Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Redemption

Here’s a neat little analysis of what a redemption arc is and how it works.

This is a post by RJ Anderson, who wrote Knife and Swift and a good handful of other MG novels. I’ve only read Knife so far, but I really liked it — click through to read my comments about it — and I’ve certainly heard that everything she’s written is excellent.

Also, I agree with her: redemption arcs are one of my favorite things too. Here’s what she says about that:

First, the character destined for a redemption arc must knowingly and deliberately have done something wicked. This may sound like a silly place to start, because you’d think that’s a given, but since I’ve seen people claim that Finn had a “redemption arc” in The Force Awakens, I guess it’s not as obvious as it might seem. But Finn was a brainwashed child soldier who had no idea he was on the wrong side until he was dropped into his very first real battle and given a reprehensible order – which he refused to carry out. Then he promptly defected to the good guys. So Finn never did anything that required him to go through a redemption arc, because he’d never done anything he knew for certain was bad.

The post then goes on from there, drawing on The Force Awakens, which I haven’t seen, but probably all of you have, so I expect you know all this about Finn. Obviously, given the above synopsis, Anderson is right. You can’t have a redemption arc unless you’ve done something requiring redemption.

Here are the other features of a successful redemption arc:

2. the second ingredient in a true redemption arc is that the character undergoing it must have a sensitive conscience.

3.  it’s a classic facet of redemption arcs for the character to double down on their villainy in an effort to deny the increasing weight of guilt that they feel. 

4. this can go on for quite some time before the villain’s resistance finally shatters and they face up to being wrong.

And here Anderson adds:

Interestingly enough, this last point is where a lot of so-called redemption arcs fail. There are lots of attractive, charismatic villains in books, TV and movies who do terrible things and maybe even show a few signs of being aware that they’re terrible, but in the end, the story wimps out by romanticizing them and handwaving their crimes as not being their fault – or even not actually being crimes at all. 

I can’t speak to any tv shows that have aired in the past 10 years, but this was true back when I watched tv and I expect it’s still true. I imagine the tv show “Dexter” would be a perfect example, but I’m not sure; I’m aware of the premise but didn’t watch it. I would have, but it aired after my no-longer-watching-tv-at-all period started. Oh, how about “Breaking Bad” — my understanding is that one also probably falls into this pattern. Anyway, let’s see where Anderson goes next with her outline of a redemption plot …

5. the agony of repentance – that is, coming to sincerely loathe and regret his past evil behaviour and wanting to turn away from it. 

6. transformation — a pivotal moment where we see the villain break down. He stops trying to justify himself, he admits his wrongdoing without making excuses for it, he despises himself and repents … and then he chooses to behave differently from that point on, even if it means losing.

7. our redeemed character demonstrate[s] his sincerity by trying to make amends. 

8. And then, ideally, we should see the redeemed character receiving some kind of reward for making the right choice.

Anderson does emphasize that this reward does not necessary mean the redeemed character gets a happy ending, as such, or even survives. Nevertheless, she asserts, and I agre, that ideally there should be a reward of some sort.

You should definitely click through and read the whole thing. This is a great topic and an excellent post. RJ Anderson ends by picking out only two examples of fully successful redemption arcs. (Kylo Ren is not one of them.)

While I wouldn’t want to declare that this are FULLY successful, I guess, I can think of one recent redemption arc that I was pretty suspicious about, but that wound up working rather well: Hugh d’Ambray from the Kate Daniels series:

And in fact, not just the above title, but also the last Kate Daniels novel, showed part of, or I should say shows a reinforcement of, Hugh’s redemption arc. There’s a certain degree of handwaving and saying Oh no, Hugh’s crimes weren’t his fault, but first, the necessary handwaving is handled in a really quite persuasive way, and second, Hugh absolutely does go through the repentance and making amends parts of the arc.

If you’ve got a suggestion for a successful SFF redemption arc, by all means drop it in the comments.

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25 Comments Redemption

  1. Mary Beth

    I would agree with her example of Zuko as a good redemption arc, as well as the assertion that most redemption arcs fall short. A friend used to say “Redemption equals death”—that too many stories try to wash away all prior bad acts with one single “heroic” act, usually an attempt to save the protagonists, that results in the character’s death. And yet the surviving characters forgive all, even if the dead guy made no prior attempts at amends. See, e.g., Darth Vader, Snape, etc.

    It’s a cheap and easy shorthand that erases all the hard work of character growth through true repentance. There’s no actual redemption ARC, just a single act of outsized importance, and I find most examples deeply frustrating.

  2. Rachel

    Mary Beth, yes, I hoped for better than that for Snape almost to the end. I thought that was a cheap save and it’s one of the series’ real weaknesses, imo.

  3. Louise

    Interestingly enough, I don’t know that I would agree 100% on the character having willingly and purposefully done something wicked–I guess I’m thinking here of Bucky Barnes in the Captain American movies. He had no choice in becoming the Winter Soldier, no control over his actions–and yet, as he himself says, he still did them. I feel the way his redemption arc was handled in Captain America: The Winter Soldier was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in fiction, honestly.

    I also think Boromir gets a nice redemption in The Fellowship of the Ring, as brief as his fall/redemption is. We see glimpses of his pride and arrogance seeded beforehand, but he takes no wrong action until the last moment, when he gives in to the Ring’s temptation–but then almost immediately repents. He doesn’t have a chance to make amends with Frodo, but he willingly gives his life for Merry and Pippin, and thus his redemption is sealed. Like I said, it’s a short arc, but a fully realized and satisfying one.

  4. Rachel

    Louise, your comments about Bucky Barnes actually pretty well apply to Hugh d’Ambray as well — Roland really WAS controlling him, cutting off his natural feelings so that Hugh would be brutal enough to suit him. And yet, as you say, Hugh still did all those things. Since both of us quickly thought of a good example of this type, I’m inclined to agree that the “willfully and purposefully” thing can be dialed way back and the redemption arc will still work just fine.

    I also agree about Boromir. That was a very compressed, but effective, redemption arc.

  5. Elaine T

    How about your King of Lirrione whose name escapes me in the Door duology?
    Maybe the power n Winter, too, the Powers are so opaque… but I left that book with the idea that it was trying to make do better & get help to do so.

    Can’t think of any other ones I’ve run across recently. There are a couple anime series that might be running one or more, but they aren’t complete, so…

    I like the Boromir & Bucky examples. I can’t opine on Star Wars’ Flynn ’cause I quit watching SW after the original trilogy.

    The Teen knows AvatarTLA, so I directed the Zuko example that way. Reaction: yeah, ok, per canon, but canon is idiotic and given [examples skipped ] he’d actually be an idiot to betray his nation for ones who do that

  6. Allan Shampine

    I also was skeptical about the Hugh redemption arc, and also agree it ended up working surprisingly well.

    The question about willfulness is interesting. Two things come to mind. First, the Finn example is interesting because it goes to whether the character perceives what they are doing as evil or not. I think you can have a solid redemption arc where the character initially believes what they are doing is fine, but their moral compass changes over time. I think there are a lot of examples in film and literature like this. Second, the “mind control” bit is an interesting example of the buddhist concept of karma. As the characters in your example note, they were being forced to undertake the actions, but it was their bodies undertaking the actions, and the actions were being conducted, at least in part, through the active participation of the character’s mind. Other parts of the mind were suspended, but the character did participate in the acts, and the memories of that participation are laid down in their mind. Dealing with those imprints – that karma – is difficult, particularly when others’ reactions are informed by those awful acts. If the world believes you are a murderer, if you actually did commit the murders, but you know that it was not entirely of your own free will, it is still hard to break out of the box of being a murderer. People are also very good at justifying actions retroactively. So, I committed those murders, and I was being influenced by an outside force, but maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe it was for a good cause after all. We see some of that with Hugh. Turning away from that fits in well with a redemption arc as well, I think.

  7. Kootch

    Captain Reiter in Tanya Huff’s “The Silvered” is another example. A loyal and capable officer in the empire’s army, he is sent on a mission to capture the top mage pack of Aydori, the little country resisting the empire’s attack. He is smart and brutally effective in executing his orders but his interactions with his captives slowly open his eyes to the evil that he serves. He takes little steps towards his redemption, finally concluding in a spectacular escape that had this reader cheering.

  8. mona

    I have to disagree about Snape— but I’m also curious what you hoped for. His death was sure convenient for everyone else though.

    Redemption arcs seem pretty tricky. This is a nice starting framework! The credibility of a character’s change of heart— it’s applicable to a wider variety of scenarios too.

  9. Rachel

    Mona, I wanted Snape to have been, or become, fundamentally a good person, and I don’t think he was or did. I think he turned to Dumbledore originally for entirely selfish reasons and then he was a genuinely unpleasant, petty, selfish person basically straight through, even while working with Dumbledore and against Voldemort. In other words, I either didn’t buy his character arc, or else I disliked him as a person so much the arc still didn’t work for me.

    I will admit, it’s been a long time since I read the series.

    Kootch, I’ve never read The Silvered. Your description makes it sound way more appealing than the official cover copy and in fact is so different it’s hard to believe it’s the same book. But fine, I will try it, and look forward to meeting Captain Reiter.

  10. Elaine T

    This has reminded me of a discussion over at spacebattles on a story thread – quite a while ago, now – but it concerned a character who’d wanted to be a hero, gone bad after trauma, had to face up to it and now was trying to do better. It being a superhero setting (Worm*) The character had name changes for each character part. When the facing up events happened and the name changed again, a couple readers were really unhappy. Took it as meaning the past misdeeds were brushed under the rug and no atonement was necessary. It doesn’t seem to be working out that way, but we had a lively discussion over symbolism of names and how to show repentence and atonement and make them plausible while not letting characters off the hook for earlier misdeeds.
    It’s difficult, and readers will take things differently.

    I agree with Rachel on Snape – never was a good person, just worked for the better side, eventually. Not even Lawful Evil, like MCU’s Fury, just a petty unpleasant person.

    *which canon I can not read grimdarkdark, but whatever, the kid can be insistent when wanting a discussion partner for fics. It came to my attention when Teen was muttering about finding a story where the setting was so bad that it looked like getting Sauron born as human in it (but with powers – superhero setting) is an improvement. Yep, this one is a Sauron redemption story.

  11. SarahZ

    Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel had some good redemption arcs – Faith’s, in particular, played out over multiple seasons and across both shows, but worked nicely. I dunno if all the “soul” business invalidates the Angel or Spike arcs.

    The thought of redemption arcs makes me think of Bitterblue, the sequel to Graceling, although in that case it’s more like a redemption arc for a whole country rather than an individual. Don’t want to go into too many details and spoil Graceling, but Bitterblue is a pretty unusual book, in that it is overall optimistic about people but makes that path to redemption pretty complicated and messy.

  12. Mary Catelli

    Well, there’s always the question of vincible ignorance. If the character went all the way into studied ignorance, and actively avoided figuring out whether he was doing evil — or merely reached supine ignorance, where he simply made no effort to figure it out — that’s good enough for a redemption arc.

    The fun part is that people who weren’t really guilty may go through much the same plot and thus people use the same name

  13. Kathryn McConaughy

    I LOVE a good redemption arc… but as you say, most of them fail. I’m reading a long manga series right now which is infested with ‘redemption’ arcs. Pretty much every villain comes back as a good guy after being beaten up by the hero. I was amused by the way one of them was retconned – he said “You thought I wanted you to kill those villagers? You totally misunderstood me.” Well, I went back and checked and he had clearly ordered a massacre…

  14. mona

    Snape’s character, for me, is more believable because he is petty and unpleasant. When I look back at his actions, he becomes complicated, human instead of straight mean/evil, and I appreciate that. I don’t think you could plausibly turn him into a good person. But, even if selfishly, he did work for the good side amidst a lot of hate, he manipulated others’ perception of him, and he suffered the whole time. It makes me pity him, and also it’s a type of strength, and that redeems him, in my view.

    I would hate it if he were the POV though.

  15. Rachel Neumeier

    SarahZ, Bitterblue is a fascinating example. Thinking of it as a redemption arc for a whole country makes sense to me.

    Mona, I guess I’ll say that Snape’s arc may have worked in broad terms, but I disliked almost everything about it, so it didn’t work for me. I think I had an idea of how Snape might have been handled that I liked much better than how he WAS handled, and that got in the way.

  16. Elaine T

    If it’s not inappropriate, could you elaborate on how Snape might have been handled, but wasn’t?

    Sort of relating, I was reading someone’s essay on having gone to a British boarding school and been miserable, part of which remarked that you can never leave it behind. And, especially if you meet your bullies later in an environment that reminds you of those school days, you revert to schoolboy behavior and emotional reactions. I guess Rowling got that part right with Snape. And Sirius.

  17. Mary Catelli

    I remember how, re-reading series, I notice that knowing the secrets behind Snape did not change my evaluation of his conduct. Very little if any of the things he did could be justified in terms of the secrets.

  18. Jeanine

    So how much do you blame Dumbledore then? Because from what I recall, Dumbledore manipulated Snape into doing a lot of what he did. Snape agreed to protect Harry, etc., for love of Harry’s mom. Snape even agreed to try to kill Dumbledore at Dumbledore’s own request. Etc.

    IIRC, Snape also started out as a misunderstood loner who Lily saw the good in. And who Harry’s dad James brought out the worst in. Arguably if James (another imperfect human like Snape) and his pack had extended a friendly hand, things might’ve turned out very different for Snape, et al.

    When we see Snape in the last few movies and figure out his backstory, Snape turns out to have been an unpleasant human as an adult but not actually evil. Is what bad stuff he did do mostly excusable because he needed to do it in order to be an effective double agent for Dumbledore?

    Admittedly though, Snape was a Deatheater back in the day during Voldemort’s first go around. so maybe he really started out as evil and I’ve gotten this all wrong. I’m willing to be persuaded that I may need to go back and rewatch/reread!

  19. SarahZ

    I’ll never get the excuses that get made for Snape, or the way he’s romanticized. Sure, childhood trauma of his own explains how he got to be how he is, but none of that could ever *excuse* being needlessly emotionally abusive to a child. The way he’s portrayed and how far it is from how we are seemingly supposed to perceive him is one of the biggest flaws in the series for me.

  20. Elaine T

    Sarah, a lot of the romanticism I blame on the movies casting of Alan Rickman for the role. They also greatly softened the character according to the Teen who actually watched a couple of them.

    I believe Rowling is on record somewhere as saying that he isn’t and wasn’t meant to be read as a good man – but she’s said some really odd things over the years, too. And it all really comes down to what she got down on the page. Most of what she got down is an extremely unpleasant character. The mixed message lands like a brick in #7 through a rather clumsy infodump, and is capped with the epilogue where we find out one of the Potter kids is named after him.

    I respect his belated efforts against Tom Riddle and all, it can’t have been easy once the guy was back in Britain.

    That doesn’t erase his everyday maliciousness and cruelty to those who cannot strike back. Which I do count as evil, just differently manifested from Riddle’s. Some people can grow past childhood trauma.

    I have a low opinion of Dumbledore, too.

    BTW, has anyone else ever compared the writing in the epilogue to the writing of the rest of #7 and then to #1 and wondered if JKR wrote it way back with the first book and never changed it? It reads a lot more like her early work.

  21. Mary Catelli

    No.

    Because she had stated that the last word of the seventh book would be “scar,” and it wasn’t.

    However, I can see its being written earlier and only lightly revised.

  22. Rachel

    “everyday maliciousness” exactly expresses why I hated Snape and didn’t like his character arc.

    What I would have liked: hints that his everyday maliciousness and cruelty were actually part of an act, that he was deliberately showing himself as a petty, selfish, cruel, malicious person while actually not being nearly that bad. I would have liked to think, more than once, Wait, that was a surprisingly nice thing Snape just did, how out of character! And then had those moments add up to a more tragic story of someone deliberately taking on a really terrible undercover role. That would have changed everything about Snape.

    And yes, I’m not a fan of Dumbledore either.

  23. R.J. Anderson

    Just came across this now — thanks for the link to my Redemption Arc post! I’m glad you found it interesting.

    Great discussion in comments too, particularly regarding Snape. I myself hoped earnestly for a true, valid redemption arc right up to Book 7, where I dared to believe we might find out that Snape had chosen to side with Dumbledore against Voldemort for moral, ideological reasons and deplored his past involvement with the Death Eaters, but had to continue behaving cruelly to maintain his cover as a double agent (as Rachel describes in her comment above). In fact, when I wrote a novel-length trilogy of Snapefics back in 2001-03, that was exactly the premise. And at the time I believed as I wrote, that Snape truly loved Dumbledore and that Dumbledore’s wisdom and compassion had been instrumental in turning him from darkness to light.

    HOWEVER, as we know, Book 8 took a very different path when it came to revealing the truth about both Snape’s motivations and Dumbledore’s, and I was left disillusioned and disappointed in both their characters. I don’t consider Snape to have had a redemption arc in any meaningful sense, only to be a pitiable figure who spent his life obsessed with a love he’d lost through his own selfishness and bigotry. And then he compounded his terrible life choices by being brutal to Lily’s son for no good reason, finally dying for no particularly good reason except to further underline Voldemort’s caprice and villainy — which made Harry’s lauding him as “one of the bravest men I ever knew” seem bizarre to say the least.

    So yes, truly valid redemption arcs are rare and Snape is not one of them.

  24. Elaine T

    I have recalled a major effort at defending Snape from a website >White Hound
    if anyone is interested. I think it goes rather too far, but is a valiant effort to spin minimal evidence in a good direction.

    I also went back and looked at the Sauron redemption story I mentioned earlier – it worked for me (so far) because the Sauron character after breaking in the realization of ALL he’s done, arranges for safeguards to help him stay on a better path. It’s not cheap, and people are watching. It isn’t just a ‘oh, hey, I screwed up, I’m going to do better now!” or a insta death like Darth Vader while doing something for the good side. There’s cost: shame, exposure, loss – to the character and contingencies put into place.

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