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Crafting A Fall: Turning Heroes to the Dark Side

Join the Dark Side by hybridgothicaWho doesn’t love to see a character go bad? A man pushed too far pushing back? A loyal but ambitious servant helping themselves for a change? A noble hero broken down into the blackest villain? To watch a character fall into darkness is a fascinating journey, seeing a character’s values crumble and twist, watching their personality change and develop, and shuddering at the consequences of their actions. Indeed, it is the process itself that can be most captivating narrative and make for the best part of the story, the reader gets the chance to see the character’s nature change shape in response to events, observe their reactions and judge their choices. Such narratives can have a lot of pulling power, drawing the reader in as they invest in the character, delving into their psyche, and forcing the reader to decide if they still support them.

The process can be hard to write well. It’s all too easy to create a flip-switch character who turns bad without reasonable justification that jars the story. But if done correctly, it can be extremely rewarding. Any character can turn bad, whether it’s your main protagonist or a side character, but while the level of detail may vary, this article will show you an outline of the process to follow in turning your character to the dark side.

Introduction and Build-up

Era One by simon goinardFirst you’ll need to introduce and establish the character as a good guy, writing scenes which show the character’s nature and personality so the reader has an initial base to start from before the author affects any change in the character. This stage is vitally important as the more you can cement the impression of the character as good to begin with, the more pronounced the effect will be as they change and go dark. Note that just because the character is “good” doesn’t mean they are perfect; any well rounded character should have a couple of flaws and foibles to make them interesting.

Ideally these flaws should be something the author can later use to affect change or draw the character in difficult situations like a habit of reckless arrogance or a serious sense of ambition that drives the character onward. Bonus points if you can pick a trait that isn’t a flaw in of itself but something that can be twisted into one like the competitive streak between Sasuke and Naruto in the Naruto Unleashed anime series. While it begins as a standard rivalry during ninja training, it develops through the series into something more serious, even helping to drive Sasuke towards evil as they strive to outdo each other.

Along with the character’s personality, you’ll want to build up anything that contributes to the character’s moral state. This includes aspects like their place in the world. For example as a knight of the realm and how that features in the character’s identity. Or if the character subscribes to a code of ethics or duties that they must obey, which will serve to reinforce their moral outlook. Also any relationships that can provide a stabilising influence, whether they are friends, lovers, family members, teachers, anyone close to the character who exerts a positive moral outlook. All these aspects will serve as a counter to any negative changes that might drive the character to turn evil. Part of the process of development involves overcoming, negating or exorcising these influences to allow the character to change. That narrative can provide some of the most interesting and dramatic moments through the character’s transformation.

Now that we’ve got the first stage, let’s set up an example character:

In the land of Eldrissa a young boy called Vellic joins a mage guild with a class of other students. The boy was raised with good values in a loving but poor farm and has a deep desire to make something of himself. He becomes friends with several of the students, including a bright lad named Keb and pair of twin girls named Hart and Storm. The group often work closely with a favoured teacher who acts as a mentor to the quartet, setting them on small adventures where they develop their skills and perform small acts of good and heroism. Their training continues and their powers grow. Keb’s natural talent is matched by Vellic’s determination and the two compete for the approval of their master.

Challenges and First Steps

Drimoa the Guild Leader by Wonchun ChoiOnce the character is firmly set up then the author can begin to affect changes. This is first achieved by putting the character in challenging and stressful situations that tax them and force them to take extreme actions. These challenges can be events like a gruelling battle, an important test, or some tragic event like the loss of a friend. The important thing is that it pushes the character to the limits of their regular nature, preferably in a way that also links with a flaw in their personality, whereby the character takes an action outside their normal behaviour.

At this stage it need not be a hugely immoral act. Too often authors are eager to have a character instantly dial up the evil to max, but a small action is fine to begin with. For example, a master thief who began by stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family during a harsh winter. Such actions should be rational and understood by the reader, even if they are immoral. The author needs to be clear about the thought process that led to the act to try and make it seem justified to begin with, at least in the eyes of the character. This will help to make the character more engaging and sympathetic despite their negative actions.

At this point you will also want to show the consequences of the negative action. These can be positive or negative, so long as it still encourages the character to progress further. The thief who stole a loaf of bread gets to feed his family and might be more likely to try again. Or if he were caught and punished, might focus his hate on the rich who make the rules and leave his family to starve, further justifying himself for bigger thefts.

The day of the big test approaches. Vellic has lost consistently to Keb in practice and searches the guild library for something to give him an edge. He finds a book on forbidden dark magic and practices some of the simpler techniques to augment his powers. Though warned by his masters, Vellic sees the benefits of such knowledge and knows it will improve his powers and status. On the day of the test he uses his new skills and manages to defeat Keb, narrowly avoiding causing him serious injury. In the aftermath he is questioned by friends and teachers about his abilities and is forced to lie about their source. Wary but eager to gain more power, he continues his research in secret, while enjoying the attention and praise.

The Downward Spiral

Neva praying by Marko Djurdjevic (detail)Once your character is on the path to evil, things must escalate further: more challenges, more serious choices and consequences. This will form the larger part of the transformation arc, as the character struggles with their choices and their personality changes. Pacing is key at this point, providing enough time to justify the changes in the character, and detailing the scenes that show the gradual changes in increments, will help to convince the reader of the shift in personality. Again the author must work to justify the character’s response and actions, whether through the uses of the character’s flaws, or by some other motivation that will drive the character towards negative actions and choices. During Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince and Dragon Star trilogies the young lord Andry is plagued by visions of an invasion that will destroy his home. This drives him to progressively harsher actions like murdering those with sorcerer blood, using forbidden magic and seeking to raise an army to halt the threat to his homeland.

The idea for this stage is to sculpt a series of increasingly negative actions that draw the character further towards evil, while exploring the mind-set of the character and their rational behind the actions. It’s at this point you’ll want to describe the struggle the character is going through as they transform. Look at the inner and outer conflicts that their changes cause, the effect on their emotional state and interactions in the world. Much of the conflict here will come from the positive aspects the author set up originally such as friends or moral frameworks that might serve to counter the character’s darker nature. There may be an ebb and flow to the process as the character wavers between light and dark, providing the opportunity for drama in the narrative as their actions grow more severe. Eventually the character will push away or alienate friends, rationalise their actions or dispense with any previous ethical paradigm that might keep them in check as they descend deeper into evil.

Vellic continues his studies into dark magic. As time passes at the guild, he becomes ever more focused on gaining power, seeing it as a way to advance himself and to ensure his superiority over Keb. It becomes harder to hide his research from his friends and mentor. Vellic becomes more withdrawn and hostile to others who he believes won’t understand his motivations or who will condemn his actions. During a mission with some other students Vellic is forced to reveal his powers and is confronted about their source. His friends try to convince him to stop but he turns away, triumphant over his success in the mission.

Final Fall

Fierce Knight by Miguel CoimbraThis is the culmination of the build-up throughout the narrative. While the character may have made some bad choices and performed some terrible actions, this is the highest point of tension where they make some irrevocable choice or action that damns the character and firmly places them on the side of evil. Whatever the cause, this event should be of a far greater magnitude than anything the character has done previously, with consequences that make it impossible to continue their lives as they were. This could be an act like the character turning on their friends, betraying their allies and siding with the enemy, or stealing some powerful magical artefact for their own gain. It is the moment where their flaws finally get the best of them or their motivations have pushed them so far down a path they cannot turn back and must follow it through to the bitter end.

By this point the character’s personality will have undergone some development but it should still be a climactic moment of decision for them, teetering between right and wrong and building the tension for the final stage of the transformation arc. For maximum impact it will likely coincide with some pivotal moment in the story, making the character’s fall a vital hinge in the plot. As it represents the last stage the moment should be as epic as possible, drawing on the character’s emotional battle and then hammering them with the consequences of their choice.

After the confrontation, Vellic is ordered to remain in the guild while his friends go out on a mission. Vellic’s mentor threatens to expel him if he continues along the path he’s on. As the conversation becomes more heated news arrives that his friends ran into trouble and that Hart was grievously injured. Vellic flies into a rage, saying that if he had been there with his new powers he could have saved them. The argument gets fiercer and Vellic lashes out, the two engage in a dual and Vellic destroys his former mentor. Horrified by his actions and with the other teachers approaching, Vellic flees the guild.

Crafting the fall of a character is a complex process and necessitates a delicate balance of many factors in order to be convincing. It requires the author to blend character development with story events and finely controlled pacing in order to be effective. While it can be a daunting task, following a character on this journey can make for a great story and is an excellent method to get the reader to invest in a book.

The Fallen Knight by bramasta aji

This article describes a broad outline for the process of turning a character bad that should be flexible enough to fit any number of stories. So take a look at the heroes of your novel and know that the higher they rise, the further to fall.

Title image by Marko Djurdjevic.

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