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What makes a character irredeemable?

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Let's look at two characters who are generally considered to be iredeemable:

The Diamond Authority (from Steven Universe): The extremely childish leaders of the race of spacefaring lesbian magical girl viruses, known as gems. They are responsible for the genocide of billions of organic life (for no good reason) and also had forced a lot of dead gems into a fate worse than death, aka: The Cluster.

At this point, the answer seemed simple: You can't be redeemed if you have killed roughly 6 million people because of bogus reasons, however...

Dolores Umbridge: Move aside, Voldemort, Harry Potter has a new and improved antagonist. No other character is hated with such unified and burning passion as her. She did bad stuff, but not a full-blown genocide.

So what quality do these examples share that ensure the reader is never going to empathize with them?

Why should this post be closed?

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/48195. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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12 answers

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The trait that makes Dolores Umbridge, and other characters, repulsive, is sadism. Enjoying the suffering of others, enjoying causing pain - we find that unforgivable. A villain who hurts others due to some twisted perception of it being right and necessary - they can (theoretically) come to understand that their motivation was wrong. But for Umbridge, who simply enjoys making people suffer, to have a redemption arc - the very core of her personality, her defining trait, would have to be altered for her to even start on the path. Sadism is her defining trait, and to be "redeemed" she'd have to stop enjoying causing pain and start perceiving it as wrong. But because that's the character's defining trait, if she did that she's no longer be Dolores Umbridge.

Another element at play is "a million is a statistic". It's very hard for us to grasp large numbers of victims. We perceive tragedy much stronger when the victim is a character we knew and came to love. We are far less inclined to forgive then. Voldemort might have killed hundreds or thousands, but it all happens off-screen, to people we've never known. Umbridge, on the other hand, tortures characters right before our eyes. (Read more about this phenomenon on tvtropes). Note that Voldemort, while not particularly reviled by readers, is never presented as "redeemable". The trope is at play in much stronger form in Star Wars, which @FrancineDeGroodTaylor mentions: Darth Vader kills an entire planet of unnamed people, then saves one Luke Skywalker, and he's redeemed.

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Short answer: maybe nothing. Just because you "hate" two different characters doesn't mean you hate them for the same reason.

Empathizing with a character, or considering them nonredeemable, is an extremely personal decision. Many times it will have more to do with a reader's experiences and values than with the character's actions.

For most, rape is considered a nonredeemable. Sadism and torture, child molestation, all "non" for me.

Many times it is the character's attitude even more than the end result of their actions. I would consider an alien creature who destroys a plant full of humans quite redeemable, if only it could be brought to see humans as "people". If it destroys a planet full of its own kind, less so. And a human who destroys a planet, worse still.

But then we have Darth Vader. He was redeemed at the end.

Here's the pivotal question. Can you convince readers that the person or persons in question are capable of truly changing? If so, they can be redeemed, unless the reader finds the crime so personally offensive that even the idea of redemption for that person is unthinkable.

I don't think you can find a rule that will answer your question. Personally, I'd rely on critiquers who can tell you how they would answer "can this person be redeemed in your eyes?" and if not, what can you change in your story so that the crime is not so completely nonredeemable?

Reverse that to make a character nonredeemable. Is it bad enough, if not, what can I do to make it worse? If you get a wide enough sampling from different types of readers you can find your "sweet spot" for villainy.

Another aspect of this is how personal your are prepared to make it. Having your POV character hear about a guy who raped a child is one thing, watching it happen is another. And if it is the POV's child...

But it's a balancing act. If your POV's experience is too terrible, readers will not be able to tolerate it and will throw down the book. Again, it is very dependent on the personal experiences of the readers.

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/48197. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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In my view what makes a character irredeemable is doing something that cannot ever be forgotten, that they cannot atone for even by sacrificing their own life.

But that also becomes a matter of opinion, some people are willing to forgive anything. Francine (answering earlier than me) brings up Darth Vader, redeemed in the end. But not for me: He killed a billion people by blowing up their planet, motivated by selfish gain (power). Men, women, children, infants. No heartfelt emotional transformation redeems Vader from that, it was a ending written by a sociopath.

If Hitler sincerely cried for how sorry he was being responsible for ~85 million deaths, he doesn't get redeemed either. Even if he could magically suffer every one of those deaths, it would not undo the suffering experienced by those people, it wouldn't redeem him, nothing would redeem him, short of traveling back in time and killing himself before he began.

I am quick to forgive things I know will be forgotten, that I know intellectually do not really matter, but I am not forgiving of permanent damage.

In my view, "evil" is defined as harming others for selfish gain, in which I include pleasure itself, so a person harming people because they are sadistic is evil, a person killing people for money is evil, a corporate executive that knowingly risks the lives of others in order to make a profit is evil. A politician that tortures people to make political points is evil.

Some selfish acts can be compensated, a person can make amends. Some terrible things are NOT done for selfish gain, but by accident or by circumstance: A soldier in a war kills the enemy, but not for personal gain, they believe they are protecting their fellow soldiers and citizens. If that is the case, the killing is not the soldier being evil. (But the people leading the war may be evil.)

Other evils cannot be compensated, ever. Deaths for selfish gain cannot be undone, some physical traumas will never be undone, some mental traumas cause the equivalent of death, the person will never be the same as they were. Consider a raped child, or adult man or woman for that matter.

Where one believes the line between the two exists is a matter of personal belief, religion and morals. For me personally, my belief system won't let me write a story of redemption for true evil. Somebody that caused a death out of a drunken mistake, perhaps -- they had no intent to cause harm. But not a CEO that hid the fact that carcinogens were found in their breakfast cereal because a recall would bankrupt them. No amount of heartfelt crying balances their scale.

Others might believe in forgiveness and think the CEO can make up for the children killed.

I Don't. Which is why it is a matter of opinion.

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I think there are two dimensions to this.

The first is: what makes a real-world person irredeemable? A fictional character with the same traits will then, presumably, also be irredeemable. I think the already-provided answers by Galastel, Amadeus and Francine DeGrood Taylor do a great job of discussing this idea.

The second is: how does a character function, within the structure of a story, so that, in terms of storytelling mechanics, the character is irredeemable?

At the most basic level, redemption (after extensive evil) requires a deep, challenging character arc. If a character cannot be convincingly given such an arc, the character cannot, mechanically, be redeemed within the story. And that character will also feel irredeemable to the reader, because the reader cannot imagine a situation in which the character is (plausibly) redeemed.

So, for example, a two-dimensional/cardboard character will be irredeemable because redemption has, effectively, not been foreshadowed--we would need a more rounded character to believe that this is a real person, with flaws and failures and blind spots, who could, therefore, come to understand and regret her failures and, thereafter, change.

Also, a character we don't invest in, don't feel any empathy towards, will be (mechanically) irredeemable, because a redemption character arc takes us on an emotional journey that is impossible without us being significantly invested.

A different way to state this. Consider the values explored by the story. The first way to consider the question is about the character's values--the evil character's values are so perverse and despicable that, once they have been translated into actions, we will never forgive the character. The second way is to focus on our values: the irredeemable character cannot guide us on a journey towards a deeper understanding of our own values, whereas a character may be exceptionally evil and yet lead us on such a journey, and thereby, within the story, be redeemed (to some extent) in our mind*. A good example of this is American History X: we will never forgive what the protagonist did as a neonazi, but we are confronted by his humanity in a heart-wrenching way that challenges our way of categorising people.

Moving on to the Harry Potter examples. I think Umbridge is, simply, an excruciating read. All I want is for her to be the hell out of the story, to stop tormenting Harry and everybody else. Whereas Voldemort is, in the storytelling sense, awesome**: powerful, enigmatic and "fallen"--I want to know more about him, and I enjoy myself imagining his upcoming epic defeat, or, who knows, maybe a more complex resolution to the story (although it turns out Voldemort gets nothing like a redemption arc). Umbridge is, thus, further along the scale towards irredeemable because I, the reader, have no interest in seeing that character developed, I just want her defeated, whereas I do want Voldemort developed as a character.

* perhaps I should drop a reference to Aristotelian "katharsis" here--but my classical education is too many decades in the past for me to do so confidently...

** though, personally, I thought he kinda failed as a character late in the series (but maybe this was intentional: when we finally meet him, it turns out he isn't actually that capable at things other than evil magic)

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There's an ambiguity in the OP's question which we need to consider first.

When we say a character is irredeemable, do we mean in and of themselves (without external reference), or to a neutral third party (such as a reader?), or to someone affected by their actions (another character)?

What does it mean, to describe someone as "redeemed"?

This is a truly "real world" question. A person commits murder or rape, they get 20 years in prison, they are deemed to have changed and get parole. They do in fact reform and never repeat. Society considers that they have "paid the price" and are fit to live in society again. But often the direct victims of their crime (and those connected to them) feel that nothing can atone - "My relative is dead, they aren't". It's commonplace in real world possible-redemption, so we'd expect it in literature and fiction too.

So we can't discuss whether irredeemable characters exist, until we decide what redeemed actually means.

That's really a question of philosophy and definitions. I'm going to take as my starting point, that the victims view may be unchangeable. That means if we listen to victims, typically very few villains would have potential to be redeemed, because you can't unkill or unmain people, undestroy lives, or wipe out past harm. In particular (important for fictional narrative), you cant say "do this and the victims will forgive you". Typically for very serious "rot in jail and burn in hell" type of cases it leaves nothing that the perpetrator can do to be redeemed in the eyes of those affected. If this were "redemption" then it's all down to what an affected third party feels, limited agency to redeem oneself if they dont agree.

So I'm going to start a different tack.

A character is redeemed, if they realise truly, that their past acts were wrong, and truly try to do good or make amends, as a result of that realisation -- for real, and not just because it doesn't matter to them any more what they do.

This seems to tick most boxes for our everyday fictional understanding. A person sacrifices themself for good, after realising their past deeds were evil. A person on their deathbed confesses and tries to set things right.

Generally we don't consider the scale of their wrongs, in that equation. The canonical fiction example of this is given in another answer, of Darth Vader - kill a few million, then save one Skywalker - and yet we dont really think about that. He repents in the end, and we apparently consider him redeemable. Not how real life would go, but how it is in fiction.

What that suggests is that no character is irredeemable.

And indeed, a fictional character can lead a terrible life and yet the author can choose that they repent in the end, or don't.

To make that plausible, the seeds for it, or the cause behind it, have to be sown earlier, but there is no specific way that has to be done at all.

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/48210. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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Short answer: The Writer

Long answer:

No character is beyond redemption in fiction, though some will be a much tougher sell to the audience than others, because some things are more easily forgiven.

While many redemption arcs are set up early and a careful reader, especially one who knows about writing techniques or is a writer himself will spot the tell-tale signs, that is not necessarily the case.

Look at Star Wars for example. Darth Vader and the Emperor both appear as ominous, dark and evil characters early on. What redeems Darth Vader is that he in the end turns against his own evil path and joins forces with his family (son). Family is a positive value in our culture, and without Luke the turn of Darth Vader would not have had the same redeeming quality. The Emperor, on the other hand, mocks and disrespects family and stays true to his course to the bitter end.

A character can be redeemed if he regrets and turns away from his path, and takes steps to compensate for and counter the evil he has done already.

What makes a character irredeemable would thus be an action that permanently sets him on the path of evil and eliminates any chance that he might still turn around. Since few things are entirely unchangeable in the world, it is up to the writer to convey that this decision is final and permanent, and once it is done, the character is beyond hope.

Of course, too many stories have played with that trope and then broken their own promise as a plot twist for many readers to be completely sold on it anymore. If the character is at all sympathetic, some readers will hope to the end that there will be surprise redemption twist.

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/48251. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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The source of the intent.

Did the character turn to actions or goals that the reader finds unsavoury as a REACTION to something? Redeemable, and often used as a plot device.

Did the character do the same as an ACTION to further an intent that has always been there? Irredeemable, can at most be suppressed/tamed/foiled.

Alternatively, if you want your story to have a post-moral style:

Encourage the reader to view them through a sociopath protagonists' eyes. Show them as uncooperative victims that need to be conquered, or as obstacles to some end by their mere existence and/or agency.

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/48255. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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No character is irredeemable. If professional wrestling teaches us nothing else it teaches us that any character can make a face turn just as any character can make a heel turn.

But authors don't really write that way. If an author intends to redeem a character, they lay the groundwork for that redemption from the beginning. (Everything in fiction is about set up.) If a bad character is to be redeemed, it is hinted that they have some redeemable feature, or that there is an external reason for their current bad behavior (an abusive childhood being the overwhelming favorite in this psychology-ridden world).

It is not a question of a character being redeemable or irredeemable, therefore, but of the character being set up for redemption or not set up for redemption. The degree of sinfulness does not matter. If a character is not set up for redemption, even minor sins will not be redeemed. If the character is set up for redemption, even the blackest of villainy will be redeemed in the end. If the author suggests either:

  • The evil character has a spark of goodness in them (they are kind to small animals)

or

  • Their evil behaviors is caused by the evil done to them (daddy would not let them keep small animals as pets)

then they are going to be redeemed in Act 3.

And if not, not.

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In ordinary life, what makes a person "irredeemable" is a theological/philosophical question, to which people have many different and variant answers. But in fiction, what makes a character irredeemable is simply that the reader doesn't want to see them redeemed. The reader reaches a breaking point with the character, and is no longer interested in any outcomes for that character other than death, failure or punishment.

As the always-correct @MarkBaker has pointed out, you, the author are in control of the narrative, and there are many things you can do to make a villainous character more or less sympathetic. But I can't help but notice an important commonality about your two examples. They are both of characters who do evil with a sense of smug self-righteousness. They cause great harm, but remain convinced they are the avatars of all that is good and right. Such characters are irredeemable precisely because they do not think they have done anything wrong. The audience longs for the universe (or in this case, the author) to offer a harsh rebuke to their entire worldview.

So, if you want to create a character that you --and hopefully your readers --will respond to in the same way as your examples, make him or her a self-righteous, arrogant hypocrite.

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/48218. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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Out of universe

Really, the only thing that makes a character irredeemable, is not wanting to be redeemed. Anyone who acknowledges their wrongdoing, and sincerely seek to make amends, can be redeemed. It may be a long, difficult path. There maybe people, both in and out of universe who don't believe, who don't forgive.

If Umbridge accepted that she was wrong about non-Humans, apologized, took her pen and wrote "Not all people are Human, not all Humans are people." ten thousand times, and then devoted the rest of her life to House Elf and Goblin rights, she could be said to be redeemed. But she would probably never do that, not even consider that what she did as wrong. Therefore, she is irredeemable.

In universe

In your story, that is a different matter. In the Dresden Files, breaking the laws of magic twists your soul. Do it once or twice, and you can turn back (if the Wardens don't kill you). Each additional use makes it harder to turn back, and eventually you reach the point where your mind and spirit are so far gone you can never come back.

Your own universe might have and absolute evil that cannot be redeemed because it is not in its nature. And anyone who makes a deal with that power may also be gone. Vampires might be irredeemable because they must feed on innocents, killing them, to survive. A vampire who seeks redemption will die, so there are no 'living' vampires that are not monsters.

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/48224. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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Redemption requires something of the 'sinner': they must as the very least choose to seek redemption, and choose to commit to whatever that takes; I think that is true, whether you believe in redemption by the grace of some god or not. You have to want it enough, so to speak.

I don't think one can determine a priori that any person is irredeemable, although in some cases redemption does seem very unlikely, like eg. in the case of psychopaths.

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/48238. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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Do you mean unredeemable, or utterly loathsome characters with no redeeming traits? Because with gradual character development and reveal of hidden depth, even a character like Joffrey or the ones you listed can be redeemed in the audience's eyes, see a fanfic like Purple Days.

The trick to making a character utterly loathsome - which I suspect may be actually what you mean - is to make it personal. They should hit the audience where it hurts, and go after the ones the audience sympathizes with. They should do things like slut-shame a person who was raped (the victim should be a character the audience was already familiar with and liked to really work). Remember that things like mass murder are on too big a scale for people to remember, a million is a statistic and all that jazz. A bully can be more loathsome than a mass murderer because that is personal, it is something an audience might know in real life and take personally

This is why John Wick's dog exists: to suck your heart in and get killed senselessly to tell you who to hate. It does not have to be sadistic, the crime can be indifferent, done as part of some bigger picture, like the Incubators in Madoka Magica or Cauldron in Worm; both have some grand reason for their actions and do not put much thought into those they step on. However, the villain needs to not regret their actions, they must hurt like someone steps on a bug and the reason should be too big-picture to be easily understandable. This is partly why Incubators are less often redeemed than Cauldron, because one is impressed on why Cauldron's goal is noble whereas the Incubators' goal is less fleshed-out and less relevant to the audience.

Another way to put it is that the action works best if it is either petty, callous for the greater good or self-righteous. It helps if the person doing the wrong cannot convince of anything wrong. For example, the Shadow Stalker in Worm, who is often viewed as having a "might makes right" mindset and is roughly speaking one of the most hated characters in the series, hated worse than the guy who does sex trafficking and the Neo-Nazis. The Neo-Nazis are hated worse than the guy who does sex trafficking because Nazis are better ingrained in people's consciousness as evil.

It is important to A) never let the character's actions turn into black comedy, as funny characters are not hated so much, and B) be cautious about giving characters any kind of sex appeal or anything that can be seen as belligerent sexual tension since that invites the shippers - see Draco from Harry Potter. If they have sex appeal, have them use it to hurt sympathetic characters in ways that enrage the audience, that said there is reason evil is ugly because it is easy to hate evil.

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/48241. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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