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Learn 5 Types of Character Arc at a Glance: The 3 Negative Arcs (Part 2 of 2)

negative arcsStories are about change. Sometimes that change is positive, driven by hopeful or even heroic people. But sometimes that change is negative, driven by humanity’s darkest urges and blindnesses. Both stories are necessary, which is why we’re rounding out our two-part series with a beat-by-beat look at the three Negative Arcs—the Disillusionment Arc, the Fall Arc, and the Corruption Arc.

Last week when we looked at the two Heroic Arcs (the Positive-Change Arc and the Flat Arc), I talked about how someone pointed out I didn’t yet have an easily-scannable resource that put the basic structures of all the arcs in one place. This series ended up being too long to put in precisely one place. But as of today, you can at least find the five major arcs all linked from one place!

>>Click Here to Read Pt. 1: The 2 Heroic Arcs

You’ll remember last week’s post also covered the six basics common to all types of arc. Be sure to check that post for the overview, or click the links below for more in-depth posts on each topic:

1. The Thematic Truth

2. The Lie the Character Believes

3. & 4. The Thing the Character Wants & the Thing the Character Needs

5. The Ghost

6. The Normal World

Don’t forget that for a more in-depth look at all things character arc, you can check out my book Creating Character Arcs and its companion workbook.

And now let’s down and dirty with the Negative-Change Arcs.

The Negative Change Arcs

>>Click Here to Read more About the Negative Change Arcs

1. The Disillusionment Arc

Character Believes Lie > Overcomes Lie > New Truth Is Tragic

Character Arc 3 - Negative No. 1

Graphic by Joanna Marie, from the Creating Character Arcs Workbook. Click the image for a larger view.

The First Act (1%-25%)

1%: The Hook: Believes Lie in Comfortable Normal World

The protagonist believes a Lie that has so far proven necessary or functional in the existing Normal World, which is often a comfortable and complacent place.

12%: The Inciting Event: First Hint Lie Is Untrue

The Call to Adventure, when the protagonist first encounters the main conflict, also brings the first subtle hint that the Lie will no longer serve the protagonist as effectively as it has in the past.

25%: The First Plot Point: Full Immersion in Adventure World’s Stark Truth

The protagonist is faced with a consequential choice, in which the comfortable “old ways” of the Lie-ridden First Act show themselves ineffective in the face of the main conflict’s new stakes. The protagonist will pass through a Door of No Return, in which he is forced to enter the Adventure World of the main conflict in the Second Act, where he is confronted by a stark and painful new Truth.

The Second Act (25%-75%)

37%: The First Pinch Point: Punished for Using Lie

The protagonist is “punished” for using the Lie. In the Normal World, he was able to use the Lie to get the Thing He Wants. But in the Adventure World, this is no longer a functional mindset. Throughout the First Half of the First Act, he will try to use his old Lie-based mindsets to reach his goals and will be “punished” by failures until he begins to learn how things really work.

50%: The Midpoint (Second Plot Point): Forced to Face Truth, But Unwilling to Embrace It

The protagonist encounters a Moment of Truth in which he comes face to face with the thematic Truth (often via a simultaneous plot-based revelation about the external conflict). This is the first time the protagonist consciously recognizes the Truth and its power. He is, however, horrified by the implications of this dark new Truth. Although he can no longer deny the Truth, he is unwilling to fully embrace it or to surrender his comparatively wonderful old Lie.

62%: The Second Pinch Point: Growing Frustration With Old Lie and Disillusionment With New Truth

The protagonist is forced to confront consistently-increasing examples of the Lie’s lack of functionality in the real world. He grows more and more frustrated with the Lie’s limitations. He begins to accept the horrible Truth. He is profoundly disillusioned by his new worldview, even as he begins to be “rewarded” for using the Truth to reach for the Thing He Wants.

The Third Act (75%-100%)

75%: The Third Plot Point: Accepts That Comforting Lie Is Now Completely Nonexistent

The protagonist is confronted by an irrefutable “low moment,” in which he can no longer fool himself that the dark Truth is not true. He must not only accept this new Truth, he must also admit that his comforting old Lie is now completely nonexistent.

88%: The Climax: Wields Dark New Truth in Final Confrontation

The protagonist enters the final confrontation with the antagonistic force to decide whether or not he will gain the Thing He Wants. Directly before or during this section, he consciously and explicitly embraces and wields the dark new Truth.

98%: The Climactic Moment: Fully Acknowledges Truth

The protagonist uses the Truth and all it has taught him about himself and the conflict to gain the Thing He Needs. Depending the nature of his Truth, he may also gain the Thing He Wants (only to discover that, in light of his new knowledge, it is worthless), or he may realize he needs to sacrifice it for his own greater good. As a result, he definitively ends the conflict between himself and the antagonistic force.

100%: The Resolution: Disillusioned With New Truth

The protagonist either enters a new Normal World or returns to the original Normal World, but with a jaded eye now that he knows the Truth.

2. The Fall Arc

Character Believes Lie > Clings to Lie > Rejects New Truth > Believes Worse Lie

Character Arc 4 - Negative No. 2

Graphic by Joanna Marie, from the Creating Character Arcs Workbook. Click the image for a larger view.

The First Act (1%-25%)

1%: The Hook: Believes Lie

The protagonist believes a Lie that has so far proven necessary or functional in the existing (often destructive) Normal World.

12%: The Inciting Event: First Hint Lie Will Not Save or Reward

The Call to Adventure, when the protagonist first encounters the main conflict, also brings the first subtle hint that the Lie will no longer effectively protect or reward the protagonist in her current circumstances.

25%: The First Plot Point: Lie Now Completely Ineffective; Makes Move Toward Truth

The protagonist is faced with a consequential choice in which the “old ways” of the Lie-ridden First Act show themselves ineffective in the face of the main conflict’s new stakes. The protagonist is given an early choice between old Lie and new Truth. She passes through a Door of No Return, in which she makes a move toward the Truth and, in so doing, is forced to leave the Normal World of the First Act and enter the Adventure World of the main conflict in the Second Act.

The Second Act (25%-75%)

37%: The First Pinch Point: Halfhearted Attempts at Truth Only Half-Effective

The protagonist tries to wield the Truth as a means of gaining the Thing She Wants, but does so only with limited understanding or enthusiasm. She is stuck in a limbo-land where the old Lie is no longer a functional mindset, but where her halfhearted attempts at the Truth prove likewise only half-effective.

50%: The Midpoint (Second Plot Point): Glimpses Truth, Rejects Truth, Chooses Worse Lie

The protagonist encounters a Moment of Truth in which she comes face to face with the thematic Truth (often via a simultaneous plot-based revelation about the external conflict). This is the first time the protagonist consciously sees the full power and opportunity of the Truth. However, she also sees the full sacrifice demanded if she is to follow the Truth. Unwilling to make that sacrifice, she rejects the Truth and chooses instead to embrace a Lie that is worse then the original.

62%: The Second Pinch Point: Lie Is Effective, But Destructive

Uncaring about the consequences, the protagonist wields her Lie well and finds it effective in moving toward the Thing She Wants. However, the closer she gets to her plot goal, the more destructive the Lie becomes both to her and to the world around her.

The Third Act (75%-100%)

75%: The Third Plot Point: Complete Failure to Gain Either Want or Need

The protagonist is confronted by a “low moment,” in which she experiences a complete failure to gain the Thing She Wants. This failure is a direct result of the collective damage wrought by her Lie in the Second Half of the Second Act. The “means” caught up to her before she reached her “end.” However, even when faced by all the evidence of the Lie’s destructive power, the protagonist still refuses to repent or to turn to the Truth.

88%: The Climax: Last-Ditch Attempt to Salvage Want

Upon entering the final confrontation with the antagonistic force, the protagonist doubles down on her Lie in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the Thing She Wants.

98%: The Climactic Moment: Total Destruction

Crippled by the Lie (in both the internal and external conflicts), the protagonist is unable to gain the Thing She Wants (or gains it only to discover it is useless to her). Instead, she succumbs to total personal destruction.

100%: The Resolution: Aftermath

The protagonist must confront the aftermath of her choices. She may finally and futilely accept the inescapable Truth. Or she may be left to cope, blindly, with the consequences of her choices.

3. The Corruption Arc

Character Sees Truth > Rejects Truth > Embraces Lie

Character Arc 5 - Negative No. 3

Graphic by Joanna Marie, from the Creating Character Arcs Workbook. Click the image for a larger view.

The First Act (1%-25%)

1%: The Hook: Understands Truth

The protagonist lives in a Normal World that allows for or even encourages the thematic Truth. As a result, the protagonist starts out with an understanding of the Truth.

12%: The Inciting Event: First Temptation of Lie

The Call to Adventure, when the protagonist first encounters the main conflict, also brings the first subtle temptation that the Lie might be able to serve the protagonist better than the Truth.

25%: The First Plot Point: Enters Beguiling Adventure World of Lie

The protagonist is faced with a consequential choice, in which he is enticed out of the First Act’s safe, Truth-based Normal World into the Second Act’s beguiling, Lie-based Adventure World. Not realizing the danger (or believing he is weighing the consequences), the protagonist is lured through the Door of No Return by the promise of the Thing He Wants.

The Second Act (25%-75%)

37%: The First Pinch Point: Torn Between Truth and Lie

The protagonist is torn between his old Truth and the new Lie. The Lie proves itself effective in moving him nearer the Thing He Wants. But he wages an internal conflict as he recognizes he is moving further and further away from his old convictions and understandings of the world.

50%: The Midpoint (Second Plot Point): Embraces Lie Without Fully Rejecting Truth

The protagonist encounters a Moment of Truth in which he comes face to face with the Lie in all its power. He recognizes he cannot gain the Thing He Wants without the Lie. Although he is not yet willing to fully and consciously reject the Truth, he makes the decision to fully embrace the Lie.

62%: The Second Pinch Point: Resists Sacrifice Demanded by Truth

The protagonist is “rewarded” for using the Lie. Building upon what he learned at the Midpoint, the protagonist will start implementing Lie-based actions in combating the antagonistic force and reaching toward the Thing He Wants. The Truth pulls on him, demanding sacrifices he is not willing to give. He begins resisting the Truth more and more adamantly.

The Third Act (75%-100%)

75%: The Third Plot Point: Fully Embraces Lie

The protagonist utterly rejects the Truth and embraces the Lie. He acts upon this in a way that creates a “low moment” for the world around him (and for him morally, even if he refuses to recognize it). He is now willing to knowingly endure the consequences of rejecting the Truth in exchange for what he sees as the rewards of embracing the Lie.

88%: The Climax: Final Push to Gain Want

The protagonist enters the final confrontation with the antagonistic force to decide whether or not he will gain the Thing He Wants. Unhampered by the Truth, he pushes forward ruthlessly toward his plot goal.

98%: The Climactic Moment: Moral Failure

The protagonist uses the Lie and all it has taught him in an attempt to gain the Thing He Wants. He may gain the Thing He Wants and remain senseless to the evil engendered by his actions. Or he may gain the Thing He Wants only to be devastated when he realizes it wasn’t worth what he sacrificed. Or he may fail to gain the Thing He Wants and be devastated by the realization that his sacrifices to the Lie were fruitless. One way or another, he definitively ends the conflict between himself and the antagonistic force.

100%: The Resolution: Aftermath

The protagonist must confront the aftermath of his choices. He may turn away from the Lie, admitting his mistake and accepting the consequences. Or he may callously forge ahead, intent on continuing to use the Lie to further his own ends.

***

Needless to say, there are many variations of these five arcs. But if you can identify and master these five, you’re well on your way to writing a powerful evolution that will resonate with all your readers.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What types of character arc have you written? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Eric Troyer says

    Great summaries! Are all the different arcs illustrated somewhere in the Story Structure Database?

  2. Jack Haywood says

    Thanks very much for this, K! I loved getting a reasonably detailed overview of what to remember for the three Dark arcs! And I also saw your note at the end about differing variations of the arcs and connected that to those moments whenever you gave differing scenarios to plug into the Plot Points, such as in the Climatic Moment of the Corruption arc. And that’s what I especially loved, since there’s no thing better in writing than testing out all kinds of possibilities with how you can construct scenes/sequels and arcs.

    If you have any more ideas on what other kinds of alternate ways that a Plot Point can be written, maybe you can expand on that in a future post someday, like when you wrote about the alterate variations on the scene and sequel?

    Once again, this post is much appreciated. I love looking into the dark aspects of the human condition, and what better way is there to do that than with Dark character arcs to serve as cautionary tales, much like what traditional folkloric tales such as Aesop’s fables were designed to be?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s a lot of variation available within a plot point. The major structural moments all have an assigned role within the story (e.g., the First Plot Point signals full engagement with the main goal/obstacle). But as long as the story events are checking those few boxes, there’s lots of room for variation.

  3. I looked forward to this article!
    It’s curious that my plot seems to fit both the Corruption Arc and the Fall (although I chose Fall to represent it).
    Thank you so much!

  4. Absolutely fascinating! I can think of about three lies my protagonist had to face, they’re all interwoven with one one big lie. I’ve pinned this article so I can go back to it later and follow all the links. There’s certainly a lot to think about here.

  5. Jenny North says

    Thanks for putting this together! I know that the positive arcs tend to be more commonplace, but that often makes it harder to find details on the mechanics of a negative arc. It’s very interesting!

  6. Joan Kessler says

    These breakdowns are giving me a new way to approach writing. Thank you for another fascinating post!

  7. I was waiting for this one! Thank you!

    I still have a doubt about the Disillusionment Arc. I guess I could have asked in your main articles about negative arcs, but I just came up with this question: Let’s say the Truth the character learns eventually is not tragic by itself, it’s not bad or horrible, in fact it could be actually beautiful; but the implications of realizing that Truth are horrible for the previous actions of the character. He becomes disillusioned and depressed, not because the Truth is horrible, but beacuse of what he previously did when he believed the Lie. Basically the character can’t bear the weight of the sins he committed in the name of the Lie.

    Perhaps I can give a more specific example: a character, the antagonist of the story, believes his father didn’t love him (the Lie). Then he eventually kills his father. Near the end of the story, the character realizes his father actually loved him (the Truth), and he embraces that Truth, it’s not a Fall Arc because he doesn’t reject it. But it’s already too late, he already killed his father and the whole situation is tragic. The Truth is beautiful by itself (“my father loved me”); but the character can’t find peace in it. He becomes a broken depressed man and that’s how he ends.

    Is this still a Disillusionment Arc? Or does the Truth have to be horrible by itself?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A Disillusionment Arc is about the protagonist’s growing realization of the Truth. As you can see from the beat sheet, the dawning of this Truth begins pretty early. The character isn’t likely to do something full-on drastic in the name of the Lie at any point late in this story. He comes to act upon the Truth, and it’s the Truth that wounds him (although, arguably, it may eventually set him free in the aftermath of the story).

      You character sounds like he may be on a Fall Arc. He starts out believing a Lie (“my father doesn’t love me”), which seems to lead him into an even worse Lie (some equivalent of “my father deserves to die”). In the Resolution of a Fall Arc, the character may come to realize the devastating Truth, but it’s too late for him to undo (in this story anyway).

  8. JAPartridge says

    Another excellent write-up on character arcs. I though the charts were particularly helpful. But I have to admit that the lack of symmetry grates on my OCD. Three negative arcs and only one positive? 8^O

    I think I can make a case for two different flat arcs. When trying to explain the concept of flat arcs to others I’ve often said that sometimes the main character comes to learn a lesson, in others he comes to teach a lesson. Which worked pretty well until I tried to apply that to the first story that opened my eyes to the possibility of anything other than the traditional change arc.

    Though there were definitely some elements of the MC teaching a lesson and influencing some of the other characters, the focus was clearly on just how far one is willing to go to hold onto the Truth.

    Personally, I would at least divide the flat arc into:
    1)The Character teaches a lesson (something like the 7 Samurai or numerous westerns where the main character has to teach the locals to stand up for themselves against some enemy)

    2)The Character learns the price of the TRUTH (The lone hero against the world type stories.)

    On the Positive Arc side, I’d also add a Boomerang plot. Where the MC starts with the Truth, becomes disillusioned and rejects the Truth, only to find that he had been deceived or otherwise mistaken and embraces the truth once more.

    Just thinking out loud here…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree with your Flat Arc assessment, although I’d hesitate to call them separate arcs–more just variations on a theme.

      I think you may be onto something with your Boomerang Arc. I’ve always cautioned against what I consider “whiplash” arcs in which the character has an abrupt change of heart later in the story with no appropriate development.

      However, on reflection, what you’re describing is basically the reverse image of the Fall Arc (in which the character starts out believing the Lie, has a fling with the Truth, then reverts to a worse Lie). In a Boomerang Arc, we’d see the character start out believing the Truth, have a fling with the Lie, then return to a more refined version of the Truth. I’m not thinking of any examples off the top of my head, but it feels quite structurally and psychologically sound.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Although on further reflection, I kinda feel like this is still just a variation on either the Positive-Change or Flat Arcs. In the former case, the character wouldn’t have a fling with the Lie if he didn’t already have a misconception of some sort about the Truth (i.e., a Lie) somewhere within his psyche. And in the latter, there isn’t likely to be room enough in a single story to fully sketch a true departure from and return to the the Truth (we’re talking a total of four arcs in that case–Flat-Corruption-Positive-Flat) versus the usual comparatively minor Doubt component in a Flat Arc.

        Still, I think it’s a valid psychological structure and one that has the ability to work, especially if the piece is long enough to properly develop it.

        • I’ve actually thought a lot about this “Boomerang” arc, though I typically call it a Rebound arc. Mostly, I’ve used it for planning stories, and I find myself using it a lot as an overarching arc in a series (for the reasons you mention about it feeling like a unification of several arcs). However, it can work well for a single stand-alone story. Though, like you, I’ve had a hard time finding a good example in existing fiction.

          Until I watched the Greatest Showman. In that, the protagonist starts out with a truth, which he disseminates, like in a flat arc, convincing the people in his show that they have inherent value. Then, he is tempted into a lie, that wealth and social status give him value, which forces him to reject the truth. But rejecting the truth hurts him and brings him low, forcing him to see the flaws in his lie, until the people he taught the truth to in the beginning bring it back to him and he once again rejects the lie and re-embraces the truth.

  9. Dear Ms. Weiland, thank you so much for your smart and insightful podcasts, books, and blogs! They’ve been very helpful to me as a writer. This is my first time writing on the site.

    In light of your post, I’m trying to pinpoint a character arc I just saw and analyze why an otherwise excellent TV program was so unsatisfying at the end.

    In Season 1 of Line of Duty, a detective who is not squeaky clean but generally dedicated to justice covers up a seemingly minor crime committed by his mistress. As the true nature of the crime is revealed, he gets entangled in more cover-ups in trying to keep his reputation and the love of his wife and kids. He is threatened by a crime boss but, instead of ultimately carrying out his dirty work, thwarts his plans and, at the climax, arrests him. But instead of turning himself in as well, he gets himself killed in a way that appears to be “in the line of duty,” to ensure financial support for his wife and kids.

    I found the end unsatisfying–partly because of his decision to kill himself, but also because, due to deeper corruption in the police system, the crime boss isn’t brought to justice (he does die in the second season).

    I’m unclear whether a) the detective’s arc is a corruption arc or a fall arc and b) whether there was anything structurally wrong with the arc or story or whether I was just personally disappointed to not get a happy ending.

    Thanks so much in advance if you have time to share any insights!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Haven’t seen the show, so I can only comment on your summary of it. The character could be following either a Fall or Corruption Arc, depending on the nature of the thematic Lie/Truth (Corruption was my first guess though). It’s possible you found the ending unsatisfying because the character arced back to the Truth (choosing to sacrifice himself to it in the end) too quickly and with too little development (totally guessing).

      One other thing I’ll say is that TV shows often overlap arcs from season to season, making it difficult to tie things up neatly. This is occasionally a good thing when handled with finesse and complexity. Often, though, it’s a gimmick with little purpose greater than keeping the story going from season to season.

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  1. […] element. David Griffin Brown writes about creating memorable characters, K. M. Weiland looks at the 3 negative character arcs, and Jennifer R. Hubbard goes into when even the author doesn’t know the character is keeping […]

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