Episode 169: The Moral Descent

On December 18, 2021, Kasie and Rex took on the descending character arc. Lots of criminals in this episode. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Character Arcs — the moral descent


  • Character Arc review
  • The moral descent as a compelling arc
  • How to plot and write a moral descent character arc
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Link to the podcast

Segment 1

At the beginning of November, to help out our NaNoWriMo’ers, we did an episode on Character Arcs. In the third segment we briefly touched on the negative arc, or the moral descent. Here’s some notes from that episode:

The disillusionment (or negative change) arc, the character also believes a lie, is confronted with the truth and is able to overcome the lie, but the new truth — existence after accepting the truth — is tragic.

This is Michael Corleone. He believes himself to be good, to be righteous. But he is a criminal, a ruthless loyalist to his corrupt family. When he accepts this about himself, he is tragically doomed to lead the family after his father’s death.

This video calls this the “corruption arc” wherein the character has the truth, and is very aware of it, but as he is tested, he decides to exchange the truth for a lie — i.e. the Corleones must kill their enemies.

So what are the elements of the moral descent character arc? How do you know you’re in one?

Segment 2

This post on K.M. Weiland’s site walks us through the process. Weiland credits Stanley D. Williams and The Moral Premise with this “quick pitch” formula:

“[Virtue] leads to [success], and [Vice] leads to [defeat], but [Unrelenting vice] leads to [destruction].”

So let’s start with Michael Corleone. He’s the first person in his family to attend college and serve in the military. He’s good, promising, righteous. But he doesn’t like being left out, he has pride, and when his brothers seem to be “in the know” and he’s left out, he pushes to be included. The more Michael tries to be part of the family business, the more he gets trusted with leadership roles and the darker those activities become.

Let’s start with the virtue-leads-to-success part of the equation. Some examples of virtue/success combinations:

SmartCollege, school
LuckySerendipity, fortuitous circumstances
Handsome/PrettyAttention, adoration
HonestTrust, opportunity to serve, expected to tell the truth
CourageousSeen as brave, trusted to lead
Creative, artisticAdmired, respected, beloved

Think about your character at the beginning of the story — things are going right for her. The opening montage of Legally Blonde shows this beautifully. Elle Woods is beloved by her sorority sisters, appreciated by her professors, she’s beautiful, and she’s about to be engaged to her handsome boyfriend.

Should these virtue / success combinations happen immediately? Or do we need to see the character earn them?

Segment 3

We’re in board recruitment mode at SC Writers Association so if you’re an SCWA member and excited about all the work we’re doing and want to lend a hand, consider joining the Board of Directors for a two year term beginning in January 2022. Send Kasie a note — kasie@clemsonroad.com — and let her know you’d like more information.

We’ve been talking about the moral descent character arc and how it begins with a character in a kind of lofted position: Homecoming Queen, Captain of the Football Team, Senator, CEO, Class President, whatever that high position is, there’s a kind of moral supremacy there.

Without the character’s initial moral height, there’s nowhere to fall. So begin with them at the top or near it.

The second part of the Williams equation is “Vice leads to Defeat.” We’ve done a show before on the art of the setback in which we talked about how the character should think he’s achieving that thing he wants but then be reset by rejection or defeat.

A buzzer-beating final shot, the unexpected break-up, the medical diagnosis. I love Anna’s realization that Prince Hans of the Southern Isles never actually loved her (devastating!) and will not be delivering true-love’s kiss (sigh). The setback or defeat is crucial to good plotting.

In the moral descent, though, it’s a vice that leads us there and while Anna’s defeat might have been set up by her naivete, that’s not exactly her fault, so it’s not a vice per se.

Let’s do a vice-to-defeat table, shall we?

PrideFailure (realization you’re not the best), betrayal (realization others don’t love you as much as you thought)
Avarice or greedGetting more than one bargained for, or losing something that was coveted; sacrificing the “bird in hand” for something that doesn’t satisfy
LustExposure and shame (think Tiger Woods), judgment as morally broken
RevengeUnintentional consequences, collateral damage
BetrayalGet betrayed

Segment 4

The Weiland blog also gives three types of moral descent which might be fun to break down:


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