Photo credit for featured photo above by TOMMY VAN KESSEL on Unsplash
Using the negative character arc to make your villains stand out.
Three years ago, I learned about Clifton Strengths. These strengths focus on your potential rather than your weaknesses.
My top five strengths are: Connectedness, Adaptability, Intellection, Empathy, Input.
Number five input clarifies my constant need to always learn something new and explains why I am such a fiction writing course-acholic. I can’t get enough.
Now you are asking what does this have to do with negative character arc?
Nothing, unless you use the 34 skills to enhance your characters’ villainy (which I do), but it was an interesting way to lead into talking about my delight in discovering Abby Emmons on YouTube.
I became addicted to her writing style methods and perspective on writing fiction, which is very similar to my own, with great aesthetics and fun presentations. I am not as organized or aesthetic-minded as she is, and I learn a lot from watching her. And yes, I own a few of her courses, course-acholic, remember?
What is a negative character arc?
The simplest way to look at it is when a character, through life circumstance, situations, or tragic events, goes from bad to worse in choices, outlook, and attitudes.
They descend into a moral decline.
Abby Emmons says, “a negative character arc is simply the lie the character believes and embraces as their truth.”
How does the negative character arc work?
First, what is a character arc? A character arc is most often described as a transformative journey the main character must take throughout a story from beginning to end.
There are three types if character arcs:
- The Positive ARC: Character starts out with a need/want. Often unhappy in present circumstance, they face obstacles they must overcome to learn the lesson that will return them to the happy status, and get them what they desire. OR they start out happy, it’s taken away, and they spend the story finding their way back to their new happy.
- The Negative ARC: The character makes bad choices, behaves badly, and gets worse. They decline morally and hold the negative perspective as their truth. You see this in tragic stories, and it works well for creating villains, but ultimately never ends well.
- The Flat ACT: These are stories where the character does not change. You often see these in detective type stories where the character has all the skills and knowledge needed to solve the crime-think Sherlock Holmes. You may see in supervillains and comic villains where the character has no backstory, remaining mysterious, illusive, taking great pleasure in their own villainy. K.M Weiland talks about Wonder Woman being such a flat arc character here.
In this article, I am focusing on the negative character arc, specifically for antagonist, arch-nemesis, and villains.
Anyone who knows me knows I am a Star Wars superfan. Star Wars gives me joy and was part of the inspiration why I started writing. Okay, why am I telling you this?
Emperor Palpatine is a super villain. He acts out of his own selfish desires and causes great harm to others without remorse. This negative character arc brings him to a tragic end through his own arrogance and false belief that his knowledge in the Sith arts makes him all powerful and ultimately undefeatable.
The Emperor is a flat character in that he never grows or learns. He is a character whose sole focus is to conquer the universe. Palpatine is the definition of evil, as defined by Holly Lisle.
Holly Lisle says, “Villains act against that which is good, taking definitely evil actions that result in horrifying consequences that envelop the hero and others.” How To Write Villains.
Darth Vader’s negative character arc starts in young adulthood, born out of fear creating a lie he holds as truth — a truth that consumes him, shaping all his choices until the point of no return.
This eventually turns him into the big bad until years later, when he grows and learns when faced with the choice of losing his son or choosing to do the right thing, no matter the cost.
This shifts him into a redemption arc, but the big bad still meets with his tragic end. He learns the truth of his choices too late, the consequence of the negative character arc. Abby Emmons Redemption ARC.
There are three types of negative character arcs.
- The disillusionment Arc: The character believe a lie, learns the truth which is much worse than the lie. This arc has a nasty twist.
- The Fall Arc: The character believes a lie, learns the truth but rejects it, and adopts a more destructive lie.
- Corruption Arc: The character knows the truth from the beginning but suffers emotionally damaged or deception by someone or a situation in life. So, the character accepts/embraces a lie that reinforces their false belief, which shapes their negative outlook and choices.
Check this article by Abi Wurdeman on Dabble.com to learn about the 8 traits a negative character must have, such as a powerful lie, a believable journey into darkness, a plot driven by a negative character arc, plus five more.
Abby Emmons says, “The negative character arc stems from the lie the character believes. The disillusionment, fall, and corruption arc are all based on the lie the character embraces.” On YouTube.
Abby’s examples of negative character arcs.
How do I figure out my characters’ negative arc?
You need to map the beats of your negative character arc change. Keiffer’s article outlines this well.
Kristen Keiffer says, “the negative change arc is a tug-of-war between the ultimate truth and the ultimate lie.”
It starts with the character flaw framed in a limiting belief and then creates a specific story-related lie associated with a story-specific truth.
Example: Darth Vader
Anakin aka Darth Vader fears losing someone he loves because he could not save the most important person in his life — his mother.
The lie he believes is — if he becomes a powerful enough Force user, embracing specifically the Sith philosophy, he can save the woman he loves from death which he foresaw in a force dream-vision.
Vader’s flaw is his fear. It dictates all Anakin’s choices, as he struggles to walk the Jedi path.
Palpatine (a secret Sith Lord) convinces him that if he accepts the darkside and becomes his Padawan, he will teach him the secret of life and death, which the Jedi have kept hidden from him.
The lie associated with the truth is he could not save his mother as a Jedi, but as a Sith Padawan, Palpatine will reveal all the Sith secrets enabling him to save his beloved Padme from death.
This series of associations drives the story arc once Anakin and Padme are a couple until he crosses the line of no return. It’s a tragic domino effect of choices by Anakin, against all advice and warnings from those close to him, including Padme.
Anakin is so steeped in his own fear and misbelief that his internal conflict drives and motivates his choices almost on an instinctual level.
The inner duel between the quintessential truth and essential lie blinded him to his own actions, and brings about what he fears most — the loss of Padme and ultimately her death.
The lie believed, the fear, became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Understanding how the negative character arc works can help you craft antagonists and villains that will challenge your protagonist and strengthen them, making their story more dynamic.
And remember, watch out for that villain he’s on his own hero’s journey even if it is a tad skewed.