How to Write a Negative Character Arc, Pt. 1: The First Act

Who in heaven’s name would want to write a negative character arc? Well, how about Shakespeare, Dostoevksy, Faulkner, and Flaubert? Just to name a few small-time wordsmiths you may have heard tell of. Everybody likes a happy ending, but, let’s face it, not all stories have happy endings. Negative change arcs won’t give readers the warm fuzzies and spawn date-night movie adaptations. But they do have the ability to create stories of unparalleled power and resonance—if they’re true.

Creating Character Arcs

Creating Character Arcs (affiliate link)

Truth resonates whether it’s happy or hard, and some of the hardest truths to swallow are the most important for any of us to understand. That’s where your ability to wield the negative character arc will come in handy. The negative change arc tells the story of a character who ends up in a worse place than that in which he started—and probably drags others down with him. In The Moral Premise, Stanley D. Williams provides this formula for negative arcs:

 [Virtue] leads to [success], and [Vice] leads to [defeat], but [Unrelenting vice] leads to [destruction].

The Three Manifestations of a Negative Character Arc

In writing this blog, I’ve long since realized there are many more ways to do things wrong than there are ways to do things right (hence my ongoing series “Most Common Writing Mistakes”—which will probably never run out of fodder). So it goes with character arcs. The positive change arc has basically just one manifestation. Same for the flat character arc. But the negative character arc can follow several variations.

I’ve identified three primary manifestations, all of which can follow variations of their own. Today and over the next two weeks, we’re going to be exploring this last of the major character arcs. But before we dig into the key structural points of the negative change arc’s First Act, let’s examine the three possible routes your story’s negative change arc may take.

The Disillusionment Arc

Character Believes Lie > Overcomes Lie > New Truth Is Tragic

(Examples: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Training Day directed by Antoine Fuqua)

In many ways, the disillusionment arc isn’t negative at all. Just as in a positive change arc, the protagonist is growing into a better understanding of the Truth. Possibly the character’s life will even be changed for the better by the events of the story. And yet it’s still a downer, because the character is moving from a positive outlook to a negative one. His new Truth isn’t sunshine and roses; it’s cold hard facts.

The Fall Arc

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

(Examples: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Doubt directed by John Patrick Shanley)

The fall arc is the one we most commonly associate with tragedies. In this type of story, the character starts out just as he would in a positive change arc: already entrenched in the Lie. But unlike a positive change arc, in which he will eventually overcome the Lie and embrace the Truth, the protagonist in a fall arc will reject every chance for embracing the Truth and will fall more and more deeply into the morass of his own sins—usually dragging others right along with him. His story will end in insanity, oppressive immorality, or death.

The Corruption Arc

Character Sees Truth > Rejects Truth > Embraces Lie

(Examples: The Godfather by Mario Puzo, Star Wars Episodes I-III directed by George Lucas)

In a corruption arc, the character starts out in a world that already knows and embraces the Truth. He has every opportunity to do the same, but is lured away by the Lie. Just as the seed of the Truth is already latent in the life of a positive change arc character, the seed of the Lie is latent in the corruption-arc character—even though the Truth is already right in front of him. This is perhaps the most moving of all the arcs, since it features a character who is good—or at least has a great potential for goodness—but who throws away that chance and consciously chooses darkness. In many ways, the corruption arc is similar to the disillusionment arc, but as William Bernhardt points out in Perfecting Plot:

 It’s possible to be disillusioned without being corrupted, and it’s possible to be corrupted without being disillusioned.

The Lie the Character Believes

Just as in a positive change arc, the negative arc hinges on the Lie the Character Believes. In a positive arc, the Lie is about something the character is lacking (e.g., he believes he needs money in order to be happy). In a negative arc, however, the Lie is about something the character already possesses but devalues (e.g., he’s already filthy rich, but he fails to value or be responsible with his blessings). There will be one specific, objectively good thing in his life that he will take for granted. Worse, he will be willing to sacrifice this good thing (and its inherent Truth) in order to pursue the false promise of the Lie.

The Thing the Character Wants, the Thing He Needs, and the Ghost will be basically the same in both a negative arc and a positive arc. It’s only how the character deals with them over the course of the story that significantly differs—as he falls prey to their power over him, rather than overcoming it.

The Disillusionment Arc Example

The Great Gatsby: Nick Carraway, although only an observer to the larger-than-life antics and pursuits of his eccentrically rich friend Jay Gatsby, is still the protagonist of this classic novel. He starts out the story as a naïve and optimistic young man from the Midwest. His Lie is a cheerful one: that people—especially rich, beautiful, popular ones—are exactly who they seem and that the lives of the East Egg residents must, therefore, be reaching the pinnacle of happiness. The Thing He Wants is to be one of them, while the Thing He Needs is to learn the truth about the shallowness behind their glittering facades. His Ghost is essentially his own naïvety, as the result of his unsophisticated upbringing.

The Fall Arc Example

Wuthering Heights: Heathcliff starts out believing the Lie that in order to ever find personal wholeness or happiness, he must entirely possess his adopted sister, childhood sweetheart, and only friend Cathy Earnshaw. The Thing He Wants is, of course, Cathy herself. But the Thing He Needs is to let her go and move away from their dangerously obsessive and destructive relationship. His Ghost is his own orphaned (and presumably illegitimate) childhood, in which he is endlessly spurned by everyone except Cathy and her father.

The Corruption Arc Example

Star Wars, Episodes I-III: I’ll start off this example by saying what everyone already knows: these movies are, almost entirely, examples of how not to do things. However, the one thing they do get right is the fall of Anakin Skywalker in what (in my admittedly biased fangirl opinion) could have been one of the best corruption arcs in cinema had it been told within less dismally awful movies. Anakin starts out as an optimistic, hopeful child who brings light and kindness into the lives of all those around him. The Truth he already knows is that love is stronger than physical power. But the seed of the Lie is also already within him, fertilized by his Ghost as a repressed and powerless slave. The Thing He Wants Most is to protect and save those he cares about (his mother and, later, his wife), but, as Yoda tells him, the Thing He Needs is to “train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”

The Normal World

The manifestation of the Normal World in a negative arc will depend on which of the variations your story is following. In a disillusionment arc, the character will start out seeing only the glitter and glamour of the Lie: its false promise of hope and success. As a result, the Normal World of the Lie will seem wonderful and beautiful. At this point, he has no reason not to believe in it or want it.

In a fall arc, the character will already be entrenched in the Lie, comfortably and perhaps even apathetically. His Normal World may seem ordinary and even good on the surface, but its cracks show through. The character isn’t uncomfortable enough in his Lie to rock the boat, but neither is he completely happy or content. The Normal World is a symbol of the Lie he can’t (and won’t) escape.

In a corruption arc, the character will start out in a comparatively wonderful Normal World. His Normal World is one already blessed by the Truth; it’s one that, despite its drawbacks, offers the character a safe place of happiness and growth.

The Disillusionment Arc Example

The Great Gatsby: Nick’s personal Normal World, glimpsed only briefly in backstory, is his calm and boring Midwestern life. That setting quickly shifts to the Normal World of the Lie, in which he is transfixed by the shining whirl of wealth and pleasure found in his cousin Daisy’s upscale life in East Egg, New York.

The Fall Arc Example

Wuthering Heights: The very name of Heathcliff’s home—Wuthering Heights—underlines the turbulent themes of the story. Brontë writes that “wuthering” describes, “the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in the stormy weather.” When Heathcliff is adopted as a boy, he is brought to this severe and barren place, where everyone from the master’s son to the staff despises him and treats him with cruelty. Only his doomed adopted father and the unruly Cathy accept him. Heathcliff despises everyone else right back, but his almost supernatural bond with Cathy holds him in this hellish existence.

The Corruption Arc Example

Star Wars: On its exterior, Anakin’s Normal World as greedy Watto’s slave on Tatooine is less than great. But his skills as a mechanic and pilot mean he and his mother are treated well. They live happily together, content in each other’s love.

The Characteristic Moment

As in the positive and flat arcs, the primary function of a negative arc’s Characteristic Moment is to introduce the character’s true self. This encompasses more than just the character’s personality and focus (both of which are important). It also needs to hint at the character’s potential, specifically as it pertains to his relationship with the Lie. Even if the character starts out as a perfectly likable chap who helps little old ladies across the street, readers still need to gain an almost immediate sense of the dark nature that will lead to his doomed future.

The Disillusionment Arc Example

The Great Gatsby: An older, wiser Nick looks back on his adventures with Gatsby by sharing some advice his father used to give him, “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one [sic], just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.” The sublime irony here, as readers will discover, is that Nick and his somewhat weary contempt are the products of a “Midwestern” town, which at first glance has none of the benefits of Gatsby’s wicked and glamorous city. We are immediately given a sense of the naïvety with which Nick starts out the story, as well as the poignant cynicism with which he will end it.

The Fall Arc Example

Wuthering Heights: Just as in The Great Gatsby, readers’ first glimpse of Heathcliff comes late in the chronological narrative, almost at the very end. He is already a grown man, misanthropic, cruel, and long scarred by his devotion to his Lie. A few chapters later, we see him at the beginning of his own story, when Mr. Earnshaw first brings him, as a boy, to Wuthering Heights. He is introduced as a silent, longsuffering boy, who craves love (the maid finds him huddled on the cold floor in front of Mr. Earnshaw’s bedroom door the next morning), but who also seems to have the capability for great violence and passionate cruelty.

The Corruption Arc Example

Star Wars: Anakin is introduced in his role as a slave. He immediately imparts the sense that he is someone who understands Truths about life. He is centered, happy, generous, and kind. But the Lie pokes out around the corners, in his occasional angry retorts to those who hold power over him (Watto and Sebulba). He voices his discontentment with his lot and his determination to protect his mother when he tells Qui-Gon he dreams of becoming a Jedi and returning to free all the slaves by force.

The First Act

As in any type of character arc, the negative arc’s First Act must be spent developing both the Truth and the Lie. Whenever either the Truth or the Lie is on stage, the other is there as well, if only by reflection. In all of the negative arcs, the Lie gets precedence over the Truth. Readers need to understand how the Lie has shaped the protagonist’s world and what his personal relationship is with it.

Just as importantly, you need to establish the stakes. What is at stake for the characters if the protagonist pursues the Lie? What must he sacrifice if he chooses the Truth over the Lie? Don’t make the choices too black and white. Whenever a character makes an important decision, it should be a difficult one. Whatever he chooses, he will have to sacrifice something of great value. Likewise, whatever he chooses, he will also gain something of great value.

The character won’t yet have the insight necessary to name either the Truth or the Lie. He has no idea he’s dealing with anything so grand. All he knows is that he’s being presented with choices. Something in his life isn’t quite right, and he wants to make it better, one way or the other. His first major decision and action—which will force him out of his Normal World—won’t happen until the end of the First Act. Up until that point, spend your time upping the ante on his personal discomfort and leading him to the opportunities that will set his feet on the path away from the Truth.

The Disillusionment Arc Example

The Great Gatsby: Nick spends the First Act being introduced to high society, with varying levels of success. He hangs out with his cousin Daisy and her brutish husband Tom, is introduced to Tom’s ill-fated relationship with the mechanic George Wilson and his bombshell wife Myrtle, and meets his own fling Jordan Baker. Gatsby doesn’t show up in the First Act, but his presence looms large as the light among lights in this glittering landscape. We particularly get the sense of a history between Gatsby and Daisy.

The Fall Arc Example

Wuthering Heights: Throughout the First Act, we are shown Heathcliff’s devotion to his Lie (that he needs Cathy), as they grow up together, sheltering each other from the cruel world around them. As far as it goes, it would seem that Heathcliff does need Cathy and that there’s nothing wrong with that. But we also get a front row seat to Cathy’s violently selfish and unpredictable behavior. Even Cathy herself begins to disdain Heathcliff’s devotion after she gets a taste of a more refined world while convalescing with their neighbors the Lintons. She begins to accept Edward Linton’s romantic advances, not because she loves him, but because she wants to be rich and refined. Even though she adores Heathcliff and defends him against her brother and others, she treats him abominably and readers come to understand that Heathcliff would be much better off if only he could break his eerie bond with her.

The Corruption Arc Example

Star Wars: The entirety of Episode I is essentially the First Act in this arc. As such, it shows both Anakin’s potential for goodness, but also his potential for great power. As long as he is in the Normal World with his mother, he clings to the Truth. But he is tempted away from that Truth by Qui-Gon’s promises that he could learn to wield great power as a Jedi. He craves the power both as a solution toward freeing his mother, but also as an antidote to the powerlessness he has lived with all his life. When the Jedi Council briefly threatens his dream, we see the hold the Lie is already coming to have over him.

Questions to Ask About the First Act in a Negative Character Arc

1. Will your protagonist fuilfill a disillusionment arc, a fall arc, or a corruption arc?
2. What Lie will your character fall prey to?
3. How does this Lie manifest in the beginning of your story?
4. How does the Truth manifest in the character (in a disillusionment arc) or in the world around him in?
5. How is the character devaluing the Truth in the beginning of the story?
6. What Ghost is influencing the character’s belief in or proclivity toward the Lie?
7. What is the Thing the Character Needs?
8. What is the Thing the Character Wants?
9. If you’re using a disillusionment arc, why does the Lie’s Normal World appeal to the character?
10. If you’re using a fall arc, how is the character already entrenched in the Lie’s Normal World? Why has he not yet made a move to escape this Normal World?
11. If you’re using a corruption arc, how is the character’s Normal World nourished by the Truth? Why is the character still less than comfortable in this world?
12. How can you use the Characteristic Moment to introduce your character’s proclivity toward the Lie?
13. What is at stake for the character if he chooses to follow the Lie?
14. What is at stake for the character if he chooses to follow the Truth?

A well-crafted negative character arc provides readers with a protagonist that reveals interesting truths both about the world around them and about themselves. Negative character arcs are rarely comfortable, but they are important. It’s no mistake that so many of the greatest and most memorable stories in literature are tragedies. As readers, we resonate with characters who follow the Lie—and pay for it—because it is a cycle we repeat so often in our own lives. When structured properly to gain maximum resonance, a negative character arc can present sober realities that inspire great change in the world around us.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about the negative character arc in the Second Act.

Tell me your opinion: What is your favorite example of a negative character arc?


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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.


  1. I think this what I might be attempting to do with the novel I am working on now. The difference is that it won’t be one character but many characters who are on the Disillusionment Arc when they are all let down by the British Justice System. The lie will be they can all solve their struggle by coming together and forming a vigilante group. For a while, things will be good but it all comes crashing down at the end for them as vigilante-ism is a crime too. I just wonder if I am in the right ball park with this and any advice is always welcome.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds about right to me. Most stories will feature more than one character following an arc – whether it’s all the same arc or different ones. The more arcs, the more depth, as long as they’re all pulling the same wagon.

  2. thomas h cullen says

    Finally…..a topic of discussion I don’t feel able to relate to The Representative – at least on the surface, that is.

    In fact, even on this front, TR measures up: with the continuance of its unfolding narration, “cold hard truths” do begin to finally emerge.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s true: every story should strive to present truth. The negative arc is different only in that its Truths are often unpleasant ones.

      • thomas h cullen says

        Call it a negative world arc, balanced out by a positive protagonist:

        By this, I just mean Croyan’s intent being positive; he’s still just flat as a personal arc.

  3. Ooh, I’ve been anticipating this series since I first heard about it. 🙂 I’m in the midst of outlining a trilogy with an overall redemption theme, and in the first book the protagonist has a negative character arc–a corruption arc, I would say, as she starts out “good” and innocent and aware of the truth, but she ends up going down a dark path and making the wrong choice(s) in the end–choosing the lie over the truth. Anyway, this article has been quite helpful, and I’m looking forward to the next part. Thanks! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It is interesting that Anakin Skywalkwer (my corruption arc example here) does, in fact, get a redemptive arc in the follow-up series.

  4. SJ Griffo says

    Great post, definitely a keeper. My story has the disillusionment arc.

    I’m writing (an adult) dystopian series and my protag is from the utopian side. After he enters the dystopian world, he learns some hard, brutal truths. By the end of the story, he’s changed in many ways – and some not for the better.

    The heroine is from the dystopian world and has been conditioned to believe in the system. She too learns the truth, and is changed. Her arc ends up on a more positive note than the protag, but still, she experiences great disillusionment to the point of complete apathy before her arc is complete.

  5. Brian Hoffman says

    As I pursue my MFA in creative writing from Self-Taught University, your’s is my favorite and most useful class. That is a Truth I shall not waver from no matter how alluring the Lie. Thanks again.

  6. The three types of negative arcs are very interesting. I feel like Anakin’s arc ruins his redemption in Episode VI and the dialogue/acting also made it harder to relate (admittedly Lucas’s fault though) but yes it does work well on the surface and could have made a great stand alone arc if it was done better. I’m glad you’re able to recognize that and that you are brave enough to use it as a legit example. Although I hate it when sad endings are contrived or when the characters have no likability to begin with, negative arcs can still be great and it annoys me when people say: “The best stories are the ones that have happy endings” as much as the reverse. It just depends what the story requires and how you do it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One of my great sadnesses is that those movies didn’t live up to the potential of Anakin’s negative arc–because it would have been his redemption arc even better in the end.

  7. thomas h cullen says

    I concur. 80% of great storytelling’s form; 20%’s the great story situation.

  8. Hi, KM. I actually liked the Prequels a lot, and I certainly don’t want to start a “fanboy” argument with you. I’ve followed your blog for quite some time, and as an aspiring writer who hopes to make it some day, I’ve taken a lot of your advice to heart.

    Anakin’s corruption arc is certainly one of my favorite parts of the Star Wars saga, and I think it (and Anakin’s acting and characterization) contain a lot of underrated nuance and truth.

    Anakin is often criticized as “whiny,” and Hayden Christiansen is called out for “wooden” acting. I can see why someone might think that, but I can understand and relate to that portrayal as well.

    As someone from a strict Asian immigrant community, I’ve seen my share emotionally repressed people. Some of them come across the way Anakin does – locked down, superficially unemotional, but with a simmering bitterness just below the surface. Not to blame everything on culture, the individuals’ parents weren’t the most open or friendly people either.

    And as a twenty something hire in a bureaucracy helmed by people who care less about the work than their own nearing retirements, I see a lot of the same things in Anakin’s conflict with the older Jedi. When your skills, ambitions, and opinions are rejected, disillusionment can come.

    I see a social critique in the Prequels, and they were denouncing emotionally repressive “traditional” parenting more than a decade before Frozen told people how wrong “Conceal, don’t feel” is.

    Not to let Anakin off the hook, he reacted very badly to his poor upbringing. As you say, he rejected truth and embraced the lie, digging himself further. And while his downfall is rooted in his childhood anxieties, those anxieties are connected to the very thing that could have made him great: his ambition to do good and help others. I think that makes for great tragedy. The idea that our virtues and strengths can also be our weaknesses is something people should keep in mind.

    Just wanted to say my piece as someone who saw a more in these films than they’re often given credit for!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for chiming in! It’s true I’m almost entirely disappointed in the prequels, mostly because I think they had tremendous potential that wasn’t take advantage of. But this is a great example of art’s subjectivity. Even though these films didn’t work for many people, there are definitely many like yourself who enjoyed them. And that’s awesome! I agree with your take on Anakin’s repression.

  9. thomas h cullen says

    A brilliant post – “a social critique”.

    Sound art vs Entertainment: that’s what comes to mind when I sometimes think of the prequels (but then oddly enough, like you say, they can be looked at as social critiques).

    At any rate……they possess nothing on The Representative.

  10. Nice structure of this article: summary, lie, normal world, characteristic moment, and first act, each with the 3 arc type examples. Very clear. Thank you for this.

  11. KM, your content is great. I’ve been reading your blog and books now for quite a while as I readied myself to get off my a$$ and go after my dream.

    I’ve been wanting to write a novel for several years now but I’ve let everything else get in the way: family stuff, work stuff, cleaning out the garage, watching British murder mysteries on PBS, laundry… Let’s be honest, I’ve used every excuse to keep from having to face my own incompetence.

    Better to dream about being a great writer than to write and confirm that I suck.

    Ok, that’s harsh, but maybe you remember that feeling. Well, I’m manning up and doing it. Starting today and finishing the first (expected to be very, very crappy but complete) draft by August 31st. Blogging my way through it, if anyone’s interested in joining the journey:

    You’ve been a great resource and an inspiration. Thanks for helping me get this far and I hope you’ll drop in to see where I’m at over the next 6 weeks!

  12. I’m really impressed with this article. You’ve made a very simple guide to negative characters, which I’m definitely bookmarking. I’ve always been drawn to negative characters, and your guide will help me create my own. Thanks for an awesome post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Negative character arcs can be tricky to pull off, if only because we too often try to cram them incorrectly into positive-arc patterns. But handled deftly, negative arcs wield all kinds of power. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  13. Hi,
    This is the first I am commenting on this blog. A very interesting topic and very well written. Every person has a grey shade (hidden, exposed or controlled) and writing about it is very difficult (according to me, a novice at writing).

    In the novel that I am attempting, I am not writing or exposing the the manifestation of the Negative character as I want the readers to keep guessing about it all the time. Is that a bad approach?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In writing a character with shades of grey, we want to present situations in which the character isn’t always black and white. But that doesn’t mean the character’s arc should ever be nebulous. Whatever type of arc you’re writing (but especially if it’s a negative arc), it’s important to follow the proper structure. Otherwise, the end result won’t be set up properly and readers will greet any kind of surprise about the character’s final state with distaste. We have to foreshadow the character’s end, whatever it may be.

    • thomas h cullen says

      I echo Katie’s advice: foreshadowing is storytelling’s prime tool of effectiveness – there’s a barely more effective means of gaining a readers respect.

  14. I’m not clear on what the Lie the character believes is in the Corruption arc (Anakin Skywalker example). You say that the seeds are already revealing themselves, but not what the Lie actually is. I’m tired and probably being dense, but I’d appreciate some clarity on that, if you have a moment.

  15. Hmm… my (series) antagonist starts as a protagonist, but goes through a negative character arc in the course of the first book. He starts as a pacifist, and then becomes corrupted. At the end of the book he kills a man by accident. Though it was not on purpose, he puts it down to his increasingly violent nature, and agonises over whether he meant it or not, going very near insanity.

    I’m not sure which major variation this fits in – if you consider, “Violence solves nothing.” to be the Truth, then it doesn’t fit any of them, as he starts out with the Truth and loses it. However he never really loses his belief in it. Maybe at the end of the book he embraces the Lie that “Redemption is impossible”. :\

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A character can lose a Truth without necessarily losing his belief in it. It’s a fine line, but basically it comes down to not whether or not a character believes something but whether or not he’s able to live it in his own life.

  16. I am currently working on a cliched story about a girl who believes the more zeroes you have on yor bank account, the more succesful and happy you are. She has a perfectly happy family, but leaves them and goes to New York to chase her dreams. (Ends up joining mafia and then the story gets really nasty)
    So my guess is that makes her’s the corruption arc.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Doesn’t sound cliched. It’s a big jump from wanting money to joining the Mafia! Sounds interesting.

  17. Thanks SO MUCH for this series! I’ve been working on a character-driven fantasy novel off-and-on for six years. After working with numerous professional writer/mentors all over the country, only to finish more and more drafts that I absolutely hated, I put the book aside for years at a time. More than once I’ve despaired of ever finishing it to my satisfaction.

    One day several weeks ago I unexpectedly had the epiphany I’d been waiting for: this story was a NEGATIVE character arc … probably a product of my obsession with Gothic literature as a teenager. What a revelation, after all those professional writers who tried to squeeze it into a positive arc, making a squeaky-clean hero out of a character whose true destiny is to do the unthinkable!

    I’m now ready to go back and write the story I originally dreamed of telling, but didn’t have the skill or courage to recognize all those years ago.

    I can’t thank you enough again. You have unlocked the one story I ever truly wanted to tell. I am so grateful!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Glad you enjoyed the series! Something I discovered in writing it was how little there is about the negative arc. You’re right: from the Hero’s Journey on down, we’re always trying to cram our characters into positive arcs. But that’s simply not going to work for every story!

      • So true! Way back in the early days, I didn’t have the gumption to contradict my teachers … but honestly, every time I brought up an “arc of descent” they were like, “Who reads that? Do you want to depress everyone?” I was even once accused by an educator of corrupting children for suggesting a story about a teenage character who ultimately committed murder. It amazed me that people were so dead-set against it, when as you pointed out, classic literature is full of tragedies. I think your analysis here might be one of the only (or at least the most extensive) on the internet that doesn’t use the word “antihero” all the time. So, thanks again.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          It’s absolutely true negative arcs *are* a harder sell. But we have only to look at a list of some of our most beloved classics to see how powerful these stories can be.

  18. Thanks so much for this post. I think I was doing positive and negative character arcs in my story already, but didn’t know what they were called or how to structure them properly. I’m a little worried now that mine might be too complicated – I think my heroine has a negative arc at first, followed by a positive arc at the end, whereas the antagonist/love interest has positive arc at the beginning (or at least it appears he is in a positive arc), and then ultimately spirals down (fall arc).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Glad you enjoyed the post! And, yes, one of the most common reactions authors often have when trying to construct arcs is to throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks. But I would definitely recommend taking a hard look at both arcs and seeing if you can streamline the structure. The dividends you’ll reap in impact and resonance are manifold!

  19. When writing a corruption arc, would you want to make your villain in the beginning of the story be good in the end? Or at least, sorry for whatever they did to the main character?

  20. Hannah Killian says

    I’m very tempted to write a series that involves the main character having a ‘fall’ arc in the first three book and a ‘redemption’ arc in the last three. And it was sort of inspired by all this talk about how Lucas could’ve written Anakin’s fall better. Hey, who knows, I might give that character a kid he doesn’t even know about. . .yet.

    Of course, it all depends on whether I write it or not.

  21. I know this is an old post, but since you asked, one of my favorite negative character arcs is `Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.’ The lie he believes is that he has to take over the world in order to make a difference. The potential for the truth is shown in his comment about not wanting to fight a superhero in the park because `kids are there.’ (He cares about others and could make a difference one-on-one). What he needs is to pursue a relationship with Peggie, the girl he’s crushing on, but when he finally gets the chance to talk to her, he’s about to pull a heist to prove that he can be a super-villain, and instead of dropping his plan, he goes through with it, loosing Peggie as a direct result. The end is very much a `got what he wanted but lost what he needed.’

  22. Great Expectations. Pip believes getting Estella’s love will solve everything, but that didn’t turn out so well.

  23. My MC lives in the Civil War era and has an experience with a runaway slave family when she is a child that drives her to get involved in the antislavery movement. Can the “lie” in a disillusionment arc be something that should be positive, i.e. that she can make the world a better place if there is no slavery? In the end, her idealism is shattered when her husband returns from the Civil War, her personal world is torn apart, and she ends up bitter and cynical. (she will be the first of five generations/five MCs in my WIP)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes. Disillusionment Arcs are essentially Positive Change Arcs, in that the character ends by learning a Truth. The difference is that the Truth in the Disillusionment Arc leaves the character on a downer at the end of the story.

  24. Struggling to find out where my antagonist would fall–what sort of negative arc he follows. In the story, he wants to find a cure for his sickly daughter, and to help her avoid a prophecy that–due to her being half of his kind–would doom her to a dimension of suffering. He believes that by finding magic items to turn her fully human, he can save and cure her.

    Over the course of the story, he discovers that the closer he gets to the magical cure, he begins to change into a form that turns him into a beast. A fate he hoped to avoid as it foreshadows the form he’ll be imprisoned in within this dimension–as a mindless beast, unable to take human form. Unable to return to his place as king or to his human family.

    He soon realizes that his daughter is only getting worse–that he needs to sacrifice his humanity in order to save his daughter’s life. It ends up, where her sickness ends up killing her anyway, making his own sacrifice in vain. In his grief, the antagonist tries one last thing, in an attempt to at least save himself from fully turning (sacrificing his current memories and human form in exchange for a rebirth), and fails.

    Trapped in the body of a dragon, the antagonist then goes up against the heroes in a last attempt to remain in this dimension and stop the prophecy that will doom him to the dimension of suffering. The heroes end up winning and the antagonist is defeated.

    Originally I thought the arc followed a Fall. Though, now I’m not sure.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      On the surface, that’s not necessarily a negative arc at all. He’s trying to protect his daughter and then himself. That’s not necessarily Lie-driven. The only way to know what arc a character is on is to chart his relationship to the Lie/Truth over the course of the story.

      • So, currently, all I have right now are goals, something of a motivation, but no inner struggle between Lie/Truth for my antagonist’s arc?

        For my protagonists, it was simple. Their backstory provided the fodder I could use. If I look into my antagonist’s backstory, he was essentially banished for wanting more power. As a result, he’s had to fight to get where he is now. He feels resentment for having to keep fighting. And I guess he wants something better for his daughter. So that she doesn’t have to keep fighting. And he thinks he can save her from death–something he brought to the world generations ago. But the reality is that, because of the choices he made in the past, his fate is sealed. He can’t change the result (Would that be the Truth?).

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          The Truth needs to be something deeper than just a practical fact. That fact can be the starting point, but it needs to point to a deeper universal Truth. I would start by focusing on the Lie, since that will usually show you the Truth. As yourself, what incorrect belief about how life works is motivating his actions and leading to his ultimate failure?

          • After some thought I think I finally found something using the Fall arc. I hope.

            My antagonist has been banished to Earth and, as a creature with magic, his kind become very powerful. Unable to die, able to heal themselves and raise from the dead (similar to phoenixes), the antagonist believes the Lie that he and his people are indestructible. Untouchable.

            But he is haunted by the possibility of a prophesied figure, Dragonsbane, with the power to bring down the antagonist and his people. This prophecy is kept alive by a group of warrior-priests who are against the antagonist and strive to keep humanity safe. So the antagonist strives to wipe out this order, fearing human revolt and the promise of the prophecy–the possibility of true death.

            The antagonist’s own half-human daughter, Meradel, is sickly and possibly dying. With his human wife unable to have more children (most of them dying before birth due to magic), the antagonist’s position is at risk. Wanting to save his daughter’s life, he goes on a quest to find the cure. Against him, is this order, wanting the items of the cure for the purpose of imprisoning the antagonist and his kind.

            This magic that could be use to cure Meradel slowly transforms him into a dragon. Trapping him in a living prison, stripping away his humanity.

            Over the course of the story, the antagonist must come to grips with the fact that he can be destroyed. That his people are not as untouchable as they seem. He loses his daughter and the possibility of life returning to normal. He, of course, rejects this truth and keeps reaching to help his legacy survive–using his new form as a dragon as a new strength rather then a representation of how his kind can be destroyed.

            This eventually leads to his downfall. The dragon form (somehow) ends up being the way that the heroes bring him down.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            I like it. He sounds like an interesting character.

  25. Marianne says

    I had chosen the Negative Chance Arc “Fall” for my MC, but I realized something was not working. Then I decided that the Negative Chance Arc “Corruption” would fit my purpose.
    But I still have the same doubt for both cases: The lie your character believes must to hold him back, right?

    The MC has to resist and then, as pressures increase, he needs to make choices and decisions that change the direction of the plot.
    I have a character who always wanted something, so, when the opportunity appears (1st Plot Point), I’m not sure if:
    1. He must resist at first by believing that he doesn’t want to enter the new world and he is doing that just because he’s helping someone else (even though he always felt something missing in his life); or
    2- If he simply takes this opportunity to enter the new world quite conscious of his desire.

    To what extent does the lie make the character resists in the Negative Chance Arc “Fall” and the Negative Chance Arc “Corruption”?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In both of these arcs, the character will be moving toward the Thing He Wants, motivated by the Lie. Whatever resistance he’s experiencing will from the Thing He Needs nagging at him.

  26. Leone Malek says

    I’ve purchased and just finished reading your book On Creating Character Arcs.
    Simply phenomenal as it’s really helped me think about trying to convey change within my story baby in a way that the reader can either root for or cringe at by the end.

    My story in question revolves around a pair of dual protagonists in a seedy corrupt city’s criminal underworld. The first being a native resident and is cold and amoral, the second being a fish out of water and has holier than thou naive sensibilities.

    My question is this;
    Is there a way to make a believable corruption and positive change arc that highlights how two people learn from one another, while both being the protagonists of the story?

    I find it difficult to create situations where 2 heroes on opposite sides of the moral spectrum in mostly everything are willing to listen to each other’s opinions, or more importantly learn from one another to find a happy medium between their conflicting ideologies.

    Thank you very much
    Leone Malek

  27. I’m very fascinated by this. I think the best example of this would be Breaking Bad. Although how would you spread the 3 acts of the negative arc into an entire 6 season series?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m quite certain you’re right about this. However, I haven’t seen the show, so can’t comment on the mechanics.

  28. So when you say that “In a Negative Arc, the Lie is about something the character already possesses, but devalues” does that apply to the Disillusionment Arc as well? Or just the other two?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The key thing to understand about the Disillusionment Arc is that it is essentially the same as the Positive Change Arc, except the Truth in the end is “disillusioning.” The Lie in a Disillusionment Arc might more closely mirror its manifestation in a Positive Arc, but it can also be something the character devalues (or, sometimes, overvalues) as in the other two forms of the Negative Change Arc.

  29. In a Disillusionment Arc, if the Want is the perceived cure for the symptoms of the Lie, does this mean that the symptoms of the Lie are “positive” things (if the Lie is a positive misconception)? If so, why would a character want to “cure” them?

    This is the only thing I’m not completely sure of when comparing it to a Positive Character Arc.

    Otherwise, this book is the best thing I’ve read.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, almost always the elements that will be “positive” in a Positive Change Arc are “negative” in a Disillusionment Arc–and vice versa.

  30. Hello, been reading your posts and they’ve helped me understand character arcs, I’m new to writing, I decided to create this character who’ll probably be an antihero. I’m having problems with which arc he should take. Here’s a brief description:

    His Dad needs a transplant, but he cant pay for it. So he decides to go for a crime life, to get money.

    His goal: Get money to pay for his Dad transplant.

    His lie: Arrogance, because he thinks he thinks he can avoid the hand of the law.

    (I’m still thinking about a good truth )

    Which arc suits better my character?

    Thank you very much,


  31. Hello again, I’m still struggling to find out where my Main Character would fall? The thing is I have the *want* and the *lie*, but cant find the *truth* and the *need*. My story is about this guy who wants to pay for his father´s treatment, but doesn’t have sufficient money to do it, so he decides to pursue a life of crime to get money fast. The lie is that he believes that he can avoid corruption, avoid the law, here is where I’m struggling to find the truth. Could it mean that he already knows the truth and my character is a flat character arc? This is were I start doubting, what do you think?


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      To find the Truth, look for the opposite value of the Lie. In this story’s case, the Truth might be that it’s better to let a loved one die than to force suffering upon others in an attempt to avoid our own.

  32. Molly Stegmeier says

    Can you think of an example of a story in which the protagonist goes through a disillusionment arc? I’m curious how it would look in a character who is driving the plot.

  33. Thank you for the great post. I’ve been trying to write a fictional biography about someone who had some elements of a positive arc but who ultimately had a tragic end. The story has to be a negative arc, though I’m not sure which one, but I’m not sure how the positive character growth fits with the negative character growth. Any thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like it might be a Disillusionment Arc. The Disillusionment Arc is the same as the Positive-Change Arc (Lie arcing to Truth), except the Truth is an unhappy one.

  34. Is it possible for a disillusionment or corruption arc to end with a positive change?

    I started out plotting my book thinking that I was writing a positive change arc. Then I realized that my character only discovers the antidote to her inner Lie very late in life.

    The closest pattern that fits my story at it’s present stage is a flat change arc in which the protagonist undergoes many trials and survives them, taking care of her family each step of the way…. BUT (and here is where the positive and negative arcs come in) she realizes very late in the game that 1) she has been complicit in some aspect of that outer Lie in order to survive and 2) there has all this time been an inner need she has not addressed. This prompts her to take a big risk very late in life….and the readers don’t get to know the full outcome of that risk.

    I’m not sure whether there is a simpler way I can view my character arc? Which one does it sound most like to you?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s definitely possible to put a positive cast on the very end of a Disillusionment Arc, since the Disillusionment Arc is essentially the same as the Positive-Change Arc, save for the protagonist’s perspective on the nature of the Truth.

      It’s also possible to hint at hope at the end of a Corruption or Fall Arc. But this is trickier. When you’ve spent the entire story arcing your protagonist toward tragedy, too swift a change of mind in the end can feel like a cheat or, at the least, undeveloped.

  35. I just realized a very nice example of a corruption arc is the TV series “The Blacklist”. At least the more recent seasons… (I’m not sure how much corruption the early seasons have though…)

    When I started watching it I expected the darkness of Raymond Reddington to be dampened by the typically good-guys FBI agents. If that happens or not is very much left to interpretation. It’s even possible to start wondering who’s using who.

    Instead, the characters surrounding him starts becoming tainted by him and the main character, Elizabeth Keen, seems to be spiraling deeper and deeper into darkness as the show progresses. She and several other characters on the show…

  36. Gry Ranfelt says

    What would you call an arc where the character believes the truth, is confronted by the lie and is convinced by the lie at the end?

  37. I love this series! I think, as you’ve said, Negative Arcs have such potential for power and truth, even if they aren’t super uplifting.

    I’m curious if you could say more about the ‘oppressive immorality’ at the end of the Fall Arc–I haven’t seen ‘Doubt’ but having read the synopsis, it sounds like Sister Aloysius’s ending isn’t really so much about madness or physical destruction (as in ‘Wuthering Heights’) but something less tangible. Do Fall Arc protagonists have the potential to end up in scenarios where they are outwardly appearing to prosper while having been destroyed inside, or is that closer to a Corruption Arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely. All of the Negative Arcs have the potential to end on a seemingly positive note in the outer plot, with the character having gained his or her plot goal–only to find it a hollow victory due to the moral tragedy.

  38. Is it possible for a protagonist to have a negative character in a comedy?

  39. JimmyGreen says

    There is a tv series in which five characters actually function as the protagonist of the story. They are trying to find out the murderer of a woman. It seems like the impact character of the story is the henchman of the murderer that tries to catch them and kill them.
    The five characters believe in the truth of the story from beginning to end so they have a flat character arc. The henchman also starts believing the lie and at the climactic moment chooses it once again and goes to prison while the murderer, the antagonist commits suicide because his crime is revealed.
    But once in prison at the end of the story the henchman calls one of the five characters and apologizes to him stating that he was on the wrong side. Does that mean that he has a positive character arc after all ?
    If he instead has a negative, fall arc, because from the beginning he believes in the lie of the story does that mean that he is technically the actual protagonist with the murderer as his impact character and the five characters as his antagonist ?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Usually, if the character only changes belatedly in the Resolution, that is a sign that the character underwent a Negative Arc of some kind. He may recognize the Truth, but it’s too late to do him or anyone else in the story any good.

      • JimmyGreen says

        The five heroes that served as the main character remained steadfast till the end but that wasn’t enough to influence the henchman to change for the better. So are we supposed to believe that they influenced him to change for the worse even by defending the truth of the story ?

        • JimmyGreen says

          Turns out there is a character that serves as a guardian angel sent from god to help the five heroes and save them when necessary. I guess he is the real impact character. The henchman is just the contagonist, with the murderer, the antagonist of the story, serving as his own negative impact character. (I couldn’t erase the previous comment so i wrote this. Thanks for the answers though, really helpful !)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          That’s hard to say without knowing the intricacies of the theme, but probably not.


  1. […] Sylvester gave me this link that kind of explains the most common story arcs for tragedies: How to Write a Negative Character Arc  It helped me add some structure to my stories.  I’m still revising that suicide one. […]

  2. […] a negative arc story, our protagonist might have a tragic ending in several ways. For our purposes here, we can simplify […]

  3. […] I am currently jumping up and down while yelling eureka! Not really, I am sitting here typing but in my head the actions are taking place. Why the excitement? I figured something out with my manuscript because of a post from Helping Writers Become Authors titled How to Write a Negative Character Arc, Pt. 1: The First Act. […]

  4. […] some stories, our characters might go through a flat arc (where they don’t change) or a negative arc (where they don’t get a happy ending). However, the most common style of story involves a […]

  5. […] How to Write a Negative Character Part 1 – K.M. Weiland […]

  6. […] do plot events force the protagonist to change? With a flat arc (where they don’t change) or a negative arc (where they don’t get a happy ending), some of the character-focused elements might need to be […]

  7. […] negative, and flat. Within those categories, writers use different kinds of negative change arcs: Disillusionment, Fall, and Corruption. (Click that link. I mean it. K.M. Weiland explains everything superbly and I won’t re-hash […]

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