271 – Downward Arcs
Look, redemption arcs are great fun, but what happens when a character does something bad and doesn’t ever redeem themself? That’s a downward arc, and it’s one of the hardest tropes to pull off successfully. That’s why it’s the subject of today’s episode. We discuss the risks of a downward arc, what happens when one fails, and how to make them work. Plus, some bonus complaining about TV Tropes’s categorization system.
Generously transcribed by Cindi at YourPodScribe.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle. [Opening Theme]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Oren with me today is…
Oren: Folks, you might not have noticed it, but I’ve been getting steadily more evil over the last few podcasts. I’ve just been really tearing into stories and being a rude, mean critic, and also probably kicked a puppy at some point. [Group laughter]
I have had a downward arc, you could say. I’m very bad now. I started off good, but now I’m evil and dark and broooody.
Wes: Good job. Way to flip the switch on your evil on the last episode of the last season.
Oren: So last time we talked about redemption arcs, and now we’re talking about downward arcs because I like symmetry. So downward arc is the opposite of a redemption arc. It’s when a character starts off good and goes bad. But it’s hard. It’s hard to do that because people don’t like seeing the characters they like turn evil. They don’t. They complain. Loudly. They’re very unreasonable about this. [Group laughter]
Chris: I also think it’s the most difficult arc to pull off and make it believable, besides being challenging because you’re making a character that the audience might sympathize with, bad. They’re also harder for people to get to wrap their minds around how this character could become evil.
Oren: And like last time, I just want to point out that this is not the same as a face-heel turn, which is another TV Tropes thing, because a face-heel turn is very, very broad. It’s basically any time a character started off on team good and then ends up on team evil.
And it can happen a lot of different ways and a lot of the ones they list as face-heel turns, the character is revealed to have been evil the whole time, or the circumstances change and now he’s on team bad. Nothing about the character actually changed. So it’s not really an arc. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, just that we’re talking about different things.
What is bad is how TV Tropes lists Fred’s death at the end of season five of Angel as a face-heel turn. What the heck? [Wes laughter]
Chris: Yeah. It’s rubbing some salt in that wound.
Oren: It’s not a turn. She’s just dead. And now there’s a new character who is meat puppeting her body. Oh my God, you guys really?
Chris: Too soon.
Oren: Also, I love that by this definition, every zombie is a face-heel turn now. Anytime someone gets bitten by a zombie they’ve done a face-heel turn. I’m grumpy about this, is the point.
Chris: There’s a lot to be grumpy about in Fred’s death.
Oren: It’s a bad death and this is just doing disservice to her memory. Downward arcs are hard for a couple of reasons, but the two biggest ones are that if you made a character who was good and likable, it is difficult to create situations where they will believably do the bad things you need them to do to have a downward arc.
And then the other problem is that even if you manage that, if you aren’t really careful, the story might just be too dark. Even if it is believable, everyone’s like, ah, I don’t want to live anymore. And they stop reading your story and go watch She Ra or something and have fun.
Let’s talk about the believability part first. Because this is a serious issue that happens in a lot of stories where you’re doing bad things and you’ll become bad. They do one thing and it’s not really clear how it links to another thing. This is the Return of the Jedi problem where it’s like, strike me down with your weapon and then you will join my team. But why? Why would Luke do that? And the best explanation is mind control. But that’s not a good explanation. It takes away all of the actual arc part of the downward arc.
Chris: It takes away from the internal conflict that Luke has about being tempted by the dark side. If it’s just about him being mind controlled, there’s no temptation there.
Oren: The best downward arc that I can think of is Arthas from Warcraft III and I feel like a bit of a tool for saying this because everyone brings up Arthas from Warcraft III as much as people bring up Zuko when you talk about redemption arcs. I think there’s a reason for that though, is because Arthas represents a pretty good archetype because what you have with Arthas, the basic story, if you’re not familiar with it, is that he’s a commander in the Alliance and he’s a good guy and he’s great and everyone loves him, and he has to go and fight the undead.
Basically over the course of the story, he has to make a series of increasingly hard decisions to fight his enemies. He has a town that he goes to where everyone in the town has been infected with the undead virus and they’re all going to become undead soon. He decides to preemptively kill them.
That’s a really hard choice, but you could see why he did it, and then that puts him in the headspace to do more dark things. This does end with him picking up a sword that turns him evil. [Group laughter]
Chris: We finally seal the deal with mind control.
Oren: But there’s an important part about this, okay? The important part is that he chose to do that, knowing what would happen. He was put in the position of deciding that it was okay to pick up the sword that would turn him into a monster. That helps with the believability because at that point, now we can bridge that gap between the Arthas who was established at the beginning. And the Arthas who we later have murdering everyone constantly.
That’s actually a thing that I think fantasy could do to take more advantage of. You can get the character into a position where they are willing to take whatever dark corrupting magic. Then they do. And so then it’s more believable. It creates a little bit of wiggle room if you decide you want to redeem them later.
I think that’s just a really good concept and I think more people could follow it.
Wes: Well, it’s cool, too, because you get to also introduce artifacts or weapons or other cool items into your story as well that seemed to just have such power. Instead of somebody offering a loved one with a conventional weapon, no, grab the magic sword and take your power.
Oren: Another interesting way to do a downward arc is what I call a power reveals arc. Because there’s this whole concept of power corrupts, but more accurately and I’ll put the link to where I found this because I didn’t invent it, I’m not that smart, more accurately, power reveals. It reveals who you are. It doesn’t make you bad.
And so you can take a character who hasn’t done anything evil because they haven’t had the power to. They’ve just been in a normal situation living their normal life and then they get power and it reveals who they are. The character David from Animorphs, we’re going way back to the 90’s; does this, where he’s a normal guy, the first thing that he does is he finds the morphing cube and tries to sell it, which is not an evil thing, but he’s a normal person. He doesn’t choose to get involved in the resistance, like all of our noble main heroes.
As he gets more power, we start to see that he’s actually kind of selfish and a little bit sadistic. It’s not so much that he turns evil, but that we see what was already there but that he wasn’t allowed to do because he was constrained by the bonds of civil society.
Chris: Basically when a character gets more power they don’t face any consequences anymore and sometimes those consequences were keeping them in check.
Oren: And then there is another element to it, which is the author does also include a few areas where the plot conveniently creates breaks between the heroes and David. One example is before he’s turned completely evil, they get ambushed by the bad guy. David, again, not having signed up to be a brave resistance fighter, tries to negotiate with the villain because he doesn’t want to die.
And the rest of the characters are like, whoa, you were betraying us. And then later he’s, actually, I was just doing it as a bluff to get in a position where I could attack the bad guy. Yeah, I mean, you say that now…maybe you’re telling the truth, but it really didn’t seem like it at the time, and that creates more of a split between David and the other characters, and when David starts to go further into his arc, the people who might’ve been able to help him aren’t there because of that split that the plot created.
I think David is actually a really good example of a downward arc. I think that from that old kid’s book about Animorphs did a really good job there.
Chris: I should also mention the Walter White method, which I think is a pretty good method. Walter White is of course the main character and I do think this is pretty good at preserving more sympathy where you’ve got an escalating conflict. Sounds like it’s similar to the Warcraft III in some ways, but instead of the character being forced to make the ends justify the means over and over again, in this case, you’ve got tragedy strikes a character that doesn’t deserve it, gives them lots of sympathy and in response they lash out and further escalate the situation by doing so, even though they lash out in ways that are unwise, it’s still very understandable that they do it. It’s easy to sympathize with the choices, even though they are technically the wrong choices to make. When they lash out, it further escalates the situation.
For instance, it puts them on the opposite side of authorities or the rest of team good, as you mentioned. And from there the situation escalates and it kind of repeats. Where they continue to make more and more enemies and continue to respond in a little bit more extreme way than they should, even though it’s still understandable until they’re basically at odds with the rest of the world and they are resorting to more and more extreme means.
In this case from Walter White and Breaking Bad, what happens is he gets cancer and he’s trying to figure out how to pay his medical bills. So he starts cooking meth and dealing drugs. But in doing so, he gets in conflict with other drug lords and drug dealers, and with the authority to keep up his cooking meth, he starts to resort to more and more ruthless tactics and kind of an escalating conflict.
Oren: And with both David and Walter White, we’re talking about characters who go all the way on their downward arcs. You don’t necessarily have to take it that far. The downward arc is often the setup for a redemption of some kind. Ezra from Rebels does a decent job of this where he has this temporary downward arc when he joins up with Darth Maul for a little bit. He snaps out of it eventually and is, Oh, actually Maul is evil. Unfortunately, we don’t ever get the resolution of that arc because they brought in Obi Wan Kenobi to kill Darth Maul for some reason.
Chris: Oh, that was so frustrating. I hated that so much.
Oren: Ezra and Maul had this really great chemistry and this antagonistic relationship, then, ah, actually no, we’re done with that cause don’t y’all remember how from the clone Wars Obi Wan and Maul had this thing going? We’re going to resolve that instead.
Chris: Even if they really wanted Obi Wan to kill Darth Maul, if they had just shown Ezra face Darth Maul and then make the right choice where he decided that he was not going to go along with Darth Maul or let Darth Maul influence him anymore. Then his character arc would still be mostly resolved even if his relationship with Darth Maul wasn’t, but no, that’s not what happened.
Instead, Obi Wan just swoops in and we never actually see Ezra stand up to Darth Maul and stop being manipulated like we should. It was very frustrating.
Oren: That was why we stopped watching Rebels for a few days. Getting towards the end and then it was like, no, okay, we need a break. It was getting really good, and then, no.
Chris: Another way that you can make a character go bad, and this is kind of the Faith method in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That’s not a perfect arc. It’s not bad. It’s not great. But basically you have a character that wants to be validated. Maybe the character’s really prideful or maybe the character has a chip on their shoulder and it compensates by being really prideful.
They do something wrong and all of the good characters criticize them and they don’t like that. They don’t want to admit that they might have ever done anything wrong. So for validation, they find somebody who is less moral and that person tells them that they are the best and they are right, and all of those other people are wrong and gains influence over them and steers them towards evil.
Oren: That’s a really good model for a downward arc. Faith in particular has some weirdness to it. First, and a lot of people forget this, Faith starts the show with a redemption arc. She arrives and is real bad and doesn’t take her slayer job seriously and hurts people. She’s a bad person. And then we spend a few episodes redeeming her from all of that, and now she turns evil suddenly. Whoa, hang on. What? That was weird.
And then the other problem with the specifics of that is that Faith accidentally kills a human because she thinks it’s a vampire. Everyone’s like, Oh, wow, Faith, you’re going to have to go to jail. She’s no, I’m not going to, and it’s hard not to think that she’s the one who’s correct and the rest of them are just being weird.
If we accept the premise that your story is about fighting vampires constantly and no one’s ever allowed to help you, and there are always vampires and they look indistinguishable from humans, yeah, there are going to be some civilian casualties. It’s bad, but that’s your premise. Okay? You set up those rules, not me.
Chris: I do think that Faith’s arc is really hard to understand what is happening with her because she does that, but then she doesn’t want to admit to being sorry about it or it makes her feel powerful or it’s just very unclear what is supposed to be going on with her, where after killing a human by accident she somehow goes bad instead of feeling remorse and going good. That’s just a hard one.
But we do have the mayor, which is an awesome villain who swoops in and starts validating Faith and gains influence over her.
Oren: Another downward arc that people like to use as a model, and I see why but I would say be careful of is Londo Mollari in Babylon Five. Londo Mollari has a downward arc and then a redemption arc, which is a great setup. If you could pull it off, that can work really well.
The issue is that Londo Mollari’s downward arc is that he wants to make Centauri great again and it’s kind of uncomfortable. Even at the time it was probably not great, but especially now when I rewatched Babylon Five and I hear Mollari complaining about how the problem with the Centauri people is that they don’t have an empire anymore.
I’m just like, ah, gross. He’s supposed to be sympathetic in those scenes and clearly to a lot of people he is. But the problem there is that he’s supposed to have a problem, which he then reacts to and goes too far is what we’re trying to do with that setup, which is again, a perfectly legitimate way to start a downward arc.
The problem is that the issue that he has isn’t real, at least not most of the time. I do think there is that inciting incident later in the show, something bad actually happens to Centauri. I think the Narn take one of their planets or what have you, and the Centauri decided not to do anything about it, and that actually pushes him. His whole thing of being sad that they can’t oppress the Narn anymore is really…
Chris: His problem is that his culture has been engaging in colonialism and can’t do it as well anymore. Which is the same thing as having a character whose problem is that they’ve lost their ability to oppress other people or lost the privileges that they should never have had in the first place. That’s their grievance.
Ideally, if you want a character to be sympathetic while they are on their downward arc, you have a genuine problem and a genuine tragedy. As opposed to the character feels entitled, in which case they’re already a villain and we’ve got more of the power reveals scenario. In this case, the story definitely treated him as a sympathetic character.
Oren: The way everything was put together, the way that the shots were put together in the music were clearly supposed to sympathize with Mollari at this point, so like that’s just something to be wary of when you are putting together the reason for your character’s fall, your grasp of morality is going to come up in ways you might not have expected it to.
This is a hard thing to judge on your own because if it’s something that you don’t think is wrong, it’s going to be hard to imagine that other people would. Then this is where an editor and beta readers can help. Also some philosophy, maybe take a philosophy class is what I’m saying. Watch the good place.
Chris: Another really common one that we see a lot that sometimes I think works okay and sometimes does not is using the idea of revenge. Where you want to do it very fast and strong so you have a character have a bad thing happen to them and then they are out for blood and an extreme way so that they instantly go evil.
This is Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer which probably is one of the better depictions of this, despite the non sequitur with her wanting to end the world, her deciding that she’s just going to get revenge by skinning people alive. You can understand that happening.
I’ve seen it done really poorly with the 2009 Star Trek where we have this guy who’s really mad at Spock because Spock tried to save Romulus but failed. Because he tried but failed, that’s why we want to destroy Vulcan.
I think this is particularly likely to happen when you have an antagonist that’s mad at the hero because we don’t actually want our heroes to do anything bad. So then the antagonist has to be super, super unreasonable, and it just feels contrived at that point.
Oren: This was also the first taste I had of how the new Abrams’ Star Trek was going to fill in backstory in secondary material. They have this whole comic where it explains that actually what happened is that the Vulcans had this thing that could have saved Romulus. And they held it back because Vulcan High Command was worried that the Romulans would turn it into a weapon, which is actually kind of cool and is interesting and I don’t know why that’s not in the movie. Guys, come on, you have to put the important stuff in the movie. You can’t make me go do homework. It’s ridiculous.
Wes: So you probably picked up on a lot of the things we’re talking about here that there needs to be something about your character that, for lack of a better word, can be exploited for the downward arc.
I really like how you guys were talking about the insecurity of a character who can then get validated by an evil mentor. I mean, it’s really an evil mentorship that’s leading to a lot of these downward arcs over time. But that’s important.
You hear this talked about as a tragic flaw or something like that. There’s just an issue with this character, and I’m curious what your guys’ opinions are with how early that should be established in a story and then at what point that should first be exploited to signal the downward arc.
Because I’m thinking about what Oren said about how power reveals. Otherwise, it’s just a neutral character who has maybe a shorter downward arc instead of a character that’s been established to actually do good things except is also prideful, and then the pride gets exploited and the fall is even steeper.
It seems like that might really eat into your word count or your run time, depending on how you set that up. That’s why I think revenge is tossed around as the quickest route to do a face-heel turn.
Oren: I would say that when you are doing a downward arc for a major character and you’re going to use a flaw of theirs, you’re going to be all Greek Tragedy on us.
I would say establish it as early as possible because you really need your audience to be on board with this. They need to agree with you. When you say that this character did a bad thing because of their flaw. You can’t have them be, I don’t believe you. I haven’t actually seen that flaw. And then you tell them, but I have a written down on their character sheet and then you get into a fight.
I actually thought Willow did a decent job here. Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Willow, where they have actually shown that Willow is kind of vengeful. This is not the first time this has come up and this is putting aside the issue with burying her girlfriend. That’s a whole other problem.
Having her go from recovering magic witch to I’m going to skin this person alive as revenge, I actually could believe that. I have seen that Willow is, while nice, also has a mean streak. This is a power reveals situation where we’re now seeing what Willow does with that power. Unfortunately, then they do this pivot to, and I’m going to blow up the earth.
I don’t really see where that comes from. The best explanation at that point is that the magic is making her do it, but that takes away from the actual arc, and it isn’t like an Arthas situation where she deliberately made the choice to have all this evil magic that would make her want to destroy the world.
Honestly, when it feels like should have happened with Willow, and as long as we’re in the let’s revise our favorite childhood shows mode, is that she probably should have just stayed as a potential villain for a while because her thing is now that she is very powerful and really goes after people who wrong her and is happy to kill them.
She doesn’t have any reason to go after Buffy or Zander or any of the good guys yet, but once we’ve established that for her, it would not be hard to come up with a reason why she would have to. That’s basically what we did with Faith where Faith doesn’t jump immediately to let’s kill Buffy. In fact the episode where she goes to be friends with the mayor, she actually saves Buffy.
It takes her a while to work up to that. And I think that Willow could have done the same thing, but it was the end of the season and we needed some kind of big villain. So now it’s Willow and she wants to blow up the planet because why not?
Chris: I would add that you can choose to have them exhibit the flaw from the beginning, but you can also give them a flaw with the tragedy, the difference is that the tragedy creates more sympathy and because it takes time, it all works better if the character is more central. When you have a side character go bad, that’s when there’s usually a great opportunity to show them, have that initial flaw because they don’t have to be quite as likable as your main character.
So it’s okay to have them be a person with more good and bad attributes. Not that the main character can’t have that too, but it’s easier to have a side character that’s a little more flawed. That’s foreshadowing and I agree that it should be done early, but it doesn’t have to be obvious. It can be subtle.
The character showing that they’re just a little prideful, but it seems innocent in the situation in the beginning, and it’s only later that that actually looks like a warning sign. But you can also just give a character flaws by having bad things happen to them and show what flaws they have as a result.
Oren: And it’s also really important with downward arcs to consider motivation. I think we may have covered this a little bit in the podcast before, but I want to circle back to it because it’s hard to overstate how important motivation is. If you mess up the motivation, even if you established the necessary traits, it’s still gonna be a disaster.
As an example, I fortunately have the finale of Game of Thrones and I see a lot of people arguing about this, or at least I did. We all seem to have forgotten that game of Thrones happened. After this episode there was a ton of arguing about whether or not Daeneryswould do this. And people were pointing out she did all these evil things in the past. So you’re all naive fairy people for thinking that she wouldn’t do this.
The issue is not, does she have the capacity to do this, because I think most people who watched the show would agree that yes, she has the capacity to kill a lot of people to get what she wants. The issue is that she has no motivation.
They wanted her to burn down the city, yet they could not be bothered to come up with a motivation where burning down the city would serve her interest. They just couldn’t be bothered because they were bored and they wanted to go write Star Wars and they were polite enough to tell us this. I don’t have to put this together from behind the scenes.
Chris: Also the issue here is they wanted the other characters that were normally following her to 100% turn against her to the point where they would kill her. And so in justifying those characters and making those characters look good, they needed her to not have any good reason to do this. So then they can have John Snow bridge his own love interest and be angsty.
So I think that’s one of the reasons she had no motivation is because they were too busy proving that she needed to be put down to give her one.
Oren: Yeah, I guess that’s a good point. In a story as dark as Game of Thrones, it’s really easy to imagine that if she had had a real reason to burn down the city everyone would’ve been well, okay I guess that’s just what you had to do. [Group laughter] Wow. They really messed up. Oh boy.
Chris: It was not good. It was not good. And it comes down to the fact that they did not have enough time because they were given more seasons. They turned that down because they wanted to do something else. Yeah, it was bad from the top.
So that went to a dark place. We have completed the downward arc of this podcast.
Oren: So before we end, I want to talk about a slightly more positive aspect, which is of course the downward arc of Saruman. Saruman is a little weird because he’s actually already evil by the time we meet him in the story, it hasn’t been revealed, but that is the case.
But with Saruman, he describes his downward arc to us and we find out about it after the fact and it more or less works okay. This is a case of we are using some magic mind-control because he’s got that orb thingy, which is at least implied to have some kind of effect on you. But it’s a very subtle one. And mostly what it seems to have done is shown him how strong Sauron was. And then we reveal this trait about Saruman, which is that even though he’s very powerful, he’s also very self interested. And that was okay as long as serving the good guy seemed to serve his self interest. But then as he started to think that maybe Sauron couldn’t be beaten, he was like, mm, hmmm, that’s the sound he makes. Uh, cause he’s a wizard.
Chris: He comes from the dark crystal, actually Skeksis…
Wes: He’s a Skeksis…
Oren: It’s short. It’s not very complicated, but it works. You can see how this guy used to be a respected defender of the light. So I just think that that’s worth mentioning. Your downward arc doesn’t always have to happen on screen, especially if you’re an omniscient narrator and have a lot of words to spare.
Wes: I like how his downward arc is self preservation but it’s down because of how evil Sauron has to be. I think I brought up on this podcast before, but there’s this story called The Last Ringbearer that is written by a Russian author that’s re-imagining the conflict of the ring from Mordor’s perspective and basically how since history is written by the victors, they portrayed Mordorians as monstrous, evil, beasts. I think that it’s kind of funny that, okay, if we definitely have good and evil established very clearly, then someone who’s just doing self preservation and goes to the bad side is a downward arc. But if it’s a conflict and it’s more complicated and it’s not necessarily sure who is the good person, the the self preservation motivation I think is an interesting complication to explore.
Chris: I think in this case Saruman starts actively working for Sauron, but it does bring up interesting questions of what is a person’s obligation? How much can we expect a person to sacrifice? Because the issue is that somebody could literally be doing wrong just by choosing to stay alive. If for some reason their death was required, we could set up a situation like that and what is required of people before we start to condemn them.
And Saruman’s case, he does start to do a lot of bad things. But that is a really interesting point. If you had a character that joins team evil but does so under duress, you could definitely blur those lines.
Oren: Well, that is a good note to end this podcast on because there are a lot of ways to explore downward arcs, they aren’t always quite so straight forward as we might think.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com.
If anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com and we will talk to you next week.
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