Five Common Problems With Redemption Arcs

Redemption arcs are an incredibly popular trope in storytelling. From classics like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to more recent hits like The Legend of Korra and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, we love to watch or read about a bad guy turning good. Redemption arcs are also extremely difficult. I can’t think of another trope that professional storytellers are so likely to mess up, and if it’s that bad for the pros, you can imagine what a difficult time less experienced writers have.

Not only is it easy to fumble a redemption arc, but the consequences for doing so are high. Audiences really don’t like it if a villain is redeemed too easily, and they will not hesitate to make their displeasure known.

Fortunately, a lot of redemption-arc mistakes get repeated over and over again. That means we can do a much better job of bringing our bad guys to Team Good if we just look out for these recurring problems.

1. The Motive for Redemption Is Weak

Kylo sitting across from Darth Vader's mask.

This may sound basic, but there must be a strong reason for a villain to turn good. That’s hardly a groundbreaking statement, but it’s one that a lot of storytellers struggle with. In Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the titular Silver Surfer decides to save Earth because Sue reminds him of his wife. I guess he had no other reason to save billions of people. In Willow, Sorsha abandons her mother and the forces of darkness because there’s a moderately cute boy on Team Good. In The Rise of Skywalker, Kylo Ren turns good because… actually I don’t know why. Maybe his mom sent him a Force message? We’ll never know.*

If a villain is on Team Evil and doing evil things, they must have a reason. Whether it’s personal gain, ideology, or a twisted view of the greater good, few people go to the trouble of being a bad guy without a strong motivation. That means they need an even stronger reason to turn good; otherwise, it won’t be believable. At best the character will seem flaky and untethered, switching sides whenever the wind changes direction. More likely, they won’t seem like a real person at all, just a contrived extension of the author’s will.

Sometimes, this problem stems from not understanding why a character was evil in the first place. That certainly made Kylo Ren’s situation worse. I kept waiting for one of the films to show us why he turned evil, but the best they could manage is that he had a falling out with his uncle. That doesn’t translate into destroying planets and taking over the galaxy. Since there was no understanding of why Kylo went dark, it was harder to bring him back. Then again, the original trilogy didn’t know why Vader turned evil, and his redemption went fine, so it’s not a strict requirement.

When preparing a redemption arc, the groundwork should be laid as early as possible. We should see the qualities that will make the villain eventually turn good, whether that means an internal trait like chivalry or something external like a conflict with other villains. This is why Avatar showed us Zuko’s honorable nature in the first season and why Buffy introduced Spike’s chip long before he actually became a good guy. If you set things up early, you won’t be left scrambling for a motivation at the last moment.

2. The Villain Is Entitled to Forgiveness

Cover art for Network Effects

Forgiveness is an important aspect of any redemption arc, and it’s usually required for the redeemed villain to fully integrate into Team Good. But there’s an important caveat that many storytellers forget: forgiveness must be given freely by those the villain wronged. It cannot be coerced, either by other characters or by the narrative itself.

For an example of what this looks like, check out the novel Network Effect by Martha Wells. In this story, a sapient starship called ART* deliberately sics the bad guys on its friend Murderbot.* ART does this because it needs help rescuing its crew, but the act still puts both Murderbot and its human friends in serious danger. Murderbot is rightly pissed, but then the story acts like Murderbot is the one with the problem for not immediately forgiving ART. This makes ART feel like an entitled jerk.

ART isn’t a villain in that novel, but the process is the same for bad guys. When a villain is forgiven for their past misdeeds, the forgiveness must be given freely by those the villain wronged. Usually, this will involve some groveling. If the villain acts entitled to forgiveness, it’ll read like they haven’t really changed; they’re just signed up for a different team. This is also true if side characters are the ones insisting that the villain is entitled to forgiveness. If anything, that can even be worse, as it will feel like the writer is leaning out from behind the page and demanding you accept their beautiful, perfect character’s repentance.

Not only is proper forgiveness important for satisfaction, but it affects your story’s message as well. In real life, people are constantly pressured to forgive those who hurt them, even if the offending party hasn’t yet made proper amends. This is particularly common in cases of familial and relationship abuse. It’s a serious problem and not something you want your story to inadvertently support.

3. Something Unrelated Is Addressed

Deucalion yelling

All good redemption arcs have a phase where the villain’s past misdeeds are addressed in some capacity. This is necessary for the arc to reach completion, but sometimes storytellers get confused and address the wrong thing. They’ll have the villain apologize for something they did that wasn’t actually bad, or even worse, make some arbitrary change and then act like the misdeeds are now resolved.

A recent example is the character of Entrapta on She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. In season two, Entrapta happily joins the evil Horde after being tricked into thinking her friends had left her behind. That’s an obvious misdeed. No matter what Entrapta thinks about her friends, it doesn’t justify helping the Horde conquer and oppress innocent civilians. Later on, once Entrapta has left the Horde, there’s an entire episode devoted to addressing… her lack of social graces. Somehow that doesn’t feel like it should have the same priority. Also, with Entrapta’s autistic coding, it feels more than a little ableist to have her apologize for communication issues with the neurotypical characters.

The urban fantasy show Teen Wolf is even more blatant about it, and also way more ableist. That show has a mass-murdering villain named Deucalion who’s set on gaining ever more power so he can do ever more murders. Deucalion’s big redemption moment is… getting his eyesight restored. Another character even talks about how Deucalion was once a “man of vision” and hopes he will be again.

Um. What? I’ve seen the trope of evil disability before, but this is something else. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone, let alone professional TV writers, could think that being blind would turn someone into a mass murderer.* My best guess is that the writers realized Deucalion’s crimes were far too extensive to actually address, so they reached for this ableist nonsense instead. Same with Entrapta, actually. There wasn’t any way to address her heel turn other than admitting she doesn’t care about others, so instead they focused on something unrelated and hoped you wouldn’t notice.

4. The Villain Is Unforgivable

Agent Kallus from Rebels.

There’s an important trope in storytelling called the moral event horizon. Once a character crosses this behavioral line, it is impossible for them to be satisfactorily redeemed. No matter how sorry they are, no matter how much they do to make up for it, they are simply unforgivable. This is because it’s impossible to believe they’d really change, what they did is so heinous that audiences don’t want to forgive them, or both.

One such villain is Agent Kallus from Star Wars Rebels. When first introduced, Kallus is as bad as it gets. He cruelly delights in crushing dissent, he practically twirls his mustache whenever the good guys show up, and he’s overseen at least one genocide. He’s also mean to his subordinates and has no problem inflicting civilian casualties as collateral damage in battle.

Naturally, the writers decided to redeem him. They retconned the genocide a little bit, so he was merely a participant rather than its mastermind, but it was too little too late. Even if he’d had nothing to do with wiping out an entire species, his other traits made him completely unsuitable for redemption. A villain needs some redeeming traits for audiences to enjoy their redemption, and Kallus had none.

Where exactly the moral event horizon is will change from person to person. Some audiences have high standards, while others will forgive almost anything, but there are a few common traits that will send a villain past a threshold. The most common is cruelty. It’s one thing if a villain does bad things in pursuit of their goal, but if they enjoy inflicting pain for its own sake, a redemption will be hard to swallow. Bigotry is another red flag. Villains who are racist, sexist, etc. are much harder to redeem because they invite our real-life ire. Finally, mass destruction is likely to take the villain too far, at least if it happens onscreen. It’s not particularly logical, but audiences are much more willing to forgive something they didn’t see.

5. Amends Aren’t Made

Catra and Hordak from She-Ra

Making amends is a key part of most redemption arcs, as it’s where the actual redemption takes place. Changing ideologies is one thing, but concrete action to address past harms is much more difficult. Unfortunately, it’s apparently too difficult for many storytellers, as we are constantly inundated with stories where the villain simply announces they’re good now and acts like everything is resolved.

The is a problem with every single one of She-Ra’s major redemption arcs. Entrapta, Scorpia, Catra, and Hordak all serve the Horde in its goal to conquer and enslave all of Etheria. Heck, for most of the show, Hordak is the Horde’s leader. Then, one by one, they all switch sides and the show keeps going like that’s all there is to it. Hordak is especially frustrating, since if anyone is responsible for Team Evil’s actions, it would be the guy in charge, right? Catra does get some further development, but it’s mostly about her relationship with the hero, and for some reason she gets a magic cat out of the deal.

When villains do bad things, it builds up a karmic debt. So long as they stay villains, this isn’t a huge problem, but when they switch to the heroic side, all of that bad karma comes due. This is why good redemption arcs usually have the villain go through some tough times before they’re finally able to join the good guys, and it’s also why audiences need to see concrete evidence of the villain’s switch. This can’t just be defeating other villains. That’s expected, and in most cases, the redeemed character has self-serving reasons to do that anyway.

Compare She-Ra to the reigning champion of redemption arcs: Zuko. After leaving the Fire Nation for good, Zuko doesn’t just show up to the boss fight and call it a day. He spends several episodes helping out Team Good in other ways like training Aang in firebending, helping Sokka break his friend out of jail, and taking Katara on a quest to hunt down her mother’s killer. There’s more, but you get the idea. That’s what making amends looks like. Zuko doesn’t just talk; he takes action.

In my experience, the most common reason for this problem is that it’s effectively impossible for a villain to make amends within the context of the story. That’s certainly the case for She-Ra. Those characters didn’t just hurt the heroes; they inflicted misery on countless Etherian civilians. She-Ra doesn’t have time to address that, and it isn’t the hero’s place to offer absolution, so the show just skips over it.

The lesson is if you want to redeem a villain, only make them as evil as your story can afford. That’s why Zuko is largely uninvolved with the Fire Nation’s war effort. He’s chasing Team Avatar, which is bad, but he isn’t conquering Earth Kingdom cities.* Since Zuko’s misdeeds are primarily against the main heroes, his redemption arc can end when he earns their forgiveness.

In fact, most of the problems on this list are caused by overreach on the storyteller’s part. Authors will try to redeem a character even though they have no motive for turning good, or after no amount of good deeds can plausibly bring them back. So when you’re planning a redemption arc, make sure it’s something the story can actually support.

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  1. Julia M.

    ” Also, with Entrapta’s autistic coding, it feels more than a little ableist to have her apologize for communication issues with the neurotypical characters.”

    Yep, as an autistic person, I can say that that is definitely ableist.

    Oh, you can’t navigate other’s signals and are socially awkward? It must be because there is something wrong with you, and not that the entire system of subliminal signals varies greatly and is confusing.

    And of course the autistic-coded character turns evil over a communication mishap. Y’know, show-writers, we aren’t children. We don’t massively overreact to things like this. In fact, we’re used to them, since we’ve been dealing with stuff like this our whole lives.
    I hate it when they use things like this as a plot point. Give the villain some good motivation at least.

    • Camille

      In defense of Entrapta, it feels a little believable that the heroes left her, because they’ve been jerks to her since the beginning. Treating her like a child, constantly being exasperated by her quirks, not trying to understand her, and seemingly not caring about her beyond the technological innovations she can bring to Team Good (which is never really adressed either, now that I think about it). When she changes side, it felt to me more because she found someone who genuinely valued her than because her friends left her behind.
      But while it could provide enough motivation to change sides if the conflict had been morally gray, it is not. And the show doesn’t recognize this ! When Entrapta first hesitates to join Hordak, her argument is “I can’t betray my friends” not “I can’t help you kill people and rule over my lands with fear”. She never seems to even consider the lives of everyone else ! Entrapta being who she is, that leaves the impression that she doesn’t care about human lives because she’s autistic (very, very offensive) or because she’s a scientist (I hate that trope. Everyone knows that scientists throw that pesky morality thing out of the window as soon as there’s science to do ! Because SCIENCE ! Ugh).

      • Cay Reet

        Yeah, there’s the odd scientist who doesn’t care about what the stuff they’re working on will do – or even one who wants to destroy things with the stuff they’re working on, but treating all scientists like mad scientists is completely wrong. Most scientists in real life are worried about the consequences of their work and will not follow through with a project if they can see its danger (unfortunately, the team which produced nuclear fusion wasn’t aware of the military use).

        • Angelo Pardi

          As a scientist myself, I’d say this is a hugely optimistic view of many if not most scientists. Particularly those who works on the cutting edge of research in biology or IT.

          Also most movie mad scientists are in fact mad engineer.

        • Rose Embolism

          Remember the bets Enrico Fermi was taking before the first atomic bomb test about whether it would set the atmosphere on fire? And then there was Edward Teller, and the delightful people who came up with terms like “Overkill Capacity”.

          I think this is something of a naive view of scientists. In my experience scientists are no more moral than anyone else. They can all too often be shortsighted, self-centered, or think the potential results are worth the damage done. Just like anyone else.

          • Cay Reet

            Yet most are not mad enough to say ‘let’s poke this thing until it blows up and see what happens.’

      • Grey

        I think you’re forgetting the main reason Entrapta was left behind: They thought she was dead, since the last they saw of her was the door closing and the corridor filling with fire while she tried to free Emily’s leg.

        Also, Entrapta does consider the potential consequences of her creations in Season 3 with the Portal, and Catra is the one who goes through with it out of spite.

        • SunlessNick

          free Emily’s leg

          It’s not really pertinent to the topic, but I initially misread this as *flee* Emily’s leg, which was a bizarre image.

  2. Juan

    Zuko’s redemption arc is and always will be the best example ever.

  3. Kieran

    For number one- is discovering a secret slave ring enough of a catalyst for a character who’s basically a Noble Top Enforcer/ one-man Secret Police to defect to Team Good? This character’s main motives for being on Team Evil were that he was brainwashed by the Big Bad’s propaganda, and also that he wants to please the Big Bad because the Big Bad is his adoptive father. Before the slave ring discovery, the character discovers a ton of other awful, pointless cruelty committed by the Big Bad which gradually chips away at everything he previously know.
    When given the chance, the character is a genuinely empathetic, compassionate person-he stops a girl from getting whipped by an evil religious leader, he rushes in to save people in danger of drowning, and he is generally respectful towards women.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I can’t say for sure without reading the story, but my gut says probably. If he’s already discovered a number of other problems with team evil, then it will be more believable that this latest one convinces him that he can’t change the system from inside, and so he defects. This will of course work better if you take the time to establish his noble characteristics in advance.

  4. LeeEsq

    Four is the biggest problem for redemption arcs in fantasy and science fiction. Usually the villain has done stuff at the crimes against humanity
    level. Things that could get them put on trial as war criminal in the real world in many situations. Even if we don’t see it on screen or read about on the pages, this level of atrocity is at least implied frequently. If not at the war criminal level, you are usually dealing at the effective mass murderer level, victim count in the dozens, or big time organized crime leader level for less murderous villains.

    The redemption arc really undermines this when the war criminal, psychotic killer, or gangster gets easy redemption with no real justice or amends for the victims and a cuddly love interest. A better redemption arc would involve the villain accepting the enormity of what they have done and taking their deserved punishment, be it a long term in prison or even the death penalty, stoically.

  5. Mrs. Obed Marsh

    Wow, my reading on Entrapta’s “redemption” episode is completely different from yours! (For the record, I am autistic and I love Entrapta.)

    I didn’t read that episode as being about Entrapta learning social graces, but about the side princesses learning to accept Entrapta as a good person who does care and can make a good contribution to the team. Entrapta is not the one who makes a necessary change in that episode – she keeps being her quirky, tech-loving self, and just as caring about people and bots as she always has been. It’s the other princesses who change, losing their contempt and disrespect for Entrapta. It’s not that Entrapta was ever “bad at people,” it’s that the princesses were “bad at Entrapta.”

    Yes, Entrapta does say she is “sorry” for her neurodivergent traits, but I read this as internalized ableism more than anything she really needs to make amends for. As I’ve said, she doesn’t really change after her “redemption,” because she was never the one who had to change. Now, I do wish the show had included a scene where the hero characters – or better yet, another neurodivergent character – assure Entrapta that there’s nothing wrong with her, but they crammed so much stuff in that season that I’m not surprised they failed to find the time for that. It’s also Not Great that the neurodivergent character is shown as not being truly responsible for her harmful actions, but that’s equally true for all the redeemed villain characters, so I call it a wash.

    I do want to see a fanfic where Horde members are put on trial for their crimes against Etherians, and the characters have to grapple with issues of guilt and justice in a way the show didn’t have time for. Call it “Judgment at Brightmoon.”

    • Rose Embolism

      According to Noel Stevenson, after the war Entrapta and Hordak agreed to clean-up on Beast Island as penance. I mean, Eternia doesn’t seem to subscribe to the notions of vengeance-oriented punishment that Americans do, and honestly, can you think of a better thing to do with her?

      I mean a trial would actually open up a rabbit hole of all kinds of dicey issues. What about all the planets and trillions upon trillions of sentients freed from Hoardak’s control and threatened destruction? Shouldn’t they get a say in any trial of the person who helped save them?

      And for that matter, if we’re talking trials, shouldn’t the peoples of the universe be able to put Glimmer and Adora on trial for their roles in nearly destroying the universe? Seriously, how do you even judge “reckless endangerment” on a cosmic level?

  6. Tifa

    If Zuko’s got first place for his redemption arc, I nominate Impmon from Digimon Tamers for second place.

  7. Alverant

    The best redemption arc I’ve seen is Megatron from the IDW comics. He’s put on trial and uses the legal system to be allowed to go on a “redemption quest”. (I’m waaaay oversimplifying for brevity.) The fact he was able to do this causes problems on Earth since he killed over a billion people. It’s a slow process. Some people don’t want to forgive and never let him forget what a monster he was. In the end he’s given a new trial and is led away (willingly) in cuffs. We don’t know if he was executed or permanently imprisoned. His last words are “Either way, I deserve worse.”

    • Sam

      Zuko raided and destroyed villages looking for Aang and betrayed his uncle and nearly got Aang killed, but y’all just conveniently forget that.

      I like Zuko’s redemption arc but it’s not the end all be all of arcs and continuing to compare things to it is doing those shows a disservice. It’s far from perfect.

      Also I don’t have time to get into all the reasons why you utterly miss the point of Catra’s arc, but way to just gloss over that she was raised as a child soldier and literally never had any positive examples of what good people are supposed to look like (the good guys watched her abuser almost kill her so ya know. Maybe not a great example of things).

      Also she “gets an alien cat out of the deal” because it shows a huge step forward in her development by allowing herself to be emotionally open with this creature that clearly terrifies her, and for the first time in her entire life, she’s rewarded for that openness instead of punished.

      Also seriously stop comparing everything to Zuko. I can not say enough how much of a disservice you do these shows by just saying “ATLA did it better.” And I say that as a die-hard fan of the show (Toph is my gremlin murder child and I love her)

      • A Perspiring Writer

        I feel like this comment wasn’t intended to be a reply.

      • DDT

        Gonna have to disagree bruh. The thing is you actually see Zuko putting in effort for the things he did wrong because he actually believes that he was in the wrong whereas Catra never really cared about anything other than her obsession with Adora and being victorious. You say Catra was a child soldier yet you also forgot that Zuko was a prince of an overzealous warlord who burned half his face off, banished him and his mother, called him a disappointment, valued his sister far more, and never really cared about his son from the get go. Also another child soldier in the Horde named Kyle who got far worse than Catra did never went down Catra’s psychotic and illogical path/behavior despite him having far more reasons to than Catra herself.

        • Rose Embolism

          I think that’s because Catra’s redemption arc is a romance redemption arc, and follows the patterns and tropes of romance tropes. Bearing in mind romance redemption arcs are pretty much the only ones I can tolerate. Well there was Piccolo’s in DragonBall Z…(Yes, I know, there wasn’t one. that’s the joke. I’ll be here all week, folks.)

          As for Zuko, I consider it a perfect example of how redemption arcs can suck the life out of a plot. First of all, he didn’t really do anything bad enough to justify the amount of time spent on the arc, which mainly consisted of brooding, whining, bad choices, and more brooding. And then, as a topper, he doesn’t really sacrifice anything- his reward is he gets to be emperor. And gets a cool girlfriend. And a puppy. Didn’t he get a puppy too?

          • Cay Reet

            I doubt becoming emperor at this point is a reward. He’ll spend his life undoing all the damage the war and the other actions of his father did to the relationship of the Fire Nation with the other countries of the world. I’m also sure that Mai won’t be the doe-eyed girlfriend who only looks up to him and coos whenever he speaks to her. She’s going to make sure he does his job. Also – no puppy.

      • Gwen

        I thought I was the only one who was less than satisfied with zuko’s redemption arc, although for different reasons. The show so obviously set him up to turn and there were so many dramatic points where it was offered and the narrative made them feel like “Either now or never” so when he finally does turn after that fairly weak episode where they all hang out as teens, I just didn’t care anymore.

        I felt those earlier dramatic moments were cheated, the narrative premise felt like a lie and his arc was a bit of a trick or unfulfilled promise. To me, he went from an interesting villain to a hero whose turn was narratively unsatisfying. The character after his turn almost feels like a different person entirely, and I went from anticipating his switch to finding it weakened the character and my engagement in the show overall, but I realize I am an outlier.

        I am definitely the type of person who has high expectations when a narrative promises something. I disliked Tangled within 5 minutes of watching because Flynn said he would die and he didn’t. I perfectly realize it is me and how easily I feel betrayed by narrative promises that affect my enjoyment rather than anything wrong with the narrative itself.

        That said, I also wish not all redemption arcs were compared to Zuko.

        • Star of Hope

          Yeah Zuko should have joined at the end of Season 2, instead of wasting precious time impressing his evil father.

        • Devor

          The fact that Zuko’s redemption came *after* he got everything he wanted, instead of in the middle of a desperate fight scene, is what makes it so powerful.

  8. Tyran

    Catra doesn’t make amends? I guess you missed sacrificing herself to save Glimmer, apologizing to Adora and Entrapta and slowly coming to change her toxic worldview and the whole helping defeat Prime and save the universe.

    Like sure, I understand this argument when it comes to Hordak, but Catra?

    • Arix

      My biggest issue with Catra’s redemption is that she absolutely rocketed past the moral event horizon in season 3. After you’ve shown that you’re willing to destroy the world not to achieve your goals but purely for the sake of denying someone else a victory? Yeah, there’s no coming back from that.

      • Rose Embolism

        I tend to think being crucial in saving the universe would have some weight in that. But bear in mind, I tend to think a good redemption arc is Piccolo’s from Dragonball Z. I mean he never even expressed remorse.

        Also, if we’re talking about going beyond the pale, the rest of the universe might want to have a talk with Glimmer about reckless endangerment.

    • Chris

      My big issue with the Catra arc was how quickly it was over. It was like, she made the switch, and then the very next episode Bow was hugging her and saying, “Welcome to team good!”

  9. Gwen

    Weirdly enough She-Ra actually has a perfect example of a Villain turned good that it’s almost easy to miss due to how natural it was… Scorpia.

    Scorpia belongs with the heroes, She had a good reason to work for the villains due to Family, lies, and friendship.While she worked for the villains her motives were often good and she never crossed a moral event horizon. And she does try to make it up the best way she knows.

    Also a rare case where redemption doesn’t completely change the character’s personality or goals very much.

    • Chris

      One could argue that Scorpia doesn’t need a redemption arc because she’s not a true villain. She’s a hero who happened to be raised on the wrong side.

      • Kieran

        Except Scorpia still willingly worked for the bad guys. Don’t forget guys, Adora is ALSO “a hero raised on the wrong side” but she made her heel-face turn the MINUTE she saw what the real world was like. Scorpia did NOT.
        So yeah, although Scorpia is basically a giant cinnamon roll in the body of a part-scorpion lady, she is still TECHNICALLY a villain because she worked for the bad guys mostly willingly.

  10. Tony

    If you don’t feel like writing a villain making amends or being forgiven, then that villain can always become a Token Evil Teammate with whom the heroes only work grudgingly. Barry the Chopper from Fullmetal Alchemist is a good example.

    Oh, and speaking of FMA–in contrast to the Teen Wolf villain you mentioned, I’d call Edward Elric a good example of a character who uses assistive phlebotinum without erasing the disability. His prosthetic limbs need regular maintenance and sometimes have to be fixed.

  11. Charlotte

    #4 is why I could never get behind Spike’s redemption arc. His attempted rape of Buffy goes to a place that means I just can’t forgive him, no matter what happens later.

  12. Gideon

    *cough* *cough* Esdeath *cough* *cough*

  13. Jacob

    There is one problem that you forgot to address…

    Villain isn’t particularly evil in the first place

    There are some villains where it is painfully obvious that they were supposed to be the main characters…but aren’t

  14. Star of Hope

    Why is it that always people who force people to forgive and preach it are those who are often Sympathetic to these Villians and don’t want to fix the problems in the first place and worse mistreat the people seeking justice by saying that the law doesn’t have to be always just.

    It’s less that they want to avert Conflict than it’s more that they dislike the victims and don’t want to see them succeed and are afraid of them as we have seen with how BLM is treated.

    When someone asks me to forgive someone I will say fuck you and call them out of being sympathetic towards inhuman people.

  15. Rose Embolism

    I can’t help but think it’s a tiny step from “Redemption arcs should only be given to people who really don’t need one” (Zuko is a prime example), to “Redemption arcs shouldn’t exist at all.” Certainly I personally dislike the idea that non-romantic redemption arcs are needed. They map poorly to real life, and as storytelling devices they tend to be awkward, forcing the plot out of a natural path into dealing with arbitrary moral retributions. You can see that problem in Avatar, where the plot of the series comes to a screeching halt whenever it has to deal with Zuko’s angstfest and redemption-arc determined actions.

    Interestingly, a lot of non-modern western stories I’ve seen seem to have radically different takes on someone changing sides. Take the film Ne Zha for instance- our demonic protagonist’s redemption doesn’t involve radically change, just a decision to save the town endangered by his actions. Or take the “redemption” arc of Hiei from the anime Yuu Yuu Hakusho. After his crimes, including nearly demonizing the hero’s girlfriend, his redemption arc consists of “I’m on probation, so I’m working with you.” He shows no remorse, he really isn’t punished, and yet his slow transition to being an ally and a friend of the main character works.

    Or y’know, take the Epic of Gilgamesh, or 1001 Nights, or Prince Five Weapons & the Demon Sticky hair….even tales where a hero has to do a redemption quest, like Heracles and Susano-o have less to do with restitution and remorse then doing great deeds.

    I’ve questioned why audiences demand that characters must go through hell to be redeemed in the first place. I think a lot of it has to do with Western/Christian culture. where it’s not enough that characters change their ways, they must SUFFER before the audience can believe they’re worth being on the side of good (and consider how often the audience demands that there be no redemption for characters). Consider how tropes like “You must pay for your crimes”, “The guilty must be punished” buy into the ideal of vengeance as justice.

    Honestly, a lot of the time the idea of punishment and karmic retribution even outside of redemption arcs has some really nasty undertones. which is why I tend to think the basic idea of “villains always need to get their just deserts” needs to be carefully examined.

    • Cay Reet

      For me, redemption starts with admitting that what a character has done before was wrong – they made the wrong choices (if for the right goals in some cases) and they caused damage because of those choices. This, actually, should also go for a heroic character who does something wrong. Consequences matter. It’s not about punishment, but about showing there really was a change of heart and the redeemed character is aware of their past deeds and prepared to accept the consequences and working on making amends.

      Redemption isn’t anchored to ‘joining Team Good’ for me, but to ‘no longer supporting Team Evil’. That can lead to a character standing down and no longer opposing ‘Team Good’ or to them working with ‘Team Good’ to a degree.

      With Zuko, the point was in always showing that Zuko wasn’t evil for evil’s sake – that he wasn’t even chasing the Avatar for the Fire Nation. He was chasing his father’s love – a chase that was fated to fail, because Ozai has no loving fibre in his body. That is why Zuko’s development makes sense: in the first season, he’s all about catching Aang, no matter the means. In the second season, he’s slowly diverging from that goal, partially through the situation (being cut loose from the Fire Nation completely) and partially through Iroh’s counselling. At the end of the second season, he’s offered what he always wanted: redemption in the eyes of his father and the return to what was before he was exiled. He takes that offer and then learns that it is no longer what he wants. That is why he finally joins Team Avatar and that is why he makes amends (to everyone but Toph with whom, if we are honest, he had no amends to make, since she joined Team Avatar after he’d stopped attacking them relentlessly). He will also continue to make amends as his father’s successor, bringing the Fire Nation back on course. That makes Zuko’s redemption so successful.

    • Guest

      the lack of remorse is a pretty serious freaking problem for me if the intent is ‘redemption’.

      Sure it’s great if Villain Darkheart stops torturing puppies, but if the thinking is “OK, OK, i’ll stop – but torturing puppies sure was fun!” or “…I don’t see what the big deal is…”, I say there’s a critical piece missing and I’m not going to overlook that. (sure as HECK not going to befriend someone with an attitude like that!!)

      beyond that, I agree with Cay Reet on characters facing consequences, whether Hero or Villain.

      • Guest

        adding to my comment:
        I don’t think venerating people solely for “great deeds” is all that noble anyway. doing ‘great deeds’ doesn’t automatically make the person ‘great’ as in, someone to emulate, and frankly, the emphasis on ‘great deeds’ completely overlooks the people who routinely do selfless deeds but on a smaller scale.
        In real life, there have been more than a few people who accomplished ‘great deeds’ on the one hand while being miserable excuses for human beings on the other; and in mythology the ‘great deeds’ tend to be centered on showing how awesome the protagonist is which isn’t exactly that great a message in the end.

  16. Erynus

    This made me think about my MC. He is a soldier, a warrior, a mercenary, a spy, hence he has a gray morality. Is he a villain? sure he fights someone worse than him, but he does things that need to atone for. Should i redeem him? Would anyone care? In the end, he kinda chose to quest for redemption, but i doubt i would change how he acts in following adventures, so it would be pointless. I mean, i can make him vow to not killl again, but it is what he does, so…

    • Cay Reet

      Your character seems to be more of an anti-hero from your description. Those usually have some limits in what they will do, although their moral can be pretty dark grey (provided the setting fits with that, i.e. it’s gritty). For one thing, they will never cross the moral event horizon.

      One thing would be that he does make amends for things he does. If he has to kill person X, perhaps he makes sure that their family is cared for or they get a suitable burial. That he has to kill and will continue to do so for his own reasons doesn’t mean that he has to be cold-blooded about it and never try to make up for it some way. Perhaps he donates to good causes, giving some of the money he earns from his jobs to those.

      Another thing would be to make sure that he’s never instigating such situations. Killing in self-defence is, for instance, much less of a moral/karma problem than sneaking up on an unsuspecting enemy and slitting their throat. Technically, even an attack can be a defence, if the character knows that those people are preparing to do a lot of damage or kill a lot of innocent or helpless (or both) people. Generally, whoever joins an ‘evil’ organisation does take into account that they might be killed – especially if they’re part of the militant arm, such as henches. That doesn’t mean the character has to kill them all just for fun, but it’s much less of a moral problem to kill a hench opposing you than to kill an innocent man caught in a crossfire.

  17. Chris

    I couldn’t help but think of Vegeta’s arc from Dragonball Z and how it’s absolutely hilarious that he doesn’t have one.

    Vegeta season 1: “I’m going to destroy your entire planet and enjoy every second of it!”
    *does it*

    Vegeta season 7: “I’m going to destroy your entire planet and enjoy every second of it!”
    Everyone: “It’s been like 10 years and you haven’t done it. You’re a good guy now.”

    • SunlessNick

      I saw an interesting way of describing Vegeta, which was, you know those times when a hero extends a hand to a defeated villain, and the villain uses the gesture to do a sneak attack, thus allowing the hero to kill them with more moral cleanliness?

      Vegeta didn’t do the sneak attack. Which meant, having extended the hand, the heroes couldn’t very kill him later, so they were stuck with him just hanging around. But so was he, and eventually it had an effect on him.

  18. H.

    One comment: I think Catra’s redemption doesn’t necessarily seem bad or unrealistic, even though she wanted to enslave and then destroy the world because she’s brainwashed since childhood and by the finale is yet to experience all the stages of deprogramming. That’s glossed over in the article, but I like how it mentions that the show didn’t really have the time. It’s for kids, I don’t expect it to go that deep into deprogramming a cult survivor.

  19. Ronald DeMitchell

    Great article. I was wondering if you might do an article on the moral event horizon specifically. How would someone go about crafting that ark for a villain?

  20. Zhireve

    One redemption arc I do think was very well handled was Dalinar Kholin’s from The Stormlight Archives.

  21. Apra

    Negan in the walking dead is probably the most infuriating redemption arc I’ve seen.

  22. Seio

    One thing that trips me up somewhat is that, while mentioning that forgiveness is something that shouldn’t be demanded or in some way a “mandatory” thing that the victim(s) “have to” grant, you later go on to say:

    “Since Zuko’s misdeeds are primarily against the main heroes, his redemption arc can end when he earns their forgiveness. ”

    Now, I know that forgiveness is a big deal in our society and the idea that forgiveness should be given when someone has (tried to) make amends and that that is the end goal of, well, making amends is deeply entrenched in our culture.
    However, saying that, on one hand, forgiveness isn’t mandatory but on the other strongly implying that forgiveness is somehow necessary for the villain to be considered redeemed is somewhat contradictory.

    It puts the entire responsibility for a person’s redemption on the victims and practically demands forgiveness if the villain has tried hard enough and, usually, suffered “enough for his crimes”.
    (Which could be it’s own rant about punitive vs. restorative justice and how maybe our collective obsession with the former shouldn’t be needlessly reinforced in every single narrative…)

    Hot take, most of the time, especially in the real world, by the time people realize they fucked up, “making amends” directly may very well not be possible.

    Maybe it’s too late to make amends, the person they wronged is dead, has moved or otherwise unreachable.
    Maybe they could still be contacted in theory but would much rather just not have the perpetrator in their lives, no matter how much they try to change, be it due to trauma reactions or just because.
    Maybe the harm they has been through encouraging and reinforcing certain social norms or as part of a screwed up system (ie: police) where both what that person is actually directly responsible for in terms of damage and how much blame can be allocated (cults, dominant narratives in society ect can make it hard to notice the harm you’re doing) to any specific person involved.

    And yes, in some of those cases you can try to make up for it, perhaps even in a way that helps the communities that were affected by it (ie: Supporting ASAN after realizing how much Autism $peaks sucks), but even then it’s not exactly a 1 to 1 “I am trying to help those that i personally hurt” deal.

    So is it really a good idea to tie redemption specifically to making amends with those you wronged?
    Both in terms of story telling (“better have this list of people they personally targeted ready to check of, if your villain did more abstract harm, don’t do a redemption arc”) and in terms of what is said about trying to improve oneself and turn ones life around.

    Or would it be better to expand the idea of making amends to things like acting and speaking out against the group you were a part of, even if those you personally harmed may never directly benefit from it, or try to improve the way you handle relationships, even if your child has forever cut you out of their life and you probably won’t be able to directly make amends?

    Also, does every redemption arc truly need to end in the person being fully “part of the good guys” and completely redeemed? What about ending on a positive (bittersweet?) “They did tons of fucked up stuff, but they realized it was fucked up and are trying their best to become a better person and help people”?
    (Okay, one could argue that “redemption arc” implies full and literal redemption, but life is rarely that cut and dry and ending with some conflicting feelings could easily add some complexity.)

    Just some thoughts there.

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