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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