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How to Write a Negative Character Arc

Anyone else love reading a train wreck? I find negative character arcs refreshing and fun to read and watch because not a lot of people do them. Like I'm a sucker for a redemption arc. I love characters that start out horrible and bad and "irredeemable" and then slowly redeem themselves and become the good guy. But from time to time I just love watching a good character go bad. Call me evil but I hope I'm not the only one who enjoys this.

I've actually wanted to write this post for a while after rewatching Merlin last year and then over the past month me and a friend were rewatching Star Wars and I've always enjoyed the prequels because of Anakin's downward spiral. Also the last season of The 100, you watch as Octavia completes her journey to becoming one of the meanest, worst antagonists in the show. And that's saying something. The other day I really thought about what other characters who have negative arcs there are but I honestly couldn't think of a ton, which leads me to believe those sort of stories and character journeys are rare. But if you have any suggestions or know of any other negative character arcs please comment down below because I'd love to know more (and maybe get some TV show/movie/book recommendations).

Before I begin though just know there will be big spoilers for Merlin, The 100 and Star Wars (although if you didn't know Anakin became Vader then you've been living under a rock haha).

Ok so I did some research on negative character arcs and have studied the three shows that I'll be talking about and from my understanding there are three kinds of negative arcs. There's the disillusionment arc where a character starts out with a positive lie to believe. Like believing that a certain group of people are exactly how they seem or believing the best in people. Throughout the story they realize the lie they believe is just that: a lie. They overcome this lie and the truth they discover is tragic. Using the example, that people aren't always the way they seem on the surface.

The second is the fall arc. This one (and the post I read about it) reminded me that there is another negative arc that I forgot about: Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights. It's exactly like what happened with Heathcliffe. He believed a lie, that he needs Cathy (even though what he needs is to take a step back and not obsess over her), and clings to the lie. So instead of making the good, healthier choice, he chooses the toxic, negative path of clinging to the lie that he must have Cathy and needs her. Instead of coming to accept the truth that he needs to let her go, he reinforces his lie and/or believes in an even worse lie.

The third is one that I believe is used most often and is what happened with Anakin: the corruption arc. This is the one I'll be focusing on the most. The character sees the truth and may even believe in a positive truth at the beginning of the story, but through circumstances rejects the truth and clings to the lie in their life.

Like I said Anakin obviously falls into the corruption arc, but Morgana and Octavia were a little harder to place. Their downward spirals aren't so clear cut. They're villainous ways were forged through their circumstances. For Octavia she became the person she was in season 5 out of the need to survive. Morgana became the infamous villainess of King Arthur's story through tragic circumstances and the mistakes other characters made around her (mainly Merlin). I want to say Morgana was corrupted because in the first season she was such a good, sweet, kind person and by the last season you really despise her and she is just wicked and dark to her core. I'm not sure Morgana falls into any of three categories or maybe she's a mix of all three.

So here you have it. My breakdown of how a downward spiral works:

  • Anakin starts out as an innocent child and grows to become a good guy. A force of good. A great and trusted Jedi Knight. 
  • Because of his childhood and the death of his mother, Anakin struggles with anger, hate and vengeance. My best friend and I just talked about this the other day, about how if the Jedi Order had just let Anakin feel and process his emotions instead of teaching him that emotions cloud judgement and are essentially something to be feared, Anakin might not have turned out to be so susceptible to corruption. 
  • As an adult he falls in love with Padme which is against the Jedi Order's rules.
    He loves being a Jedi but he resents the rules the Order has placed on him. (Let me just get kind of deep and analytical here for a second). He probably felt like they were shackles on him, holding him back. He grew up a slave, always having to follow rules, always having to do what others say. So when he entered the Order its no wonder he had a rebellious spirit and resented being told what to do and being told he can't love. 
  • He returns to Tatooine and finds his mother, but could not save her, having to watch her die. Anakin is filled with rage and lets that overpower him. He kills everyone even remotely involved in the death of his mother and becomes obsessive about protecting Padme. His anger and hate corrupts him and unfortunately Palpatine feeds into that fire. 
  • Padme and him marry in secret and Padme becomes pregnant and when she's about to die in childbirth Anakin turns to the Dark Side for the power to save her. So really, he only allowed himself to be corrupted out of love. I mean still, he turned into one of the worst (and beloved) villains ever but he became Vader because of his love for his wife. 
  • Completely corrupted now, Anakin denies any sense of the truth and commits whatever heinous crimes he must to save his wife. He even lashes out at Padme and his master at the end because he is so overcome with the Dark Side and Darth Vader is born.
     
That, everyone, is a corruption arc. Anakin was driven by love but corrupted by the Dark Side, twisting his good intentions into something unrecognizable. I didn't mean for that to be so detailed and long but as I broke down his arc, I noticed things I hadn't before and I just find the fact that he was motivated by love from the very beginning, even when he turned to the Dark Side, very interesting. It's no wonder the love for his son was what redeemed him! 

Ok, enough of my Star Wars fangirling. Onto Morgana and Octavia. Let's go with Morgana next. (I'm seriously enjoying this and I hope you guys are learning something about negative characters too as I break this down). 

  • Morgana starts out as sort of a naive damsel. She's the beautiful, delicate ward of King Uther. But you realize very quickly she has very strong opinions and isn't afraid to voice them. From the get-go you see that she is not for King Uther's tirade against magicians and those born with magic.
    As the season goes on it becomes more prominent that Morgana has a big heart and cares deeply for others. She sees the good in others, including those with magic. 
  • As season two comes along though her magic begins to show itself through her nightmares. She becomes terrified of her power. And though now that I think about it, her story is a bit of a corruption arc too, this is what makes me think otherwise.
    Merlin made a grave mistake in not comforting her or telling her that he has magic and isn't alone. I honestly think if he had come clean with her and been there to guide her, Morgana would not have turned out the way she did. Because she is the ward of a king who despises magic Morgana is isolated and alone and scared for her life after realizing she has magic. Those things feed her fear. 
  • Now that she has magic and can truly emphasize with others (little Mordred appearing and being hunted by the guards is what I believe the first stepping stone to Morgana becoming the villain she is in season 5)
    she begins to fear Uther but also dislike him more than she ever has before because of his cruel treatment toward those with magic. A hatred begins to grow within her for the king as she only sees his cruelties and biases. 
  • Morgeous arriving is the turning point for her. Mordred's arrival prepared her for this moment and when Morgeous arrives and tells her the truth of her lineage and feeds into Morgana's anger and hatred toward Uther that is the last straw. 
  • Morgana realizes that she is Uther's daughter by blood and believes that the throne is rightfully hers. Arthur kills Morgeous and Morgana lets her vengeance, anger and hate fuel her and take her over completely. 
  • By season four and season five she has become the villainess in the Arthurian legends. She is wicked and by the end is destroyed by paranoia, envy, and vengeance. 
As I broke down her arc I realized she wasn't corrupted. She was a victim of circumstances and she reacted to those circumstances poorly and so did everyone else around her, especially Merlin. Hers is just hard because I want to call her journey a Fall arc but I don't know if I can. She had no one to guide her or help her. She was isolated and scared and when she asked for help she was denied (mostly through Merlin's actions). When she indirectly begged Merlin for some form of comfort, for solidarity he wouldn't share his powers with her or be the mentor he had in Gauis. When she went to the Druids for help Merlin ruined that chance by leading Arthur and his knights there, only making Morgana despite Uther, Arthur and all of Camelot for their hatred and cruel behavior toward such peaceful people as the Druids. 

Alright and now onto Octavia... who is by far the hardest of the two of them. I can say she was a victim of circumstances but really she just reacted poorly to everyone that happened around her. But she was messed up anyways, having to live in secret on the Ark because having a second child was illegal, being imprisoned because she was born and then the many traumatic experiences she had on the ground. But anyways here's my break down of her negative arc. 
  • Much like Morgana, Octavia starts out as a bit naive and a damsel. She's lived in isolation with only Bellamy to truly love her. I don't believe her mother was ever as caring and attentive to her as her big brother was.
    The one time she left her room and went to meet other kids her age she was arrested and her mother was executed for having a second child. But anyways, one way or another she lived in most isolation on the Ark which therefore made her naive and not well equipped for the outside world. 
  • On the ground Octavia learns to thrive. Her arc is actually pretty good for a while. She's caring (more so than her brother) and falls in love with a Grounder, defying her brother and the bad blood between the Grounders and The 100. 
  • Season two is when Octavia really thrives. Lincoln (her Grounder boyfriend) teaches her some of the ways of the Grounders but its when she meets her mentor Indra who teaches her how to be strong, how to be powerful and a warrior is when Octavia really comes into her own. She was born to be a warrior and because of her isolated upbringing, all her life being weak and unable to make her own choices, Octavia grows to become a skilled and powerful warrior under Indra's teaching. 
  • Season three is when things take a turn for the worse for Octavia. She resents Lincoln for becoming a part of Skaicru (what the Grounders call those who lived on the Ark, a spaceship and crash landed) and essentially turning his back on his people. Octavia has fully embraced her new identity as being one of the Grounders and a warrior and wants Lincoln to do the same. 
  • It isn't until (huge spoiler!) Lincoln is killed by her own people that Octavia truly begins her downward spiral.
    She is overrun with grief and hate and anger and vengeance. She turns her back on her people for good, becoming a self-imposed outcast. Fueled by all her anger and grief she becomes the new king's assassin. Throughout season 4 you can tell how broken and lost she is. She turns her back on Indra's teachings and despite a stint at attempting to live a quiet, normal life with another Grounder guy, it doesn't work out and Octavia realizes that she is a fighter and can't ever go back to the girl she was before. 
  • She fights in an arena, not for her people or for anyone else but for herself. When she wins (of course she wins because she's Octavia) she brings a sort of compromise and peace over the warring factions of Grounders on Earth saves most everyone from the oncoming apocalypse.
     
  • In season 5 at first you don't understand how she ended up the person she was but because of extreme circumstances of being trapped underground for five years and having to survive, Octavia shapes herself into the commander of everyone living in the bunker protected from the apocalypse. She goes to extreme measures, essentially destroying herself and what's left of her humanity, to keep the people down there alive. She's filled with paranoia, aggression and vengeance and lets them feed her and forge her into a commander who fights first, asks questions later. 

So there you have it, Octavia. That one I hope made sense. That show is just so complicated and I didn't want to explain everything that happens in all the seasons because then this post would be even longer than it already is. But again, Octavia, kind of like Morgana became an antagonist because of circumstances. She was put into impossible situations at a young age and forced to make impossible decisions. 

Now that I look back at all of them there are a few things in common that I saw. All three of them, by the end of their arcs, are overrun with negative emotions. They let their fear, anger, hate, envy, and vengeance overpower them. All three of these, to me anyways, also goes to show that no one is born evil. They are made into the villains they became through circumstances, decisions and others decisions that effect them. Does that excuse their horrible actions? No. But it is an interesting observation. Also, they became the bad guys because of the choices they made. Yes, some of what happened to them were because of other people but at the end of the day they had the choice to let their anger and fear and vengeance claim them. They could have risen up from the difficult circumstances. Learned to forgive, to do the right thing. But instead they made the wrong decision. The 100 is sort of an exception though because every character in The 100, whether the "heroes" or the "bad guys" have made bad or wrong decisions and done horrible things to survive.
Since The 100 isn't over yet, I have hope that Octavia will be redeemed and right her wrongs and mend her relationships but with that show, you honestly never know. 

So I guess what I got the most out of this was if you're going to do a negative character arc, know your character inside and out, know exactly what you're plan is for them. Motivation and circumstances are huge. There also has to be a tipping point. A point of no return. It can be the Mid-Point Climax or at a different part in the story. But there has to be a sudden realization or a sudden turn for the characters. For Anakin it was when Padme is about to die in childbirth. For Morgana it's when Morgeous arrives and for Octavia her tipping point is when Lincoln is killed. There has to be a reason for their turning, there has to be a motivation for their horrible actions, even if its a bad motivation.

"See I don't mind being the bad guy because somebody has to fill that role and get things done. You do bad things for no reason... If you're going to be bad, be bad with purpose otherwise your just not worth forgiving."

-Damon Salvatore
(Couldn't find a gif for this quote but I thought it was fitting for this post).

For these kinds of characters they don't have to have noble motives but they do have to have a motive and a goal. Circumstances, like I said, are important too. The reason these three character's journeys stuck out to me so much was because they didn't just turn because of their own choices and because of who they are. They turned bad because of the people around them, because of their environments and even their pasts. That makes for an interesting, complex character and journey. 

There you have it, my post on negative character arcs that I've wanted to write for a long time. This was so much fun to write! I loved digging into these three character's arcs and pretty much just giving my opinion and observations on what I found when I did that. As writers I've learned how important it is to pick apart other's writing and stories and learn from them. Not only is it fun but it helps you learn so much about story structure and character arcs. If you have a question about structure or are unsure on how to do or write something, go to your favorite books, movies and TV shows. I learned how to craft character arcs and how they work, I learned different structures for plots and romances through picking apart my favorite books and TV shows. So take that time to sit there and dissect your favorite stories. It is so beneficial and you can learn so much! 

I hope you all have a great week and that this post was entertaining/interesting or helpful in some way to you! 

Again, I would love to hear some of your favorite negative character arcs down in the comments and feel free to tell me what you thought of my post and breakdowns of these three characters! 

Comments

  1. This is a good discussion! There’s much we can glean by studying other stories. I think the key between heroes and villains is choosing at those pinnacle moments that could make one a villain. Heroes choose right and villains wrong. Anakin and Octavia could have chosen to work through their grief instead of letting it swallow them but they didn’t. Luke Skywalker had his aunt and uncle brutally murdered and Aang had his entire people annihilated by the Fire Nation. But they chose inner peace and forgiveness instead of hatred and vengeance. It’s one reason why I stopped watching the 100 because it seemed like there was no clear demarcation between good and evil. It seemed like everyone could be considered a villain.

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    Replies
    1. That's a great point! That's the difference between a hero and a villain. Heroes choose to forgive and let go while villains hold tight to their anger and vengeance.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! :)

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