Q&A

How Do I Keep a Redeemed Villain Cool?

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Hello. How are you? I was wondering about antagonist personalities after they make a change. From Amity of The Owl House to Peridot and Yellow Diamond of Steven Universe, some people (myself not included) believe that they became “less likable” and “lost what made them special” after switching over to Team Good. On the other hand, some fans of rivals such as Bakugo of My Hero Academia do not want him to have a “change of heart” (not sure how to word it???) as “being nice” would make him “boring.” What do these meaner characters have that make them likable? What about these personalities draws people in? Thank you.

-Hadeel

Hey Hadeel, great to hear from you again!

Everyone loves a good redemption arc, but sometimes once the arc is finished, the former villain is indeed a less-interesting character than before. I’m not familiar with Owl House, and I didn’t watch far enough into Steven Universe to see much of Team Good Peridot, but I’m familiar with the trope nonetheless. Piccolo from Dragon Ball and DBZ is always the character that comes to mind for me, as once he turned good, he quickly succumbed to the “not Goku or Vegeta and thus not important” effect.

This can happen for a lot of reasons, and one is that the author neglected redemption arc fundamentals. If the former villain hasn’t earned their redemption, that can make their interactions with the rest of Team Good awkward and unpleasant. Even if audiences can’t put a name to it, something is off about the supposedly redeemed villain, so they aren’t particularly fun to watch or read about.

Another common issue is that Team Good might already be full to capacity. If there’s nothing for the reformed villain to do, then they just end up hanging out while all the existing heroes have fun adventures. This is a recurring problem on Teen Wolf, as a whole bunch of villains turn good(ish), but there are already so many main characters that the writers have no screen time to spare. So the former villains just hang out until it’s time for an episode where they can actually contribute.

Finally, sometimes a villain doesn’t have much of an interesting character once you take away their cool antagonism. That’s actually fine most of the time. Villains don’t always need to be super deep, as long as they’re competent and their motivations make sense. But if you want them to be on Team Good, they need to have something that makes them fun to watch when they aren’t opposing the hero. Sylar from Heroes had that problem, if anyone still remembers Heroes. He was a terrifying villain, but once the writers took that away, he was just boring.

So if you’re going to bring a villain over to the good side and you want them to stick around, remember the three essentials: stick the redemption arc, give them a way to contribute, and make sure there’s more to their personality than villain-hood. Not to name drop, but Zuko checks all three of those boxes. His redemption is legendary, he adds firebending to the team’s skill list, and he has plenty of drama outside of capturing Aang.

If there’s no room on Team Good or a villain doesn’t have anything going on outside of villainy, they don’t have to stick around after being redeemed. It’s fine for them to walk off into the sunset, never to be seen again except for an occasional guest appearance. Better that than wasting away as a shadow of their former selves.

Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!

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Comments

  1. Eli

    About the peridot example, I can definitely see why people found her less interesting. She lost a fundamental part of herself when she went to team good. The part being how she follows her orders to a T, always, without fail. Deprogramming her from that in her redemption arc just left her being your average alien learning what the heck is going on. If she started attaching herself onto someone else like say, Steven then it would be cool to see that aspect of her shown in interesting and unique ways. Then we could see how Steven were to react to a position of power. Then maybe slowly wean peridot off of that and replace it with something else. Overall Peridot’s redemption arc really wasn’t too good, very rushed and there were awkward moments where she was an alien bigot (“I don’t want to be around you because your a fusion” was a whole episode.)

    For a good example go watch Avatar The Last Airbender.

  2. Brandon Harbeke

    One way this works is if the former villain is willing to do things in a morally gray area or more unorthodox way than the rest of the hero group. When Emma Frost or Magneto are working on the X-Men’s side, they still have an edge and a little bit of an attitude of “the ends justify the means” that sets them apart from the other heroic characters.

    • Cay Reet

      True. A former villain will have more malleable morals than an upright hero and can do that which the heroes can’t do.

  3. Jarosch

    Something to keep in mind: Being redeemed is a major character change, not just for their role in the story, but for them themselves- anyone who has studied, say reformed criminals, or defectors from other factions, knows that it is a life-changing, in many cases traumatizing, event. For this reason, it may be helpful to think of their redemption as a kind of ‘soft reset’, in some ways. So give them a NEW arc, even if it is a small one. maybe their time in the evil army left them uneasy with daylight life not overseen by their superiors. Maybe they have survivors guilt or PTSD or something like this.

    Here is a novel one: They were close, possibly romantically involved, with another villain, and are trying to redeem THEM in turn.

    The point is to have a character arc caused by their redemption, yet distinct from it. Something that is a consequence rather than a continuation.

    A good way to visualize it is to think of the Villainous and Heroic modes as two linked yet distinct characters, each of which needs a complete character arc. The redemption is the primary character arc of Villain-mode. Once they are redeemed, the Hero-mode character is functionally a soft reboot, with the Villain-mode as backstory. The new arc should be written and understandable on those terms, something related but distinct.

    • Bellis

      Thank you Jarosch, that is very well put and well explained!

      An easy option might be that either they need to find non-villainous ways to work towards their life goals (or just big goals in general). In many cases however, they gave up their goals during their redemption arc because they were inherently villainous (destroying/conquering the world, furthering a bigoted agenda, etc). So now they need to find a new goal for their life or at least for the next phase of their lives. And in some cases finding a goal could be an arc in itself, although I suspect it might be difficult to make a story about a character without a goal entertaining. I guess that’s one of the things boring redeemed villains are missing. Because just wanting to help the protagonist isn’t enough of a goal or not an interesting and distinct enough goal to make them fun to have around. It breaks character too, in a lot of cases, when an independent and driven character suddenly becomes just another admirer and follower of the hero. They could remain independent and driven and struggle to find a good direction instead.

      Or, if they used to be a minion or lieutenant more than head-villain, they might have to learn to make decisions for themselves instead of following someone else.

      Basically, there are a lot of ways this can play out, but they either need to have or find a goal, or else they’re not important-character-material anymore.

  4. Ken Hughes

    A problem might be that villains and anti-heroes get a shortcut to “cool.”

    One definition of “good” is caring about consequences. Heroes have a hard role trying to balance everything and everyone that they might hurt or help; a villain or anti-hero has the appeal of just ignoring that and doing what they want, within whatever limits they have — and the story’s usually been playing up that freedom as a form of coolness.

    Add to that, a villain or an unreliable ally could well be stronger than the hero, or have some story-breaking ability that was best controlled by keeping it on the sidelines. As heroes, could they beat the whole story — or is it too easy to nerf them and make them boring?

    So if a villain’s redeemed (or an antihero’s calmed down), the question is: what personality and goals (and powers) do they have now? What did they have before, besides simple freedom, and how can that be reshaped into its Team Good form? What side of the heroes’ strategies or character dynamics would they take, that isn’t already filled — ruthlessness, planning, respect for enemy minions, what? — and what’s the balance of them being right versus the usual heroes being right? What’s the reason their Villainous Power can’t clean up the whole rest of the story, without them actually losing it?

    Making a villain cool (up to a point) is all too easy, just because he’s a villain. The real challenge is seeing what coolness he has that can survive in the more careful life of a hero.

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