how to write a negative character arc

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 ArcsTruth 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?

how to write a negative character arc

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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. Lisa S. says:

    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!

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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.’

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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Marianne says:

    Hello,
    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.

  9. 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

Trackbacks

  1. […] 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 […]

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