Written by JJ Barnes
The best stories include a character arc that takes them from one state to another. They are changed and shaped by the events in your story and come out the other end as different people. Usually a Protagonist will arc towards greater strength, learning from their errors, and an Antagonist will arc to greater evil.
However, a really interesting arc to write, and read, is when a character goes on a journey from being a “baddie” to a “goodie”. I’ll explain why it works, reference examples from existing stories, and talk about how to write this yourself.
Why Write a Character Arc From Bad To Good?
If your story doesn’t change or create a character arc at all, and they come out of it exactly as they went in, the liklihood is that nothing much has happened. Significant events always impact us and force to learn something, so lack of change suggests nothing significant has happened. If nothing happens there’s no story.
Taking a character from bad to good requires a definite story. Their relationship with your Protagonist will have changed through a shared experience and learned understanding. Who they are as people will have been shaped by events in your story to make them want to be better. This conflict will keep your audience interested and humanise the characters.
We are all capable of being the worst versions of ourselves, and people in pain will often lash out. Most of us know what that’s like and have felt the guilt and shame of acting badly because of how we’re coping with our lives. Watching somebody go from bad to good is inspirational. We see them become better people and the characters around them forgive and embrace them, and we can start to believe that we too are worthy of forgiveness.
Ebenezer Scrooge’s Character Arc
A classic example of this arc is Ebenezer Scrooge in the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. Scrooge begins the story as a cruel and intolerant man who doesn’t care about the suffering of those around him. Events in the story give him a strong character arc. By the end he is loving and generous, and wants to make the world a better place.
This is a very famous story, with many incarnations, so I’m sure you’re familiar but I’ll explain just in case. Through the story he is visited by 3 ghosts. The ghost of Christmas past, who shows him the wrongs he has committed. The ghost of Christmas present, who shows him how those around him a hurting. And the ghost of Christmas future, who shows him the lonely and sad ending he’s going to face.
This arc is much blunter an instrument than would usually occur. The whole point of the story is watching Scrooge learn and change to become better, rather than happening as part of an external conflict. However, it is a really clear demonstration of how and why it works.
The Grinch’s Character Arc
The Dr Seuss character The Grinch from How The Grinch Stole Christmas has a character arc from bad to good at Christmas time. He starts the story angry with the people of Whoville for their love of the festive season, and plans to ruin it. He dresses up as Father Christmas and steals their gifts and decorations to punish them for having so much fun. However, the people of Whoville come together in love and celebrate anyway, so The Grinch’s heart grows three sizes and he becomes good.
The Grinch is changed by the events in the story of his own doing, and the reactions of Cindy-Lou and the others. You’re shown the pain and loneliness he experiences which humanises (Grinchenises?) him, makes him more sympathetic. The change happens because of the external force from the other characters, but it’s his actions that cause that situation to happen.
Saffron Jones’ Character Arc
In Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit, Saffron Jones starts the story as a bully who is mean to the protagonist Lilly. When events in the story push the two girls together, Lilly starts to learn the truth about Saffron. She is sad and lonely, with a cruel mother and a lonely home life, and like The Grinch, lashing out at those around her as a reaction to that pain.
Through the course of the story, with the acceptance and compassion of Lilly, Saffron arcs from bad to good. The pain she is in humanises her and shows that she isn’t bad, just sad. This means that the audience wants good things for her and, like Lilly, is able to forgive her for past cruelties and embrace the change she is going through.
How To Write A Bad To Good Arc
An important thing to remember when arcing someone from bad to good is that your audience has to be able to forgive them. If you try and change someone but have no repercussions for their cruelty, it feels like it was forgotten. They have to be forgiven by the audience and the other characters, so they have to want to make amends.
Using the character back story is a really good way of explaining how a potentially good character went bad. Lashing out against others is a common way of handling pain. Making mistakes can cause self loathing, and when you hate yourself you assume others should hate you too so you do things to make that happen. It’s an unhealthy pattern I have fallen into, and I am sure that I’m not alone.
This past pain makes your character human and sympathetic. They’re not just a blank monster set out to Antagonise and hurt your Protagonist for no particular reason beyond the story. They are living their own lives and handling their own pain. Once that has been explored, your Protagonist and your audience have something they can understand. They will have hope and root for your character to have a better life.
Forming an emotional bond to another character will allow your bad character to start to discover their inner goodness. When a kind and compassionate person sees the good in you that you don’t want to let yourself see, it opens a door.
Cindy-Lou shows kindness to The Grinch, even at his worst. Lilly sees Saffron’s pain and offers her empathy and understanding. This moment of connection, this emotional bond, allows that bad character to start to find self acceptance. Forgiveness from another, understanding from another, allows those characters to start to forgive themselves too.
When It Won’t Work
Some bad characters cannot be arced to good. Even if they realise the error of their ways, the crimes they committed could be so horrific and cruel that there is no way of making amends. For those characters a truly tragic end is really the only way out.
Trying to make an audience forget horrific murders or abuses just won’t fly. It’ll weaken the story, and make the Protagonist feel like they’re not a real person. You can give them understanding, even sympathy, for pain. But you cannot turn them into a good character and a buddy to your Protagonist.
If your bad character wants to be forgiven, and has the capacity to transition to a good person, but has no interest in making amends it won’t work. Pain in a character’s past cannot be justification for the transition from bad to good alone. Their motivation has to change with it. They have to WANT to be better, WANT to make amends and WANT to earn forgiveness. Expecting it on the grounds that the bad was done because of past pain isn’t enough. That’s not a character arc. The arc takes them on the journey to deserving the forgiveness.
Why I Like This Arc
I very much enjoy seeing this written well. I’ve written it myself and I enjoy reading it and watching it. I always root for a character who is making efforts to improve themselves. A character who is struggling to be better though past pain and mistakes make it hard.
Characters who make mistakes, are flawed, are human. Perfect characters are rarely interesting to me because they’ve got nowhere to go. I relate to the people who are in pain. People who make mistakes and screw up, but at the core are trying to be good. The people who live with the guilt of what they’ve done wrong and aspire to be better.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose