How to Write a Negative Character Arc, Pt. 2: The Second Act

The Second Act in a negative character arc bears a lot of similarity to that in a positive change arc. In both types of arc, the character will be thrust out of his Normal World into a new and strange dilemma, where he will be forced to confront his Lie. He’ll be learning more about that Lie and be given opportunities to recognize its power over him.

Creating Character ArcsSo what’s the major difference between the Second Act in a negative character arc and the Second Act in a positive character arc?

You guessed it: the character becomes increasingly enthralled by the darkness, rather than overcoming it. In the negative arc’s Second Act, the character will make a series of decisions—the most notable of which will be those at the First Plot Point and the Midpoint—that will cement his enslavement to the Lie.

The First Plot Point

Because negative change arcs are about a descent into darkness, they have to begin in a place high enough for the story to descend from. As a result, the First Plot Point will frequently be a positive one. Something seemingly good or interesting happens to the character. He meets the girl of his dreams; he gets a new job; he escapes from a bad situation. He may even make a good decision, one with the potential to lead him away from his Lie.

But no matter how comparatively positive the First Plot Point may seem, it must always be dogged by the portent of bad things to come. Foreshadowing must be wielded deftly in a negative arc more than in any other. If an unhappy ending is going to resonant with readers, they must be prepared for it. They must feel it was the only logical outcome.

The Disillusionment Arc Example

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Gatsby’s infamous party is a suitably glorious First Plot Point. On a thematic level, it aces the symbolism of the glittering corruption of the wealthy East Egg world into which country boy Nick Carraway is being lured. But even more importantly, its introduction of the strange and marvelous Jay Gatsby himself throws open the door that will usher Nick out of the Normal World. At the moment, all looks well. Gatsby and his world seem wonderful, and Nick is delighted to strike up a friendship with him. He makes the decision to attend the party, and it’s that decision that will change his life.

The Fall Arc Example

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: After Cathy accepts her neighbor Edgar Linton’s marriage proposal, Heathcliff overhears her telling the news to the maid. Cathy admits she doesn’t love Edgar—that, indeed, she would be miserable even in heaven if Heathcliff were not there—but that she can’t degrade herself to marry Heathcliff because he is so “low.” Heathcliff silently leaves, determined to make something of himself so he can return to marry Cathy. His decision is an entirely positive one. He wants to rise above his circumstances, leave behind the tyranny of Cathy’s brother Hindley, and claim Cathy’s hand as an equal. But readers also sense the darkness that threatens in his actions—especially since Cathy shows no sign of changing her mind about marrying Edgar.

The Corruption Arc Example

Star Wars, Episodes I-III directed by George Lucas: If we look at the overall arc of Anakin Skywalker, apart from the divisions of the movies themselves, we can see that the First Plot Point comes at the end of Episode I when Obi-Wan reluctantly agrees to take Anakin as his apprentice. As a result of this decision, Anakin officially leaves behind the last vestiges of his Normal World as a slave on Tatooine and enters his new world as a Jedi Padawan on Coruscant. This is, on its surface, a very positive move for young Anakin. He’s getting the opportunity to learn more about himself and his abilities, as well as the world around him. Lucas’s foreshadowing could have been stronger here, but we did get the sense (earlier in Episode I when Anakin gives Mace Windu the evil eye after he’s initially rejected by the Jedi Council) that this decision could end up going very wrong.

The First Half of the Second Act

As always, the First Half of the Second Act is all about the character’s reaction to the First Plot Point. He’s deliberately moving forward toward the Thing He Wants Most, but he’s at a disadvantage in some way. Usually, this is because he lacks complete information about his antagonist or the goal itself. But sometimes the disadvantage can also be the result of the character’s own unwillingness to fight out the battle to the last full measure. He may not yet be ready to do whatever it takes to win.

He’s also learning more about the Lie and the Truth. In a disillusionment arc, he’s encountering difficulties in pursuing the Lie, even as he’s getting closer to the Thing He Wants while simultaneously getting farther away from the Thing He Needs.

In a fall arc, he will be getting a full-on lesson in the Truth. He’s going to be suffering as a result of the Lie. He’s not getting the Thing He Wants, and, what’s more, he’s getting slapped for even trying. He’s going to have moments when he rethinks his devotion to the Lie, but he wants his story goal too badly to let it go.

In a corruption arc, the character is going to be learning more and more about the power of the Lie. He recognizes it, if only subconsciously, as a path toward the Thing He Wants. As his obsession with the Thing He Wants increases, he begins more and more to embrace the Lie and reject the Truth.

The Disillusionment Arc Example

The Great Gatsby: Nick spends the First Half of the Second Act getting to know Gatsby and falling under his spell. Gatsby has certainly been corrupted by his lifestyle just as Daisy and the others have been. But he’s also different from the others. There’s a core of purity amidst his almost childlike hope, and in recognizing the differences between Gatsby and those around him, Nick begins to see the prevalent falsity in the East Egg world. Even still, Nick is being pulled into that corruption by Gatsby himself, as Gatsby introduces Nick to his underworld associates such as Meyer Wolfsheim and convinces Nick to help him arrange a meeting with his lost love Daisy Buchanan.

The Fall Arc Example

Wuthering Heights: Years later, Heathcliff returns as a gentlemen, only to discover that Cathy has already married Edgar Linton. Feeling betrayed, he fights to overcome his love for her and embrace the Truth that he’s better off without her. Still he clings to her, even though part of him hates her for being untrue to both him and herself. His dark nature comes swarming out as he begins enacting his vengeance against Hindley (by encouraging his gambling and drinking) and against Edgar (by marrying his sister Isabella).

The Corruption Arc Example

Star Wars: Now an adult, Anakin falls in love with Senator Padmé Amidala, even though it violates his oaths as a Jedi apprentice. He loves being a Jedi and the power it allows him to wield, but he also resents the rules the Jedi Order enforce in his life. He rebels against them and allows his romance with Padmé to flourish, hoping he can hold onto both the Thing He Wants and the Thing He Needs.

The Midpoint

The Midpoint is where it all changes. Up to this point, the character has been advancing toward his Lie, but the advance has been slow—and certainly not irreversible. He’s had at least a few moments where he’s been torn about the course he’s taking. But at the Midpoint, he takes an irremediable action or experiences a blindingly clear revelation that will see him launching himself into the second half with a series of strong Lie-based actions.

The Midpoint needs to feature a moment in which the character is clearly presented with the Truth and the opportunity to follow it. In The Moral Premise, Stanley D. Williams writes:

In a tragedy the Moment of Grace is that point when the truth of the Moral Premise is offered to the protagonist but is rejected. From that moment on, his progress toward his physical goal continues to decline, until the ultimate consequence is realized.

The Disillusionment Arc Example

The Great Gatsby: After helping Gatsby arrange a strangely manic reunion with Daisy, Nick begins to learn the truth about Gatsby’s past. This glorious man, adored by all, is a phony. Nick grows impatient with Gatsby’s shenanigans, especially his insistence that he can repeat his romantic past with the fickle Daisy. In seeing through the cracks of even Gatsby—easily the best of the East Egg lot—Nick’s illusions about the beauty of this upper-class world begin to crumble.

The Fall Arc Example

Wuthering Heights: When Cathy dies in childbirth after a long illness, Heathcliff is offered a moment of grace; with Cathy now forcibly removed from his life, he is given the opportunity to accept the Truth that he’s better off without her. But he not only throws aside the Truth, he embraces a new and more horrible Lie: he would rather have Cathy’s ghost haunt him and drive him insane than give her up.

The Corruption Arc Example

Star Wars: Anakin argues for a secret relationship with Padmé in defiance of his vows to the Jedi, but Padmé resists, insisting she couldn’t live a lie. In that instance, Anakin experiences a moment of grace, in which he recognizes the Truth of her words (“You’re right. It would destroy us.”) and struggles to acquiesce to them. But after yet another nightmare about his captured mother, he takes a huge step away from controlled acceptance into the chaos of his own power when he decides to disobey his orders and return to Tatooine to rescue her.

The Second Half of the Second Act

After his revelation and his rejection of the Truth at the Midpoint, the character now will be actively and aggressively pursuing the Thing He Wants in the Second Half of the Second Act. Although he will still experience glimmers of the Truth (particularly in the form of resistance and reprimands from supporting characters), he has already cast off its fetters. The Truth is no longer a personal obstacle between him and his Lie-driven goal.

The exception to this is, of course, the disillusionment arc, which sees the character growing into the Truth, just as he would in a positive arc—the difference between the two being the destructive negativity of the disillusionment arc’s Truth.

The tragic premise indicates a progression from bad to worse. Whatever the character’s Lie in the beginning, he will now begin growing into its worst manifestation. If he fought lust in the story’s beginning, he will now descend into adultery or even rape. If he struggled with hatred, he may end up plotting a murder.

The Disillusionment Arc Example

The Great Gatsby: Nick becomes more and more (you guessed it!) disillusioned with the lives of his rich friends, as well as becoming more and more disgusted with their behavior. He watches Daisy engage in an affair with the obsessively and almost innocently hopeful Gatsby, while her hypocritical husband stews behind the scenes. Nick closes out the Second Act with an observation on his thirtieth birthday: “Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a new decade.” Quite a change of mindset for the optimistic boy from the country.

The Fall Arc Example

Wuthering Heights: After Cathy’s death, Heathcliff lashes out in anger, punishing everyone who had anything to do with keeping him away from her. He coerces his adopted brother Hindley into drunken gambling that allows Heathcliff to gain the deed to Wuthering Heights—and then he allows Hindley to drink himself to death. He shows no care for his own pregnant wife—Isabella Linton—and lets her flee to another town. He raises Hindley’s son Hareton in as abject degradation as he himself was raised. And, as the years go by, he plots to marry his sickly son Linton to Edgar and Cathy’s daughter Catherine, so that he can gain control of a dying Edgar’s property as well.

The Corruption Arc Example

Star Wars: After his mother dies in his arms, Anakin takes a huge step toward the Dark Side when he murders every person—man, woman, and child—in the Sand People’s village. He then consistently and obsessively chooses to protect Padmé over any and all practical or moral restraints—losing an arm and nearly sacrificing his master in the process. He secretly marries her in defiance of his vows and, as time goes by, proves himself willing to seek answers even from the Dark Side in order to save her from dying in childbirth.

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

1. What is your character’s great fault in the beginning of your story (e.g., lust, hatred, etc.)?

2. How does the First Plot Point initially seem to be a good thing?

3. How is the character’s eventual descent foreshadowed even amid the positive aspects of the First Plot Point?

4. In the First Half of the Second Act, what is hampering the character from gaining the Thing He Wants Most?

5. If you’re writing a disillusionment arc, what is your character learning about the Lie in the First Half of the Second Act?

6. If you’re writing a fall arc, how is your character suffering for his devotion to the Lie?

7. If you’re writing a corruption arc, why is your character growing more and more enamored with the Lie?

8. At the Midpoint, what moment of grace gives your character an opportunity to embrace the Truth? Why and how does he reject it?

9. How is your character actively and aggressively using the Lie to pursue the Thing He Wants in the Second Half of the Second Act?

10. In the Second Half of the Second Act, how is the character evolving into the worst possible manifestation of his initial great fault?

The Second Act is the heart of the negative character arc. The First Act is all about setting up the place from which he falls, and the Third Act is all about showing the place to which he falls. But the Second Act is where the falling happens. This is the meaty, chewy stuff that proves your story’s Lie and Truth and convinces readers of the realism of your character’s devolvement. Write a killer Second Act, and your negative change arc will rock readers’ worlds.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about how to write the negative character arc in the Third Act.

Read the Previous Post in This Series: Part 1: The First Act

Tell me your opinion: What is a good example of  a “moment of truth” offered and rejected to a negative character arc protagonist?

how to write a negative character arc the second act (1)

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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. Thanks for writing this series! I’m currently working one of my favorite characters through a negative arc so this has been really interesting for me to read.

  2. As always, you write an insightful post with wonderfully illustrated examples. Do you try to have at least one antagonist in your books follow the negative character arc?

  3. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the post! It’s always important to keep antagonists from being flat characters who are only in the story to fulfill a necessary plot function. The negative character arc is a great way to accomplish this. But it can also be interesting to play around with the possibilities of positive and flat arc antagonists–especially in stories in which the antagonist isn’t necessarily an evil person.

  4. This like all your post was very insightful. I enjoy reading them.

  5. thomas h cullen says:

    (Side note: I took a look at Melanie’s review, of your book, congratulations – and The Representative’s now finally had a first purchaser! Just now having to wait on a reaction.)

    The Representative’s only a negative arc as a world – the further the progression, the more pronounced its harshness becomes.

    Croyan, however, functions as a profound balancing act to this descent: he is cool, he is sound – he is legitimately Magnificent and Great.

    He’s The Representative.

  6. This is the first time I’ve read such a helpful article on the development of a character arc. Thank you so much! I’ll be bookmarking this as a reference for the story I’m working on — and sharing it, of course. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks, Sarah! I’m glad you found it useful. We find too little info out there about the negative arcs.

  7. jeff chandler says:

    I am having a difficult time with a part of my story. How do you write a negative character arc when the main antagonist is an animal, ie, a grizzly bear that attacks a village? I am wtiting in present tense third person narritive. Should I find some way to get inside its “head” or show by actions only? Any help would be great! Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Do you mean that you’re trying to write a negative arc for a human character who is facing the bear? Or are you wanting to write a negative arc for the bear?

      • jeff chandler says:

        I guess I should have been more specific. I meant a negative arc for the bear who is the main enemy of all the other characters in the story, the people in a village and a herd of horses. Thank you!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Unless the bear is anthropomorphic (takes on human characteristics), I wouldn’t worry about giving him an arc at all. He’s a force of nature.

  8. Love this series, Kim. Does Hamlet fit the profile of a Negative Character Arc? If so, what kind of negative arc do you think he fits, or is he another kind entirely?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s been so long since I’ve read (or actually watched) Hamlet that I really couldn’t say for sure. But I would certainly imagine he follows a negative arc–probably a corruption arc.

  9. I don’t believe that Hamlet follows a negative character arc. In fact, he is wracked with indecision for much of the play about whether he can take the life of his uncle, who he suspects killed his father the king, usurped the throne and married Hamlet’s mother. In the end, Hamlet chooses to kill Claudius only after he is convinced that Claudius is guilty beyond doubt. The tragedy is that so many, including Hamlet, die in the end as a result of human frailty, immorality and revenge.

  10. One of the best posts on the negative character arc that I’ve seen in a long time; favorited via Pinterest so I can tweet later. The examples you gave were excellent food for thought on writing my next. Thanks for posting this.

  11. How would the false victory before the third plot point manifest in a negative arc? Or would this be the exception to the formula?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In a negative arc, the Third Plot Point usually sees the character gaining a victory of some sort, in his pursuit of his Want. But because his Want is so destructive, it’s also a low point (even if he doesn’t realize it).

  12. Brilliantly explained. You give excellent writing tips. My antagonist has fallen between to arc’s disillusioned and corruption. Is that possibly? I’m editing, so I’m going to tweak the novel & capture all of the points you’ve mentioned. Thank you. I’m sharing too.

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