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Writing Tip: Redemption Arcs

What Is a Redemption Arc

The term seems to encompass any storyline where the character has a bad past but by the end of the book or series has made up for it in some way. They “redeem” themselves. Sometimes it’s something as simple as making up for a small mistake. Other times it can be the villain atoning for his bad actions and saving the day (à la Darth Vader). Sometimes we can see the changes take place over the course of the story, and in other instances, it’s a sudden epiphany.

Who Can Be Redeemed

A great redemption arc can take the story to another level. A bad one may turn the story into a joke. Maybe we just don’t see what the author wants us to see. Or maybe it was told in a poor way. Or maybe we feel the person being redeemed doesn’t deserve it. I think it’s an interesting question to ponder. People change in real life, so the same should be said for the characters in our novels. However, at what point does art stop imitating life? At what point is it not believable or acceptable to let someone be redeemed in a story, especially if we wouldn’t do the same in the real world? Or could that question be turned around and asked why we are so easy to forgive in stories but not in real life?

Examples in Fantasy Books

Two books/series really brought this question to light for me. In the A Court of Thorns and Roses series, two male characters have their own redemption arcs. Slight spoilers in the rest of this paragraph if you want to skip ahead. Rhysand is an assaulter in the first book who is instantly redeemed in the second book when he turns out to be Feyre’s mate. Tamlin is a possessive boyfriend in the first book, an outright abuser in the second, and a slut shamer and traitor in the third, but he helps save Feyre’s life.

Each man’s redemption story is different, but both are controversial. Some are upset that Rhysand is so easily forgiven. Some are upset that Tamlin is forgiven at all. Some have a hard time seeing the difference. Do these men “deserve” their redemption? Did Maas do a poor job of telling their stories? At what point does a person/character reach the point of no return?

That last question comes into play for the book Prince of Thorns. We are introduced to our main character in the middle of a pillaging scene where he participates in rape and murder. We are later told his sad backstory and his quest for revenge and maybe even redemption. At least that was the path it seemed Lawrence was leading us on. I don’t know, I didn’t finish the series. This book was universally despised by my book club where we felt that the main character committed such atrocities that no matter what he did later on, it couldn’t make up for what had already been done. Maybe that was done on purpose, after all, the character talked in a very unlikeable way. It might have been Lawrence’s intention to make you hate this character. Unfortunately, it made me uninvested in the character’s growth and challenges.

Should You Write a Redemption Arc

If you have a character on a path to redemption, it could be helpful to think of the following questions:

  1. Why do I want to see this character redeemed?
  2. Does it tie into my overarching theme?
  3. Would the character this person hurt believably forgive them? Why or why not?
  4. Would redeeming this character be offensive to a particular group?
  5. Is it truly possible for this character to be redeemed?

For the last point, it goes to what I was speaking about above. Each reader will have a threshold, but it is wise to think universally about certain things. If this character were a living, breathing person, what would it take for them to be redeemed?

How to Write a Redemption Arc

If you intend to redeem a character, the first thing to think about is pacing. Will this be a slow change throughout the novel or series? Or is it a sudden change of heart? In both cases, the character needs to have a vulnerability, something that causes them to question their actions. They both also need motivations for why they are behaving in villainous ways.

It is this vulnerability that later impacts these motivations and causes a change in behavior.

The difference is that in a slow change, the reader should be seeing the character tested throughout the story with trials that cause them to struggle between their motivation and their vulnerability. A sudden change of heart is typically reserved for the more heinous villains, and usually involves a great sacrifice (typically their life).

To pull off a redemption arc, try outlining the following items:

  1. The character’s vulnerability. What would tempt them to change their ways?
  2. The character’s motivations to be bad. How does it tie into their vulnerability?
  3. At least three trials where their vulnerability causes them to question their motivations.
  4. The character’s final choice. How do they actively prove they’ve changed?
  5. Forgiveness. If the wronged characters don’t forgive them, how can the reader?

Make sure to avoid weak motivations, unbelievable vulnerabilities, or a Three-Step Program.

Redemption arcs can be a great addition to a book. Sometimes they are overused. Not every bad person wants to be good. That’s just the way of life. And with those that do, do we always forgive? What is the threshold that has to be reached? What line can’t be crossed? It is a deeply personal subject that receives different answers from everyone. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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