Redemption Arcs: What Makes A Character “Redeemable”?

Redemption arcs are both much-beloved and much-reviled narrative arc. Audiences like rooting for people who actively try to do good in the world! This applies to protagonists who seem naturally inclined to virtue, but it applies just as strongly to characters with a spotty past, who struggle through their vices to improve anyway — because for a lot of us, that’s closer to how we interact with mortality.

But not all redemptions are made equal. There are some qualities that can make a character a difficult candidate for a redemption arc right from the start.

What hinders redemption in the first place?

You would think that the answer would just be “if they committed some really big atrocities, then there’s no redeeming them.” But metatextually, the one factor that will kill the reception of a redemption arc in the water is audience disfavor. If the majority of audience doesn’t care to see the character improve, or doesn’t believe it to be possible, then you’re going to have an uphill battle ahead of you.

Here are some factors that might swing an audience against a character’s redemption;

Firstly, if the redemption-seeker targeted an extremely vulnerable or likeable character, then their redemption might not be received well. The audience’s outrage on the victim’s behalf may be stronger than their desire to see the redemption-seeker improve themself. Be extra careful if the victim character is a fan favorite, or if the action taken against them was particularly nasty.

Secondly, if the redemption-seeker has shown themselves to be especially manipulative, then people may have trouble believing that this character genuinely wants to atone; how can we trust them? What if they’re just scheming again?

Thirdly, if the redemption-seeker has been characterized as self-aware, sadistic, and willing in their atrocities, then it can be jarring if they suddenly want to atone. Bloodfang the Kitten Squisher wants to apologize for all the kittens she squished? Yeah, right.

Fourthly, some crimes are less sympathetic than others. The redemption of characters who have committed targeted genocide, sexual assault, or acts that narratively mirror sexual assault is an issue that needs to be approached with extreme delicacy, if at all.

And finally, if the redemption-seeker was more fun as a villain act than a redeemed character, your readers may not be impressed with the end result. The more hammy and cartoonishly evil your villain is, the more likely it is that either they should be given the axe before they stop being fun, or that they need to carry their unhinged energy forward into their redemption. You don’t have to be evil to extra!

While I say that some of these are difficult cases to redeem, I don’t mean to say that you can never put characters with this sort of baggage through a redemption arc. But you do have to think very carefully about how you are going to approach their redemption if you want it done in a way that doesn’t snap your audience’s suspension of disbelief like a wet toothpick.

I would like to not snap my audience’s suspension of disbelief like a wet toothpick. So how do I do that?

While the exact answer varies on a case-by-case basis, we can work backwards from our observations about audience disfavor to figure out what factors will make for a convincing redemption. So firstly, the audience needs to care about the character — they need to be just sympathetic enough to them to want to see them struggle to improve. Secondly, the audience needs to be convinced that the character would logically choose to redeem themselves in the first place. (If they were pressed into “redemption” by outside parties, they can always find reasons of their own along the way.)

If you have the room to do it, you can set up a character for their redemption from the beginning by giving a few character hooks. Did they get into evil for sympathetic reasons? Are they “just doing their job,” and starting to question that job? What issues might they and the protagonists agree on?

Especially pay attention to what is important to the character you want to redeem. Core philosophies, loved ones, and life goals can all be leveraged to nudge them towards redemption.

Also consider how much culpability your redemption-seeker has for their crimes. If they were fully or partially coerced into villainy, then the audience might actually expect a redemption out of them, because it feels unfair to punish someone for circumstances they have no control over.

Finally, some crimes are more sympathetic than others. Survival crime, petty lawbreaking, and morally dubious actions taken towards well-meant ends are easily dismissed by most audiences. Murder is also surprisingly permissible, but it depends on who was killed, and why. Setting an orphan on fire isn’t going to fly with most people, but killing a corrupt politician may be appreciated by the general public!

In the end, all you need is to be aware of the character’s history and motivations, and you can decide how and if they can move forward into redemption.

And that’s it for my thoughts on redemption arcs. This week, anyway — be ready for a follow-up article on atonement and punishment next Friday. If you find this article helpful, then you can support me as a creator by purchasing Shadow Herald, my debut dark fantasy novel!

Thank you, and have a lovely day.

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