A negative character arc is simply a normal character arc that, instead of describing how awesome the protagonist is, shows that even the hero of the story can fail if he can’t resist a temptation.
K. M. Weiland, author of “Creating character arcs” defines a negative character arc like this:
“Instead of a character who grows out of his faults into a better person, the negative change arc presents a character who ends in a worse state than that in which he began the story.”– Creating character arcs
There are 3 elements that can help a storyteller mark the changes that the protagonist undergoes in a negative character arc:
- the Lie
- the normal world
- the characteristic moment
K. M. Weiland defines “the Lie your character believes” as something he wants but shouldn’t have, a false promise of happiness that he needs to forget about in order to grow as a person.
In a negative character arc, the Lie takes away something that the protagonist already has but takes for granted or decided to give up. It can be an object, a person, a part of his personality or anything else.
At some point in the story, the character will start to believe that this “thing” is useless or at least not as important as before and give it up, making the biggest mistake ever.
Eve’s “thing” is her normal life. She starts out as a woman with a good job, a loving husband, a stable and calm life; but as the story progresses we see her losing one by one all those things.
So her Lie is the excitement that she gets by pursuing Villanelle. It’s like a drug for her, the closer she gets to the lovable sociopath, the closer she wants to be. The problem is that following the danger means slowly giving up pieces of her stable secure life.
She loses her first job because she decided to break the rules in order to get information from a witness.
Then her relationship with her husband starts to deteriorate as she focuses her energy and attention completely to the investigation.
Finally, she (maybe or maybe not) loses her life when she gets too close to Villanelle and the girl shoots her at the end of season 2.
The Normal World
This is the world of the protagonist before the inciting incident.
Normally the protagonist feels that something in his world is lacking, that’s why he gets involved in the events of the story in the first place.
In a positive character arc, the protagonist is right: something is missing in his life, he needs to find out what it is and obtain it.
But in a negative character arc, either he is wrong because nothing is lacking, or he really needs something but ends up pursuing the wrong thing.
Eve’s normal world has everything a person could ask for. She is doing just fine, but she still feels that something is missing. As Oksana explains in this scene: they are both bored.
This is the reason why she starts to obsess over Villanelle in the first place. Not because she is genuinely concerned about the impact that her actions have on the world, but because she finds her, and the hunt, exciting.
The Characteristic Moment
This is a moment that hints at the possibility that the character may “join the dark side”.
The protagonist has to start out as a relatively good person in order to gain the sympathy of the audience, but his change from “good” to “bad” has to be gradual and motivated.
A characteristic moment has to foreshadow the protagonist’s doom, make the people who are watching understand that this character might get in trouble soon.
What was the first hint that Eve might not be the angel we thought she was?
In the very first episode, she doesn’t just decide to ignore her boss’ order to not talk to the witness, but she also brings one of Niko’s friends with her putting him in danger.
This was a brilliant move by the writers because at first viewing it might seem that bringing the boy with her wasn’t a big deal, after all, he was unharmed and got back home to his parents.
But after watching season 2, it’s easy to see that the decision of dragging a minor into such a dangerous situation was a major red flag.
Eve may not be a sociopath like Villanelle, but she certainly has the habit of using people for her personal gain.
She uses Niko’s friend for a transaction and doesn’t realize that she is making him risk his life.
Constantly leaving Niko in order to run after Villanelle.
Fires Kenny when he becomes an obstacle.
She uses Hugo for sex and leaves him when he is wounded.
The first time she accidentally put someone in danger might have seemed like an accident, but now it’s become a pattern that shows her true nature.
The First Act
In the first act of a negative character arc, the focus has to be on the two alternatives that the protagonist has: the Lie and the Truth.
Our main character has to make a series of choices, each of those will bring him closer to the lie (and make him spiral down) or to the truth (and make him get a little better).
Since Killing Eve is a TV show and not movie we can’t really talk about “acts”, but we can still see that it follows the pattern of a negative character arc.
For the majority of the first season, Eve has been struggling to choose between a stable personal life and her exciting work.
Staying home or going somewhere to follow a lead on Villanelle? Follow the rules imposed by the boss or try to get to the truth on her own? Take a break from work or staying in the office an insane amount of hours?
Despite what everybody tells her, Eve decides to go on with the investigation, to pack her bags and leave, to get closer and closer to a dangerous assassin.
In the second season, Eve manages to temporarily mend the wounds of her marriage and pursue a new exciting case revolving around a “Ghost” assassin. All this because of Villanelle’s absence, as she tries to get back to London, which seems to have a positive effect on Eve’s life.
But what happens when Villanelle comes back?
Eve falls into the same spiral from season 1.
She struggles to choose between her newfound stability and the excitement of pursuing the legendary assassin.
The Second act
This second act usually starts out well for the protagonist. He makes a good decision or has a lucky moment that makes him momentarily happy. But then, things get rough.
The protagonist still doesn’t have enough information or enough resolve to fight his opponent, for this reason, he starts getting closer and closer to the Lie, believing that the empty promise might be real.
At the midpoint, is where the character has to make a definitive and irreversible decision: the Truth or the Lie.
After choosing the lie, he will throw any previous inhibitions out of the window and the negative character arc will truly begin to be “negative”.
Both season 1 and season 2 of Killing Eve start this phase with Eve discovering a new lead for the investigation:
Season 1 = the nurse she saw at the hospital was the killer
Season 2 = the person who has murdered Peel was not Villanelle but The Ghost
After that things start to go downhill for Eve, and in both season this coincides with Villanelle getting dangerously close to her.
In the first one, Bill, her best friend gets murdered, and in the second one Villanelle’ interference with her marriage wrecks her relationship with Niko.
The midpoint of season 1 occurs in episode 5, when Villanelle breaks into Eve’s house to talk to her.
This event makes her husband fear that their lives might be in danger and gives Villanelle the opportunity to get the location of her next target, Frank, who she immediately kills.
Now Eve is determined to do everything it takes to find the assassin.
Similarly, the midpoint of season 2 sees the two women having a nice conversation around the dinner table once again.
Eve, with the excuse of needing help with the investigation, decides to put a target on herself so that Villanelle will have to come to see her.
After that, she finds excuses to justify everything that her “girlfriend” does, no matter how terrible or morally reprehensible.
The Third act
In a different story, the third act revolves around the main character understanding his flaws or fixing his mistakes and officially become better.
In a negative character arc, he does the opposite: he will lean into those mistakes or try to justify them, dismiss any criticism and obsessively follow his Lie.
The third act is usually kicked off by a situation in which the character has to face death or finds himself in a dangerous situation. This will make him cling to the Lie even more in search of a solution.
Killing Eve season 1 and season 2 give us two episodes that almost mirror each other: “I don’t want to be free” and “Wide awake”.
In both those episodes, Eve discovers an “alternative love interest” for Villanelle and has a realization about herself.
In the first season, she meets Anna, Villanelle’s past lover who tells her the story of how she met the girl and how her infatuation made Oksana to kill her husband.
Seeing how the woman is still obsessed with Villanelle after all those years, makes Eve realize that her own obsession is dangerous.
In the second season, it’s Aaron Peel the sociopathic millionaire that they are investigating, who offers Villanelle to give her everything she wants.
Meanwhile, Eve is told by a psychologist that her involvement in the investigation (and obsession with the assassin) might lead her to insanity.
The third act concludes with a climax and a resolution.
Here, the protagonist stubbornly makes the decision to (once again) follow the Lie instead of getting away from it and finally realizes that this was a really big mistake.
The climax of Killing Eve season 1 is the apparent death of Konstantin. Here Eve, with a gun in hand, has the chance to end it by shooting Villanelle but doesn’t do it.
Afterward, she gets fired from MI6 and not knowing how to deal with the wreck that is now her life, she finds Villanelle’s apartment in Paris and trashes it.
Eve: “I’ve lost two jobs, a husband and a best friend because of you”
Villanelle: “Yeah, but you got some really nice clothes out of it so…”– Killing Eve, season 1
Once Villanelle herself comes in and finds her, Eve confesses her feelings. Immediately after though, she stabs the girl but quickly goes into panic mode when she realizes that all this time killing her wasn’t really her goal.
Season 2 gives us a different climax with the killing of Raymond.
Villanelle and Eve flee the crime scene together, everything seems to be going alright until Eve realizes that Villanelle had actually manipulated her into committing murder.
The season ends with Villanelle shooting Eve and leaving her behind.
According to K. M. Weiland “The negative change arc act as a cautionary tale for the reader”.
What this means is that the negative character arc is meant to be an example that shows how easily human beings can fall into temptation.
The positive arc, where the hero manages to defeat his demons and get what he wants is something we aspire to live. But the negative arc is unfortunately something many of us are already living.
Sure, maybe we’re not fighting the temptation to follow a hot assassin around the world… maybe we’re simply trying to quit smoking, or to save money, or to spend more time with our family.
Regardless of what it is, we are all trying to fight the temptation to follow our own personal Lie.