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How can you redeem an awful character, who hits close to home?


There is a problem with a redemption arc:

Anon is an incredibly powerful god with powers of mysterious origin. In the story, he starts out as bad but is supposed to be redeemed later. There is a problem, however.

Anon's actions are understandable and nowhere near as severe as a typical villain's, however, they are there. At the end of the War in Heaven, he abandons the Engineers (Horus, Abzu, Tiamat, Enki and Odin), who were loyal and trusting friends and pretty much commited their life to helping him fight against everyone else in the pantheon.

He kills a lizardfolk chieftain, who was a danger both to his tribe and to the neighbouring humans, but does so in front of his child, and since I love humanizing my characters, said child will forever be scarred by seeing his dad get gutted by a quick-draw + wrath-guard combo.

On top of these horrible things, he even abandons himself, leaving behind his child-like persona, Adam, alone and confused to deal with the mess, he caused. This gets especially painful when he meets a lizardfolk, the (now grown-up) child, who is out for revenge.

The characters, Anon wronged, get more than enough screen time for the readers to see how Anon changed their life for the better and the worse. More often the worse. This is the exact opposite of the "a million is a statistic" trope. We never saw Alderaan, only for a few seconds before kaboom. So, it was easier to forgive Darth Vader.

Here, the exact opposite happens: only one death, but all the misery that came from it was frozen in time and put into an exhibition.

How could a character be redeemed when the ones they hurt are close to the reader?

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/48439. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.


2 answers


I think they have to more than balance the scales, in the reader's eyes.

Anytime a soldier kills an enemy combatant, she may be depriving a parent of their child, a child of their father, a wife of her husband, a man that was in fact just doing his duty to his own country. Philosophically speaking, what makes that justifiable?

The same goes for cops killing criminals. The truth is, when it comes to us humans, the ends very much can justify the means. If we defend our country, or our friends, then the grief we cause by killing is (hopefully) made up for by the grief we aim to prevent. Our scales are more than balanced, and we can see our soldiers as heroes.

I have said earlier, I think some acts are beyond redemption, but if you want to redeem a really bad guy, you need him to more than balance the scales in the altruistic sense, he has to end up preventing far more grief, misery, and pain than he caused; making a choice to save many lives instead of taking them. He doesn't have to die in order to do this; but must convincingly change to a different tactic.

The people he made suffer may not get over it, that's fine. They may be dead. These are probably two separate incidents in a redemption arc; one in which he causes grief and misery out of selfish aims, and a second one in which he prevents far more grief and misery out of altruistic aims. In order to be convincing for the latter, the MC has to undergo a fundamental and plausibly permanent personality change, realize they were wrong, regret it, AND reverse the karmic scales by preventing far more grief and misery than they ever caused.

There is some hint that Darth tilted the scales in the opposite direction by sacrificing himself to kill the Emperor; but I don't think that was well written. I thought Vader's "redemption" a cheat. There was proof he killed two billion on Alderaan, no proof he saved far more than that, or even regretted it, in my opinion.

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Redemption is a powerful and uplifting theme. It connects with everybody because it shows that, even after bad choices and failures, we can still hope for a noble outcome.

There are many, many path to redemption, but the ones which interests you are the "good" ones. The ones where a "bad" protagonist goes back on the "good" side with it's redemption. I'll speak about only two path here: the gradual redemption, and the sudden one. The gradual redemption is when the baddy slowly learns better. The sudden one is when he turns his coat and decides he's switching team (or, changing point of view). For the late one to work, though, this protagonist must have been good all along.

Take the Vader's example: he's a baddy, no question here. He's done awful stuff. Yet, the whole wholesomeness of his redemption arc is that he had good inside him all along. He didn't "switch side" as much as he went back where he belonged.

Good and evil are not binary choices. Of course, killing is bad, but what about killing Hitler? The difference is the light we shine on the actions. A bad guy who acts out of self interest is generally nonredeemable. A bad guy who acts because he has a greater goal in mind is different. He may be good at heart but using "bad" tactics to do what he wants.

See Thanos in the Infinity War and Endgame movies: in Endgame, he's going full "God complex". The scenario is thus telling the audience that he's nonredeemable, thus must be killed. In Infinity War, he's acting on values that we can identify to, yet in a manner which most people wouldn't put forward for these goals. We can respect that. If, somehow, somebody could have proven him wrong - or even if he had understood it this way by himself, he could have turned his coat and joined the "good" guys.

Even if your character is Lucifer himself, you can make the audience understand him and respect what he's doing. Even if it's awful, evil and everything.

The slow redemption arc is another animal entirely. Your bad guy can be as bad as you want at the beginning, yet still able of change. Gradual change. I'm pretty sure that you get this idea: through the story, small details slowly pile up and modify his comportment. There is no surprise in his change, because it's slow, yet this is a nice choice for a support character or a story where it's not the ending which matters most, but the way to get there. A good example of this kind of change would be the Nazi big brother from American History X.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/48460. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.