No character arcs are fumbled more frequently than those that send good characters down dark roads. That’s probably because it’s difficult for us to grasp how someone could become evil. However, when these arcs are done well, they are incredibly powerful. To help you master them, I’ll take you step-by-step through my framework for making heroes fall from grace. It’s not the only method you can use, but it gets the job done.
Spoiler Notice: The 100 season 1, Avatar: The Last Airbender season 3.
1. Pick a Fatal Flaw
The first step is to give your character a flaw. This isn’t just any flaw; it’s one that causes your character to react inappropriately to tough situations. It should prevent them from making wise decisions at critical moments. Many possibilities are available. Here are some to get you going:
- Arrogance: Your character is overconfident or self-righteous, refusing to listen to others or learn from them. After this character makes an innocent mistake and hears criticism, they’ll double down instead of correcting course. If your character is insecure, they may overcompensate by appearing arrogant.
- Wrath: Your character has an uncontrollable temper or spiteful personality. They prioritize punishing those who have wronged them over their own welfare or even the welfare of the people around them.
- Obsession: Your character is so focused on a particular goal that they’re willing to do harm to accomplish it. This goal could be protecting a loved one or completing a mission.
- Hatred: Your character has a profound and irrational dislike for something important in your world. It might be a specific group of people or some form of magic or technology. The character avoids this thing even when it’s necessary.
By establishing a fatal flaw during the early portions, you can foreshadow later trouble. Think of the Back to the Future movies, which demonstrate right away how the hero, Marty, is easily taunted by villains. That’s used throughout the stories to create conflict.
It can also be appropriate to give your character a fatal flaw as a result of something bad that happens to them. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko’s backstory shows how his father mistreated him, making him act arrogantly to compensate for his feelings of shame. However, I recommend keeping this tragedy onscreen instead of in backstory. In this case, just save their tragic event and resulting flaw for Step #3.
2. Create Positive Influences
Your character will start the arc as a hero, so they must have positive influences that balance out their fatal flaw. Those influences will also give them the opportunity to turn their life around once it goes downhill. Create several features that could pull them back from the brink. Let’s look at some categories to consider.
- Moral Strengths: Your character wants to be a good person or simply feels terrible when they see others suffer. This causes the character to regret their bad decisions and try to redeem themselves.
- Sacred Ideals: Your character has ideals that they don’t forget on their dark path, such as putting others first or being charitable. Ideals like duty or loyalty can be both fatal flaws and redeeming features.
- Positive Relationships: Your character has one or more strong relationships with good people who won’t give up on them easily. These characters will become incredibly useful later.
- Stabilizing Habits: Your character transforms turmoil into tranquility by painting, riding through their lands, or putting their home in order.
In the 100, Bellamy Blake promised his mother he would protect his younger sister. This sacred ideal both leads him astray and motivates him to redeem himself. As he forms a bond with the hero Clarke, she also inspires him to be a better person.
3. Make Tragedy Strike
Next, something terrible happens to make the character feel unhappy, disillusioned, and likely to strike out. While their flaws may have invited this terrible event, they by no means deserve it. They are the victim of something much larger and more powerful.
After this event, they shouldn’t be able to continue their life as it was. Choose something vital for them to lose, preferably something that is also one of their positive influences. You can axe a loved one that kept them in check or burn down lands that they used to tend to control their temper. The fallout should position the character to desperately strive for a goal, whether it’s getting revenge, regaining what they had, or merely surviving.
What’s more, something important in the world should now be against them, eliminating most constructive paths to achieving their goal. They could become a fugitive from justice or a social outcast. Perhaps their once-trusted leaders refuse to recognize the crime committed against them and forbid them from pursuing justice.
In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Prince Zuko is beaten by his father and banished from the Fire Nation. He can only regain his former position by capturing a person that’s been missing for 100 years, so that becomes his obsession. However, he has only limited resources from his father, and the other nations oppose his quest.
4. Depict a Wrong Yet Reasonable Response
Now your character’s flaws come into play; they respond to tragedy in a way that is morally wrong or simply unwise.
But they aren’t murdering children yet, not by a long shot. One of the biggest mistakes storytellers make is rushing the moral degradation in this arc. Your character still has redeeming features, and the audience should still sympathize with them at this point. So while their choice is poor, it should still feel understandable, the kind of choice a gritty anti-hero would make.
This reaction might include:
- Slaughtering people who try to kill them or kidnap loved ones.
- Committing crimes against someone they suspect of being responsible for their tragedy.
- Flouting restrictions that have been given to them by authorities.
- Stealing supplies to fuel their pursuit of justice or their attempts to recover what they lost.
When your character is making a bad decision, it’s a good time to bring out one of their positive influences. Show the struggle between good and evil. Perhaps they hesitate before making their bad decision, wondering about the people who could get hurt. One of the good people who cares about them could show up and warn them not to do it. But their fatal flaw wins this struggle, and they do it anyway. The positive influence loses some of its power and usually disappears until later in the story.
In Star Trek: Deep Space 9, Gul Dukat’s homeworld is invaded by another race. He leads a rogue military force against the occupiers, but he can’t win without help. Desperate, he joins the Dominion, an aggressive empire that wants to conquer that region of space. There’s one problem: his daughter knows it’s wrong, and she refuses to go with him. His loyalty is torn, but he chooses the Dominion, leaving his daughter behind.
5. Punish the Character for Their Poor Choice
The character doesn’t get away with their unwise decision; instead it blows up in their face. As a result, the separation between them and the rest of the world is even bigger. Perhaps they make a new enemy they didn’t have before. Maybe the character was under suspicion before, but now that they’ve been caught committing a crime, the police take them into custody. Their situation becomes even more desperate, encouraging them to behave even more recklessly and immorally.
You can also use the punishment to give the character an additional fatal flaw. Maybe the character has a new hatred toward authority in addition to the arrogance they started with. Now even if they find evidence they can take to authorities, they won’t do it.
In the 100, Bellamy loses everything when his mother is executed for having a second child, and his sister is imprisoned for being a second child. To continue keeping his sister safe like he promised his mother, he makes a deal with a powerful traitor. He shoots the chancellor, and the traitor gets him on the ship with his sister. But as a consequence, Bellamy becomes a wanted criminal. If the ship stays in contact with the authorities, he’ll be arrested and executed. So he starts destroying communication devices, leading to greater losses than the life of one chancellor.
6. Rinse and Repeat
The character once again does something foolish and again ends up worse off for it. How many times you repeat this cycle depends on the length of your story and how far you’d like your character to fall.
Each time the character acts out and gets a harsh reaction, the conflict should escalate. They could cut themselves off from resources they need or inspire others to treat them more harshly. As their desperation increases and they gain emotional scars, your character should engage in increasingly immoral behavior.
The result is a downward spiral they can’t get out of. As they become more villainous, your audience will slowly lose sympathy for them.
In Breaking Bad, Walter White is diagnosed with cancer. He doesn’t have the money for treatment, let alone to make sure his family is okay after he is gone. He resorts to cooking meth to get the money he needs. As a result, he ends up in escalating battles both with the civil authorities and other drug lords, forcing him to engage in increasingly violent behavior to stay in business.
7. Open the Redemption Door
At the climax of your arc, you must give the character a chance for redemption. Take one or more of the positive influences you chose, and hit your character with them really hard. For instance:
- A loved one the character thought was lost pops out of the woodwork and begs them to change their ways.
- The character finally faces the devastation they’ve caused and feels remorse.
- The authority whom the character is pledged to orders them to stop and return home.
If you’d like your character to make a comeback, they can walk through the redemption door. If they do, they will begin a long, grueling, and humbling process of trying to make up for their past crimes. For instance, Bellamy Blake feels remorse after he discovers how many people died because he sabotaged a radio. His sister now hates him, and he contemplates running away. But ultimately he decides to accept responsibility for his actions and work to protect her and the rest of the community, whether or not they forgive him.
It they don’t walk through the door, it should shut and lock. Destroy any significant positive influences they still have. You don’t have to eliminate every chance of redemption, but it should be significantly reduced, and their choice should feel permanent. In Avartar: The Last Airbender, Zuko is offered a chance to side with the heroes but instead joins his ruthless sister. As a result, his wise uncle, Iroh, finally turns against him. In Star Wars, Darth Vader becomes an enemy of his mentor, Obi-Wan, and believes he killed his wife, Padme. He doesn’t get a another chance at redemption until he meets Luke a generation later.
Once you get the hang of this framework, don’t be afraid to experiment. The tragedy at the beginning might be replaced with a slow decline. You can have several redemption doors; perhaps your character walks through one only to descend again. What’s important is that you can both understand your character’s descent and sympathize with their plight. Fallen heroes show us what we’re capable of when we let our weaknesses win.
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