Negative Character Arcs: Writing the Villain’s Story

I’ve been having trouble writing lately. With college on its last four weeks classes, writing assignments are piling up, so I haven’t had much time for working on my novel. Even when I do find a few minutes of my time, I am unable to write at all. Brainstorming with friends helped me put together a better backstory, but I found that something was missing.

Most plot structuring (I know I said I don’t plot, but I’m desperate) is focused on a hero’s journey, and as my character doesn’t fit into that category, especially the farther into the story I go, I needed to find something that fit. So, I did some research.

I didn’t even know what to look for at first as I didn’t know where my character fell in the line up of characters. Is she an anti-hero? An anti-villain? Or something else entirely? Just getting that figured out was another stumbling block that I found myself trying to climb.

imageLet me tell you, there aren’t many sites that go into detail about plotting a character who finds themself on the wrong side of the “law.” But, I finally stumbled upon a site that is full of tropes that writers most often include in their stories, even if they think they are being original. I felt like I had walked into the Beast’s library, well almost, but it is a great site. It’s here that I discovered a plethora of villain descriptions, one being Lady of Black Magic.

She’s elegent, she’s composed, and she’s graceful. She’s also packing enough magic to level half a city. The Lady of Black Magic is a character type found in fantasy who is primarily an offensive magic user.

While this helped me find who my character was, I still hadn’t found what I was really looking for. My research brought me to a blog that I have been following for some time: Helping Writers Become Authors by K.M. Weiland. She has a great treasure trove of series on writing, structuring your novel, and finding inspiration. I thought it was funny that after all the time I spent looking, and the information was already at my fingertips.

K.M. has a wonderful little series she wrote on negative arcs that will be instrumental in helping me put my character on the right path (to destruction, of course). She talks about three different variations of the negative arc: disillusionment, fall, and corruption. My character follows the corruption arc.

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The Corruption Arc

This negative character arc is when the protagonist starts out with the potential for goodness, but they are lured away by what they think is the only path, throwing away any chance for redemption by choosing darkness. 

The First Act

As in any type of character arc, the negative arc’s First Act must be spent developing both the Truth and the Lie. Whenever either the Truth or the Lie is on stage, the other is there as well, if only by reflection. In negative arcs, the Lie gets precedence over the Truth. Readers need to understand how the Lie has shaped the protagonist’s world and what his personal relationship is with it.

You also need to establish the stakes. What is at stake for the characters if the protagonist pursues the Lie? What must he sacrifice if he chooses the Truth over the Lie? Don’t make the choices too black and white. Whenever a character makes an important decision, it should be a difficult one. Whatever he chooses, he will have to sacrifice something of great value. Likewise, whatever he chooses, he will also gain something of great value.

The character won’t yet have the insight necessary to name either the Truth or the Lie. He has no idea he’s dealing with anything so grand. All he knows is that he’s being presented with choices. Something in his life isn’t quite right, and he wants to make it better, one way or the other.

His first major decision and action—which will force him out of his Normal World—won’t happen until the end of the First Act. Up until that point, spend your time upping the ante on his personal discomfort and leading him to the opportunities that will set his feet on the path away from the Truth.

The Second Act

The First Half

As always, the First Half is all about the character’s reaction to the First Plot Point. He’s deliberately moving forward toward the Thing He Wants Most, but he’s at a disadvantage in some way. Usually, this is because he lacks complete information about his antagonist or the goal itself. But sometimes the disadvantage can also be the result of the character’s own unwillingness to fight out the battle to the last full measure. He may not yet be ready to do whatever it takes to win.

In a corruption arc, the character is going to be learning more and more about the power of the Lie. He recognizes it, if only subconsciously, as a path toward the Thing He Wants. As his obsession with the Thing He Wants increases, he begins more and more to embrace the Lie and reject the Truth.

Midpoint

Up to this point, the character has been advancing toward his Lie, but the advance has been slow—and certainly not irreversible. He’s had at least a few moments where he’s been torn about the course he’s taking. But at the Midpoint, he takes an irremediable action or experiences a blindingly clear revelation that will see him launching himself into the second half with a series of strong Lie-based actions.

The Midpoint needs to feature a moment in which the character is clearly presented with the Truth and the opportunity to follow it.

The Second Half

After his revelation and his rejection of the Truth, the character now will be actively and aggressively pursuing the Thing He Wants. Although he will still experience glimmers of the Truth (particularly in the form of resistance and reprimands from supporting characters), he has already cast off its fetters. The Truth is no longer a personal obstacle between him and his Lie-driven goal.

The tragic premise indicates a progression from bad to worse. Whatever the character’s Lie in the beginning, he will now begin growing into its worst manifestation.

The Third Act

The Third Plot Point

No matter what type of arc you’re writing, the Third Plot Point is always a place that reeks of death. The character is brought face to face with his own mortality—either because his own life is threatened (literally or by extension, as when, for example, his livelihood or good name is threatened) or because those he loves are put under the axe.

The protagonist will find himself impotent in the face of this horror. The Lie he has stubbornly embraced throughout the story now renders him powerless. In essence, he’s lacking the one weapon—the Truth—necessary to fight and defeat the Lie. His only option is to surrender himself still deeper into the grip of the Lie in an effort to convince himself he has chosen the right path.

The Response

After the breaking point at the Third Plot Point, the tragic hero will rage futilely against death and its power, rather than rising into a personal resurrection. In 45 Master Characters, Victoria Lynn Schmidt writes:

“He isn’t at all humbled by his experience: In fact, he builds up his own ego trying to prove he’s more than a mere human being. He may take risks without thinking and will demand to fight the villain alone. He’s like a one-man show … who doesn’t need anyone or anything. He won’t face what the [antagonist] is showing him [about the Truth]. He won’t look inside himself to find out what he really wants out of life.”

Without the Truth, he has no tools with which to cope with this new tragedy. As a result, he spends the first half of the Third Act (prior to the Climax) determined to strike out at the antagonistic force and reach for the Thing He Wants any way he can. He will commit any number of crimes and sins. He has nothing left to lose and no moral compass to guide him.

The Climax

The Climax is where everything finally and fully falls apart. The character’s last desperate push to use the Lie to gain the Thing He Wants will achieve one of two possible outcomes.

  1. He gains an apparent outer victory, in which he is able to claim the Thing He Wants, but in which his success is a hollow one. Without the Truth he can never find inner wholeness by gaining the Thing He Needs. In this type of ending, the Climactic Moment will likely include a glimpse of the Truth, in which the character comes to the crushing realization that his battle was a wasteful one and, worse, that the outrages he’s committed along the way have destroyed both himself and everything he once loved.
  1. He loses both the inner and the outer battle. His inability to equip himself with the Truth dooms him to failure in his final conflict.

In planning the Climax in a negative arc, look back at the person your character was in the beginning of the book. The Lie he struggled with in the beginning—and the way in which he struggled with it–should point you to an obvious culmination in the Climax.

The Resolution

The ending scenes in a tragedy are often comparatively short. Negative arcs leave few loose ends and don’t usually inspire in readers a desire to stick around in the story world. The great tragedy in the Climax is underscored with a sense of finality that doesn’t require much mopping up.

Still, some small postscript is almost always necessary. You’ll want to show the effect of the protagonist’s actions upon the world around him. You may even want to hint at the possibility for new hope in the world now that the protagonist’s dark influence has been lifted.

Most important, you’ll want to create a closing scene that drives home the character’s final state. Death, insanity, war, destruction, imprisonment—whatever finds him in the end should be represented in the story’s closing motif, as a clear contrast to how the story began.

While negative character arcs don’t bring about very happy stories, I don’t think there are enough that really show the villain’s side. I believe they should be heard. My character definitely wanted hers told.

And now with K.M. Weiland’s amazing illustration of how they should be told, I believe I will be able to tell the story I want and make it just as beautiful as any hero-centric novel would be.

Thoughts?

What do you think? Have you ever thought about writing a negative character arc? Do you have one just waiting to be put on paper? Comment below.

Don’t forget to check out the amazing K.M. Weiland and read more at Helping Writers Become Authors.

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4 thoughts on “Negative Character Arcs: Writing the Villain’s Story

  1. Pingback: #Negative #Character #Arcs : #Writing the #Villain ‘s #Story #fb – Engineer Marine Skipper

  2. Pingback: Negative Character Arcs: Writing the Villain’s Story – Robert M. Easterbrook

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