I’ve recently read a book and played a game that had redemption arcs in them, and it just got me thinking about them and why I love them. So I thought I’d do a little discussion on why I like them and what makes them work for me, and then give some recommendations!
(Fun Fact: I looked up what flowers symbolize apology and found that lily of the valley is best, so that’s what the image above is!)
Why I Like Redemption Arcs
I think the reason I like redemption arcs so much is simply because I like the idea of people trying to be better. It seems most people who’ve done serious wrong in real life never do that, so I guess that makes it extra appealing.
Also, a lot of characters are pretty close to perfect, which I am not. No one is. So it can be nice to find some characters who are truly flawed. It’s a nice reminder that whatever you’ve done in life is probably not as bad as what this character has done, and if even they can be redeemed and deserving of love, so can you.
I’m gonna quote myself here from one of my reviews: It’s better late than never to start being a better person. I can always get behind a character admitting their wrongs and trying to change.
What Makes Them Work
Just to be clear, this is all my opinion about what works for me, not requirements for writers.
For me, the key to a redemption arc is, first and foremost, that the character is genuinely sorry and doing what they can to make up for it. That includes not doing it just to get forgiveness, they’re sorry whether they’re forgiven or not.
The second important thing is that the character is, at the very least, a decent person. Not just to the people they wronged, but in general. If they’re sorry about one thing they did but are still an awful person in other ways, I don’t think I’m going to forgive them.
Sometimes these characters also have reasons that explain why they did what they did or became the way they are. Which can make me feel for them more, and it can be good character development because yes, violence begets violence, abused people abuse others, etc. But of course that does not excuse bad behavior, and I wouldn’t like it if a story tried to use it as an excuse.
But even then, even if they meet these requirements, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll forgive them, or that other readers will. I think certain things are just unforgivable to some people, even if those things only happened in a fictional world. I think it can also be harder to forgive characters who’ve done things that we’ve experienced in real life. And that’s ok. Feelings are complex things.
But even when I personally can’t forgive a character or feel like what they did was just irredeemable, I can still appreciate that the character is trying to be better now, because that’s always a good thing.
The Fallen King’s Penitent Soldier by Megan Derr is the book I read recently that sparked this post idea. It’s all about a character redeeming himself, and it was very much a redemption arc done right, in my opinion. I loved it and felt so much for the character.
I Was a Teenage Exocolonist was the game I played recently. One character (Vace) is just the worst. But if you can stand that long enough to befriend him, you can convince him to do therapy, and then you get to learn more about him, and he really changes, and that ended up being one of my favorite characters/friendships in the epilogue.
Prince/Sir Robot IV (from Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples) is one of my all-time favorite characters, and he has a more subtle sort of redemption arc. It sort of just happened, never really focused on, but as it was happening, he went from being a character I didn’t like as a person but found sort of hilarious, to a character I really cared about and wanted all the best for. This one doesn’t necessarily meet my requirements, I don’t remember if he really says he’s sorry for anything, but you can tell he’s changing.
Docile by K. M. Szpara is a book I did not like, but it’s a good example of a character who I don’t think I could quite forgive even though he pretty much did do everything right after he realized he’d done wrong. What he did was just too awful, but I’m still glad he changed for the better.
Binding Blood by Daniel de Lorne is a book I really liked but another example of a character whose actions were too awful for me to completely forgive. The author did make me feel a lot of sympathy for him though, and I was surprised by how much my feelings toward him changed when he changed.
“There will be more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous men who need no repentance.” Literally the opening text. In this book, it’s never made entirely clear to the reader exactly what happened. But the character takes responsibility and certainly tries to make up for it anyway. He’s one who at first made me think, “Ugh, this guy’s a jerk,” but I loved him by the end.