Writing Characters that Slowly Descend Into Madness
Okay y'all this is one of my absolute favorite tropes / character arcs / whatever you want to call it. I’ve written at least two characters that end up twisted and deranged… While it’s fun to do, it can be a little difficult to nail down, so I thought I’d share some tips!
From Avatar the Last Airbender’s Azula to Gollum, characters often think that they can handle the Ultimate Power™ when they really can’t. These corrupted characters and their character arcs can be tricky to write, so here’s some pointers!
The character to be corrupted should have a one track mind. Your character needs to have a goal in mind, one that (at least in their eyes) requires the Ultimate Power™. This goal can be as simple as world domination, or as complex as “I need to get revenge on this specific person in this specific manner, or else I won’t be satisfied.” It’s up to you, but you need to make sure that your character’s every action revolves around this central goal. Or, if your character has two motivations, like reconciling themselves to their family while simultaneously saving the world, make sure they can only do one of them! This will cause lots of conflict and it will be great..
Get used to writing internal conflict. In one of my novels, the main character has the power to clean the world’s water supplies, but her friends disapprove for…complicated reasons. She has something of a mental breakdown, wondering if she should be doing what she is. Internal conflict is a great way to show your character being pulled in two different directions; after all, tearing our characters apart is the name of the game.
Make sure your character thinks that they are using their Ultimate Power for good. Even if they’re not. Especially if they’re not. When you can follow a villain’s logic and understand why they are doing the horrific things they are, they become that much creepier.
The Ultimate Power must be so attractive that your character can’t help but use it. The only way your character can be corrupted by power is if they use this power. Therefore, they must use it often. Whether this be a superpower, power that comes from the crown on their head, or dark magic, make sure your reader gets plentiful helpings of seeing the character use it.
Don’t be afraid to take it slow. Characters descend into madness, they don’t plummet into it. Let your character spiral slowly downwards, let them saunter casually into their twisted ways of thinking.
If they can’t be redeemed, they should probably die. Characters that have gone power mad really only have two options: redemption or death. Sometimes your character can pull out of their downward spiral and recognize their mistakes. This may lead to them siding with the very people they had been against, like Magneto teaming up with Prof X to fight a Bigger Baddie. Or they could just admit their mistakes and go on their way, like Mystique occasionally does. But if you can’t find a way to redeem your character (or don’t want to), then you should probably consider killing them off. Characters mad with Ultimate Power™ are usually unsustainable, and will usually self destruct at some point.
A character who descends into their madness and power-craziness and has a descent that is really well written can be super engaging. They are, at least, my personal favorite to write and read about. Have fun, and happy writing!