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Monday, December 11, 2023

Writing Negative Character Arcs: Types & Principles

What is a Negative Character Arc? 

In a negative character arc, the character grows into someone worse--or perhaps more accurately said, someone more misled. Stories that feature protagonists with negative arcs typically function as cautionary tales and often leave the audience feeling "sadder, but wiser." Some examples of negative arcs include Anakin in Revenge of the Sith, Coriolanus in A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, and Light in Death Note. These also serve as good reminders that not all protagonists are "heroes."

Of course, though, negative arcs can be used for side characters or antagonists as well, such as Harry Osborn in Spider-Man, or Javert in Les Mis.

A common misconception is that negative arcs are always for "bad guys." While the majority of villains will embody a negative arc, not every negative-arcing character is a villain. For example, Winston has a negative arc in 1984, but no one would call him a "bad guy"; he was tortured until he lost his way.

Despite negative arcs being uncommon for main characters, chances are you'll need to write one for at least one important character at some point. This article will go over the two basic types of negative arcs, dig deeper into what a negative arc actually is, and offer four principles to help you craft one.

Buckle up, writers, because today we are on the "highway to hell!" 😈🔥😉

The 2 Basic Negative Arcs

First, though, I need to make sure we are all on the same page, so here is a brief review on character arcs in general. . . .

A character arc is how a character grows through a story. And at the most basic level, there are really only four types: positive change, negative change, positive steadfast, negative steadfast.

Those are your only options.


Because there are only two ways a character can grow internally:

1. They can change their worldview or beliefs.

2. They can grow in the resolve of their worldview or beliefs (remain steadfast), becoming more of something.

And each of these can happen in one of two ways.

1. Positive (becoming someone better)

2. Negative (becoming someone worse)

There are many other approaches to character arcs, and you can get more detailed, but theoretically, any character arc will fit into one of these four types.

The character arc is an internal journey and is almost always directly tied to the theme. In fact, it's one of the secret ingredients that make up theme. This journey will ultimately represent a worldview or belief system that the story will put a value on.

Positive-arcing characters end the story representing an accurate or "true" belief system--a reality. The belief system is what the story is arguing for; it's known as the thematic statement. The journey is viewed as an internal victory because the character is better off and a better person, for believing the truth

Negative-arcing characters end the story representing an inaccurate or "false" belief system--a nonreality*. This belief system is what the story is arguing against; this means it's (almost always) the anti-thematic statement, the counterargument to the theme. The journey is viewed as an internal failure because the character is worse off or a worse person, for believing a lie.

For more information on all arcs, check out "The 4 Basic Types of Character Arcs (with Examples and Variations)."

*Some negative-arcing characters have a last-minute redemption in the falling action, but they will represent a false worldview at the climax.

(This is all generally, simplistically speaking, of course. There is room for variation.)

Negative Change

In a negative change arc, the character starts the story with the true belief system--the thematic statement--even if he doesn't fully recognize what he has, but by the climax, he converts to a false or inaccurate belief system, rejecting his initial worldview. This leaves him worse off.

Frequently he starts as a morally good person who has a promising trajectory. But when faced with the struggles of the plot, he questions his way of life and makes wrong choices. 

There is usually something he greatly wants, and he will try to use the anti-thematic statement (or the "lie" according to some approaches) to try to get it.

This is a character who should have had a positive steadfast arc, but lost his way.

For example, in Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker starts the story believing in and upholding the light side of the Force, but his thirst for greatness, and, above all, his fear of loss leads him toward the dark side. To be a true Jedi, he must be humble and accept loss, but instead he is so driven to save Padme that he turns his back on the Jedi ways, and ultimately becomes morally corrupt.

More examples: Light in Death Note, Winston (with variation) in 1984.

Negative Steadfast

In a negative steadfast arc, the character starts with a false belief system--usually the anti-thematic statement--and at the climax, refuses to let it go. In fact, she may believe in it more deeply than ever. This leaves her in the negative; she's likely even worse off than initially.

Frequently when the main conflict hits, obstacles will highlight her flawed worldview while opportunities will offer her the "high road." She will have her resolve tested as she is invited (directly or indirectly) to change for the better, and she may or may not try to change through the middle. But at the climax, she ultimately holds stubbornly to her initial ways. She will reject the thematic statement, and sink deeper into her misbeliefs.

This is a character who should have had a positive change arc, but refused to.

For example, in Cruella, Estella starts as misbehaved and vengeful. She may "try" to be "good," but inside, she wants to be bad. She befriends two orphans, who later give her the opportunity to work an honest job in the fashion industry, but instead, she embraces her cruel ways. Despite Jasper trying to convince her to change, Estella chooses to become even more immoral as Cruella. She embraces the belief that it's better to be cruel than kind.

More examples: Coriolanus Snow in A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Javert in Les Mis.


Worth noting is that there is one more type of arc that is often considered negative, and this is the disillusionment arc. In this arc, the character comes to the accurate worldview--the thematic statement--but the truth is sad and disheartening. Because I view this as ultimately a good thing (it's better to accept reality than hold onto a flawed belief system), I consider this a version of the positive change arc. However, many people view this as a negative arc, because it doesn't leave the audience cheerful and optimistic. Whichever way you choose to view it is fine, just understand it works by the character embracing the theme.

At the Heart of Negative Arcs

When talking about negative arcs, people often use words like "bad" or "immoral," and as stated above, typically view these characters as more villainous. I, myself, have and will likely continue to use such words, because it's a simple, generalized way to get the idea across without having to explain all the mechanics of themes and belief systems. 

However, it's not the most accurate explanation (ironically).

Not all negative-arcing characters are immoral. Nor, as I stated above, are they all villainous bad guys.

At its heart, negative arcs are about a character ultimately believing in something that isn't true--a nonreality.

And it's an untruth within the context of the thematic argument of the story.

In this sense, you may have a story that argues "Good guys finish last." We may not like that truth, but it's true in certain scenarios in life (it's possible to be too "nice"), and it can be true within the context of a given story. So, a negative steadfast arc might be a character who fails to accept this. It's a character who should have completed a disillusionment arc, but refused to. This character may, technically, be a very moral, good-hearted person, but because he chooses to cling to a nonreality, he's in the negative.

Believing in something that isn't real, isn't usually helpful. It's harmful.

(Of course, though, we all have some different beliefs on what is real and what is true. This is why it's a nonreality within the framework, within the context of the story, within that story's theme.)

It's perhaps most accurate to think of negative arcs as being about someone who is lost or misled, even if they don't see it that way themselves.

This is usually the key to making their arc empathetic.

No one hates Winston for embracing the beliefs of the Party in 1984. Instead, we view his brainwashing as tragic. We understand he ends up more lost and more misled than he's ever been--than he could have ever been, if he hadn't embarked on his quest for personal freedom and truth to begin with.

This may be true even of legit villains. As much as we hate Voldemort, we understand through the Harry Potter series, that he is incapable of recognizing that love is the most powerful force--most powerful magic--in the world. Sure, he may be a bad guy, but the author shows us how he is lost and why he is misled.

Compare that to Umbridge. Because we don't know those things, readers actually tend to hate her more than Voldemort. We don't like what we don't understand.

Depending on your project, you may or may not want your negative-arcing character to be empathetic. Or you may want him to be a little empathetic or a lot of empathetic 😉. Often this will be controlled by how much you decide to include about how the character got lost and why they are misled.

If you decide to delve into such aspects, you will find that writing negative arcs can be a surprisingly empathetic experience. Everyone loves a hero, but there can be something unequivocally tragic about the downfall of the lost.

Regardless of which type of negative arc, the end result is a sort of self-damnation. You can move forward toward becoming an individuated human being when you hold the truth--no matter how long the journey takes you. When you believe in something that isn't real, a lie, you are Sisyphus endlessly pushing a rock up a hill. A lot of effort, to ultimately get nowhere. That is the true punishment, the true damnation of hell.

You'll never find your way out, if you're worshipping a nonreality.

4 Principles of Negative Arcs

Most stories feature positive change arc protagonists, and most writers are frankly taught to write positive change arc protagonists. This means that a lot of writing advice comes from a positive-change-arc-centric perspective (yeah, I just made that term up). If you are writing one of the other three types of arcs, it can be difficult to find helpful resources. And applying positive-change-arc advice to a different arc doesn't work very well.

So, let's go through the most important principles when it comes to writing prominent negative arcs.

Reverse the Climax: Thematic <--> Anti-thematic

As I touched on above, what makes a negative arc, negative, is that the character doesn't represent the true belief system, the thematic statement, at the climax. Instead, she represents (what I call) the anti-thematic statement.

See, every great story has a counterargument to the theme. 

Harry Potter argues love is the most powerful force in the world, but the counterargument to that is that fear and hatred (prejudice), as illustrated by Voldemort, are more powerful. 

Star Wars IV: A New Hope argues that we should rely on faith (the Force), but the counterargument to that is that we should rely on technology, as illustrated by the Empire and the Death Star.

The Hunger Games argues that we should sacrifice ourselves to save others, but the counterargument to that is that we should sacrifice others to benefit ourselves, as illustrated by the Capitol and the Hunger Games themselves.

The counterargument is the anti-theme.

If you are familiar with K. M. Weiland's work, she refers to this as the "lie," while Lisa Cron refers to this as a "misbelief." It is also sometimes referred to as a "flaw." (I mean, we could get more nitpicky and differentiate these more, perhaps, but that's a different post.)

Frequently such terms are used in reference to something within the main character--it's the main character's misbelief, it's the main character's flaw. But it's important to understand this counterargument often exists outside the main character as well. It can exist in other characters, or even a society (which is the case for Katniss).

Nonetheless, because we are working with negative arcs, the anti-theme (or some variation of it) will undoubtedly exist within the character. What the character ultimately believes or represents at the climax, is in the wrong.

A positive-arcing character will prove the theme true by ultimately embracing and using it toward a victory at the climax (at the bare minimum, an internal victory).

A negative-arcing character will also prove the theme true, but by ultimately embracing the anti-theme and using it to reach a failure at the climax (at the bare minimum, an internal failure). The negative-arcing character illustrates how the anti-theme is false.

To be a solid negative arc, the character needs to act on the anti-theme. 

Anakin needs to show he refuses to accept loss in the final duel, by jumping at Obi-Wan, despite Obi-Wan standing on higher ground. Obi-Wan cuts him down, and Anakin loses everything. The climax illustrates that he was in the wrong. He should have accepted his loss (in more ways than one).

Want Before Need: Sacrificial <--> Selfish

A core characteristic of positive arcs is that the characters are ultimately willing to sacrifice their personal, perhaps worldly, desires, at the climax. They may be eager or they may be reluctant, but when it gets down to it, they'll do it. This is what makes them, in some sense, "heroes." Even a positive-arcing "anti-hero" will ultimately be willing to sacrifice something he values, to do what is right. What is necessary. (And in some cases, this may mean simply casting off, sacrificing, the anti-theme.)

Positive-arcing characters do what is needed.

A core characteristic of negative arcs is that the characters are ultimately unwilling to sacrifice their personal desires at the climax. They may consider it, but when it gets down to it, they'll choose what they want, over what is needed--over what is necessary or right. They are unwilling to let go of their flawed beliefs because they do not consider the alternative path worth the cost or risk.

Like all well-written characters, they have an abstract want that manifests into concrete goals. The goals may even begin well-meaning. Anakin intends to save Padme. Light intends to rid the world of criminals. Coriolanus intends to win money for his family.

But as they pursue these things through the plot, they are ultimately unwilling or unable to pay the required costs to win the most critical journey of all: coming to the truth.

Instead, any "sacrifices" they make, are really more like collateral damage on the way to their worldly or selfish goals. They prioritize their own goals above all else. Even negative-arcing characters who claim to be sacrificial, are often "sacrificing" things and people they actually care little about (like Light)--which means it's not a true sacrifice; it's a payment, a means to their end.

In regards to this principle and the last, often to be most effective, the character is given a climactic choice. A choice between what is wanted and what is needed. And/or a choice between the anti-theme and the theme.

This is typically true of positive arcs as well.

At the climax, Katniss must choose between risking death to possibly save Peeta, or to kill Peeta to save herself. She chooses to risk death, despite her deep desire to survive. Her sacrifice illustrates the theme.

In Wonder Woman, Diana must choose between fighting for a better world to defeat Ares, or joining him in dealing out the punishment she feels humankind deserves. She chooses the former.

Negative-arcing characters make the opposite choice.

In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Coriolanus must choose between forsaking everything he wants and knows to live freely in the wilderness with the woman he loves, or to remove the woman he loves and return to governing society to gain what he wants. He chooses the latter.

In 1984, Winston must choose between staying true to Julia and facing additional torture, or betraying her and becoming brainwashed. He betrays her. 

Please always keep in mind, though, that these are still generalizations to explain the principles--they aren't laws we are enslaved to. (But typically, you must understand generalizations before you can successfully create variations).

For more on wants vs. needs, check out "Character's Want vs. Need."

Constructive <--> Destructive

Positive arcs result in building people or societies up.

In a positive change arc, this emphasis is usually put on the character herself. She overcomes the flaws or misbeliefs that are holding her back, and becomes a better version of herself. This offers a personally promising future.

In a positive steadfast arc, commonly this emphasis is put on the society. The character helps others overcome their flawed beliefs, and leads the "world" into a promising future.

But of course, these aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. A positive-arcing character can both improve herself and those around her.

Generally speaking, negative arcs are about destroying these things.

Rather than building up themselves or their societies, negative-arcing characters are tearing them down--whether or not it is intentional.

It may be very intentional, like in Cruella, but it may be, from the character's perspective, a necessary price for the want-driven concrete goal, like in Death Note

Regardless, when the character acts on the anti-theme, it's destructive.

Theoretically, each type gets the same emphasis as the positive arcs.

In a change arc, the destruction is often emphasized internally. We focus more on the fact that Anakin is lost, than on the ruin he's creating around him (though he is doing that as well).

In a steadfast arc, the destruction is often emphasized externally. Coriolanus is bringing destruction and death to others, specifically Lucy Gray and Sejanus (though Coriolanus is sinking deeper into negative ideology as well).

An important element of working with negative arcs is to make sure we aren't condoning all the destruction the characters are doing. This can be tricky to balance, because at the same time, we don't want our work to come off as preachy.

The best way to address this, is to make sure we are showing the theme and character arc, more than telling them. 

And one critical component of that, is to show the consequences of the character's behavior.

Recall above when I said that the story puts a value on the belief system.

Often that value is illustrated through consequences.

Those who act on the theme are "rewarded" in the end.

While those who act on the anti-theme are "punished" in the end.

Katniss not only gets to save herself, but Peeta too, all while sticking it to the Capitol.

Anakin loses not only his fight with Obi-Wan, but his limbs, his wife, his children--everything.

This is again, simplistically speaking though, and I'll mention some variation in the next section.

But the truth is, you could write the darkest story in the world, without condoning the characters' behaviors in it, without promoting that way of life. 

In addition to consequences, tone is also useful in conveying what is and is not an acceptable worldview.

Internal Journey: Victory <--> Failure

Regardless of what ultimately happens externally, positive-arcing characters' internal journeys will be viewed as a victory. These are characters who came to, or upheld, the truth. This betters them, as they changed or as they grew in their resolve of their beliefs. Nothing can take that away from them.

Regardless of what ultimately happens externally, negative-arcing characters' internal journey will be viewed as a failure. These are characters who embraced, or upheld, an untruth. This damns them, whether they changed or grew in their resolve of their beliefs. Nothing can redeem them, if they are unwilling to give up their ways.

Negative-arcing characters end up "lost," and not "found."

While it is most common to have an internal victory paired with an external victory, and an internal failure paired with an external failure, it's not a strict rule.

Having both journeys end on the same value, makes it easier to drive home the point of the story. 

But it's possible to have an internal victory paired with an external failure, and an internal failure paired with an external victory. 

In the former, the story ends with the sense that the victory was worth the cost of the loss. Doing what is true is more important than winning the world.

In the latter, the story ends with a "hollow victory." The character has gained the world, but has lost her soul, so to speak.

So while Coriolanus succeeds in winning the prize, redeeming his surname, and bringing wealth to his family, he fails as a person, as illustrated by Tigris saying he looks just like his father. Coriolanus is damned to go through the rest of his life loveless. Even if he doesn't see that as a problem, the audience recognizes it as one.

One last thing that is also worth mentioning here, is it is possible the negative-arcing character gets a last-minute redemption in the falling action. Because of what happened at the climax, and what followed just after, she may realize the wrongs of her ways, and spend the last few beats of the story changing.

While I suppose you could ultimately consider this a positive arc, because of the very very end, I find it's more helpful to structure such stories as negative arcs, since the climax we've been building toward is negative.

In any case, as I've said throughout, all these are principles, not rules, and they are meant to help, not hinder, your writing.

Why We Need Stories with Negative Character Arcs

Negative-arcing characters offer us cautionary tales about what we should not do and why.

While today, stories are often viewed as a form of entertainment, another purpose is to teach or educate.

Just as it's important to know what can go right, it's also important to know what can go wrong, and how.

Imagine telling a child to always look before crossing the street so he can be safe, without ever explaining to him the consequences of failing to do that.

What do you think will happen eventually?

That's right. Splat.

(Okay, yeah, that is a little morbid, but I think you get the idea.)

We need to look at both the positives and negatives, the "rewards" and the "punishments," and what leads to each. Not because we are trying to control people, but because that's how humankind gains the discernment necessary to navigate this journey of life. 

In other words, that's how humankind gains wisdom. If we only ever look at the positives, then we stifle our abilities to discern.

When we learn about everything, it's clearer to know which way to go, what choices to make, and why.

Stories also provide a safe means to discuss and explore life's dangers. It's better to tell the kid he could get hit by a car and explain the ramifications of that, than to let him follow your rules blindly. It's not that talking about it is promoting kids getting hit by cars, it's that we are warning that kids can get hit by cars.

Frankly, most well-written stories will be looking at both the positives and negatives of an argument (theme vs. anti-theme). And they will do this by illustrating both sides. This is why, even if you are writing a positive-arcing protagonist, chances are, you'll have a negative-arcing character (often the antagonist) somewhere as well.

In any case, if the negative-arcing character's journey is prominent, I hope you'll find these principles more than useful.

*While I love using The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes as an example, I want to acknowledge, that I feel like which thematic argument is the true victor, is somewhat arguable, since the climax is ambiguous as to Lucy Gray's real fate. But I decided to simplify things for this post, and surely audience members today will agree that Coriolanus is in the wrong.


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