Discussion: Redemption Arcs


This is a response to this video made by Thoughts on Tomes where she broaches the topic of redemption arcs in stories. To clarify exactly what we’re talking about, when a character begins a story as a villain or a generally “bad person” who has done terrible things, but down the line they redeem themselves. I had some thoughts about this topic, and I wanted to also see what other people think.

In my mind, the success of a redemption arc depends on two factors. One of them personal and the other outside of the reader’s control.

The first factor is personal morals of the reader. This is obviously outside the control of the author, so that anytime they take a chance on redeeming a character with a sordid past, they’re taking this risk. There will always be a reader out there who, no matter the care and time taken, will see a “bad” character getting a pat on the back as unacceptable. Even if he or she saved a bus full of nuns and kittens, they still won’t accept it, because they did this unforgivable thing.

In her video I linked above, Sam makes a good point about how treating people as if they can’t change or can’t improve is unhelpful and very harmful toward someone’s growth. But judgmental people exist, and when they read the same books as the rest of us, chances are you’ll come across reviews where they’re being particularly judgy. I’ve done it myself, and I can give you an example. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson. The main character, Covenant, starts his journey with a rape. He has all sorts of internal excuses for why he did it, and none of the other characters like him very much, especially when they find out about it. The fact remains that the entire series surrounds a character who did that, and whether or not he manages to come to his senses at some point, I don’t care to be there for it. We all have our line we don’t want to personally cross, and that’s simply a fact.

The other factor that can greatly affect this is the author’s intent and their skill level. Let’s start with intentions. Is the author saying something healthy here? They aren’t always. Sometimes it’s pretty clear they have a personal agenda, and they’re using this character to espouse it. Maybe they really don’t think certain crimes are that bad, so they’re excusing said crimes by giving this character an abhorrent personal philosophy and treating it as if they’re right. This character could rise to the rank of hero while maintaining this philosophy and never feeling bad at all about what they’ve done, while the audience just scratches their heads. It’s not out of the question for an author to do this. Sometimes an author starts with an irredeemable character, and they fall in love with their own creation and forget to redeem them at all because they already love them too much (eh, Hannibal Lecter, let’s face it).

Plenty of authors can write characters with a foul personality and make them interesting without personally endorsing what they say and do, and it’s usually noticeable if they’re writing a personal opinion into a crummy character. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying characters who are villains because it’s vicarious and fun. I’m simply saying this is why it pays to read critically. To look beyond whether a character is charismatic or attractive and understand the message the author is sending.

The second factor is probably the most important of all. Skill level. An author can have the best of intentions. They mean for this character to start out low and end on a high note. They overcame. They sought forgiveness. Their true colors were really lovely, deep down. But if they’re simply not a very good writer, it can fail miserably. There’s really nothing to explain here beyond that. Sometimes an author means well, but they trip before they reach the goal line. You can usually tell which books do this, because their ratings are not particularly high.

Said all that to say that my feeling is they can work or they absolutely can’t. It depends. Both on me and where I’m willing to go and on the author and whether they have the ability to write a character like this without making it accidentally or intentionally worse.

Share your thoughts below. And as always, happy geeking!

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