How to Write a Negative Character Arc
We all love stories where the protagonist undergoes a transformative change, becoming the hero they were destined to be. But what if your character doesn't change for the better or become a hero? What if their journey leads them down a darker path? That's the beauty of a negative character arc. In this post, we'll delve into the world of negative character arcs, exploring what they are and providing key tips to help you write a strong and impactful negative character arc.
What is a negative character arc?
At its core, a negative character arc tells the story of a protagonist whose journey leads them to a worse place than where they started. This is the opposite of the positive character arc, or positive change arc, wherein the protagonist changes for the better by the end of the story. It's also different from a flat character arc, in which the protagonist does not change at all over the course of a story.
At the core of any character arc, positive or negative, is the protagonist’s flawed belief (the “lie” that guides their motivations at the beginning of the story.) In a positive character arc, the hero will grow until they no longer believe the “lie” in favor of a new, better belief (the “truth” that represents the lesson they need to learn). In a negative arc, however, things are a bit more complex; the character may reject the "truth," embrace the "lie," and find themselves in a downward spiral.
There are three primary types of negative character arcs:
The Disillusionment Arc
This arc involves a character who starts out the story believing a lie. However, in this arc, the “truth” is actually worse than the hero’s flawed belief. As the illusions fade, they face a harsh reality that dampens their outlook on life. Relationships crumble, trust is shattered, and the character sees the world is no longer filled with sunshine and rainbows. Their disillusionment drives the narrative and explores themes of lost innocence, societal corruption, and the human condition.
A classic example of an author writing a disillusionment arc is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Gatsby believes that he can repeat the past and reclaim his former lover, Daisy. However, as the story unfolds, Gatsby’s attempts to repeat the past result in disaster, leaving him disillusioned and ultimately resulting in his demise.
The Fall Arc
Commonly associated with tragedies, the fall arc features a character who repeatedly rejects opportunities to embrace the truth. Instead, they cling to their flawed belief, leading to their ultimate downfall. Their choices and actions lead to a downward spiral, resulting in insanity, immorality, or death, taking others down with them. The fall arc explores themes of hubris, moral decay, and the consequences of one's actions.
The fall arc is perfectly exemplified in Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. The titular character clings to the witches’ prophecy about him to justify his heinous acts, believing himself safe from harm— with tragic results.
The Corruption Arc
In this type of character arc, the character starts in a world where they know the truth, but doubt or internal conflict surrounds it. They are presented with a tempting lie and are lured away from their potential to be a hero. Over the course of the story, they willingly choose the path of corruption, often forsaking their original virtues or succumbing to the allure of power, leading to their moral downfall and the embrace of darkness. The corruption arc explores themes of temptation, moral decay, and the seductive nature of evil.
One example of the corruption arc is Michael Corleone’s arc in The Godfather by Mario Puzo. Initially distant from his family's criminal activities, Michael becomes entangled in the world of organized crime and gradually descends into ruthlessness and moral compromise.
Elements of a negative character arc
Deep internal conflict
A negative character arc is a powerful exploration of internal struggles and emotional turmoil. To make your hero's negative arc believable, you have to dive into their beliefs, values, and relationships. Challenge them at every turn, pushing them towards negativity. Explore the lie your character believes, as well as their internal conflicts, doubts, and moral dilemmas. Highlight their journey into negativity, showing the toll it takes on their psyche.
To use an example from film, consider Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into the antagonist Darth Vader over the events of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. Anakin struggles with being forbidden to love, and the internal turmoil he feels as a result of his secret relationship with Padmé in defiance of his oath as a Jedi drives much of his negative arc.
Consequences that push them on the downward path
Consequences play a vital role in negative change arcs. They provide the fuel that intensifies the character's descent into darkness. Show how your protagonist's choices and actions have far-reaching effects, not only on themselves but also on the world around them. These consequences become catalysts for the hero's transformation, leading them further away from redemption.
In Stephen King’s horror novel The Shining, the catalyst for Jack Torrance’s descent into madness and violence is his own actions: he takes a job at the Overlook Hotel after losing his previous job due to anger issues. As he grows more unstable, Jack sabotages his family’s only means of escaping the hotel, which has dire consequences for not only himself but his wife and son as well.
The possibility of redemption or growth
While a negative character arc often leads to a worse place for the character, moments of redemption or growth can add depth and complexity to the narrative. Consider allowing your character glimpses of self-awareness or instances where they veer momentarily towards redemption before ultimately reaching their resolution. These moments provide shades of gray within the darkness, making the hero's journey even more compelling.
The character arc of the unnamed father in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road is marked by a gradual deterioration of the father’s moral compass. Initially, he emphasizes the importance of "carrying the fire," a metaphor for preserving humanity and moral decency in a world that has lost its sense of ethics. However, as they encounter dangers and desperation, the father’s actions become more ruthless. Late in the story, the father experiences a brief moment of moral clarity when he chooses not to kill the thief who steals their cart. This moment of mercy adds a note of poignancy to the ultimately bleak and tragic narrative.
Ready to create a negative arc for your hero?
Writing a negative character arc allows you to explore the complexities of human nature and create deeply compelling stories. By understanding the three types of negative arcs, delving into the emotional journey the character takes, emphasizing consequences, and considering moments of redemption, you can craft powerful narratives that resonate with readers long after they turn the final page. Now you’re ready to go forth and create unforgettable tales that transcend the boundaries of traditional storytelling!