Helping Writers Become Authors

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

how to write a negative character arc

how to write a negative character arc

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 (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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