Writing Redemption Arcs.

What is a redemption arc?

“Redemption: An act of redeeming or atoning for a fault or mistake.” An act, implying action, which is created by choices, which just happens to be the basis of character development.

Some writers confuse redemption arcs with things they are not, and end up creating situations which aren’t redemption arcs at all, but rather bad writing, such as when:

  • The villainous character’s actions are never condemned by the heroic characters and the story, even when the villain is in the process of doing villainous things.
  • The villainous character is immediately forgiven for all the wrong they’ve done despite making no real effort to change their ways.
  • The villainous character suddenly becomes a genuinely good person without any notable character growth.
  • The villainous character is suddenly made unaccountable for their villainous actions because it’s revealed that someone else forced them to do it. Bonus bad writing: All blame is placed on the heroic characters for being unable to see how ‘traumatized’ the villainous character has been.

So now that we know what a redemption arc is not, how do we write a good one?

The four steps to a solid redemption arc:

1. The character must first be in need of redemption.

This may (and should) seem obvious, but sometimes simply deciding the character is villainous doesn’t mean the story treats them as such. Before a character can redeem themselves, the story must convince the reader that the character’s actions are wrong. It must hold the villainous character accountable for their actions by portraying them as harmful choices.

Often, redeemable characters know they’re doing harmful things and don’t enjoy those things, but they have a reason why they “must” continue to do them, whether fear or an end goal or a desire to please someone else or so on. These characters don’t need any less time or development to redeem themselves just because they aren’t relishing in the harm they’re causing.

There’s no case in which a harmful character has “always been good on the inside” and can change with a flip of the switch. The ability to cause harm, like all other actions, is rooted in deeply lodged beliefs and traits which must be ripped out and faced before the person can move on.

2. Character growth.

So we have our villainous character and we’ve shown clearly in what areas they need to change. Now comes the actual changing. This should look the same as any other sort of character growth.

  • The character makes choices. In this case, the choices are wrong or immoral in some way, and are a product of the beliefs or traits the character needs to change.
  • These choices have negative effects. Often, these negative effects are placed upon those the character cares about (or are beginning to care about). The redeemable character has been choosing to act a certain way because it benefits themselves, but now they’re feeling guilty or hurt by these actions, even if they’re still experiencing the same personal benefit, whether that be physical safety, power, authority, or so on.
  • The cycle repeats. As time goes on, the negative effects grow greater, until the redeemable character can no longer ignore them. They clearly recognize the pain caused by their own actions, and decide they don’t like causing that pain.

3. The Choice.

Now the redeemable character has to make the hardest choice of all. they must give up all the benefits they’re receiving from their wrong actions (and probably experience some kind of suffering), in exchange for stopping the pain their actions have caused to others. they must reach a place where they realize they would rather risk suffering than see other people be hurt.

Redemption isn’t a change from the “evil” side to the “good” side, (though often it corresponds with a literally change of teams, so the speak). It’s a change of heart — an emotional, visceral change of heart, that must be build up to and felt by the reader.

4. Redemption is a daily medication.  

Now your character is redeemed right? They can just go on to be a better person and forget whatever bad beliefs or traits their harmful actions where built upon, right? Nope!

Redemption is a hard path, and any time a person undergoes something difficult, it takes time and effort to form it into a habit. The character must continue to make the choice to be better, even when it hurts. Some days it’ll hurt more than others. They may have to talk to people about it. They may struggle to find who they are now that they’ve given up the old belief. They may over compensate and then backslide or dig deeper and find poorly healed scars their wrong beliefs were built on.

They’re not a new person simply because they made their original choice. They are becoming a new person, slowly, choice by choice, until they’ll someday be stable in who they are once more. (Or maybe they won’t, because once they are truly stable for a moment, they should find some other part of themselves, some other destructive belief or trait, which needs to be worked on; or at least, you as the author will find it and then you’ll badger the character into developing further.)

Redemption arcs for minor characters.

Covering redemption arcs for character who don’t appear regularly throughout the story is more difficult because the reader must understand why and how the character is changing in a short span of words. You won’t be able to cover their redemption arcs as thoroughly as with a primary character, but make sure you show at least one (but as many as possible) obvious instances of the character growth, and then the key choice they make to redeem themselves.

(Post script: The secondary definition of redemption is often used to describe being saved from evil or atoned from guilt by outside forces. Whether or not this makes ‘redemption’ a good term to apply to healthy character growth from a place of harming others to helping others is a discussion for another day, and another post.)

Don’t forget to check out Bryn’s debut novel, Our Bloody Pearl

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