How to Craft Negative Character Arcs For Your Novel
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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote an article on character arcs.
In that article, I explained the importance of developing character arcs in your stories, established the three arcs found in fiction, and broke down the eleven major beats that comprise the most popular of the three: positive change arcs. I also asked if you’d be interested in similar breakdowns of the remaining two styles, negative change arcs and flat arcs, and your answer was a resounding yes.
Despite this, I found myself caught up in other articles and topics and failed to circle back around — until now, that is. Today, I’m excited to delve into the dark descent of negative change arcs with you all, soon to be followed by an article on flat arcs as well. Have a character for whom a bittersweet or tragic ending is in order? This is the article for you, writer.
Examining the Negative Change Arc…
At their core, every negative arc deals in a tug-of-war between an Ultimate Truth and an Ultimate Lie. As K.M. Weiland mentions in her excellent blog series on the topic, negative change arcs aren’t universal in their makeup. In fact, Weiland identifies three major strains of this style of arc:
• The Disillusionment Arc: in which a character overcomes a false belief but finds the truth to be tragic.
• The Fall Arc: in which a character desperately clings to a false belief despite the presence of a positive truth, thus leading them further into tragedy and sorrow.
• The Corruption Arc: in which a character lives in close proximity to the truth but ultimately rejects it in order to willingly embrace a false belief.
In our article today, we’re taking a bird’s eye approach to negative change arcs, following the ten major beats found in nearly any arc of this nature. If, however, you’re looking to delve further into one of the exact strains of negative change arcs mentioned above, I can’t recommend K.M. Weiland’s excellent blog series and related book enough.
Establishing The Why Behind the Arc…
As I mentioned above, every negative change arc begins with an Ultimate Truth and Ultimate Lie, though these elements can manifest in several ways. The Truth may be what your character needs to find happiness or peace, while the Lie represents what they falsely believe will bring them resolution. Or, the Truth may be a harsh reality, with the Lie serving as a false and often idealized notion of this reality.
A character’s Truth and Lie are often entangled in at least one limiting belief, often based around a tragic flaw or fear. Confused? Let’s break down a few examples together:
Tragic Flaw: Anger
Limiting Belief(s): I can’t overcome my anger issues, and no one will ever love me because of them.
Story-Specific Lie: My new co-worker may be interested in me now, but she’ll hate me the second she truly gets to know me. I need to keep her at arm’s length.
Story-Specific Truth: If I make an effort to overcome my anger issues, I can be the man I want to be for Stacy, perhaps leading to a life-long romance.
Tragic Flaw: Insecurity
Limiting Belief(s): If I succeed at the highest level, my father will finally love me.
Story-Specific Lie: I can make my father happy if my start-up proves to be a success, so I’ll do whatever it takes to rise to the top.
Story-Specific Truth: There is nothing I can do to earn the love and attention of an emotionally-abusive person, no matter the blood we may share.
With these four elements established, you can easily begin to develop the goals and motivations that will drive your character to action (or a distinct lack of action) throughout your story, making it far easier to map the beats of your negative change arc as well.
During this time, you may wish to ask the following questions of your character:
What does my character want, believing it will bring them peace, happiness, or resolution?
What does my character actually need to achieve this, or a far better, emotional desire?
What are my character’s personal values and moral beliefs?
What line would my character claim to never cross, even under duress?
What would it take to push my character over this moral ledge?
What is at stake if my character does not overcome their Lie and/or accept the Truth?
What does my character believe is at stake if they release their Lie and/or acknowledge the Truth?
How does my character’s limiting belief affect those around them?
Mapping The Beats of a Negative Character Arc
Having established the core elements that comprise the foundations of a negative change arc, you can approach the process of mapping its beats with relative confidence and ease. Ready to work through each beat together?
Again, the exact nature of these beats will vary depending on which strain of negative arc you’ve chosen to write. I’ve done my best to address this variance below while keeping our breakdown concise. Approach this formula with flexibility in mind, and you should be golden. Now, let’s dive in…
BEAT #1: THE NORMAL WORLD.
The opening beat of your negative change arc sees your character in their everyday world. Over the course of a scene or several scenes, readers are introduced to your character’s daily life or are given a glimpse into what that life was before it changed shortly before the story began.
During this beat, it’s important to establish the Ultimate Lie that will plague your character in a Disillusionment or Fall Arc or the Ultimate Truth that colors a Corruption Arc. The former works best if shown through conflict, revealing to readers how the character’s limiting belief affects their everyday life.
BEAT #2: A change occurs.
Shortly after your story begins, an event occurs that shakes up your character’s everyday life. They may find themselves eager to pursue a specific desire or, occasionally, forced into a circumstance they’d rather avoid. But because a negative arc sees your character devolve over time, this beat is more often positive than not.
(Note: this beat sometimes occurs before the story begins or in tandem with the opening beat.)
BEAT #3: A Doorway Into Darkness.
Presented with an opportunity that excites them, or occasionally forced into something they don’t truly want to do, your character takes action. Though at first this opportunity may seem promising, it’s this decision that will ultimately prove to be the catalyst for negative change.
It’s all downhill from here, as your character sets out on a journey, figurative or literal, that feeds into their lie rather than leading them toward the truth — except in the case of a Disillusionment Arc, in which the opposite occurs (with the journey leading your character out of their lie and into a tragic truth.)
BEAT #4: Rattling the Cage.
As your character begins their journey into the heart of your novel, a series of events will occur that begin to rattle their beliefs. Despite this, your character will cling to the Ultimate Truth or Lie that serves as the foundation of their arc.
In a Disillusionment Arc, your character receives the first glimpses of a tragic truth but chooses to remain in the comfort of their lie. In a Fall Arc, your character’s false belief begins to prove problematic as they pursue what they believe they need. And in a Corruption Arc, your character is first tempted to reject the truth in pursuit of their desire. They may begin to show signs of corruption, though they’ll likely have qualms about this initially.
BEAT #5: A Confrontation with the Truth.
This beat serves as the midpoint of your negative change arc, and it is a doozy. After first beginning to question their truth or lie during the previous beat, your character now finds themselves confronted with an undeniable reality, often taking seemingly irreversible action.
At the midpoint in a Disillusionment Arc, your character can no longer ignore the tragic truth and their false belief begins to sour. In both Fall and Corruption Arcs, an event occurs that presents your character with the opportunity to fully see and accept the truth, only to have them reject it entirely.
BEAT #6: THE Willing Descent.
After the momentous midpoint in their journey, your character no longer waffles between their truth and lie. In the series of events that follow, they willingly fling themselves into the dark abyss, pursuing what they most desire despite the occasional glimmers of truth and the lack of positive resolution their desire will bring.
The exception to this occurs in the Disillusionment Arc, in which your character now fully recognizes their tragic truth but finds its current too formidable to chart a new course. In some cases, the tragic truth may even be a reality in which there is no alternative. Instead, your character spends this time learning more about the truth.
BEAT #7: A most grievous revelation.
During the second half of your novel, your character has fallen further and further into their lie—or progressively realizes just how tragic the truth can be. This journey has led them to a breaking point, an event that forces them to confront this truth or lie once and for all.
Unlike the Dark Night of the Soul in a positive arc, your character won’t rise from the ashes of this event. In most negative arcs, a tragedy occurs as a result of your character’s lie that forces them to confront their folly. But with no way to undo the tragedy, your character fully embraces their lie in an attempt to prove themselves correct.
Alternatively, in a Disillusionment Arc, your character is forced to watch as the tragic truth proves to be their own undoing — or the undoing of those they love.
BEAT #8: A Rage Against the Night.
With their most grievous realization at their backs, there’s nothing left for your character but to fully devolve into darkness — and they’re going down swinging. In most negative arcs, this beat will see your character pursue their lie-driven desire with reckless abandon. There’s nothing they won’t do to see that desire achieved.
In Disillusionment Arcs, however, this beat sees your character fully reject their false belief. With the tragic truth having led to tragedy, they want nothing more to do with the lie they believed and set out to either remove themselves from the situation or give fully into the unavoidable circumstances.
BEAT #9: A final undoing.
At last, we arrive at the climax of your negative change arc. For most tragic characters, this event will prove the culmination of their attempt to achieve a lie-driven desire. Ultimately, they’ll either achieve this goal and find the victory hollow or fail to achieve any victory at all.
With a Disillusionment Arc, however, the climactic sequence may see one final, shattering tragedy occur, often as a result of a course already set in motion and in which your character can do little but stand by and watch. In some cases, this tragedy occurs at their own hand.
Beat #10: Navigating The Aftershocks.
As K.M. Weiland explains in her excellent blog series, most negative change arcs wrap up quickly after their climactic sequences. With such tragic endings, there’s often little the characters can do to pick up the pieces.
Many tragic characters even die as a result of the climactic sequence. In such cases, some authors choose to show how the character’s death affects those they’ve left behind. In stories in which the characters yet live, readers may receive a glimpse of their new (and likely tragic) everyday lives instead.
Again, I’d like to give major credit to K.M. Weiland’s work on character arcs. Much of what I’ve learned on this topic came directly from her blog series and book, so be sure to check those out. Her blog series in particular offers a step-by-step look at how each of the three types of negative arcs plays out using The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, and Stars Wars I, II, and III as examples.
Curious to explore other stories that include negative character arcs?
Disillusionment Arcs: Sansa Stark in A Game of Thrones, Tyler Durden in Fight Club, Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road
Fall Arcs: Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones, Achilles in The Song of Achilles, Dorian Gray in The Picture of Dorian Gray
Corruption Arcs: Cersei Lannister in A Game of Thrones, Gollum in The Lord of The Rings, Satan in Paradise Lost
A Few Final Notes on Negative Arcs…
When it comes time to craft a negative character arc, many writers make the mistake of relying upon shock factor. They want their readers to find the ultimate tragedy, especially if it involves death, to be startling, thinking the unexpected nature of it all will prove memorable. But this idea completely misses the point of a negative arc.
For such an arc to prove successful, readers need to see the tragedy coming. Perhaps not in explicit detail, but your character’s actions and the events they experience should lead to an obvious outcome. The reason that Ned Stark’s ultimate downfall in A Game of Thrones doesn’t leave readers feeling cheated is because it was in line with the previous actions of every character involved in his story.
When crafting your own negative character arcs, take the time to establish the firm boundaries by which your characters will act. If they will cross that boundary at some point in your story, make sure you show exactly what leads your character to their breaking point. The more intentionally you set out to showcase your character’s downfall, the more effective your negative arc will be.