Sometimes, we love a villain. We can’t help it; they’re just so dark and cool that we want them to be heroes. But they can’t usually just become heroes on account of all the villainy they did. That’s when you need a redemption arc, a storyline that lets your beloved bad kid go from evil to good. It also works on heroes who have strayed from the path of righteousness. Redemption arcs are often attempted but rarely successful, so it’s time to talk about how they work, why they work, and when you shouldn’t even try one. Plus, the legally required Zuko gushing.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Svend and Bunny. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…
Chris: And you didn’t know, but we all have… a past.
Chris: A dark past.
Wes: Oh my.
Chris: And this has been a long road towards redeeming ourselves.
Oren: Oh, okay. I thought we were about to go into an Enterprise pun. Phew! Redemption arcs: So much better.
Chris: Oh no. I said the words “long road.” Now I have to redeem myself again! How dare I remind anybody of that!
Oren: Okay. Well, if we’re talking about redemption arcs, I have two very simple steps for redemption arcs. Step one is to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender, and step two is to realize that your redemption arc will never be as good as Zuko’s. Give up, scrub. Boom! I solved the podcast.
Wes: Rinse and repeat. You can do that as many times as you want, which should definitely be a minimum of four.
Wes: It’s so good.
Chris: All right. Well, if anybody wants to do Zuko’s arc, I have broken it down a number of times on the blog, so you can do Zuko’s arc if you want. I mean, it can’t be Zuko’s arc, unfortunately.
Oren: Only because of copyright restrictions. A similar arc, but legally distinct from Zuko is fine.
Chris: So, redemption arcs actually come in a huge variety. We apply that label to things that are pretty different. It’s any arc where the character makes progress from being more villainous to more heroic (or more moral) over the course of the story. I like to break them down into three different categories because I think those categories are better at representing what we see in media and a lot of the cases.
So the first category is a sacrifice arc. This is for characters like Darth Vader, where the character is evil most of the time, and at the very end you find out that they regret their actions and they want to do better. They usually do that by sacrificing themselves, and that’s where it stops.
Oren: And that’s convenient because now the bad guy’s not around anymore to make us ask, “Well, maybe he should still go to jail for all the people he killed. I know he had a really touching moment there where he saved his son from the evil lightning emperor, but like, he’s still a war criminal. It’s just way more convenient that he’s dead.”
Chris: So if you have a villain that you want to be somewhat sympathetic, but that villain is still supposed to be a villain and is not supposed to hang out with team good like they’re buddies at any point in time, these characters then can cross the moral event horizon. The moral event horizon is the point at which your villain does something so bad that nobody – or at least some of your audience, anyway – is never going to like them. And so you don’t have to worry about that. You can just say, “Okay, they’re done. They’ve given up their life.” They don’t have to give up their life, though. They have to give up something significant.
Wes: It does hit satisfaction for the reader because you’re like, “Okay, that’s tidied up. It’s clean. We’re done. I can focus on something else.”
Oren: One thing to be wary of with a sacrifice arc – and I’ve seen some people mess this up, including the recent Rise of Skywalker – is that doing a sacrifice arc does give you the ability to have your villain be redeemed for worse things, especially if you’re going with the “sacrificing their life” arc, although Chris just mentioned there are other ways to do a sacrifice arc. But if they’re going to sacrifice their life, they can do some worse things and have the redemption arc still work since they’re giving up so much more, but at the same time, you still have to make it believable that they would want to be redeemed or turned good or in any way. That was something that the Rise of Skywalker failed to do. Why is Kylo Ren good now? And it’s like, “I guess Leia did something with the Force, and now he’s good?” And it’s just a giant question mark. Whereas with Vader, we could see what was happening. With Vader, it was like, “Hey, Vader saw all these horrible things, but now, like the one thing he cares about, which is his son, is going to be destroyed. And so yes, that will make him turn on the emperor. That makes sense.”
Chris: I actually think the biggest issue in this case with Kylo Ren, that Vader did not have, is that a lot of the storytelling in the new series relies on you to like Kylo Ren, despite the fact that he is a villain.
Oren: This is also true.
Chris: We have this whole “sexual tension with Rey”/“romance with Rey” thing going on, and if you hate Kylo… Think about Darth Vader being in that position.
Chris: Exactly. Kylo is designed to be attractive even though he’s dark, and you’re supposed to root for him becoming good, unlike Darth Vader. You’re not really supposed to like Vader. You can just hate him for the whole thing if you want to, and then he changes his mind at the end. But there’s no point in which caring about what’s happening or being invested in what’s happening relies on you liking Darth Vader.
Wes: So in A New Hope, Vader isn’t running the show right next to the emperor, because there’s Grand Moff Tarkin, but his surviving the Death Star and then kind of just being in charge… I don’t feel like there’s much change in Vader between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Whereas with Kylo Ren, in The Force Awakens and then The Last Jedi when he assumes control of the First Order, it’s almost like he gets an evil growth power up. That also makes him less believable than Vader. Vader seems to be kind of just consistent when Grand Moff Tarkin and the Death Star explodes, Vader just steps into that role. He doesn’t seem to have done much more evil than he already did contribute to.
Oren: Well, there’s just a whole list of problems with the Kylo Ren redemption arc. I’m not sure if I’d say he gets an evil power up, exactly, but he does pass up several chances at redemption when it seems like that would be the one he would take. At the end of The Last Jedi, he has a situation where Snoke wants to kill Rey and he doesn’t want Rey to die, and it seems like that’s what’s going to turn him good, but then he decides that no, actually he’s definitely still going to be evil. And it’s like, “Okay, well that seems like we closed the door on the redemption, because if that’s not gonna make him turn good, then what possibly could?” And the answer is… Eeeeh? Abrams doesn’t know. Nobody knows. It’s just that somehow, Leia died, and he’s good now. That’s the answer. Good job.
Chris: So, should we move onto the second type of arc?
Oren: Yeah, probably. We can just talk about Kylo Ren for five more hours.
Chris: So this is the arc that I would put Zuko in. I call it the temptation arc. Besides Zuko, I also think that Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer fits well into this arc. This arc is where what you really want is to have a character who’s not quite on team good and not quite on team evil, but is kind of an edgy character that maybe hangs out with team good, but in between. That adds more interpersonal conflict. This character faces the temptation to be evil, but also experiences pangs of consciencessness. This is usually a pretty long arc, because usually these characters start out as villains. However, they don’t usually remain villains for that long, comparatively. Pretty soon they start to get influenced by good, and they have a long journey before they finally are completely heroic, or they have to have a change of heart. They usually have to make a sacrifice, but they don’t die; a sacrifice arc. And then generally there’s some grovelling involved.
Both Zuko and Spike have a period where they grovel before team good and just ask to help the heroes. They don’t ask for forgiveness at that point, because they don’t feel entitled to forgiveness, so they just ask to help and they have to do that grovelling for a while before they finally are fully a hero.
Oren: And this is the thing that, for example, Dragon Ball Z misses. Both Dragon Ball Z and just Dragon Ball create a lot of situations where former villains have to work alongside the heroes, which is a good part of this temptation arc. But then, they don’t ever really make up for anything. They’re just like, “All right, I guess we’re on team good now!” But you, the character, are still evil. You still killed a lot of people. Are you different now? I don’t know why I would expect you to be. But whatever, I guess. He’s on team good now. And that’s why those arcs aren’t satisfying.
Chris: Yeah, certainly some stories get very lazy about redemption arcs. Changing whether a character is good or bad is always a tricky thing that takes time and care, and if you rush it, it’s never going to work out very well. Usually, temptation arc characters have a period in which they are pretending to be good, but are doing so for selfish reasons and aren’t really good yet. And that’s one of the reasons they have to grovel later, because they’ve pretended to be good previously and then went back to evil.
Oren: And something that I want to bring up, because I’ve seen some people be confused about this, is that a redemption arc is not necessarily the same as a heel-face turn trope you can find on TV Tropes. That trope is extremely broad and applies to basically any situation where someone used to work for team evil and now works for team good, whereas a redemption arc requires an actual change. For example, the character of G’Kar, from Babylon 5, sort of starts off seeming like a villain, and by the end, he’s definitely a main character, but he doesn’t really go through a change to do that. It’s just that the political situation around him changes. He sort of goes through a change in that he becomes more religious, but by then, he’s already clearly on team good and it doesn’t really have anything to do with addressing the bad things he did at the start of the season. It’s more that Babylon 5 is a complicated political setup, and so it’s not as easy to say who the good guys and who the bad guys are.
That’s why I would say that G’Kar doesn’t really have a redemption arc, which isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just that it’s important for people to understand that changing teams doesn’t automatically mean a redemption arc. A redemption arc means that you have to change the character in some capacity.
Chris: Yeah. I think the thing about redemption arcs is that they really show you what it takes for a wide group of people like your audience to forgive someone, because in a strong redemption arc, a character has done things that would piss off the audience a bit. And you don’t want them to cross the moral event horizon if they’re going to stick around, especially as a member of team good, but they haven’t done good things, and usually at the beginning, they’re a character who the audience doesn’t like. So then a lot of the things that are involved in a redemption arc are specifically designed to have them be forgiven by a huge group of people.
Besides their crimes being forgivable, almost all of the events that you see in redemption arcs are designed to show the audience that the character’s change of heart is genuine, that they’re not acting better for their own personal gain, that they have to prove to the audience that that’s genuine change, and that they have no other reason for being good. So you see things typically like showing remorse privately, where there’s no one there watching them. Confessing to wrongdoing is also really important.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the character Andrew actually has a pretty nice redemption arc. It’s kind of a temptation arc, wherein he’s captured by team good and they don’t know what to do with him, even though he’s a murderer and he murdered his friend. And so he hangs out with them for a while and he wants to be one of the good guys, but he’s clearly just doing that out of convenience. And so do you have a specific episode where he is made to confess, truly confess, and he goes beyond what he has to. He was pretending that he was mind-controlled when he killed his friend, and this time he admits that he wasn’t, and he even goes beyond that to things that Buffy wouldn’t have guessed or known. Confessing things that he didn’t have to proves that he was genuinely sorry.
Similarly, the whole sacrifice that a character gives in a redemption arc is a way of putting their money where their mouth is, basically, to show that they have to give something up that they care about in order to repair the damage they’ve done and to prove that they genuinely care and that they’re not just saying that. They also can’t ever feel entitled to forgiveness. Feeling entitled to forgiveness is a thing that happens again in the stage where a character is on team good, but they’re doing it for selfish reasons. That’s when they might demand the other people forgive them and ask, “Why are you still holding a grudge?” Refusing any type of reward or recognition for behavior that they do to redeem themself would be another thing that we would see as proof that their change is actually genuine.
So we have this whole list of things that happen during a redemption arc, and every step of the way, they’re designed to show people that this is not selfish, that this is selfless, that the person has genuinely changed, all of that stuff. And that’s kind of what makes up the core of redemption arcs, especially the temptation arc.
Oren: This stuff is at least as important, perhaps more important, than switching from one team to another. You can actually have good guys who go through redemption arcs. Maybe they went too far. They hurt someone. They’re not actually working for the villains to any point, but they did something bad and now they have to make up for it. That is what defines a redemption arc, as opposed to “due to circumstances, this character who started out as a villain is now on our team.”
For example, in the Dresden Files, originally the character Morgan is a bad guy, and he’s harassing Dresden and does all kinds of bad mean things to Dresden because Morgan is a wizard cop and Dresden is a wizard crime boy. And then later on, Dresden stops being a wizard crime boy and joins the wizard cops. And so now he and Morgan are on the same team, but Morgan doesn’t have a redemption arc. Well, at least not a very strong one. He does have a very slight “becoming more sympathetic” arc, but it’s not like he ever makes up for the things that he did to Dresden. In this case, though, I don’t think this is necessarily a problem, because the story’s not about Morgan. He’s not a super important main character. I think that’s important to understand what you’re trying to go for when you’re starting a redemption arc. You said there was a third kind of redemption arc. Please tell.
Chris: This is what I call the forgiveness arc, and that’s when being a villain or villainous is in the character’s background.
So that’s actually over. This would start often after the sacrifice. It’s when you have a hero with a dark past who has to redeem themself.
A great example, I think, is Mad Max in Fury Road. I’ve also listed Furiosa as an example, but I think Mad Max is actually a better example because you can see more clearly how his arc works, where usually at the beginning of these arcs, if they’re a real strong arc, the main characters kind of wallowing.
They are sorry, but they’re not really productive about it. They’re not putting it to good use. They were just like, “Oh, I’m just the worst. There is no point in trying to do anything good.” But they’re not actively doing harm. They’re just not doing anything constructive to make up for their dark past.
And then at some point in time, they get the call to adventure and they gain purpose, like “Yes, I can make up for my bad past by doing good things.” And then that ends with forgiveness and the important thing here is that the hero forgives themselves. Just want to make that clearer because again, when we’re talking about forgiveness and whether our character feels entitled to forgiveness, [I’ve] definitely seen some stories that put pressure on characters that have been targets of immoral behavior to forgive somebody and that’s inappropriate.
Oren: “Oh, why are you being so unreasonable and not forgiving them?”
Chris: You don’t want your happy ending to rely on a character that was a survivor, to then give forgiveness to the person who targeted them. But you can still have a happy ending. The important thing is that the person who needs to redeem themself has gotten to the point after wallowing and finding purpose and just working without any reward—not even recognition, doing thankless work, you know, digging port-a-potties. A lot of times when the character is trying to redeem themself, you want to make sure that they’re not taking lots of glory, because that’s a reward in itself.
The point where they’re like, “Okay. I can forgive myself for the bad things that I did, and that means that I don’t have to wallow anymore. I’m not going to live an extravagant life, but I don’t have to constantly deny myself any type of comfort because I don’t have to punish myself anymore.” That kind of thing.
Wes: That one’s really distinct from the other two because it sounds like, and please correct me if I’m not quite understanding it as well, but the other two, sacrifice and temptation, really seem to rely on other characters forgiving the character that’s going on this redemption arc. Whereas in the forgiveness arc, there still needs to be the authenticity aspect, but forgiveness is solely in the character’s perception of their own journey, and then I suppose the readers’ or the audience’s. Is there necessarily less interpersonal conflict among characters in that last arc?
Chris: There is usually some level of interpersonal things. I mean, forgiveness arcs can be very internal like that. And again, part of my emphasis on that is to get away from the idea that other people should be required to forgive the character. Sometimes it does involve another person that the character has to make up to, the person wronged in the past. It can be like Mad Max. His process is very internal. He helps the other people he finds along the way, but he doesn’t come into contact with the people that he specifically felt like he wronged. So it can be either way, but that does feel different when it’s about the character proving things to themselves.
All of these arcs do overlap to a certain extent. The temptation arc overlaps with the sacrifice arc and the forgiveness arc. They’re different stages in this process where the sacrifice is the first stage and the temptation focuses on the middle and the forgiveness is the final stage.So the wallowing that we see in the forgiveness arc and them working to redeem themselves, it’s the end of the temptation arc.
Oren: I definitely have noticed that, because this is hard work, a lot of storytellers just try to cut corners. Like, “This guy’s good now. He’s just on Team Good.” You probably shouldn’t do that just because it’s not satisfying. But you especially shouldn’t do that with a villain that you have established to be very evil, like the character of Kallus from Star Wars Rebels. We first start him off with no traits that would make us want him to be redeemed, because he’s really incompetent and really mean. He’s not likable in any way, and he’s constantly getting his butt kicked. And then we find out that on top of that, he’s also a genocide dude and ordered one of the characters’ whole species to be wiped out.
Chris: He even has a trophy. He has a weapon that is unique to their culture that he uses because he got it fighting them. That’s gross, really gross.
Oren: So then they’re like “Okay, this guy’s going to get redeemed.” And it’s like, “What?” And then he gets redeemed by—he gets stuck with the character whose people he genocided in an ice cave for a while and they have to work together. Then we find out [that] he didn’t order the genocide, but he was still there. He still participated. And “It’s okay, he won the trophy weapon in an honorable duel, so that makes it fine.” Okay, sure. That sounds like a thing that could happen. And then suddenly he’s good now and he’s a completely different person. They haven’t actually revealed that he’s good yet, but I could immediately tell because when one of the bad guys comes in and starts talking about how “All right, we’re going to do this thing.”
He’s like, “But there will be a lot of civilian casualties if we do that.” And I’m like, “Wait a minute. When have you ever cared about civilian casualties before? Okay, I guess you’re good now, but also…why?”
Chris: This character was the villain [who] it felt like the writers were putting in charge whenever they wanted the heroes to win. They had some higher level villains that they wanted to preserve their threat. So those ones were not allowed to lose. So whenever they wanted the heroes to get a win, those higher level villains would just disappear and leave this guy in charge to fumble things.
Oren: There was one episode that just really drove home how hapless he was. He sets up an ambush for the heroes, and everything goes his way. The ambush goes perfectly. He has them completely surrounded, they have nothing, and then they just fight their way out of the ambush. Like it’s not even a problem. This isn’t even the main plot of the episode. This is the opener to lead into the actual plot. And it’s like “Wow, this guy can’t win even when everything goes his way. Amazing.”
Chris: I would say anytime you have a character that—this is important for any big character arc, but especially for arcs where the character has a change of heart from good to bad or vice versa—it’s [important] o really understand what the character’s motivation is, why they did it, and what things are pulling them towards good or pulling them towards evil, and get that down.
A lot of times you can just give a character a good influence and a bad influence. There’s a person who influences them in a bad direction and a person who influences in a good direction, and then you could have some nice interpersonal conflict there. You can give them—honestly, devotion to anything can be a double edged sword. They can pursue a goal at the cost of doing bad things. But whatever it is, it just has to be clear what it is, and then you have to have things in the story in place to influence them in one direction or the other.
Or if there are bad guys or villains, and they’re showing some remorse, why now? Were they never made to do things that were that awful before? And now the Lieutenant of the Big Bad and the Big Bad is ordering them to do things that are more evil than they were previously required to do, and now they’re starting to feel bad about their direction. That kind of thing is, of course,
Oren: Chris, I have a question. Are there any benefits to a redemption arc that a character fails? You give the possibility of redemption and then they aren’t able to take it and now there’s just no redemption for them. They’re never coming back. Is that a thing? Is that doable?
Chris: Yeah, it could be doable. It would be like any other unhappy ending or a failed arc. Generally those things are cautionary tales. It’s really hard with protagonists because people need to like protagonists and people don’t particularly like their protagonists doing evil things and they don’t particularly like their protagonists having unhappy endings.
So it’s not like there’s not a place for that in storytelling, for having unhappy endings and protagonists fail and cautionary tales. But certainly you’re making some bigger sacrifices, generally, when you do that. A side character could fail. A lot of times the story would have something to say about why, and you could compare and contrast with another character if you wanted. You could even have two characters going on a redemption arc together, and then when the big test comes, one of them passes and one of them fails, and [you could] have some interesting contrast there.
There was some question of—that could have been done with Kylo Ren. To some people, it felt like that’s what was supposed to happen in the second movie, that he had a chance of redemption and he just decided not to go for it. He could have continued a downward arc from there. They had wanted to go in that direction. Part of the issue is that they set really mixed expectations for Kylo Ren from the beginning, and also it was the second movie, not the third. So that definitely brings up a big question of how final it is, because the story is not over.
Oren: That was one—I was trying to do my fanfic treatment of Episode IX, like, What would my Episode IX have looked like?—one of the things that was really hard is, What do I do with Kylo Ren? Because an actual redemption arc feels impossible at this point. And yet I clearly feel like that expectation was set in the previous films and not completely done away with at the end of The Last Jedi. And so it seems like not a good team player thing to say, “Well, I’m going to ignore that.” Which is definitely a thing that the actual movie producers didn’t care about because they ignored each other’s stuff constantly. But one of the things that I was trying to do was, “What would Episode IX have looked like if it actually tried to work with Episode XIII instead of just ignoring everything from it?
Chris: I would definitely say the handling of the villains was the biggest challenge facing Episode IX because the other movies had so royally messed that up that there were not really any good answers there. Bringing back Palpatine was basically a Hail Mary.
Wes: I’m curious to what extent, because I saw some chatter about this on the Internet, that bringing back Palpatine cuts away some of the effect of Vader’s sacrifice. Is that just people talking on the Internet or is there some truth to that? Or does it matter that Vader believed that the change was permanent, that he had killed Palpatine? We readers know that Palpatine didn’t die there, but does that take away anything at all from his arc?
Oren: I’m going to say no for a few reasons. One, it’s Episode IX—who cares?
Wes: I mean, that’s the best reason right there.
Oren: It is literally impossible for me to summon emotion for anything that happens in Episode IX because it’s so empty and meaningless. But at the same time, even if I’m not being snarky, I’m still going to say no, because the important part of Vader’s arc was not killing Palpatine. It was saving Luke.
Chris: I would agree with that. I would just say that anytime you bring back a villain that is supposedly dead, there is going to be some dissatisfaction where it is going to feel like it cheapened the previous ending. And I think that’s what they’re feeling because we thought that the heroes got a victory and now you just took it back. That’s a little irritating. But specifically for Vader’s redemption arc, I would agree with Oren here that he still saved Luke. He still made a sacrifice. For that arc, I don’t think Palpatine living really matters.
Oren: Also, it’s Episode IX, who cares? My new thing, whenever anyone asks me “Well, what does Episode IX mean?” I was like, “I just don’t care.” Obviously I do care because I spend a lot of time talking about it, but I don’t care in an aloof, cool, hipster way.
Wes: I do like that you brought up the moral event horizon several times in this and I just remembered that the start of The Last Jedi Kylo Ren tries to just blast Leia to pieces. That happens at the beginning of that movie, right?
Oren: Wait, say what?
Wes: Doesn’t Kylo Ren train his blasters in the spaceship on Leia and pull the trigger, and she survives because of space Force magic?
Oren: No, he specifically does not pull the trigger. His fellow pilots do.
Wes: Oh, okay. I thought he did.
Oren: The reason you think he did is because if he hadn’t, which is what actually happened, that would have been the setup for the actual redemption arc we all expected. But then he didn’t have a redemption arc. In fact, he seemed to deliberately choose to be evil for reasons that we didn’t really understand. So I get why you misremember that scene. It’s because it would’ve made more sense the other way.
Chris: It would’ve also been more consistent with the way he crossed the moral event horizon in Force Awakens. Like killing Han.
Wes: Thank you for clarifying that. It’s just a mess. Don’t watch anything after Episode VI.
Oren: That’s pretty good advice. But speaking of not watching anything further, we are definitely out of time for this episode, so I’m going to go ahead and call it here. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website, mythcreants.com.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
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