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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Peaslee

Writing A Negative Character Arc

When I started writing my book, I spent a considerable amount of time filling out character sheets for my ensemble of messy characters and plotting the beats of my story.

While researching different story types, I noticed that there is a lot of information about crafting a character arc—but almost all of it is about a positive character arc. That is, a character who succeeds in their arc.

My poor, doomed characters will not have a positive arc. They all dove headfirst into a negative arc.

Positive and negative character arcs both require change, but go about it in different ways.

Your character must have a tragic flaw. Tragic flaws are fun! My character Kyle's flaw is a lack of self-worth (a common tragic flaw, but what matters is what you do with it).

He could be a great leader, but a dysfunctional home life has left him feeling like he is unable to survive in the world alone, and must follow others to succeed. That would be the lie my character believes—another thing you need.

Kyle can't just start out feeling unworthy and end up feeling unworthy. That would be a static arc or flat arc, which can happen, but only under certain circumstances. Otherwise, it's boring.

So Kyle overcompensates. He hides his inferiority complex, and things seem like they're going pretty well...then things get bad. After facing some challenges, Kyle reaches a point where he starts to recognize his self-worth. He almost makes it! And he fails. Bam. Sorry, Kyle. If I do my job correctly, the reader will believe that Kyle will succeed in his arc—until he doesn't.

Or, to put it another way, Kyle's story follows certain beats. Below is a compressed version of the beats, as I tried to only include the ones that are relevant specifically to negative arcs.

Beat #1: Start High, So They Can Fall Low.

In my book, Kyle starts out the story on an epic spring break-type trip, chills with his bros, gets lucky with the girl he likes, etc. Things are going well.

Beat #2: Inciting Incident

Kyle and his frat bros receive the opportunity to make their trip even more epic. They jump on it, annnnd things turn deadly.

Beat #3: Challenges, Challenges Everywhere

Kyle and his bros are faced with a variety of challenges. Everything negative is thrown at them. But Kyle starts to succeed (somewhat). He's stepping up, becoming a leader.

Beat #4: A Revelation

Kyle realizes his relationship with his mother (the root of his issues) isn't quite as wholesome as he's told himself. He begins to understand that he doesn't need his mother's approval to get by in life.

Beat #5: Climax—The Ultimate Fall

Oh, sorry, Kyle! He finally takes a stand, but it's a little too little too late.

Beat #6: Resolution—After The Fall

Normally, a resolution...resolves things. But for a negative arc, it's usually a way of sticking around after the story to see the consequences play out a little. Still a resolution, just not a happy one.

Additional resources:

How To Write Negative Character Arcs by Helping Writers Become Authors

Go forth and write your own Walter White.

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