When Things Spirals Downwards: A look at negative character arcs

Everyone loves to discuss character arcs. How the character rises above their circumstances, how they come out on top.  How is the characters life better than when they began the story?

Just like everything else in life, there is always a darker side and I tend to enjoy those stories just as much, if not more so. Those tales when characters start off as a sane normal person and slowly spiral out of control. When the Arc curves down, when they lose their grip on reality... that's when things really get interesting.

Recently I watched the movie Dread. It's based off of the Clive Barker book. I actually ended up watching it again just to really examine the various ways in which nearly every single character spirals out of control. The movie is about a group of college students that decide to do a study on people's innermost fears. Technically I do not think Quaid is a student, but nevertheless, he meets Stephen and convinces him it would make a great thesis project for his film degree. Stephen wants something original for his thesis so he agrees to work with Quaid and asks his friend Cheryl to help with editing.

As the movie progresses we find out about Cheryl, Quaid, and Stephen's deepest fears. We also find out about Abby, Stephen's co-worker that has a very large birthmark that makes her feel bad about herself.

Stephen's worst fear is dying in a car crash like his brother

Cheryl refuses to eat meat-- her father worked at a meat packing plant and would smell like raw meat when he would molest her after work when she was younger. The smell or just looking at meat makes her sick.

Joshua- Not a main character, but he is pretty important. When he was a child he was hit by a car and was deaf for three years. His worst fear is losing his hearing and being cut off from the world once again.

Quaid witnessed his family murdered with an axe when he was 6 years old. He still has nightmares and suffers from visions during the day-- these worsen when he stops taking his medication.

Quaid could be looked at as the main negative arc. What his character manages to do is not only pull his arc downward, he becomes the catalyst to all the other negative arcs that occur. This isn't a movie for the faint of heart, and I would not recommend eating anything right before, during, or right after watching it, but it is an interesting film. It really made me think about all the other movies and books that I've enjoyed that have negative character arcs. Ripper, my third book is going to have a negative character arc within it, and I am pretty excited about it.

Edgar Allan Poe is probably one of my favorites for negative arcs.  Many of his characters lose it by the last paragraph, if not well before.  The Telltale Heart and The Black Cat immediately come to mind. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith is another ( he may have ended off wealthy, but what about his mental state at the end of the book?).

Movie-wise here are other great films with negative arcs

  • Requiem For A Dream
  • American Psycho
  • Uzumaki (also a good but disturbing Manga)
  • Se7en (in particular, Brad Pitt's character)
  • The Shining (woo...now that's a negative arc if I ever saw one!)

What are some notable negative arcs you've seen or read? Do you find them more fascinating than a positive arc? Why or why not?


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