Why? Because this type of character is actually symbolic of the ideal. They must not change, or they never were the true representation of the ideal. 

But you don’t need something like kryptonite to weaken your power protagonist to create tension. These types of characters can easily run through a plot while remaining strong and resolute inside and out. So how do these types of stories create high stakes when the reader knows the high caliber and reputation of the hero being tested? 

One method is to put neutral arc characters through the crucible of trial to test their resolution in upholding their ideals. Isn’t it said that under enough pressure or torture, anyone will crack? Especially to save themselves or the person they love? That question, properly applied through the external plot, creates plenty of escalating tension, especially if the reader believes the trial is so great, it might finally break the inviolable character. 

My favorite example of this is James Bond in the 007 books and movies. Bond is a government agent and assassin, but he does this work, not for himself, but for “king and country.” He’s a highly trained human weapon for the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, licensed to kill enemies of the state bent on destroying not only British rule, but often all human society. When captured, as is the case with spies, Bond is not acknowledged by MI6 as one of their agents. In the movie Skyfall , when the list of MI6’s covert operatives is about to fall into enemy hands, Bond’s supervisor M orders another agent to “take the shot,” even though it’s likely the bullet will hit Bond as he struggles atop a train grappling with the enemy spy. In similar situations throughout multiple episodes, Bond could easily have felt used and unappreciated. It often appeared he was being treated with callous disregard, a cold tool in the hands of the British government, the SIS often showing no apparent consideration for the value of his life. 

In fact, in Skyfall , Bond is actually offered the chance to work with a former agent that’s gone rogue, having the luxury of choosing his own missions, serving himself instead of constantly risking his life for England. The offer is real. The test to his resolve and ideals is real. The enemy agent makes a compelling case against Bond’s superior, M. 

Bond passes the test. He even risks his life to save M at his ancestral home, Skyfall, in the end— this being the woman he called a bitch earlier when being evaluated on a psyche test, the very supervisor that ordered an agent to take the shot that hit him and could have ended his life. But Bond knows her job requires tough decisions, and he humbly recognizes his place. Even though he’s an assassin, he has a code as straight as an arrow— complete the mission no matter the cost, always placing the good of England above his own life. 

We know all of this, and yet this is what we look for and respect in every episode and incarnation of the fictional character, James Bond. He represents an ideal of service, ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for the good of those he is sent out to protect. He will never bend from that ideal, or he would not be Bond. The writers even found a way to create a feel good moment at the end of Skyfall from a character tougher than Bond: his supervisor M. Spoiler alert here if you haven’t watched this one. M, held in Bond’s arms while dying of a gunshot wound, validated our belief in James Bond. With her final breath she looked into Bond’s eyes and said, “I did get one thing right.”

I choked up when stone cold M said those words. I bet you did, too.
The Unstoppable Force Meets the Immovable Object 
One of the world's greatest paradoxes is the irresistible force paradox, asking the question: "What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?" The immovable object and the unstoppable force are both implicitly assumed to be indestructible. To mutually co-exist and confront one another creates a paradox: unreconcilable tension, since it’s assumed that neither can dominate the other.

People can be like this, too. If a person has their core belief challenged, a belief they’re willing to die for, right or wrong, they’re not likely to change. They won’t have that internal arc that comes with overcoming wounds, weaknesses, insecurities, false beliefs. There is no compromise. Put two together in a room with each holding polar opposite beliefs, you’re going to have conflict if they interact, discover the other’s opposing beliefs, and then try to dissuade the other from their beliefs. Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself with distant family members that gather once a year for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Plenty of escalating tension can ensue. We love escalating tension in our stories. We do not love it around the sacred family gathering.

But there’s the way to create tension without an internal character arc, and you don’t have to create a heroic character to do it. Just pit the immovable force against an immovable object. Neither can exist together when they come in contact— not without compromise, or one shattering the other. Remember, this is core belief stuff— a character’s very existence and purpose in life is based on these beliefs. To shift from such belief means self-destruction. 

Let me give you my favorite example.

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo is considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, and rightly so. It has stood the test of time and has resonated with readers and audiences around the world for over one hundred and fifty years. I’ve read the novel, I’ve seen the musical on Broadway, I’ve watched the movies. What makes this story transcend so many others, marking it as a monumental classic?

Unstoppable force meets immovable object.

It’s true the peasant protagonist, Jean Valjean, does go through an internal character arc at the beginning of the story. After serving nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, the only person that will take Valjean in is a kindly bishop. Valjean, bitter about all the injustice he has faced, steals the bishop’s silver, and is caught. He lies to the police, saying the bishop gave him the silver, and the priest surprisingly corroborates Valjean’s lie. Valjean has never experienced such selfless human kindness before, and the event causes him to have an internal transformation: from that decisive moment and throughout the rest of the story, Valjean rejects the belief he’s an incorrigible convict and chooses to be a changed man. To accomplish this, he breaks the restrictions of his parole and spends the rest of his life doing good to help his fellowman, especially the orphan Cosette. His arc is flat, straight, and true for the rest of the story, and he becomes the epitome of an unstoppable force for good.

But there’s an immovable object in this story, too. Inspector Javert, who hunts Prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean, for years because he violated his parole. Justice must be served, it is the law, and Javert has no room in his heart for mercy. In a surprising turn of events in a civil uprising by students, Inspector Javert finds himself saved by the very man his heart has so condemned. Unable to change, conflicted by his beliefs about convicts and the mercy a convict showed him, Javert cannot live with the conflict within. Instead of softening his hardline stance, the inspector throws himself off a bridge into the Seine River and kills himself.

The power in this story actually comes from these two unyielding forces colliding, one symbolizing love and mercy, the other symbolizing uncompromising justice. Both are unyielding flat arcs, creating immense tension as these two opposing forces cross paths throughout the story. In the end, we exult that mercy has risen triumphantly over judgment, and we grieve that the judgmental inspector could not find it in his heart to bend.

Such is the power of colliding diametrically opposed forces. When both the protagonist and the antagonist will not move from their staunch internal beliefs, no internal arc or transformational arc is necessary in order to create immense conflict and emotional investment for the reader.

In conclusion, whether you call it a neutral character arc or a flat arc, these type of stories work not because the character undergoes internal transformation, but because the character represents an ideal many respect and admire. Such heroes give us hope that good people are out there, ready to stand up for truth and justice. We may know some of these everyday heroes in our own lives, but it’s encouraging to read about them, too. Even fictional characters with altruistic ideals can help us aspire to become better people. It’s true. Studies have proven this. Such stories reinforce our own good qualities. Such heroes help us aspire to do better, to be better.

You don’t have to take me up a rollercoaster to prove these stories work, thank you very much. I can enjoy these ideals in my heroes right here from the ground. And don’t call me chicken, it won’t work. I’ve learned from Marty McFly that it’s better to walk away...
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