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
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
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
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
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
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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