Written by JJ Barnes
When you arc a character, you take them from one mental state to another, and you let your audience in on that journey. This could be from weak to strong, angry to happy, or enemies to lovers. It allows your characters to grow and change through your story which makes them more interesting and relatable. In this post, I’ll be looking specifically at how to write a redemption arc.
What Is A Redemption Arc?
Redemption is when a character who has done bad things makes up for it and starts fresh. It doesn’t erase past crimes, but it allows them to make amends and be forgiven. They may be then accepted and integrated into the society of people they have wronged, or their redemption could come in sacrifice to save the lives of others.
A redemption arc could be gradual, slowly building change from a bad person to a good person. Or it could be a jolt. A sudden realisation that everything they have been doing was wrong. As long as they take steps to fix their errors and recognise their wrongdoing, they can be redeemed.
A Heroic Redemption Arc
A hero arc takes a characters from unlikeable or dangerous, to being a true hero. They may start out the story either arrogant and unable to be a hero. Or unwilling to be a hero due to the risk to themselves. To be a hero, a true hero, your character must be both humble enough to accept help when needed, and brave enough to put themselves at risk.
An example of arrogance being the place to arc from on the hero’s redemption arc is in Thor. At the beginning of the film Thor, he believes himself to be a hero. He is brave and arrogant, and fails to make good choices because he think he is too powerful to defeat. This attitude makes him both unlikeable to the audience, and nearly gets his friends killed in the story. It’s in this hubris that his failing comes, and shows why he is not fit to be a hero.
The redemption arc of Thor begins is with his inability to lift the hammer, Mjollnir. As the story moves forwards, Thor goes on an emotional journey. He learns that a true hero is humble and honest. He respects the lives of those around him, and accepts his own weaknesses. Through those weaknesses he finds true strength and is able to become the ultimate hero of the story. He lifts Mjollnir, he saves the day, and he wins the love of Jane.
A Backstory Redemption Arc
The backstory of your characters can be used in their redemption arc. When you take a character who appears to be a bad person, it can be in the exploration of their past that you come to understand them. Whilst backstory doesn’t necessarily excuse all crimes, it can explain why a person acts in a hostile or negative way. A person in pain will lash out and struggle to form emotional connections that make them seem distant and unfriendly.
Giving a person pain they are struggling to cope with, and then addressing that pain through the course of your story, can make a fantastic redemption arc. Whilst that pain goes unacknowledged or hidden, there is no way to move past it. However, once both the character and the people around them see the truth of their life, they can start to address it. By looking your past head on, you can overcome it.
In the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling, the backstory of Severus Snape is intrinsic to his redemption arc. At the start of the series Snape could be described as a bad character, or, at best, morally ambiguous. His outright hostility towards Harry and potential loyalties to Voldemort are teased and played with throughout. You cannot fully rest on who this man is.
However, as his backstory starts to be revealed you start to see the truth of who Snape is. The abuse he suffered left him defensive, his lost love for Lilly Potter left him heartbroken and resentful. By the end his backstory has been explored and Snape has been allowed to develop fully. He ends the story a redeemed hero.
A Humility Redemption Arc
I mentioned humility in the heroic redemption arc section, but a specific humility arc is different. A humble character will always be more likeable because arrogance is a negative quality. It makes sense it would appear more than once. However, a humility arc does not send a character to wards bravery or heroism. It sends them towards becoming a better person.
A spoiled and arrogant character will be unlikeable. They are the ones who are entitled and spiteful if they don’t get their way. They are ungrateful for the efforts made by others and have no interest in showing kindness if it doesn’t benefit them.
When a character who starts a story as a spoiled brat goes on a humility redemption arc, they learn to value and respect those around them. They lose that entitled attitude and become a good person. Not an angel, not a hero, still flawed and human, but good in their core.
In Schitts Creek, Alexis Rose has a humility redemption arc. At the start of the series she is spoiled, entitled and ungrateful. She resents the home she is given and judges those around her as not good enough. She expects to be given everything she wants without having to work for it. By the end, she has arced into a better person. She is humble.
Alexis ends the series as someone who works hard to accomplish goals. She is grateful for the efforts made by others, and is kind to those around her. She is still the same person in many ways, but the humility has made her the best version of herself.
Redemption Through Partnership
Finding acceptance in another person can be intrinsic to the redemption arc of your character. Alone, they are bitter and angry, but together, they are strong.
To write a redemption arc through partnership, work out what is making your character a bad person. Work out why another person can change them. A character who is lonely may feel they are not good enough. They won’t let their inner truth out because they feel it’s not good enough. They either reject human connection entirely, or surround themselves with people who only know the mask they present to the world.
Work out why they feel that way and then allow another person to see their truth. Once their truth has been seen and accepted by somebody, they can start to rebuild and change who they are. They find redemption through the acceptance of the other person.
In Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit, Saffron begins the story has a school bully. She is cruel, she is judgmental and she is happy to humiliate others for her own entertainment. The friends she is surrounded by don’t see her truth. She shows a mask of confidence and strength to the world, whilst hiding the vulnerability and pain within.
When that guard is let down around Lilly, and she is fully accepted for her truth, Saffron is able to find redemption. She makes amends of her cruelty and is a loyal and true friend. By the end of the story, Saffron and Lilly have formed a powerful partnership. They find and accept their inner truths with one another.
A Sacrificial Redemption Arc
A sacrificial redemption arc is best suited to a villain. A character who has caused enough pain to only find their redemption in death. By sacrificing themselves, they prevent further pain and also punish themselves for all their wrong doing. Whilst their crimes are not erased, this sacrifice turn at the last minute offers redemption in death. They can be remembered for that final selfess act.
In Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven, Fadius burns women alive. He is clearly a monster. However, at the very end, he decides to burn himself alive as retribution for his past crimes. He realises the error of his ways and is redeemed both through his step to prevent further murders, and self punishment for his crimes.
To write a sacrificial redemption arc, it works best as a plot twist. But it cannot come out of nowhere. For Fadius, he was acting under the false belief that his murders were for good. To the outsider it is clear that burning women alive is a heinous crime. Fadius is shown to be manipulated and his willingness to act is, whilst not understandable, at least explained. However, the clarity that he is doing wrong starts to build and so when he makes that final act of sacrifice. It makes sense for the character. If a character who has shown no hint of change makes an inexplicable self sacrifice, they might seem to be redeemed, but it won’t make sense for your story.
Redeeming A Kind Hearted Monster
A kind hearted monster is a character who, at the start of your story, is a true villain. A monster. Either literal or figurative. Somebody who commits terrible acts of cruelty or violence and seems to be doomed to position as your story villain. However, through the course of the story they are sent on a redemption arc. Your audience, and the characters around them, accept them despite all their crimes. To do this, your character must have something exceptional and unique about them. Something that means they are worthy of redemption and acceptance.
In Buffy The Vampire Slayer, whilst Spike does ultimately sacrifice himself, he is redeemed before that. His arrival to the show makes him seem like pure monster. He is a vampire, he eats people, he joyfully tortures people. However, despite still being a vampire and not regaining his soul like Angel, he is arced to redemption. His arc comes from his kind heart which, despite everything, is still true. You see him as a human, where he is truly a good and gentle man. Then, as a vampire, he is shown for form emotional bonds and develop true love for other characters. Other vampires are shown as incapable of empathy and love, so Spike immediately stands out as unique.
His redemption begins when he is implanted with a chip. This chip prevents him from committing acts of violence and during this time his empathy and emotional capabilities are allowed to flourish. With the drive for violence from the vampirism suppressed, his humanity grows. This humanity develops to the point that, even with the chip removed, Spike chooses not to cause harm. This choice alone offers redemption for Spike as you have learned how powerful the vampire inside is. His choice to fight it and embrace the humanity within shows a kind heart and a redeeming goodness.
Your Redeemed Character
The character you choose to send on a redemption arc can be a hideous villain, or they can just be a flawed person. Somebody who acts unwisely due to past pain. As long as they learn from their mistakes and take steps to make amends, an audience would be willing to forgive even terrible characters.
You can combine multiple redemption arcs or stick to one. But showing them kind heart and selfless final choice is key to redemption. When they make a choice for good in the face of all the pressures that caused them to be wicked, your redemption arc is complete.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
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