What Is A Redemption Arc?
Have you ever seen Avatar: The Last Airbender? Do you remember Darth Vader’s fatal, redemptive sacrifice? Were you kind of convinced Jaime Lannister had good in him during the final season of GOT?
These are all famous examples of redemption arcs; some of them you might recognize, others might have you scratching your head—but they each have one thing in common: the character eventually changed their mind.
Now, what exactly is a redemption arc?
A quick search on Google will tell you that a redemption arc is a story where a character goes through a series of obstacles and challenges to make amends for something bad they have done. The most common way this happens in entertainment is when a character who is a villain in the beginning of a story later becomes a ‘good’ character by the end.
Now, this is actually a very vague definition; a villain becoming a hero is the most common form of Redemption Arc but it’s just one of many examples.
Before we begin, I’d like to say there are some spoilers here involving the shows mentioned above. If you aren’t very familiar with the material, I’d read with caution.
So, what types of Redemption Arcs are there?
Think of Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. He starts off as the main villain of the story (besides the Fire Lord himself) and spends a great amount of time hunting down the protagonist. By the end of the series, however, Prince Zuko casts away his crown to help the Avatar spread peace throughout the world. There’s obviously much more to the story than this, but it’s a solid example of what it means for a bad guy to redeem themselves—this is the classic and most common arc called: The Redemption Arc.
While Prince Zuko is a great and common example of redemption, it’s important to remember that redemption arcs can also occur within the ‘good guys’. For example, the hero of a story can make a mistake or a bad decision that negatively impacts the story or the rest of the cast and spend time making amends for that mistake.
If you’ve ever seen the famed show, Game of Thrones, then you know who Theon Greyjoy is. Initially, Theon is a member of Team Good Guys but, depending on how much of the show you’ve seen—or books you’ve read—you might remember that Theon committed some pretty horrible crimes against his own friends which puts him on Team Bad Guys. Through a series of very unfortunate events, Theon comes to see the error of his ways and spends the rest of his time on the show making up for his wrongdoings as he rejoins Team Good Guys and eventually makes amends in a very dramatic fashion.
This redemption arc involves a bit of bloodshed, but it is a good example of a member of Team Good Guys making up for their mistakes or poor judgment. We call this the Forgiveness Arc.
The next arc we’re going to discuss is the Failed Redemption Arc. Some might say this isn’t exactly a redemption arc because the character is not entirely redeemed, however, if the journey of redemption is at least attempted then its worth a mention in my book.
One of my favorite examples of this arc is Jaime Lannister—yet another character from Game of Thrones. If you’ve seen the show or read the books then you know Jaime is most definitely a member of Team Bad Guys but through a strong connection with another character, Jaime begins to see things differently. Towards the end of the series, Jaime changes from Team Bad Guys to Team Good Guys but we see his switch begin to crumble when his bond with members on Team Bad Guys becomes too powerful of an influence. Unable to shake his attachments with Team Bad Guys, Jaime ultimately finishes the series as a member of Team Bad Guys.
The reason why Failed Redemption Arcs are so interesting is because they often occur when the character in question faces overwhelming struggle and conflict which they are ultimately unable to overcome. Of course, this wouldn’t be a failed arc if the character could overcome these struggles, but I think its important to keep in mind that a fair share of struggle and conflict is exactly what makes any arc more interesting and believable to audiences.
Think of the struggle Prince Zuko faced as he went down the path of redemption: he was forced to make difficult decisions and often came face to face with the consequences of his previous decisions as a member of Team Bad Guys. Zuko spent entire seasons battling his inner struggles and facing his former self as he was challenged to become a better person. But it wasn’t the length of time that made his transformation so realistic, it was his struggle and conflict—both inward and outward—that made it convincing to audiences and even cast members. As I mentioned before, Prince Zuko’s journey was so impactful that he was willing to throw away his crown to help the Avatar—the very reason he became a bad guy in the first place.
Ultimately, a good redemption arc is determined by believable struggle, conflict, and sometimes sacrifice—which brings us to the last arc.
I mentioned Darth Vader’s great sacrifice earlier—this is the third form of redemption called the Sacrificial Arc. Most often, this occurs when an enemy makes amends by sacrificing themselves. It’s a pretty straight-forward concept and is typically used on characters who have been portrayed as excessively evil—in which case their redemption would take an immeasurable amount of time and effort to be presented to audiences in an acceptable and believable manner. Or its used when a character is perceived as being redeemable only through death.
I think Darth Vader is an excellent example of the Sacrificial Arc; not only is he portrayed as one of the most evil beings in the galaxy, but he is also seen as the backbone of evil—meaning, the direct source of everything bad that happened throughout the Star Wars saga. Now, there are some super fans who can debate me left and right on that point but let’s stay focused on the idea of the arc.
Theon Greyjoy is also a great example of a sacrificial arc because he portrays this arc in a manner that doesn’t just skip the redemptive journey and have the character die in a brief moment of heroic greatness. Instead, we see Theon go through a full-length Forgiveness Arc and fully make amends by sacrificing himself to protect the very person he so deeply betrayed. This is such a great Sacrificial Arc because the sacrifice itself is not the act of redemption but the final step in a full redemptive journey. With Darth Vader, we only see a single moment of redemption through his death—we aren’t given any insight as to what was going through his head; if he truly wanted to make amends for all the wrong he’d done or if he simply wanted to make it up to his son. We could actually argue that Darth Vader wasn’t redeemed but simply performed a redemptive act.
A Sacrificial Arc is very interesting because it relates very heavily to our faith today. As always, The Rebel Christian represents faith-based writing so I can’t post an article on redemption without mentioning my Lord and Savior. If you’ve been saved for more than 24 hours then you know that Jesus gave His life for us. But how exactly does that work?
Being human, we cannot help but sin—but God loves us so much He wanted to give us a way to access Him despite our sin. That’s where Jesus comes in; in a brilliant and beautiful display of love, humanity witnessed the very first Sacrificial Arc in history when Christ gave up His life on the Cross at Calvary. Except … Jesus didn’t die to atone for His sins—He died to atone for ours. So now our redemption arc has begun; its our turn to pick up the cross and accept Christ as our Redeemer by living faith-filled and righteous lives dedicated to our Lord in heaven. Don’t let Christ’s blood be shed in vain.
I hope you guys learned something from this article or was at least able to make some decisions on where you want to take your own characters. Redemption Arcs are entertaining and loved by fans because it takes your favorite villain on a very personal and—sometimes—painful journey. As a writer, I love redemption arcs because it gives me a chance to explore my own characters in ways I might not have been able to before. Redemption opens up the doors for backstories, emotions, and even relationships that may not have existed before.
Who would your character be if they were good? What would they do? What would it take to transform them into a good character?
Think of these questions as you sit down to write, I’m sure you’ll discover something new.
Be sure to check out my other articles available for free here on The Rebel Christian, the archives section is just a click away. If you enjoyed this article, make sure you hit the subscribe button below and keep an eye out for my next article—How to Write A Redemption Arc.
Until next update, God bless!