How to write an antagonist for a negative character arc?

Forums Fiction Characters How to write an antagonist for a negative character arc?

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    For a positive change arc the protagonist starts out believing a thematic Lie and comes to embrace a thematic Truth; as such, the antagonist needs to represent a thematic Lie.

    But what about in a negative change arc, where the protagonist ends up believing the thematic Lie instead? While there’s the option of having the antagonist represent the thematic truth, what about situations where the protagonist starts out believing the Truth and comes to believe the Lie at the end?



    I love such characters, usually when written and contrasted well with another equally compelling positive change arc. šŸ˜€

    I believe you what you are asking about is a “corruption” arc where the character starts in a world that already believes the Truth, has the chance to embrace it, but is tempted away. That means there is something good which the character possesses (love, family etc.) but he takes it for granted and throws it away in pursuit of the Lie.

    What also comes to mind is the Parable of the Soils. Perhaps you can have it be a case of the seed falling on “rocky ground” (i.e. The character’s belief in the Truth is superficial and he has been practicing it only to conform to the people around him or because he has never truly been put to the test) or “among thorns” (i.e. The character has genuine belief in the Truth but the troubles, losses and failures resulting from following the Truth discourage him. Seeing how the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, he begins to believe in the Lie).

    The Inkspiller


    Valtmy has some good points regarding the “corruption” arc and the “rocky ground” arc. But I sense your original title question still needs answering as to how to write an antagonist for a negative character arc (for the protagonist). So, I’ll roll up my sleeves and give it a shot. If you have a specific set-up or characters in mind which you’re working with, I may be able to provide more specific and instructive help.

    One thing to remember with any antagonistĀ  is that they are still human (unless they’re literally not; looking at you, Sauron). Even the wicked know how to give good gifts to their children – that is to say, some of the most evil people are still capable of acts of compassion and gentility. Hitler was a vegan and recorded joking around with his servants and colleagues; Stalin loved to watch John Wayne films and feared for his daughter’s life when she was in the company of Lavrentiy Beria, his chief of the KGB and notorious sexual predator.

    Point is, bad guys are people, not just straw men.

    For a corruption arc, there’s a number of ways you can go about it. I’ll list some examples below, and hopefully that will be helpful.

    1) When the Antagonist represents the Truth and the Protagonist follows the Lie

    This scenario is a classic staple of tragedy, from Shakespeare’s plays to the tale of Sir Lancelot.Ā Macbeth is a common example; while Macbeth is the protagonist without a doubt, and is initially shown as a brave and honorable warrior in service to his king, he is tempted away from his sense of honor and loyalty by the thirst for power and glory – with hints of bitterness over he and his wife’s childlessness. The antagonists by comparison (e.g., MacDuff) are brave and loyal men, honorable servants of the crown, wronged by Macbeth’s cruelty, fighting to restore the right and proper heir to the throne of Scotland. They represent the thematic “Truth” – that honor, righteousness, loyalty, and courage are a better legacy than any throne or any amount of children. Macbeth has a half-return to the “Truth” in his climactic death; rather than surrender like a coward, he chooses to go out like a warrior, fighting to his inevitable death.

    With regards to sir Lancelot, from the perspective of his negative arc, King Arthur is his antagonist – the righteous, wise, and just king of England – and Lancelot, for all his courage and valor and honor, falls victim to lust with Queen Guinevere, consummating an adulterous relationship which results in the deaths of many of Lancelot’s brothers-in-arms, Arthur’s death, and the fall of the entire kingdom to Mordred, the ultimate villain of the larger story before his evil reign can be put to an end.


    2) When the Antagonist represents the Lie and theĀ Protagonist goes from the Truth to the Lie

    In this scenario, we have to be careful with the presentation of the Lie and the Truth, all the more so if the protagonist’s journey terminates in believing the Lie. It must be made clear that the Lie is morally wrong, or else we risk dipping into moral relativity and amorality.

    I wish I could recall someone else’s work which made use of this trope, but this is less common, especially if the Protagonist’s journey stops with believing the Lie.

    In my own novel, I am using this arc going both ways. Broadly speaking, the plot starts out with the protagonists which believe (variously) in the Truth in service to the ‘antagonist’ who follows the Lie. Their master, while clearly evil, still cares for her underlings and doesn’t treat them as totally expendable.

    In the course of time, serving her corrupt, warmongering purposes and sitting under her wise yet sinful and immoral counsel degrades the heroes: the noble-hearted squire becomes consumed by his quest for glory, losing sight of his original desire to protect the innocent; the troubled sorceress who has valiantly battled the temptation to use her powers to control others succumbs to her desperate loneliness and begins indulging her darker desires.

    However, it doesn’t end there. The antagonist herself shifts as well; as her own world falls apart and her prosperity ends, she wonders what all of this was for, doubting her purpose and looking for answers. The heroes too in time rebound back – but that’s another story.

    What I mean to illustrate by this example is that this sort of arc is possible. The nitty gritty of writing it will still be up to you, however.


    Hope I helped. Lemme know if I didn’t and I’ll try again.


    Non nobis Domine, sed nomini, Tuo da gloriam.

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