Redemption arcs in fiction usually go one of two ways: either the character in question realizes how horrible they’ve been and makes up for their actions with good deeds (usually by helping the hero with their endeavors), OR they regret all the horrible things they’ve done and are immediately killed off right after that. Sadly, the second path is seen more often than the first, and it’s not a very good arc at all.
But, why are the “dying-right-after-regretting” redemption arcs so ineffective and underwhelming? I think it boils down to the fact that this is, for lack of a better phrase, an easy way out for the characters. It just seems like the writers don’t actually want to put in the work for their villains to actually make amends, so they just have them do one last heroic thing before they tragically pass and have every other characters magically forgive them, even though the villains spent the majority of their time making other characters miserable.
A classic example of this tired trope is Snape from the Harry Potter series. Snape has the classic tragic past that many villains in literature have. He was a misfit, he got bullied by his classmates, the girl he loved ended up with his sworn-enemy, etc. But, instead of growing past his circumstances, Snape joined the magical world equivalent to Nazis and abused his power as a teacher to terrorized a bunch of children. He, then, only kind of regretted joining the Death Eaters, not because he thought what they did was fundamentally wrong, but because they targeted Lily, his life-long crush and obsession. Even the “love” he had for her was very problematic and not romantic at all (need I remind everyone that he called her a “Mudblood” probably on multiple occasions). Does a terrible childhood excuse all of this? No.
To actually redeem his character, Snape would’ve had to spend ages regretting and making up for his actions, not only because he enabled someone he loved getting murdered, but because everything he did was just plain horrible. Instead we got a very cheap “I did it because I loved her” excuse—that actually doesn’t excuse anything at all— and a couple of heroic actions right before his death. Don’t get me wrong, Snape is a great character, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a great person. Yes he is complex, and yes he can have some good qualities, but he is in no way the hero here. He could’ve been the hero if more time was spent making his character less horrible and having him spend less time traumatizing innocent children. But, instead, we had to wait until the last possible second for him to show some goodness. And then he was dead….
And, despite everything, all other charachters seemed to forget and forgive all the horrible things he did; Harry going as far as naming one of his children after him.
Redemptions arcs like this fall short because we are left with no time to grapple with the characters goodness. The characters are given no time to prove themselves to be heroes. We’re just supposed to forgive them because they—allegedly—had some good intentions and died heroically at the end.
But then, what does actually make a good redemption arc?
For me, the most important element of a good redemption arc is time. You can’t rush the process. Give the character seeking redemption time to have some real introspection and for them to see where they went wrong… time to actually make up for what they’ve done, and time for the people around them to forgive them.
Good redemption arcs require accountability. The character needs to suffer the consequences of their actions and take responsibility for them. They need to show that they’ve actually changed their views and can make good decisions now. They have to prove themselves and show that their actions are no longer self-interested but for the good of all.
Obviously no two characters are the same, so the paths they follow to redemption are going to be different. But, their journeys should at least include them having a breaking point or realization, and follow with them having real regret and growth. Of course characters will struggle sometimes; their struggle with doing good things is part of what makes their story more interesting and believable. There’s nothing like a character who struggles with their morality but still manages to pull through and fight for what’s good at the end.
It’s also important to remember that not every character needs or even deserves a redemption arc. Some characters are just villains and that’s that, but that is another topic.
What are some of your favorite character redemption arcs?
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