How does a hero become a villain? By forgetting to bring back a book he borrowed from a friend? By not leaving his sit on the bus to an old lady? Or is a hero to villain character arc a little more complicated than that?
Everyone likes to see a character arc where the protagonist overcomes his flaws and becomes the best version of himself. We aspire to be that character, to finally get rid of our insecurities, bullies, problems and live happily ever after with our loved ones.
Let’s face it though, in real life, it’s much easier to be the other one. The one that never learns the lesson and never gets better.
That’s why we are so drawn to cautionary tales that have a hero to villain character arc, where a character gets beaten, fails to understand his lesson, and dooms himself and the others around him.
This is what happens to Doc Ock, the main villain of the famous PS4 game Marvel’s Spider-man.
What is a hero to villain character arc?
“The negative change arc tells the story of a character who ends in a worse place than that in which he started – and probably drags others with him”– Creating character arcs
In the book “Creating character arcs” K.M. Weiland explains what a negative character arc is and how to write one.
Basically, we have a character that can be heroic, good, or simply neutral. Over the course of the story, he will be put in situations that test his moral code and, in the end, he will have made so many terrible decisions that it will be impossible for him to redeem himself.
A hero to villain character arc is the exact opposite of a positive character arc. In both, the protagonist undergoes a lot of changes, but one arc brings him into a better place as a better person, the other sends him straight to prison (most of the time, sometimes they just die…).
In the PS4 game Marvel’s Spider-man Doctor Otto Octavious goes from Walter Whi- I mean a nice and hardworking man of science to a dangerous and deranged criminal after finding out about a debilitating incurable disease.
How to spot a potential villain:
I hear you ask: “How come Peter didn’t realize that something was wrong when his ex-boss started leaving him messages at 3 AM monologuing about improving the human body and liberating the mind from that limited, frail, mortal shell that we call the body?”
Well, there were (many) red flags but unfortunately, Pete didn’t notice them.
Two of those red flags are the foundation of a hero to villain character arc:
The lie the character believes
“In a negative character arc, the lie is about something the character already possesses but devalues”– Creating character arcs
In order to be corrupted and go through a hero to villain character arc, the protagonist must have a weakness, a belief that forces him to prefer the easy way. This is what K.M. Weiland calls the Lie.
However, we’ve already said that at the beginning of the story, the character has to be “good”. So he must have an alternative to the lie, something that’s harder to choose because it requires growth, but also provides liberation. That’s the Truth.
The Lie and the Truth are basically what the character wants and what he needs. Throughout the story, he will have to choose between short-term gratification (Lie) and patience for a bigger and better reward (Truth). Or between giving up (Lie) and keep fighting the battle with the demons of his past (Truth).
Doctor Octavius’ Lie is his obsession with revenge against Norman Osborn, while his Truth is letting go of old grudges and finishing his work.
Speaking of “old grudges”, let’s talk about the Ghost.
“We’re usually deliberately blind to our destructive behaviors. We rationalize our actions and convince ourselves – rightly or wrongly – that the end justifies the means.”– Creating character arcs
To sum it up, the Ghost is an excuse that the protagonist of the hero to villain character arc uses to justify his actions.
Norman Osborn is a liar, a crooked politician, and a ginger with a terrible haircut. That’s reason enough to release Covid into New York, right? … right?
One of my favorite cutscenes in the game sees Doctor Octavius showing Peter the robotic arms for the first time.
Pete points out a flaw in the tech that might permanently damage Otto’s brain, but before Pete can even finish the sentence, Octavius starts shouting about how good it feels to be in control of his limbs for the first time in so long.
Peter manages to reason with him after he’s calmed down and the two agree that in the current state, the prosthetics are too dangerous to be used.
But then the Ghost appears.
As Peter closes the door on his way out, Doctor Octavius hears the voice of Norman Osborn coming from the TV. Now that Martin Li has been imprisoned, his old partner is powerful, fearless, and unchallenged. How many lives will he be able to ruin now?
So he turns the neural interface back on and gives in to his rage. This is when Doctor Octavius disappears for good and Doc Ock takes his place.
“The character won’t have yet 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”– Creating character arcs
Alright, folks let’s start from the beginning one more time.
Act 1 sees the protagonist of the hero to villain character arc at a good point in his life. The character is introduced and the audience gets to spend time with him and learn about goals, strengths, weaknesses, and fears.
Doc Ock, at this point, is still Doctor Otto Octavius: a brilliant but broke scientist who’s working with his assistant Peter Parker on prosthetic limbs that can function as part of the body.
He is a genius well known and respected in his field, but he’s also a little too reckless and impatient. In the very first scene, Peter prevents him from getting badly injured. This establishes Otto as a great guy who has good intentions but needs someone like Peter to stop him from making rash decisions.
This is his Truth: keep working on a project that might help people who are suffering.
It’s at this point that we have the pleasure to meet the most punchable face in the game, Norman Osborn.
He’s Otto Octavius’ old friend and business partner who took his half of the company they founded and is now kneecapping Octavius’ current project in the name of profit.
This is the Lie: holding on to the grudge against Norman and letting that bitterness destroy him.
At this point in the story, Doctor Octavius might be infuriated by the injustice he had to experience, but he’s still far from becoming a criminal mastermind.
What helps to push him a little further comes in the form of a disease that limits his physical abilities but leaves the mind intact
He sees his dream being taken away when he is so close to making it come true and, on top of that, his body is running out of time which means that soon he won’t even be able to do what he loves most.
When he finally manages to create the iconic four robotic arms, he has to make a choice: hold on to the Lie or move on and find the Truth.
Act 2 in the hero to villain character arc is not really that different from a classic character arc version of act 2.
The protagonist has made a very important choice that has brought him to the point of no return and now the story forces him to figure out what he wants through a series of challenges.
So act 2 is basically a series of good/bad beats where the audience can guess the outcome of the character arc by the choices that the protagonist makes.
What’s unique about the PS4 game Marvel’s Spider-man is that Otto Octavius isn’t just making choices, he’s executing a plan that will ultimately be demolished thanks to the few good choices he makes.
The very first good choice ends up becoming his biggest mistake: saving Spider-man.
Peter was pretty much half dead after his first encounter with this universe’s version of the Sinister Six. Doc Ock could have easily ripped him in half with his super-strong robotic arms, but instead, he told him to stay away and tossed him to the side.
In the guilty look that follows we can see the last trace of the old kind scientist melt away.
The most defining decision of act 2 is releasing the Devil’s breath in the city. Doctor Octavius has spent his whole life trying to use his genius to help people in need, and now Doc Ock has thrown away all that in order to get revenge.
A running theme throughout his hero to villain character arc is the fact that Doc Ock (the evil version of Otto) takes the philosophy of his old self and twists to get what he wants.
Otto Octavius was making prosthetic limbs for other people who need them to lead a normal life. Doc Ock makes prosthetics for himself and uses them to advance his abilities.
Otto Octavius uses his brain and resources to help those in need without asking for anything in return. Doc Ock uses his genius to exploit the weaknesses of the most dangerous supercriminals in the city to form the Sinister Six.
Each one of Spider-man’s worst foes longs for something, and all of them became villains after being victims of different kinds of injustice.
Electro got superpowers he didn’t ask for and then (as Jameson says in his podcast) is forced to use them to power the prison that’s keeping him locked up. Doc Ock promises him that after the job is done, he’ll help him fulfill his dream of becoming pure energy.
Mr. Negative also got powers he didn’t ask for and also grew up watching the man who ruined his life (Norman Osborn, again) become successful and respected.
Rhino got himself a super-strong suit that makes him invulnerable to pretty much anything but also makes it impossible to have a normal life. The Doctor manages to find a way to separate him from his armor.
Vulture is the one most similar to Doc Ock since he also suffers from a degenerative disease and can only find a cure by working for the mad scientist.
Scorpion is deep in debth and he needs Doc Ock to erase his past… also he’s a maniac so all you need to do to get him on board is say the word “murder”.
“The negative arc is about destroying self and probably others as well”– Creating character arcs
The beginning of act 3, sees the character in a moment of desperation. He has his feet firmly placed on the “villain” side of the hero to villain character arc, but he’s starting to doubt himself.
Either he has gone so far away from the truth that he has lost his old self, or he realizes something important about the lie but he’s still not ready to give it up.
This is the point in the story where Doc Ock has lost all his allies. He’s the only one of the Sinister Six left to stand and he’s stubbornly still convinced that he can win.
He kidnaps Osborn and brings him to the top of his skyscraper in true King Kong fashion. Otto desperately attempts to make him confess his crimes but Norman (who seems to be equally as stubborn) refuses.
That’s when he realizes that his revenge plan was futile, Norman Osborn was never going to amend for his mistakes. Otto’s actions have just made the mayor more of a victim in the public’s eye.
All he can do now is let go and watch him plummet to his death.
However, Spidey is there. He saves Osborn, jogs to the top of the building, and tries to get the antiserum that will cure the city of
Cov- Devil’s breath.
Doc Ock: “You should be on MY side!”
Spider-man: “I was.”– MArvel’s Spider-man
This is the last attempt from the hero of the story to redeem the villain. Just like K.M. Weiland writes, the hero to villain character arc brings misery to everyone, not just its protagonist.
While he’s fighting Doc Ock, Peter still tries to appeal to his conscience, tries to remind him of the person he used to be, and how he betrayed all his ideals by harming people.
It’s too late though, Doc Ock has gone so far into the lie that there’s no hope to make him go back to what he was.
When the battle is over, Doc Ock shows just how far from his old self he’s gone by repeating his old motto and twisting it into something villainous.
“That’s because men like us have a duty. A responsibility. To use our talents in the service of others. Even if they don’t appreciate it. We have to do our best for those beneath us, whether they understand it or not!”– Marvel’s Spider-man
His hero to villain character arc is finally completed when he begs Peter to protect him instead of sending him to prison. He blames his actions on the neural interface and promises that he will work to “fix” the problem.
But it’s just a lie, he’s trying to manipulate Peter and that’s when he realizes that his old mentor is gone forever.
Peter: “You were everything I wanted to be, and you just threw it away!”– Marvel’s Spider-man