Redemption arcs are a bit of storytelling that can be powerful moments, but they need to be used right – otherwise, they can easily fall into “what the hell?” pile.
When it comes to redemption arcs, I believe there are many conditions that need to be met for the story to be believable, enjoyable, and true to itself. All three aspects are important, for different reasons. A barely believable plot point will pull readers out of the story. An unenjoyable plot point will likely make a mark on the reviews. A plot point that betrays the story will not only disappoint the readers but also damage the story for potential future continuation.
For this type of story, character motivation is very important. This isn’t just about the redemption but also about anything and everything before that point. If a character is to be redeemed, they need to have both positive and negative qualities, and they had to have done both positive and negative things.
Redeeming a straight villain with no positive qualities and no shred of good within him will be very obvious and, most-likely, very unbelievable. Furthermore, the character needs to have some reason to leave his evil behind. This may work for a fall to darkness story where the character, after being brought low, reflects on the wrongs they’ve done. This alone may not be enough, but if there’s someone from his old life willing to offer a second chance, this may prove enough motivation.
Another situation which works are anti-hero characters. They’re the kind that fight fire with fire (often with more fire), no matter if the evil they fight is small or an universe-ending threat. How they became an anti-hero is one part of their story to explore, what their goals are is another. Truth is, they may not desire for redemption in the typical sense – if their motivation is to end what they consider the great evil, and the good people forgive them the means used to achieve it, it may be a bonus as such a character could’ve become used to being an outcast.
Fighting fire with fire may become quite literal in stories where the anti-hero uses the evil power against them (such as Illidan Stormrage in Warcraft universe). This may be something their fellows are utterly unprepared for and see it as fall to evil. Another aspect is that such characters are often shunned from the start, thus having no chance to share their motivation and explanations to the majority. However, those motivations are important for the readers because the presence of such thoughts is what may as well decide whether the character is redeemable in the reader’s eyes.
Another topic to explore are double-agent characters. In their case, several aspects of the story are to explore who they truly serve, why, and how did that decision come to be. Usually, changing sides is caused by a major personal event, often filled by loss. If the character keeps their true motivation to themselves for whatever reason, it may lead to eroded trust from the other characters that’ll see them as traitors or people with questionable morals, for example. Or cowards, if it seems they ran from the wrong side at an opportune moment.
And, finally, one thing to consider is how far the redemption goes and at what cost. It’s unlikely that everyone would forgive someone who caused them or their people so much pain (especially true for those who fight fire with more fire) so even if they’re allowed to return to the society, they’ll be met with distrust from many.
That is, if they return. The cost may be way higher – an exile or death is a possibility. The latter opens options for a heroic sacrifice, which may lead to a situation where the other characters will need to fill the gaps themselves and thus a variety of opinions on such a character. And various opinions will be the case even if the character leaves something behind that reveals their true motivations, because not everyone will believe them anyway.
So, that’s another post about a storytelling aspect that was, in fact, a spontaneous idea – so I hope it’s not a mess. Feel free to comment, let me know what do you think is important for a redemption story, and share your favorite examples (done well or done poorly). Or let me know if you’ve been writing (or considering) a redemtpion arc yourself.
Until next time.