Character Writing: Redemption Arcs

One of the most effective and beloved ways to develop characters in storytelling comes in the form of the redemption arc. Suddenly, a switch gets flipped in an antagonist’s mind, bringing them over to the side of the good guys just in the nick of time. Audiences eat it up every time, so much so that many people claim the redeemed character as their favorite. But why does the redemption arc resonate so well with people, and what are the best ways to include it in your work of fiction?

Everybody Loves Redemption Stories

It’s in our nature. When we hear about somebody overcoming some negative aspect in their life, be it substance abuse, violence, association with the wrong group of people or just plain old being mean to people, we praise them for it. Many of us have had family members who we have watched slip down a dark path, hoping they will one day find their way back to the light.

Often times, that person acts as an antagonist in our lives, aware or not of the negative affect their actions have had on our lives. When they make an active decision to correct their behavior, we rejoice with them, or at very least we are relieved that they are no longer acting in the wrong way.

Boil it down to the elements of it, we all internally desire order in one form or another. For some people, it’s more of a driving factor than others, but we all need the many aspects in our life to be reliable. If our car doesn’t work when we go to take it to work in the morning, the order of the function of that car has been lost, and the other aspects of our life start to take a turn as well.

As humans, we desire order and peace. So, when we see, read or hear a story that has an antagonist who finds redemption, it’s satisfying that need for order in us. Not to mention it just makes for good storytelling.

Many Ways to Redeem a Character

So, you are working on a story and you’ve come to the conclusion that you would like to add a redemption arc to one of the characters. Maybe it’s the main villain of the story, or perhaps it’s a character who just plays some kind of antagonistic role. Regardless, you have decided that it would be interesting to bring that character back to the light and on the side of the good guys. So, how do you want to do it?

First and foremost, I encourage you to think about the various ways this has been done before. There’s an excellent article on The Fandomentals website that goes over all the various ways this happens in popular movies. I encourage you to visit this page and read through it – there are so many ways to redeem a character, and they do a great job of outlining all of the possibilities here.

Next, you should look at real life examples of people who have overcome something. Read about people who have hit rock bottom and have come back from the brink. Listen to the testimonials of reformed criminals who have gone on to lead happy, successful lives. Find out what it took for them to change for the better. The more honest the people are about their failings in life, the better this material will be for you.

Once you have a good idea of how you would like to redeem your character, you can now think about how to make it believable and worth it for your audience.

Make it Very Personal to Them

No matter what, if you want a character to be redeemed, it needs to come honestly from the very core of their being. It’s not an impactful redemption to the audience if it’s easy for them to change who they are. An abusive father giving his child a toy is a nice thing to do, but if they don’t correct the rest of their abusive behavior, it’s not a redemption.

As mentioned above in the link provided, there are many ways that the redemption can happen. However, all of the pathways to redemption have one underlying effect on the character being redeemed. They are forced to take a hard look at their actions and their way of living, and have to address and correct the underlying forces that make them that way.

In the example of an abusive father, maybe the mother stands up to the father and calls him out on his ways. Maybe the father sees himself in the child, reminding himself of what it was like to be a child with an abusive father, and that sends ripples in his psyche. Maybe the child says something that strikes a chord with the father about the way he’s acting. Still, no matter how that character gets there, they must get to the point where they have to take a hard look at themself and realize they were wrong.

Making that realization and the active – not passive – decision to change from the bottom up is how a redemption arc takes a positive turn toward the ultimate resolution. Now, with that decision made, the character can grow in ways they never were able to do before, building on a new foundation with more solid ground.

The Hard Road to Redemption

Once the character rounds the curve and begins their journey to redemption, they need to face unique challenges along the way that also come from their past. Keep it personal to them and turn the mirror on themself. Make them have to make decisions now that they were seen making the wrong choice to earlier in their personal story. Make them come face to face with the old version of themself so they can deny it outright. But most of all, make there be real consequences for the character when they make the decision.

If you are writing a story about a gang member, it’s easy to make the character on the road to redemption face their past by putting them at odds with former gang members. Same with other criminals or villains. Maybe the character you redeem is the right hand man of the main villain of the story and by having them go against them, they help the protagonist but pay the ultimate sacrifice by doing so.

No matter what kind of story you write, if you want the redemption arc to be memorable, it needs to have a lot of weight to it, with serious consequences for doing so. This doesn’t always mean the character needs to be tragic, but they should have to give up a lot by ultimately doing the right thing.

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