how to write a negative character arc the third act

How to Write a Negative Character Arc, Pt. 3: The Third Act

In a word, the negative character arc is about failure, and this becomes nowhere more clear than in the Third Act. If the positive change arc is about redeeming self and the flat arc is about saving others, then the negative character arc is about destroying self and probably others as well.

Creating Character ArcsThe previous two acts have been all about setting up that destruction. The character has made choices, but since they’ve all been based on the false foundation of the Lie, they’ve turned out to be horribly wrong decisions. Unlike positive arc characters, who will make mistakes but will then recognize and learn from those mistakes, the negative arc character will refuse to even recognize his mistakes, much less embrace opportunities to grow past them and rectify them.

The result is a story that’s horrifyingly resonant in its recognizableness. Negative character arcs act as cautionary tales for readers, since none of us want to end up as tragic heroes. But these stories’ great power is not in their “moral,” but rather in their sheer familiarity. We all play out negative arcs (although hopefully on smaller stages than Gatsby, Heathcliff, and Anakin) over and over in our own lives. We know how thin the wire we’re all balancing on and how easy it is to fall off and end up dogmatically determined to believe that the Lies we’ve lived by haven’t been mistakes.

The Third Plot Point

No matter what type of arc you’re writing, the Third Plot Point is always a place that reeks of death. The character is brought face to face with his own mortality—either because his own life is threatened (literally or by extension, as when, for example, his livelihood or good name is threatened) or because the lives of those he cares about are put under the axe. In positive and flat arcs, the character will face down death, come to terms with its power, re-embrace life, and rise ready to once again do battle.

But in a negative character arc, the protagonist will find himself impotent in the face of this horror. The Lie he has stubbornly embraced throughout the story now renders him powerless. In essence, he’s lacking the one weapon—the Truth—necessary to fight and defeat the Lie. His only option is to surrender himself still deeper into the grip of the Lie in an effort to convince himself he has chosen the right path.

As always, the exception to the rule is the disillusionment arc, in which the character will face and accept the Truth. But the Truth will be dark and horrifying in itself.

The Disillusionment Arc Example

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Third Plot Point begins with a showdown between Gatsby and Daisy’s husband Tom, in which Tom reveals to Daisy that Gatsby has earned his money through criminal activities such as bootlegging. Daisy wavers from her decision to run away with Gatsby, and Tom orders Gatsby to drive her home. As Tom, Nick, and Jordan follow in a second car, they encounter a tremendous accident, in which they learn Gatsby’s yellow roadster hit and killed Tom’s mistress Myrtle. Nick is mostly an observer to these dramatic happenings, but they have brought him to a growingly irrevocable disgust for the entire East Egg set and their underhanded dealings with one another.

The Fall Arc Example

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: Heathcliff kidnaps Edgar and Cathy’s teenage daughter Catherine and refuses to let her return to her dying father unless she marries Heathcliff’s son Linton. She finally complies and rushes home to her father just in time to watch him die. Heathcliff has achieved his great end—as many tragic protagonists do—by completing his vengeance. He has destroyed Edgar: his enemy is dead, and Heathcliff now holds title to all his property. But his victory has brought him no closer to peace—or to his true goal of being with Cathy.

The Corruption Arc Example

Star Wars, Episodes I-III directed by George Lucas: The Third Plot Point in Anakin’s arc is the moment when he realizes he cannot allow Mace Windu and the other Jedi Masters to kill the Sith Lord Darth Sidious. His desperate need to protect his wife, no matter the cost, prompts him to save the life of the man who has already killed millions and will kill millions more. More than that, he surrenders himself as an apprentice to the Dark Side, in order to learn Sidious’s secrets to life and death.

The Third Act

After the breaking point at the Third Plot Point, the tragic hero will rage futilely against death and its power, rather than rising into a personal resurrection. In 45 Master Characters, Victoria Lynn Schmidt writes:

 He isn’t at all humbled by his experience: In fact, he builds up his own ego trying to prove he’s more than a mere human being. He may take risks without thinking and will demand to fight the villain alone. He’s like a one-man show … who doesn’t need anyone or anything. He won’t face what the [antagonist] is showing him [about the Truth]. He won’t look inside himself to find out what he really wants out of life.

Without the Truth, he has no tools with which to cope with this new tragedy. As a result, he spends the first half of the Third Act (prior to the Climax) determined to strike out at the antagonistic force and reach for the Thing He Wants any way he can. He will commit any number of crimes and sins. He has nothing left to lose and no moral compass to guide him.

Supporting characters may try to reason with him, but he will now be even less open to their suggestions. He may even turn on people whom he was previously willing to accept, despite their differing opinions. He simply has too much invested in his present course; he can’t afford to be talked out of it, even at the cost of alienating those he would previously have fought and died for. The end is entirely outweighing the means it costs to achieve it.

The Disillusionment Arc Example

The Great Gatsby: After refusing to go with Jordan into the Buchanans’ house (in essence refusing to join their corrupt lifestyle), Nick encounters Gatsby and learns the truth of the drive-by accident: Gatsby wasn’t driving at all; Daisy was. Fearing Tom may harm Daisy, Gatsby insists on taking the blame for the accident and remains outside the Buchanans’ house all night. By now, the dark Truth has dawned for Nick. He knows too well that Tom and Daisy are one of kind. Daisy will let Gatsby take the blame, even as she distances herself from him without a second thought—not because remaining with her husband is the right thing to do but because she selfishly knows it’s in her best interest. Nick finally and conclusively realizes the East Egg crowd is a “rotten bunch.” He sticks around to try to help Gatsby, but from that point on, he’s no longer bewitched by the spectacles of wealth and beauty.

The Fall Arc Example

Wuthering Heights: After the completion of his vengeance against Edgar, Heathcliff sinks deeper and deeper into despair. He is broken, and he can’t find the strength to rise above his continuing obsessive need to be with Cathy. He even goes so far as to dig up her long-rotted corpse, and he does find momentary peace in the belief that it will be his soul—and not Edgar’s—that will be reunited with her in death. After his own son’s death, he drifts through life, torturing Catherine and Hindley’s son Hareton and contemplating Cathy’s ghost, who he believes has finally returned to haunt him. The only possible remaining route to his goal is death itself.

The Corruption Arc Example

Star Wars: Knowing the Dark Side is the only possible solution to saving his wife, Anakin throws himself into the darkness completely. Even as he mourns the atrocities his new master orders him to commit, he doesn’t flinch from them. He can’t afford to. He’s come too far. The hole is too deep, and there’s no way back up. His only chance for himself and his wife is to dig deeper still. After Mace Windu’s death, Anakin slaughters the Jedi, young and old alike, as well as the Separatist Coalition—and anyone else who gets in his and his new master’s way.

The Climax

The Climax is where everything finally and fully falls apart. The character’s last desperate push to use the Lie to gain the Thing He Wants will achieve one of two possible outcomes.

1. He gains an apparent outer victory, in which he is able to claim the Thing He Wants, but in which his success is a hollow one. Without the Truth he can never find inner wholeness by gaining the Thing He Needs. In this type of ending, the Climactic Moment will likely include a glimpse of the Truth, in which the character comes to the crushing realization that his battle was a wasteful one and, worse, that the outrages he’s committed along the way have destroyed both himself and everything he once loved.

2. He loses both the inner and the outer battle. His inability to equip himself with the Truth dooms him to failure in his final conflict.

In planning the Climax in a negative arc, look back at the person your character was in the beginning of the book. The Lie he struggled with in the beginning—and the way in which he struggled with it–should point you to an obvious culmination in the Climax. As per Jeff Gerke in Plot vs. Character, the character’s end state should be “times ten” his beginning state:

 If at the beginning, your hero has been struggling with anger, at the end he will either [in a positive arc] be able to let things go and just enjoy the moment or he will be so overwhelmed with anger that he will do something radical, like going on a shooting spree.

The Disillusionment Arc Example

The Great Gatsby: Nick’s disillusionment is complete when Gatsby is murdered by Myrtle’s husband—who believed Gatsby was responsible for her death and who then kills himself. All the people who flocked to Gatsby and his parties during his life disappear upon word of his death. Only a handful of mourners, Nick among them, attend his funeral.

The Fall Arc Example

Wuthering Heights: As Catherine and Hareton begin to fall in love, Heathcliff is troubled by how closely their relationship mirrors his own youthful past with Cathy. His belief that Cathy is haunting him grows stronger and stronger, and he finds a measure of manic happiness in her supposed presence. His health declines rapidly thanks to his nightly walks in the moors, until one morning Hareton finds him dead. He has gone at last to be with Cathy, in the only possible way they could ever be together–by embracing the Lie more fully in the end than even at the beginning.

The Corruption Arc Example

Star Wars: Anakin’s wife Padmé and former master Obi-Wan rush to stop him. When Padmé rejects Anakin’s methods for trying to save her, he lashes out at her. Even though keeping her alive has been the reason for his horrific choices and actions, he has now come too far down his dark path to brook resistance even from her. He nearly kills her, then turns on Obi-Wan and is eventually brutally wounded as a result of his blind faith in his own power.

The Resolution

The ending scenes in a tragedy are often comparatively short. Unlike a positive story, negative arcs leave few loose ends and don’t usually inspire in readers a desire to stick around in the story world. The great tragedy in the Climax is underscored with a sense of finality that doesn’t require much mopping up.

Still, some small postscript is almost always necessary. In the event of your protagonist’s death, you’ll need to show the surviving characters’ reactions, especially since many of them will probably have undergone disillusionment arcs as a result of witnessing his fall. You’ll want to show the effect of the protagonist’s actions upon the world around him. Presumably, he’s left it a worse place than that in which it started, but you may want to hint at the possibility for new hope in the world now that the protagonist’s dark influence has been lifted.

Most important, you’ll want to create a closing scene that drives home the character’s final state. Death, insanity, war, destruction, imprisonment—whatever finds him in the end should be represented in the story’s closing motif, as a clear contrast to how the story began.

The Disillusionment Arc Example

The Great Gatsby: After the funeral, Nick distances himself from the East Egg crowd. Blinders now removed, he finds little to appreciate in the city life he once loved. He decides to return home, but not without officially ending his relationship with Jordan and confronting Tom. He revisits Gatsby’s house, where the grass is now overgrown, and he once again compares Gatsby, with his sense of wonder and hope, to the cynicism and selfishness of the world that destroyed him.

The Fall Arc Example

Wuthering Heights: Without Heathcliff’s dark presence to poison their lives, Catherine and Hareton begin at last to bring love and happiness back into the corrupted atmosphere of Wuthering Heights. The book closes on an entirely hopeful note, promising the end of suffering. There’s even a hint of hope for Heathcliff, as the old manservant insists he can see his master’s ghost walking the moors with Cathy. The narrator, however, gives his own spin on a hopeful end for Heathcliff, believing that in death, at least, he will find rest.

The Corruption Arc Example

Star Wars: Anakin’s efforts are completely ruined in the aftermath of his climactic fall. Just as he feared, his wife dies in childbirth—but, ironically, as the result of his own actions. He is rescued from death by his new master and confined to life as a monstrous cyborg. His story, of course, continues with the promise of “a new hope” in the galaxy.

Questions to Ask About the Negative Character Arc in the Third Act

1. How will your character fail in the story’s end?

2. How will his actions irrevocably damage others?

3. What tragedy will confront your protagonist at the Third Plot Point?

4. How will your character react to the Third Plot Point?

5. Why does your character’s refusal to embrace the Truth render him powerless to rise from the Third Plot Point better equipped to deal with both his inner and outer conflict?

6. What less-than-ideal (and possibly even downright evil) plan will your protagonist come up with for confronting the antagonistic force and gaining the Thing He Wants?

7. Will supporting characters try to reason with your protagonist? How will he respond?

8. In the Climax, will your character gain the Thing He Wants? If so, why will he realize his victory is still a hollow one? How will he react?

9. Alternatively, will your character fail to gain his ultimate goal? How will he react?

10. After his failure in the Climax, will your character at least momentarily realize the Truth and confront the futility of his actions?

11. How are your character’s actions in the Climax a magnified reflection of his Lie in the beginning of the story?

12. How does your Resolution show the effect of your protagonist’s actions upon supporting characters and the world-at-large?

13. Will you end on a hopeful note or a despairing note? Why?

14. How does your closing scene underline the character’s ultimate failure?

People often tend to think of negative character arcs as depressing, and, indeed, sometimes they are. But they’re also exceedingly necessary, just as vinegar is necessary to cleanse the palate after too much sugar. Tell your negative character arcs boldly. As long as you remember the unique structural turning points and the proper progression of pacing and foreshadowing, you’ll be able to create a negative arc every bit as compelling and entertaining as one with a happy ending.

And that, after almost six months, brings us to the conclusion of our exploration of character arcs. I hope you’ve enjoyed these three series as much as I have and have gleaned useful tools for telling your own stories. If you have any lingering questions about any of the arcs, feel free to leave a comment or email me. I’m always happy to respond to questions, whether they’re about characters arcs or any other writing.

Read Previous Posts in This Series: Part 1: The First Act

Part 2: The Second Act

Tell me your opinion: What is your favorite example of a protagonist’s fall in a negative character arc?

How to Write a Negative Character Arc, Pt. 3: The Third Act

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Mary D. says:

    This entire series of character arcs posts has been such a game-changer for me. I was so lost when it came to crafting positive-change arcs and trying to work out *when* to make the big changes occur, without it all coming across as unnaturally forced and eye-rolling-inducing 🙂 On an instinctive level, I sort of knew about want v. need, but it would often get muddled in my mind and I would be so confused as to my character’s goal and motive, and how it all came into play with the moral change and theme, along with story structure beats in general. Well, not any more! I’m writing the dream story of my life right now, and I feel so charged and motivated. The craft of character arcs makes *sense* in ways it never did before. I’m both totally in control, and totally out of control. 😉 I’m sure this series took a whallopping amount of effort on your part, but it was the light-bulb moment for me in my writing journey, so thank you so much for doing it!!!

    And by the way, it is such a blast to watch favorite movies now and go “Aha! There was the mirror moment!” or “Yep, that was the third-plot-point crusher!” 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s exactly how I felt when I first discovered the ins and outs of character arcs. I’m so happy to be able to share it with you!

  2. thomas h cullen says:

    To so many, The Representative will be a troublesome text to know of – however assuredly sound and magnetic Croyan is, the means by which he intends achieving his goal is a fly-in-the-face of root foundations.

    Readers won’t have ever encountered a character intent such as this before.

    From all I’ve read, it’s clear your a lifelong student of fiction Katie.

  3. Love the questions at the end of the post, Katie! Really forces you to dig deeper into your character’s actions at the end of the story.

    My character turns her back on the love of her live for her racing career, but winning is not all it’s cracked up to be and she is forced to face the truth of what’s she’s done, and face the consequences of what she did to get there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s always an ouchy moment. Sounds like a great arc though! What kind of racing is she into?

  4. SO helpful. Thanks for all the excellent posts. Sometimes when I’m feeling stuck I just read a few of your articles. Helps get me motivated and back on track!

  5. Thank you so much for your great podcast! This last series has been especially helpful for me. I’m a visual artist and am new to writing fiction. I’m currently in the process of creating a graphic novel, but I want the story to be structured, as much as possible, like a conventional novel.

    I have a question. I’m writing a trilogy and am wondering how to pace the character arc in each individual book vs. entire three book series. I suppose the plot points you discuss should happen in each individual book, but also occur over the entire series? How are plot points different in serialized books compared to individual novels? Have you already covered this? Can you recommend any resources that address this question?

    Thank you!

    RJ

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Each book within a trilogy will be structured individually, just as you would a standalone book. But if the story is continuous (instead of episodic), you’ll also want to structure the whole thing. Trilogies are special this way, since their three-part nature naturally breaks into a three-act structure. If you think of each installment as one of the acts, you won’t be too far off. Refer to my use of the prequel Star Wars trilogy for an example.

  6. Thank you for this series. In my current work, I have three characters, and on the macro level they have flat arcs (they know they need to save the world), but in their personal lives they have positive arcs (they have to deal with loss, love, and moving forward with their lives). It’s also a trilogy, and this series has helped me grapple with the pacing. It’s been a great boon for my approach 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m actually going to be doing a post soon on how character arcs can sometimes be subplots–which is what it sounds as if you’ve got going on.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      Prompts the question of whether a character’s arc is determined solely by their relation to the main plot arc.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Character arcs are determined by theme (or, more accurately, themes are determined by character arcs). But, optimally, plot, character, and theme all need to tie together seamlessly to present a cohesive whole.

        • thomas h cullen says:

          In this light, it’s great artistry when the author can follow some set of default narrative guidelines without however appearing to be doing so…

  7. Lisa Searle says:

    The whole character arc series has helped tremendously with my current WIP and I will definitely be using it for all my novels.
    I thought to begin with my main antagonist would have just a negative arc to follow, but since he has a split personality I have now discovered the good side to him is actually a flat arc and the bad side is negative. I was trying to write him as one arc and know now that I should be splitting them into two, as they each have their own goals, wants and needs.
    Thanks again Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Antagonists very often follow flat arcs. They’re trying to impose their “Truth” on the world (and it may be true or it may be a Lie they believe is true), and their inability to evolve turns out to be their downfall.

  8. I’m so delighted by your posts! I just recently found your blog, and it very much helped me to develop my current story. This series has been especially useful. I’ve always been bad at writing the bad guys, I never managed to get under their skin, and they always get awfully boring. But your view of the negative arc helped me to develop an interesting antagonist at just a couple of days. It’s great!
    My antagonist follow the fall arc – he is Inquisitor who hunts for magicians after the king banned magic in his kingdom (for the fact that one sorcerer stole his firstborn son), and as a result gets a lot of power and influence. His lie is his thirst for power, and his true – that he should serve the law and the royal family. His position varies after the king dies and the crown must go to the princess, who is not hates magic so much. But at the midpoint, he learns that the young magician, he tries to arrest (the protagonist) – is actually a long-lost prince. Thus, if the Inquisitor will follow the truth, a mage can become a king, and the power of the Inquisitor will be lost. So instead he decides to hide his discovery and kill the boy at all costs – what at the end leads to his defeat.

    (Sorry, if my English is bad – I’m actually Russian)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nice! It’s always great with an antagonist can have an arc that’s just as compelling as the protagonist’s.

  9. I know I’m a year late to the party, but thank you so much, especially for the last part (the negative character arc). It has been so difficult to find any good information about writing a tragic story. Most search results turn up lots of analyses of Shakespeare, which is wonderful, but not exactly the route I want to take. This has by far been the most helpful post I’ve found. So thanks again!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Unfortunately, it *is* a bit hard to find good resources on the negative arc–and it’s such an important part of literature. So many of our most beloved books and movies follow that pattern. Glad you enjoyed the series!

  10. Can I write a negative character arc in which the character seems to be moving toward the thing she needs (to learn to trust people) but she chooses the wrong person to trust and ends up farther from the Truth than in the beginning? And if so, would you call that a disillusionment or a fall arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If the character ends up *farther* away from the Truth at the end, that’s never going to be a disillusionment arc. In a disillusionment arc, the character *finds* the Truth; it’s just not a very happy Truth. Depending on the specifics of how your story begins, it sounds as if it could be either a fall arc (if she starts out with one facet of the Lie–only to grow into a darker version of that Lie) or a corruption arc (if she starts out more or less understanding the Truth–even if only unconsciously–only to be led astray from it).

  11. I discovered your website and I have learned so much about structure and character arcs that it has made me rethink my stories and (hopefully) make them better. I have a question about the disillusionment arc. Can it still have an optimistic ending? I’m writing a story in which my protagonist is happy with the love of her life but as time goes by she realizes they’re not meant to be, not because of anything bad he does but just because they’re very different and want different things. This challenges her belief that ‘love conquers all’ and she breaks up with him. But they will end the relationship in a good place and still believe in love. Is this still a disillusionment arc or a positive arc with a sad ending?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Technically, the disillusionment arc *is* a positive change arc. The character overcomes a Lie and embraces a Truth–which is always a positive thing, and depending on the tone you choose to end with, definitely has lots of room for hopefulness. The important difference between a disillusionment arc and a positive change arc is that the disillusionment arc’s Truth isn’t, in itself, a happy one. Realizing you have to break up with the love of your life may be a necessary Truth, but it’s not a happy one–so I’d say you’re right in considering this story to be a disillusionment arc.

  12. Abbie Wilkes says:

    In my current novel, the protagonist is on a negative character arc he has been forced into by the antagonist. In the second half of the second act the protagonist embraces the lie and the arc is complete. But then in the climax he has a moment of truth and rediscovers his good self. Its too late and he dies. Is this an alright character arc? I wasn’t sure if it is okay for him to end as he began, despite what he went though along the way.

    • Abbie Wilkes says:

      Oh and the protagonist’s negative arc is mirrored by the secondary main characters positive arc from bad guy to good guy, which I thought was fun. I just didn’t want his arc to overshadow the MC’s arc.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There are exceptions to every rule, but you have to be careful with “flip-flopping” between arcs too quickly. If the character’s Moment of Truth/change to a positive arc in the Third Act isn’t properly set up, and with enough time, then it can lack resonance and feel too convenient.

  13. Christopher Rice says:

    I’ve come by your posts and have re read them and bashed them into my head but I am still having a hard time discovering my protagonist’s LIE/and the thing he WANTS and TRUTH/ and the thing he NEEDS. I was wondering, if you had any time at all, if you could take a look at my character and help me pinpoint his lie, truth, needs and wants?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m afraid I won’t be able to read anything that’s much over a couple paragraphs. But if you’d like to comment here (or email me if you’re more comfortable with that) with the gist of your plot and what you *think* each of these things are in your story, I’ll be happy to offer an opinion.

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