How To Write A Redemption Arc
Hello hello, welcome to my literary blog! If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you have some sort of interest in writing or reading, you might be an author—maybe even a Christian author! Whatever the case may be, I have to ask you to stop right now and scroll down, find the little subscribe button in the bottom-left corner of the screen and tap it. Here, at The Rebel Christian, we are always uploading new articles for authors, writers, bloggers, Christians, and readers to enjoy. If you’ve made it this far, I promise you’ll like it if you stay.
Now! This article is a continuation of my last post, What Is A Redemption Arc? So, if you missed that, or you want a refresher, click the link to check it out now. But if you’re all caught up—or you already know and understand what a redemption arc is, keep on reading!
We already know a redemption arc is a story where a character goes through a series of events/challenges to make amends for something they have done.
Keeping this definition in mind, its very easy to think that a redemption arc is simply taking a bad guy and switching them to Team Good Guys by the end of the story. If you’ve read more than one or two books in your lifetime then you know it’s a bit more complicated than that, but we’ll keep things simple for this article.
When you sit down to create a redemption arc, you first want to decide what sort of arc you’re going to write. In my last article we discussed four different types of RA’s; the classic Redemption Arc, the Sacrificial Arc, the Failed Redemption Arc, and the Forgiveness Arc.
I can write a How-To article on each of these arcs, but I don’t have the time for that and you don’t have the patience to scroll through it—so we’re going to stick with the classic Redemption Arc (RA) for today.
First, ask yourself why you want to write a redemption arc. This is important because RA’s begin in different ways, depending on the character you use. Let me break it down for you.
An RA can happen with different types of characters:
1. A character who is a bad person and has no remorse, comprehension, or acknowledgement of their wrongdoings.
2. A character who is aware of their wrongdoing but continues to commit these acts because of misplaced priorities.
3. A character who is aware of their wrongdoing but has little to no control over their actions due to troubling circumstances or addictions.
Now that you know the types of redeemable characters, where does your protagonist (or antagonist) fall?
Let’s start with the first character: a bad person who has no remorse. This is a character who is a naturally evil person or someone with strong motives which makes them evil. If this character is naturally evil/mean or bad there must be a powerful backstory to explain their behavior—otherwise they may be viewed as irredeemable. So, when you’re working with this sort of character you’ve got to be prepared to dig a little deeper as far as characterization and development goes.
Think of the character Scar from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. If you aren’t familiar with the anime or manga, Scar is a character who spends much of the show hunting down the Good Guys. He finds himself battling multiple characters and even killing people as he tries to track down anyone he perceives as an enemy. If you watched the show, then you remember how Scar abandoned his religion and his culture to walk the path of revenge. Initially, he seems like a deranged serial killer with no remorse or regret but then you learn that Scar is actually the victim of an unprovoked genocide against his race, religion, and culture. The sole survivor of his family, Scar takes up a mantle of revenge as he tries to right the wrongs that were committed against a culture and religion known for its peace.
It’s a tough story and an even more painful concept to struggle with once you realize the people who committed the terrible acts against Scar’s country are the members of Team Good Guys (the heroes) who were merely acting on military orders. Scar had incredibly strong motives for his antagonistic actions, but he also had an equally powerful backstory that very deeply explained what made him a member of Team Bad Guys. This RA is set up in a way to make audiences think about their own faith, culture, and government. Is there ever a justification for revenge? Does POV determine who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist?—or are there concrete rights and wrongs in the world you have built?
Let’s move on to character 2: someone who is aware of their wrongdoing but continues in their ways because of misplaced priorities.
Now some of you might say there isn’t much difference between character 1 and 2; Scar had misplaced priorities, right? This is true but the key point to remember here is that while character 1 may also have misplaced priorities, they feel no remorse for their actions—in some cases, they are not even able to comprehend their own wrongdoings. Character 2, on the other hand, is aware of their wrongdoings and openly displays remorse and acknowledgement of their actions.
My favorite example of this will always be Prince Zuko from the series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Prince Zuko goes from Team Bad Guys to Team Good Guys in a rather entertaining fashion but what’s important to know here is that he is only a member of Team Bad Guys because of his misplaced priorities. Zuko’s priority is his honor as a Prince. After being banished from the Fire Nation by his father (who is the Fire Lord), Prince Zuko is assigned the mission to hunt down the Avatar or else he is never allowed back home. Desperate to regain his honor, Zuko sets out on a journey to track down the hero of the story at all costs.
Do you see the misplacement of priorities here? If it were not for his banishment, Zuko might have been on Team Good Guys from episode 1. But because Prince Zuko prioritized his status as a Prince above all else, he was able to commit many acts against the heroes of the show and other innocent cast members without taking the consequences into consideration. Throughout the show, we see moments of regret or remorse expressed by the Prince, but it is very clear that his honor will always come first.
Now, character 3 is very interesting because it takes a character who could be a member of Team Good Guys but their wrongdoings are uncontrollable because of troubling circumstances or addictions. You might say there isn’t much difference between character 2 and 3, considering the troubling circumstances Prince Zuko faced, but the key point to remember here is that character 3 has no control over their actions. While Zuko might have faced troubling circumstances, he did have control over his actions but chose to prioritize his honor as a Prince above his duty to help maintain peace and balance between the 4 elements.
Let’s consider Jaime Lannister for character 3—I’m sure you know him from the popular series, Game of Thrones. Jaime is fueled by his passionate love for his sister but his wrongdoings are also committed because of his loyalty to his family name which happens to be fighting on the opposite side of the war, versus the Good Guys.
You could say Jaime’s love for his sister is his addiction, while his position as the successor to the Lannister name is his troubling circumstance. Now, this is not as strong of an argument compared to someone whose addiction is something more powerful like drugs or alcohol, or someone whose troubling circumstance might be a life or death situation, but we’ll work with it.
Jaime spends the better half of the GOT series very aware of his wrongdoings but unable to control not just his actions but his own desires as he turns his back on Team Good Guys and returns to his sister’s side. Jaime does some good during his time on the show but his addictive love for his sister ultimately brings him back to Team Bad Guys.
What you must remember when writing an RA is what motivates your character. What fuels them the most and what will it take to trigger a change within them? Consider these three traits of a Redemption Arc:
A character’s goals
A character’s view of themselves
A character’s view of the world
Think of Scar, our example for character 1. Scar’s goals were to get revenge for his slaughtered family and friends. He viewed himself as an avenger and his view of the world was that it was violent and needed to be cleansed.
By the end of the series, Scar was fighting for Team Good Guys—but it wasn’t until after his view of the world shifted. Once Scar realized that there was violence happening to more than just his country and his people, his view of himself as an avenger changed which ultimately shifted his goal from getting revenge for his family to helping spread peace to the world again.
Prince Zuko is a pretty straightforward example; his goal was to restore his honor as the Prince of the Fire Nation while his view of himself was that he was weak and dishonored and his view of the world was that the Fire Nation benefitted from the war—ultimately expanding the empire that would soon be his.
The first thing to change about Prince Zuko was his view of himself. While being dishonored was a stab in the gut for him, spending time as a second-class citizen without that honor allowed Zuko to see himself as more than a boy desperate for his father’s love. Zuko began to find strength in other things and other people and changed his view of himself from being weak and dishonored to being someone who can be strong when he needed to be. This change in his sense of self-worth influenced Zuko’s view of the world which opened his eyes to the darkness caused by the Fire Nation’s war and prevented him from being truly happy with the crown he’d fought so hard to get back.
Of course, there is so much more to Zuko’s RA than what I’m able to explain here but I hope you are able to make the connections between the character’s own traits and what I’ve listed here in this article.
For character number 3, Jaime Lannister is a little different because he is ultimately a failed Redemption Arc and that’s because his addiction gets the better of him. From the beginning of the story, Jaime’s goal was to be with his sister—no matter what. Jaime even gives up his rights as heir to the Lannister name just to stay by his sister’s side. His view of himself, as his sister’s twin brother, is literally her other half. And his view of the world is that it is very dark and unfair—especially because it is a world that is built on honor and loyalty but shuns him for the love and loyalty he feels for his sister.
After some very unfortunate mishaps, Jaime changes his view of the world; he is able to see the faults on both sides of the war and is able to see himself as more than his sister’s other half but a man who could possibly love someone else. What makes Jaime’s arc a failure is that he never changes his goals; even though he is able to find love with another woman and even though he is able to see the world from a different view, he is unable to stay on Team Good Guys because of his addicting love to his sister.
If you’re looking to write a successful Redemption Arc, every trait *should* change: the goal, the view of oneself, and the view of the world. If one of those does not change, you might find yourself with a failed RA—emphasis on might because it is very possible for a character to keep their goals and change their views or change their goals but keep their views. That all depends on the outside influences which spark the character’s redemption to begin with.
Why does your character change? Is it the introduction of a new love interest, such as Beauty & The Beast? If it weren’t for Belle, Beast might not have realized how hardened he had become.
Is it because of a sudden realization? Maybe a character who is seeking to avenge the death of a loved one realizes that person was actually alive all along.
Or maybe your character changes because it is simply convenient for them. Greed from Fullmetal Alchemist is a bad guy who claims he wants to rule the world one day and fights for the bad guys because they seem to have the upper hand for a large portion of the story—but as soon as it seems like he might complete his goals much faster by fighting for Team Good Guys, Greed switches sides. Technically, there is no redemption here as Greed’s motives and sense of right and wrong don’t necessarily change but in the end, he goes through a series of realizations and makes an unforgettable sacrifice.
I could go on and on with examples, but I think you can pick up what I’m saying by now. You know I never end an article without referencing my faith—and what better topic to do it than redemption!
Faith, hope, trust, and love all play into redemption—and these are big parts of the Christian faith so writing an RA in Christian fiction can add an extra layer of complexity. Does your character turn their back on God as well as cast members? Is this a journey back to one’s faith or back to their friends/family? If love is the spark of redemption, is it the love of God?
Think about these questions when you sit down to write Christian fiction—you’ll be surprised by the doors of creativity that will be opened by including your faith in your work.
I hope you learned something from this article, or at least feel refreshed! Of course, all the examples used here come from my own understanding of the shows listed; if you have a better example, feel free to leave it in the comments section! Who is your favorite redemption arc? Do you feel Jaime Lannister is a strong enough example of character 3?
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