Redemption Arcs: Atonement Over Punishment?

So, you’ve picked out a promising character for a redemption arc and you’re excited to explore their emotional journey. Doing their story justice is of the utmost importance to you… but how do you do it “right?” How do you make the audience want it as much as you do?

Since you’re on the internet reading writing advice, it’s likely that you’ve already heard other advice on the subject before — and that advice might have been to put that character through a gauntlet of pain and misery so that the audience sympathizes enough with them (or feels them to be punished enough) to be worthy of a redemption.

Which brings up a question… for a “good” redemption arc, is it a requirement that the redemption-seeker needs to suffer during the course of their redemption arc?

In a word, no.

In many more words, it’s a complicated subject, and no writing rule is universal. We should start by establishing motivation.

The first question you should ask is what pushed your character to a tipping point. Why do they want to improve? Why do they want to change? More specifically, at what point do they look back on their actions and realize that they’ve crossed a moral line? What would compel them to take responsibility for what they’ve done? What’s stopping them from justifying their actions now, when they clearly could justify those actions enough to take them in the first place?

In short, what separates who they are now from who they were when they did their past wrongs?

For some authors, the answer they come up with is suffering. The redemption-seeker experiences new hardships, which causes them to re-evaluate their worldviews, which causes them to change sides, or make amends for prior actions. This structure will work for a lot of stories! But while suffering can play a part in a functional redemption arc, I would argue that it is not intrinsic to all redemptions.

There is a specific reason why we often see suffering precede a redemption arc — suffering can serves as a catalyst for self-reflection, and re-evaluation can motivate people to make changes. However, suffering is not the only catalyst out there.

And it’s not necessarily the most interesting either!

What if the redemption-seeker notices that their extreme actions hindered their goals in the long term? What if they realize that their loyalty to an organization compromised one of their core values? What if they just plain get bored of being evil? (That last one may work best under more cartoony circumstances.)

And getting too gratuitous with the suffering can have consequences for your redemption-seeker’s audience favor. The more melodramatic the redemption-seeker is about how upset they are over what they did, and how sorry they are, how badly they’ve been treated, and how horrible a person they must be… the more it becomes a pity-party about how terrible the redemption-seeker feels, instead of about making amend to victims and choosing to do better in the future.

Centering atonement above suffering in the conversation about redemption is an important step to take, because it’s also necessary to consider the victim’s pain and agency when writing a redemption arc.

For some authors, the victim exists mainly as a way of marking when the arc is concluded and the redemption-seeker redeemed. Has the victim forgiven the redemption-seeker yet? Bam! Arc finished, character redeemed.

But when forgiveness from a victim is seen as necessary for redemption, it puts an onus on the victim to “get over” what happened for them for the benefit of the person who needs redemption, which is an emotionally compromising spot for the victim to be placed in. If a victim forgives, that’s something they should get to do to of their own volition. Not out of obligation.

Furthermore, requiring forgiveness not healthy for the redemption-seeker either! Needing forgiveness to move on and become a better person ties their self-worth to someone else’s emotional judgement. Something entirely out of their control.

This is not conductive to bettering oneself, where an awareness of one’s own actions and their consequences is more helpful than feeling like you have other’s approval.

Someone seeking redemption can move on with their life and become a better person, but that doesn’t erase the impact of their past wrongs. It is something that they may have to reckon with from time to time. Not being forgiven may be one of those things one has to face and accept on the path to redemption. It may make sense for some victims to forgive, but for others, it just isn’t emotionally plausible.

So as a general rule, some things you may want to keep out of a healthy* redemption arc include;

• Atonements (meta-narratively) mis-scaled to the redemption-seeker’s crimes, such as an excessive or melodramatic burden on an atoner with a minor crime, or too little atonement for a massive crime.

• Victims being required to forgive or stay friendly with the people that hurt them.

• Villainizing victims for not forgiving the redemption-seeker.

But this wouldn’t be a good advice article if I only told you what you need to avoid. There are also things that one can deliberately incorporate into a healthy redemption arc, such as;

• Rational consequences for the redemption-seeker’s crimes.

• The redemption seeker coming to accept their victim’s feelings toward them, whether the victim decides to forgive them or not.

• Action that the redemption-seeker could take to offer atonement to their victims. If the victims are dead, the action might be something more memorial, or might be atonement to the victim’s loved ones.

• An apology might be fitting for some character’s redemption arcs; remember that a good apology means acknowledging why the actions one took were wrong in the first place.

• And, most crucially, changed behavior on the redemption-seeker’s part.

In my opinion, the success of a redemption arc depends on audience expectations and biases being adequately accounted for, and a careful a balance of emotional stakes. I wish you good luck in redeeming your characters!

*Naturally, you can also explore “unhealthy” redemption arcs if its thematically relevant to your story, or if you’re less interested in a clean redemption and more interested in writing tragedy, psychological horror, or something similarly gritty. You don’t have to write “healthy” stories, but if you write a story that explores unhealthy territory, I’m of the belief that it’s best done intentionally and with self-awareness.

And that’s it for my thoughts on redemption arcs. If you find this 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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