Change is integral to fiction, and the more powerful the change, the more powerful the reader experience. This is why redemption is such a gripping journey in fiction. Seeing a character transform before our eyes into a better person, atoning for their failures and mistakes, and overcoming the past to live for a better future fills us hope.
Okay, so redemption is good. Got it. Thanks.
Ah, but not so fast, reader. Redemption is a tricky thing to write, because the characters the author chooses – or doesn’t choose – to redeem can send a multitude of statements. If the character in question is redeemed, people could see this as a harmful message that if you love someone enough that all their abusive, manipulative, destructive habits will be magically swept under a rug, or that the past misdeeds committed by the character, like murdering or raping, aren’t that big of a deal, or that someone wicked and heinous is being unjustly “rewarded.” If the character is not redeemed, however, it can discourage people from trying to change for the better – after all, if someone can’t change in a book or on a show filled with fairy tale power of love and hope and belief, then how can someone change in the real world?
To start with then, what makes a person redeemable or irredeemable? I would say that as long as a character is capable of feeling remorse or regret for their actions, then they have the potential for redemption.
Let’s take Game of Thrones as an example. With the multitude of grey characters populating the books, no one is untouched by questionable decisions and actions. We’ll pick on the Lannisters today.
On the one hand, you have Jaime Lannister.
Sorry, Jaime. Pun not intended.
Many GoT fans would probably say that Jaime is a terrible person. Given that he tried to murder a kid by tossing him out a window, actually did murder his cousin just to enable his own escape, and… well… the less said about Joffrey’s funeral, the better. So you can’t exactly say it’s a baseless accusation. But with each passing season we’ve learned more about him and seen him try to change himself. We learn that he killed The Mad King at the cost of lifelong dishonor to save thousands of lives. We see him try hold to his promise to Catelyn Stark and return her daughters to the North, knowing his family would consider it base betrayal. We watch him bargain his personal freedom to be the heir Tywin Lannister wants, all to spare Tyrion’s life at a kangaroo trial. And we see him risk his life to infiltrate Dorne and rescue his daughter Myrcella. Yes, Jaime is a flawed man who doesn’t always do the right thing. But we also know that he wants and tries to do the right thing, and is capable of love and compassion. Whether he will be, should be, or already has been, redeemed is another matter. But the bottom line is that he has the capacity.
That sets Jaime apart from other some other notable Lannisters, who are incapable of seeing themselves in the wrong. If you were to tell Tywin that he needed to be redeemed of his past actions, he would tell you flatly that all he has done was justified for the good of his House. If you were to tell Joffrey that he needed to be redeemed, he would laugh at you and have your tongue cut out. In either order.
The least redeemable character of all time. Bar none.
Now that we know who is capable of redemption, the next question is, then, which potentially redeemable characters should actually be redeemed?
Let’s switch gears to Once Upon a Time. Once has had a long history of trying to redeem villains into heroes. This usually works well enough since, with the exception of maybe Peter Pan and King George, most of Once’s villains tend to be portrayed in various shades of grey, with glimpses of humanity and plenty of Freudian excuses for their actions.
Two of the most focused on villains have been Regina, the Evil Queen (from Snow White), and Rumplestiltskin, the Dark One. Both have been handled in similar ways. Both have sons they wanted to do right by, both found loved ones who try to get them to bring out their best side, both have tragic backgrounds that explain why they became the way they are.
But they have one difference.
Regina has been changing since the second season. She’s been trying and succeeding in putting her past mistakes and misdeeds behind her. She’s been trying to do right by those she once wronged. She’s been putting love first in everything she does, and even though life keeps trying to screw her over, she keeps making the choice to be a better person.
Rumplestiltskin, on the other hand, never seems to change. He talks about loving his wife, Belle, and about wanting to be a better man for his son. But every season he lies, deceives, betrays, kills, and kills to hold desperately onto his power. Rumple shows the capacity and awareness for change and love, but he picks power every time.
Belle: You’d think I’d stop being surprised by now.
If a character shows a consistent pattern of trying to do the right things and moving in the right direction toward being a better person, then they are a prime candidate for redemption. If the character is always regressing and living in a perpetual cycle of seeking forgiveness and then repeating their mistakes, then a redemption journey is not in the cards. The character may be sympathetic and relatable, but it sends a bad message about constantly staying with someone on the hopes that one day they won’t backtrack on their attempts to change. This is the groundwork for an abusive relationship.
Does that mean that they have to die a villain then? Not necessarily. After all, there are different ways redemption can come about.
There’s redemption classic, when a character goes from a “villain” or antagonist into a proper hero that is accepted by the protagonists as one of their own. This is a good choice for characters whose mistakes, crimes, sins, etc. are of a less severe sort and show prominent virtues.
Then you have bittersweet redemption. Maybe the character’s arc ends with them finally doing the right thing, but it does not rectify their past misdeeds. Maybe the character has done something particularly heinous, or just has too many crimes to sweep under the rug. This works when you need to emphasize justice just as much as, or more so than, forgiveness. It’s a nice sentiment that tells that people can change, but that part of that change is answering for past actions. A bittersweet redemption can also be even more poignant than a classic redemption. This tends to be my favorite choice.
Then there’s “redemption equals death,” or fatal redemption. This is a pretty popular example where the character decides to do the right thing, just in time to get killed for their moment of compassion. It works so well because it allows a chance to show that everyone can change, but doesn’t have to deal with the messy repercussions of how the character’s future is handled once they’ve started their redemption journey. Personally, while I think this technique can be used effectively, I also think it’s often the easy way out. Rather than taking the time and effort to consider how the character will handle this new lease on life and where it will take them, the character is immediately discarded on a high note. This might be the right choice for you, but use it with caution and make sure it isn’t just the easy option.
Redemption is a powerful character arc, and one that will demand great thought and care. If you plan to redeem a character in your writing, make sure to consider what’s best for your character, and what’s best for your audience. Fiction is a reflection of life, and life needs the possibility of redemption.