Commentary

What Redemption Arcs Tell Us About Forgiveness

Immediately after he is crowned Fire Lord, Zuko stands next to Aang

Because of the #metoo movement and the current moral panic over “cancel culture,” some are wondering if the public is capable of forgiveness. This is often phrased like a rhetorical question, but it has an answer. A skilled storyteller can take a character that’s done harm onscreen and redeem them in the eyes of the audience. Let’s examine how that’s done and what it means in a practical sense.

Is Fictional Forgiveness Really the Same Thing?

Aladdin hands a loaf of bread to some poor children. Disney knows parents won’t object to thievery as long as it’s presented the right way.

First, why should a fiction storyteller be answering this question? While I doubt we’re the only ones qualified to give an answer, inventing scenarios without the constraints of reality makes a surprisingly good testing ground for discovering how people feel. That doesn’t mean we should assume every aspect of fiction applies to real-life situations. For one thing, when people believe a story really happened, they are more impressed by unusual events.

However, stories are particularly well equipped to explain forgiveness, because virtue and vice are built into stories at a foundational level. A storyteller who has no understanding of how their audience makes moral judgments won’t get anywhere. And just by examining how politicians shape their personal narratives to get ahead, it’s clear that the overlap between the way audiences judge characters and how we judge real people is quite large.

Most of all, in this case it’s not personal forgiveness we’re talking about. Whether an individual person decides to forgive someone in their life is influenced by factors beyond count. But people don’t interact with public figures or fictional characters personally, and a storyteller can never hope to have a specific effect on every single person in a large audience. Instead, storytellers aim to have the right effect on the vast majority of people. If we try to redeem a character and there’s a significant group of holdouts, that’s a failure for us. In real-world terms, this group forgiveness means a public figure would no longer be controversial.

A fully redeemed character should be as trusted as characters without a dark past. For public figures, that would mean they could continue or resume a position of trust without protests or backlash.

Can People Forgive?

Han Solo putting his hand on Kylo's cheek. Kylo Ren is divisive for a reason.

As a collective, people can indeed forgive most things – but not everything. In storytelling, the boundary between an act that is forgivable and one that is not is called the moral event horizon. Passing this boundary doesn’t mean a character won’t have any fans; even the most loathed characters in popular stories have a few fans. But once the moral event horizon is crossed, the character will never have broad appeal again.

Two factors seem to have the biggest influence on how audiences judge misdeeds and therefore what is forgivable:

  1. How much harm was caused. Audiences judge this emotionally, not logically, and storytellers take full advantage of that. A villain slated for redemption will typically harm nameless people offscreen to minimize emotional impact. For instance, Eleanor from the Good Place sells fake medicine to seniors that viewers never see and humiliates a roommate designed to be unlikable.
  2. What the character’s motivation was. A character that is desperate, under duress, making difficult choices, or trying to achieve some kind of good will be judged much more leniently than a character that acted out of selfishness. Storytellers use this to manufacture lots of situations that justify why anti-heroes should commit terrible deeds. Even Disney easily justifies theft because Aladdin has to eat.

Is Murder Beyond the Moral Event Horizon?

Sometimes. Killing is very context dependent; we live in a violent world where some people kill out of defense and others are pressed into service as soldiers. The victim also matters a great deal. The hero of the show Dexter is a serial killer, but he only murders other serial killers.

But while storytellers have numerous tools for making killers redeemable, they can still blunder into sending them past the moral event horizon. The best example I could ask for is Kylo Ren from the Star Wars sequel trilogy.

  • Kylo murders a beloved character right onscreen.
  • The victim, Han Solo, doesn’t put up a fight. Kylo uses their father-son relationship to get close and then slaughters him.
  • Kylo’s motivation is wanting more power for himself.

After that, Kylo Ren would always be divisive, which was one more reason the Star Wars sequel trilogy was set up to fail.

In the real world, Derek Chauvin is almost certainly beyond the moral event horizon. He will never resume duty as a police officer without controversy.

Is Rape Beyond the Moral Event Horizon?

Yes. Or at least, rape as it appears in the news and is depicted in popular stories definitely is. If you’re wondering why rape would be considered less forgivable than murder, wonder no longer. The biggest reason is that while people can be compelled to kill other humans in a variety of circumstances, there is no such justification for rape. It is inherently an act of extreme selfishness or maliciousness. A storyteller might even make their villain a rapist just to show how evil he is, though this is a bad choice for other reasons.

In addition, sexual assault is much more common in the real world than homicide. For many people, the issue is personal and the emotional impact is higher. That’s why even a rape attempt is generally unforgivable.

The writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer found this out to their chagrin. They thought they could redeem the vampire Spike by having him attempt to rape Buffy, feel really remorseful, and then seek out a soul and become a better person. Instead, this arc ensured that he would never be fully redeemed in the eyes of many fans.

In the real world, I think it’s safe to say that Harvey Weinstein has crossed the moral event horizon. The public will not want him in charge of a movie ever again.

What Isn’t Beyond the Moral Event Horizon?

Theft and property damage aren’t even close to it. These crimes are what storytellers use when they want a hero to resemble a villain without earning an audience’s ire. For instance, the faux villains Dr. Horrible and Megamind engage in lots of theft and property damage.

However, it’s still possible to conceive of situations where those crimes could go beyond the moral event horizon; they just have to be harmful and selfish enough. If a character knowingly steals medication that another character needs to live, that could be too far. Martin Shkreli is clearly beyond the moral event horizon.

What Is Required for Forgiveness?

A young woman in Victorian clothes sings, an older man in a nightcap sings behind her. Scrooge begins to regret his greed after feeling the pain of losing Belle.

Just because a misdeed is forgivable doesn’t mean it will be forgiven. To convince the audience to forgive, redemption arcs use two general elements.

Suffering

It’s somewhat accurate to say that people want to see evildoers punished, but that’s an oversimplification. While suffering paves the way for forgiveness, this doesn’t require a punitive mindset. For one thing, people want to see others succeed or fail in accordance with their merit. When someone undeserving is doing well, people resent that until misfortune arrives. It’s hard for people to forgive while that resentment is there.

For another, hardship brings sympathy, which is a powerful factor in likability. After seeing a character suffer, negative attitudes toward that character are diminished. For instance, in Games of Thrones, Theon Greyjoy is an absolute asshole who kills a couple of unnamed children, but he’s difficult to hate after Ramsay Bolton tortures and mutilates him.

Audiences are also unconcerned with causality; a villain could murder someone and then suffer because their mansion was randomly hit by a meteor. In fact, some redeemed characters suffer before doing anything wrong. This is particularly effective if it provided the motivation to do harm. Viewers of Avatar: The Last Airbender learn that Zuko is hunting Aang because Zuko’s father burnt his face and exiled him at the tender age of 13.

When a character does suffer as a direct result of doing something bad, it’s often used to instruct them to do better. In A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Past brings Scrooge back to the time his fiancée left him because he was too greedy.

The suffering someone needs to go through is, of course, proportional to what they’ve done. If a protagonist insults one of their fellows, a little stress, embarrassment, or remorse is enough. When people seem overly punitive toward public figures, it might be because the second, and most important, requirement of forgiveness is missing.

Proof of Remorse

Forgiveness means the character is trusted again. That’s why an unbendable requirement of group forgiveness is assurance that the culprit won’t do more harm. Audiences get that assurance by witnessing signs of remorse.

However, people are very aware that remorse can be faked to avoid punishment and preserve freedoms that would allow the culprit to continue their unethical behavior. Stories are full of characters like Wormtail from Harry Potter, who say whatever they think others want to hear. So to earn forgiveness, a character must not only show signs of remorse, but also prove beyond a doubt that their remorse is genuine.

While this may be a tall order, it is indeed possible. Most of the conventions of redemption arcs are designed to give audiences the proof they need, with a little suffering thrown in for reinforcement.

Let’s look closer at how that’s done.

How Redemption Arcs Create Forgiveness

A young white man stands in a kitchen holding up a video camera In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Andrew makes excuses for his crime and then fully confesses once he has nothing to gain or lose.

Since stories vary a great deal, a redemption arc won’t necessarily have all of these events. However, compelling redemption arcs will almost always have some of them.

The Confession

Characters can’t show remorse over something they won’t admit to having done. That’s why redemption arcs typically include a confession, often packaged as an apology. While this is a sign of remorse, it’s not in itself proof that remorse is genuine. For that, the circumstances of the apology or confession must be examined.

In season seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the antagonist Andrew murders his best friend in a ritual that cracks open the gate to hell. Team Good captures him, and not knowing what else they can do, keeps him prisoner in Buffy’s house. For a while, Andrew does his best to appease the heroes. He comes up with excuses for his crime, such as saying he was tricked by an evil spirit.

In the episode Storyteller, Buffy finds out that only Andrew’s tears will close the gate to hell again. She takes him to the gate and tells him that she’s going to kill him. Thinking he’s about to die, Andrew tearfully confesses that he hadn’t been tricked when he chose to murder his friend. Since he has no reason to believe this will save his life, the only plausible motivation for his confession is remorse.

When a public figure releases an apology, the public analyzes it closely to determine whether it is a sufficient acknowledgment of wrongdoing or if it includes excuses and justifications. However, by that time it’s usually too late anyway. Someone who releases an apology under pressure has a self-serving reason to do so. The most effective apologies are given as soon as a person is told they did something wrong, before it inspires widespread backlash.

The Sacrifice

A character that must be forgiven will almost always make a significant sacrifice to rectify the wrongs they have committed. In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the Beast lets Belle leave even though he knows it means he’ll be trapped in beast form forever. In Deep Space Nine, Damar abandons his position of power and becomes a hunted fugitive to fight the Dominion. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko gives up the approval of his father so he can assist Aang.

A sacrifice shows the character is remorseful enough to give up something they want, which stands in stark contrast to those who fake remorse to avoid giving anything up. If the character undergoes some kind of suffering because of their sacrifice, that makes the sacrifice more meaningful and creates sympathy for them.

Sometimes public figures make donations to a related cause to earn forgiveness. If what they did was small and the cost feels significant for them, then this can help. However, in many cases where a public figure has used the power of their position to do harm, they are expected to sacrifice their job. The more they fight to retain their position, the more the public is convinced that they are not truly sorry.

The Grovel

Long redemption arcs often include the grovel. This is a show of humility and dedication to do better. Humility is an important sign of remorse because fully acknowledging the wrongdoing you’ve committed is a humbling experience. Plus, it’s easier for humble people to admit wrongdoing in the first place.

A groveling character not only prostrates themself before the heroes, but also asks for very little. They will usually ask either for what they need to survive or to be allowed to help others. Zuko begs to be allowed to help Aang learn Firebending, whereas Spike wants to help Buffy fight the evil he senses is coming. They continue to stay humble and beg to help even though they are despised by the heroes.

A groveling character won’t ask for forgiveness. Demanding forgiveness is a sign of entitlement; it only indicates they have not learned their lesson. In Deep Space Nine, Gul Dukat fights with the heroes, but he continues to demand attention and validation from others. In the final season, he returns to villainy.

After groveling, a character will toil without recognition or reward, with the goal of making up for the harm they caused or otherwise assisting others. Once this goes on long enough that the heroes in the story are convinced the groveling character doesn’t have an ulterior motive, some of the heroes will probably forgive them.

Because publicizing a grovel would defeat the point, it’s difficult to translate this one to famous people in the real world. However, a disgraced public figure could still toil for a good cause for an extended period. If their name or public persona helps their cause in some way, making their efforts known might be acceptable.

The Reality of Forgiveness

Zuko cries as his uncle Iroh holds his shoulders Zuko cries after apologizing and then hearing that his uncle forgives him.

Fiction allows us to create idealistic scenarios that are rare in real life. Someone fully acknowledging their wrongdoing and working to become a better person is one of those idealistic scenarios. In real life, realizing we’ve done something wrong is emotionally painful, and naturally everyone wants to do the right thing without making any sacrifices.

Instead, real people often react aggressively toward those who ask them to acknowledge wrongdoing or make up for it. They demand that others simply hold their tongue and forget past injustice for the sake of keeping the peace. Those who prioritize peace often mistake this behavior for forgiveness.

But while the requirements of true forgiveness may seem harsh and unrealistic, they are also necessary. Again, these requirements provide reasonable proof that the culprit will not harm more people. Without that, anyone who advocates for forgiveness is merely agreeing to look the other way while the culprit continues their unethical behavior.

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Comments

  1. kasplach

    Has anyone here seen the Amazon show The Boys? It features a a rapist, The Deep, who is in the middle of a redemption arc as of the most recent season. For now it’s more of a humanization arc, but it’s pretty clear that he’ll at least peripherally help Team Good at some point and that the audience should be convinced that he’ll never do anything bad again.

    What makes it sort of work, at least in concept, is that I can understand that The Deep wouldn’t have committed rape in a vacuum. He clearly suffers from depression and isn’t taken seriously by anyone around him. He experiences the suffering of countless beings that no one else can even comprehend (being telepathically connected to sea creatures). At the beginning of the show, he’ll do anything for a few moments of pleasure. He’s also deeply insecure about his own body and believes it is worthless, and projects that belief onto his victim. The act of rape is completely selfish and totally unacceptable, but he also does it out of emotional desperation and wouldn’t have done it if he received proper help. The show makes both of these statements entirely clear.

    There are a couple of other strong points of that arc, like the fact that The Deep’s life becomes way worse almost immediately after the rape, and the fact that the arc is very slow and completely unflattering. Once it becomes public, the show also does a pretty good job portraying the tendency of people not to believe female rape victims. I can’t say for sure, but I also think that The Deep’s redemption won’t be anything more than bittersweet; he’ll be allowed to do good things, but he’ll never be truly forgiven, especially not by his victim.

    The arc isn’t perfect; in particular, I don’t think the show portrays his depression and insecurity quite as vividly as it could. (He talks to a therapist one episode after the rape, which he really shouldn’t have been brave enough to do.) And I understand that an arc like this has to be pretty much flawless in order to be a net positive for social justice purposes. It just had me thinking that it’s possible to portray a rapist as a somewhat sympathetic figure, and even provide a meaningful commentary on rape, as long as you illustrate the circumstances that led to the rape as well as really drill in the social and emotional consequences that come with it. This obviously comes with a ton of baggage, to the point where I wouldn’t attempt it myself, but I think The Boys is a step in the right direction for the concept. I’m not a sexual assault victim, though, and I don’t know any who have watched the show. Does anyone have an opinion on how this show handles redemption?

    • Ditto

      There’s something to that, but I think it’s somewhat misleading to characterize The Deep as a redeemable rapist in the context of how this article is discussing it. Spike physically forced himself onto Buffy; the dominance and control was the primary motive, and the sex act was secondary. The Deep more accurately blackmailed Starlight into having sex with him, because he wanted sex (and the fetish surrounding the power dynamic is a disgusting layer on top of that) – but she had the ability to walk away with no harm beyond tanking her professional career.

      • Gwen

        I think this is a bit dangerous to imply. Being blackmailed doesnt make it somehow ‘less rape’. He obviously also made it about dominance and control and the fact he presented her with a choice and then somehow the blame fall on her because instead of a random act of violence, it was a maliciously thought out plot.

        If anything, it seems worse. I never watched Buffy because of Spyke and now I wont touch The Boys because of “The Deep”.

        Acting like they aren’t the same thing, I think, is ignoring how much sexual assault is due to this abhorrent practice of blackmailing people, and rapists often act like they are not culpable (or less culpable) because they offered a ‘choice’.

        If anything the thought out way they take advantage of systems to exert control, make them worse.

    • Jeppsson

      Also not a sexual assault victim, and very tentatively agree about the Deep.

      And I disagree to some extent with Ditto, it’s a bit more complicated. Yep, the Deep blackmailed Starlight, it was clear that she was more powerful than him physically. But when he saw her powering up in response to him pulling his dick out, he threatened to tell people that she went nuts over nothing and attacked him, and then people would believe him and not her, and think that she’s unstable and dangerous. Ok, I’m just drawing from memory here, but something along these lines.

      It’s not so obvious that only her career was on the line, but nothing worse than that (and one’s career can be BAD ENOUGH, it’s not so easy to just go get another job and shrug it off). The scene reminded me of when Terry Crews told media that he had been sexually assaulted by a (still unnamed, I think) Hollywood executive. Crews is a huge man, but he was scared of getting a reputation as a dangerous and aggressive black man if he tried to defend himself in any way. Although Starlight is a slim blond white woman, given her powers, I thought something similar might apply to her, and whatever consequences might follow from THAT (being charged with assualt? a criminal conviction, if everyone believes the Deep’s version?).

      (We learn later that the Deep doesn’t have the social status necessary to make good on his threat, so all I wrote above is what things would have looked like from Starlight’s perspective.)

    • balun

      Not an assault victim here and haven’t seen the show, but I’m not inclined to forgive a character like that so easily just because he’s portrayed as sympathetic.
      Although I’ve heard the rape itself was more like blackmail or coersion rather than through violence, I’ve also heard the character had a long history of sexual misconduct they suffered no consequences for in addition to being a zoophile.
      I don’t see how a character like that could ever be sympathetic at all.

      • Ditto

        I agree, it’s crappy behavior all around. Not saying he’s quite earned the forgiveness /sympathy yet, but it’s a credible setup-and not the same as a rapist as being discussed in the article.

        If he had physically grabbed Starlight, pinned her down on the table, and then whispered all the reputation stuff when she started to power up/fight back as a means of subduing her, it would be a very different story and I don’t think there’s any chance of the audience caring to follow him from there under any circumstances.

    • Jeppsson

      I should add that I think what makes me somewhat sympathetic to him despite what he’s done, is that he gets SO much spinach which is straight-out HUMILIATING and makes him seem pathetic.

      Like, they could have heaped bad consequences on him in a different way, that made him seem like a brooding tragic pretty-boy (the actor is pretty handsome, after all). And I would have hated that. (Maybe that’s what they did with Spike? Made him a brooding, tragic pretty-boy? I only watched 1,5 seasons of Buffy before I decided that the good aspects of the show didn’t outweigh all the bad as far as I was concerned…)

      So this once again gets us into nuances with regards to spinach (and analogously for candy): It’s one thing that the character suffers bad consequences. It’s another thing if people in-universe despise the character. And it’s a FURTHER thing if the character is presented as a pathetic loser to the audience. It’s possible to have the first two ingredients but no the third, if the character is presented as nobly and innocently suffering other people’s scorn.

      I only began feeling vaguely sympathetic to the Deep, wishing him a small and nuanced redemption (but not for Starlight to forgive him), after he had been SO humiliated for SO long, not just to other characters, but above all to the audience.

      • Em

        What they did with Spike is a bit more complicated than how the article portrays it, though I agree it still doesn’t stick the landing. The scene where he nearly rapes Buffy is preceded by several months of a mutually toxic relationship where the lines of consent were heavily blurred (there is a scene earlier on where he tells Buffy no and she just ignores him. It’s not portrayed as rape there but it sets a precedent. Their sexual relationship is heavy on powerplay and of course they have no safe word). Throughout the season, he’s repeatedly shown that the only way Buffy seems to let him connect with her is through rough sexuality. Spike is soulless at the time (which basically means he has a predisposition for violence and is unable to build an internal compass for good and bad), and thus doesn’t *really* understand that their relationship was unhealthy or that Buffy was partaking in it because she was self-loathing. Basically, he was trying to engage in the relationship in the only way he knew worked, and since he was soulless… he wasn’t exactly working with a full deck or morality either. He doesn’t really have the intent to rape in the scene, (it doesn’t particularly matter on the victim side of things because the experience remains the same for Buffy, but from an audience perspective that might change things). He’s less despicable than the usual perpetrator of something like that, and yes the season following is basically just one huge parade of pain for him. Not in and Angel broody pretty boy way… in a he gets mentally and physically tormented kind of way.

        But yeah, regardless I think it was a bad decision. Spike is only remotely redeemable if you stop and analyze the extremely specific nuances and context of that scene, and many people are far too triggered by the trauma of what may have happened to themselves to do that. Plus I’m just generally very leery of the meta-narrative of literally using an attack against a woman to facilitate the betterment of man? I like a lot of things about Buffy (including Spike the character) but for a show that loved to call itself feminist, a whole lot of it reads pretty misogynistic now (granted, not that surprising given what we now know about its creator). The whole thing is pretty unnessesary too; they have a conversation just before it happens where she tells him she can’t love him because she doesn’t trust him. All that needed to happen is him making the connection between her distrust and his lack of a soul and I would 100% believe that Spike–a character heavily characterized by his romantic ambitions–would go and get a soul in pursuit of the love he wants to have with Buffy. It’s the exact same story except now we haven’t traumatized the audience or the actor playing Spike (who was apparently very uncomfortable with the scene and did it one cut).

  2. Liu

    Wondering how possible would it be to have the main character go through a redemption arc? Would they always be too unlikeable at the beginning for it to work?

    • Grey

      See the Megamind example. The whole film is about his redemption arc.

    • Cay Reet

      I’d say it depends on what kind of character you have. Unlikeable characters who become more likeable over time exist. As long as the character hasn’t crossed event horizon and won’t, a redemption is possible. It comes down to how well you can write that character.

    • Esq

      Isn’t this the basic premise of My Name Is Earl?

  3. Esq

    In real life, people are capable of holding some really long grudges over things that would just seem petty in fiction. Most redemption arcs in fiction, especially speculative fiction, involve some really bad deeds or even outright atrocities while in real life relationships can fall apart over a lot less like accidentally taking the last piece of saved pie from the frudge. I mean usually these petty things do tend to be the last act in a line of incidents but not always.

    The fact that fictional redemption arcs tend to be over really big bad acts or atrocities is not necessarily a good thing. This is because a lot of times, the character seeking redemption basically committed a real serious crime or even a crime against humanity and doesn’t get the appropriate punishment. Or even worse, they can seem to get rewarded with status and a loving significant other after their redemption. Like Sorsha in Willow. We don’t see anything but chances are she did what we would call massive human rights violations while working for her mother but instead of ending up in jail after a trial, she ends up as a Queen and married to Madmartigan. Not necessarily great.

  4. Jeppsson

    I think the recent version of a Christmas Carol with Guy Pearce as Scrooge (the “dark and gritty” Christmas Carol) actually had a really good redemption arch. For starters, they make it very clear that you don’t get a pass for being horrible just because you had a horrible childhood yourself. It comes out explicitly in dialogue, and at first I thought it was a bit TOO on the nose, but then I changed my mind and thought that nah, you might need to be super explicit with these things. But most of all, the show makes a clear separation between
    a) being redeemed in the eyes of the audience and, well, in the eyes of God/the universe/the powers that be, and
    b) being redeemed in the eyes of your victims.

    Pearce’s Scrooge is really horrible, and I think it’s GOOD that he doesn’t really get b) in this version, even though he gets a).

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