Different types of characters help tell different types of stories. It’s inspiring to see a story where the protagonist overcomes challenges and grows, but using a character that doesn’t change can add a lot of value as well.
*Spoiler warning: I discuss some key spoilers for the Your lie in April anime series in this article. Read on at your own discretion 🙂
While perusing YouTube one day and giving ‘The Algorithm’ all kinds of data about my internet browsing habits, I was suggested a video about a well-known character from the Dragonball franchise – Son Goku. The video, titled “Goku: The Misunderstood Character,” shares an interesting perspective on why some of the show’s critics misunderstand Goku’s value in the anime. The video doesn’t argue that Goku’s actions or direction in the series are misunderstood, but instead challenges a widely held criticism that Goku is a bad character because he does not change and grow as the series progresses.
To explain this lack of change, the video’s creator, Totally Not Mark, presents the idea that Goku’s story follows a ‘Flat Character Arc;’ a concept he cites from K.M Weiland’s books about story/character construction. To summarize, Flat Arc characters remain the same in their beliefs and direction, experiencing little or no significant internal change over the course of the story. In contrast, Positive Arcs begin with relatively unfulfilled individuals who will experience a change that causes them to grow over time.
While many popular anime feature Flat Character Arcs (Totally Not Mark mentions Saitama from One Punch Man, for example), these characters often come across as uninspiring or poorly written. The absence of growth or change is automatically seen as a flaw because it inhibits viewers from becoming invested or engaged in the character’s personal story. Due to this narrow way of thinking, most of the characters in Your lie in April, aside from the protagonist Kousei Arima, often struggle to find merit in the eyes of a critical viewer.
But by exploring Weiland’s concepts of Positive and Flat Characters arcs, it can be shown how these constructs define the characters and themes presented in Your lie in April, and how their archetypes help tell the story. Weiland states that the Positive Arc (or Positive Change Arc) is about what she calls “the lie the character believes.” This lie must be overcome by learning the truth for personal growth to occur. In contrast, the Flat Arc is about “the truth the character believes.” They understand the truth from the beginning and will use that truth to create change in the world around them, which can include changing the protagonist. For a series like Your Lie in April in which the core message revolves around lies and truths, this distinction strikes at its central theme.
To understand and appreciate how the Flat Arc is used in the series, it helps to first explore the Positive Arc. Kousei Arima begins the series overcome by negative feelings and experiences that leave him afraid to touch the piano. As the series progresses, he overcomes his hurdles and grows to a point where he can pour his heart into his performances without fear or regret. This growth is brought about by many factors, but it all stems from the lie he believes.
There is a central lie which holds him back (more on this later), but Kousei believes a number of lies at the start of the series. He believes his world lacks ‘color,’ leading to a dispassionate and rote existence. Kousei is convinced he’s cursed to not hear the notes he plays because he failed his mother. He also believes Kaori likes Watari and that he could never impress someone like her. These lies make Kousei a passive player in his own life, drawing him away from the piano and relegating his relationship with Kaori to simply being “Friend A.”
Following the Positive Arc pattern, Kousei discovers truths and changes over the course of the series. His world “…started to take on color” after he approached music again. He realizes he invented the ghost of his mother, recognizes his competition for how they help each other grow, and opens up about his feelings toward Kaori. The fear within Kousei at the beginning is replaced by passion as he realizes how liberating the piano can be as a medium for expressing himself. But to unravel his lies and grow from learning the truth, Kousei required the outside perspective of someone who knows that truth. This is where the Flat Arc character comes into play.
Kaori Miazono represents the quintessential Flat Arc character. She undergoes the least internal change of anyone in the story (aside from supporting characters like Watari and Kashiwagi). In contrast to Kousei’s structured, formal approach to music and life, Kaori embraces spontaneity. She loves performing, on and off the stage, and adopts a cavalier attitude toward music that remains constant throughout the series. She pushes Kousei constantly, not allowing anyone’s doubts to shake her resolve in seeing him play the piano again. Kaori’s unwavering determination exists because she, as a Flat Arc character, has known the truth from the beginning. Armed with this truth, her purpose in the story becomes to challenge the lies believed by Kousei and others. Kaori gives viewers hints about his truth with a few mantras:
“For a musician, a life without music is death.”
“Music is freedom”
“Maybe there’s only a dark road up ahead. But you still have to believe and keep going.”
Because Kousei falsely believes that music can only ever bring him pain, Kaori is instrumental in sparking the transformation that occurs in his character. Her words plant the seeds of truth that rouse his growth, but she fulfills this role in other ways too. The colorless world Kousei exists in begins to brighten from the first moment he sees her. She pressures him into being her accompanist for the violin competition where Kousei realizes how their music inspires the audience. She insists that they play Libeslied for the gala, even though Kousei dreads its connection to his mother, which finally helps him overcome his fear and find closure with the ghost of his past.
In the end, Kaori guides Kousei toward his own personal truth – as long as he has music, he is never alone. No matter what else happens, music will connect him to everything he loves. Kaori understood this from the very start of the series. The final episode reveals that she learned this as a child, from Kousei himself, the very first time she heard him play. Even when her life is literally threatened, Kaori clings to the truth long enough to help Kousei return to the piano and spread more of the magic that inspired her in the first place.
Learning all of this at the end of the series leads some to believe Kaori is a disingenuous plot device, but starting her as a developed character allows the writer to best use the Flat Arc model. It’s the only way that Your lie in April can exist as the kind of story it is. I discussed this in an article I wrote last year, explaining how Kaori’s lie made the series possible. It seems odd that a character type driven by truth enters the series with a lie, but that semi-unique trick allowed her to start both Kousei and the show’s viewers on a journey. Flat Arc characters, after all, create interest in the story by showing how they affect the world around them. When everything about the series is a result of Kaori’s actions, it’s easy to see the value that this archetype brings.
I tend to do a lot of thinking about Your lie in April, especially at this time of the year, but I would love to read your thoughts as well. Have you heard of the Flat Arc before? What are some of your favorite anime with these types of characters? Leave a comment and let me know.
As always, thank you for reading.
Always nice to see a post form you, Otaku! And such a great one at that. I definitely agree that the flat character arc is something that really needs to not be criticized so much, because in stories like those the flat character exists to push the rest of the cast forward. I think flat characters work especially well in large ensemble pieces, which Your Lie in April is. Another example I can think of is RWBY: I always see people saying the main character Ruby doesn’t grow at all, and I don’t think she has to. She’s there to be the constant optimist and strength for the group, and push everyone forward and into the changes they’ve gone through in the series, much like Kaori! That’s the best example of that I can think of off the top of my head. Once again, great article, really enjoyed the read 😀
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Thank you, Crystal! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I know I’ve not been around much, but I’ve been thinking about this topic for a little while and it’s April, so…
I’ve not seen RWBY, but your description of Ruby sounds like she does have aspects of this character type. From my vague understanding of the series I think having a character that can kind of keep the rest of the cast on course and support them through their pitfalls is very useful indeed and helps tell their stories better.
What I hoped to highlight was the value of having a character that doesn’t follow the formula, and how you can create a different kind of story using them. I get annoyed when I see someone decry a story/show simply because it doesn’t follow the standard positive arc tropes. You can’t be creative if you’re always walking inside the lines.
It’s the difference between performing a piece exactly as the composer wrote it versus playing with passion!
You should never forget to check if your character arc is in the right place. Remember that your characters will bring color to your story, so you have to focus on them as much as you focus on your plot. This article Character Arcs to Come Up with a Great Story will discuss character arcs that you should know before you get started on your writing process.