Friday, November 18, 2016

You Want to Go Home and Rethink Your Redemption Arc

Hi!  It's Grace.

So this is the second installment of the "You Want to Go Home and Rethink Your _______", in which I talk about what makes certain attributes of a novel bad, and why you should improve it.  This doesn't mean I believe that thing is inherently bad, just that I'm unhappy with the way it's being brought into fiction.  I'll welcome comments with examples of where someone did a fascinating job, because I think that's amazing.

Before we go any farther, in the first installment I mentioned that the title is from Star Wars.  For those of you who are like me and totally forget every film quote unless you've seen the movie 500 times, here's where we got it from:

Image result

Besides, that's just an awesome scene.  

Okay so on to redemption arcs.  I have nothing serious against the concept being in a book, and I think it's wonderful that characters can begin as terrible people and be less evil by the end of the book.  What I do have against them is the fact that they're often made unrealistic and cheesy.  Here's a few ways to write a terrible redemption arc:

1. Have your character be the only member of their people to realize that something is wrong.
This is something that annoys me to no end.  Someone's entire civilization believes something, and without a voice from above or anything like that this character suddenly thinks "yeah but how about we don't do the thing which we have been doing since the start of civilization?"  He's then rejected by his people and has to go about changing the world.  

This one has the problem of human beans having very few epiphanies like that.  It hardly ever happens in real life, and when it does it's because someone has a vision or has spent their lives on a mountain contemplating human existence.  The two people I can think of off the top of my head who managed this in real life are Jesus (who was just doing what He was sent to earth to do so does He even count?) and Mahatma Gandhi.  I'm sure it's happened more often than that, but not often enough to become a common plot point.  

2. Have your character become a perfect human being. 
Even though Joe rises from his evil and messed up past, he's still going to be imperfect.  He's never going to have all the answers or have his life completely organized.  Even if he ends the story with becoming a good guy and defeating the evil power, he's still going to have things left over from his past life that will affect the choices he makes.  

3. Give your character absolutely no reason to change and then suddenly switch sides.
So imagine you have an evil person bouncing along doing their evil little things.  They are happy in their evilness and have no desire to change.  Then a happy little good person bounces along and they meet, and after fighting the evil person, they both magically turn into good people and hand out ice cream.

This is what it sounds like when you do this in a story.  Give your character a reason to turn to the good side.  Maybe they have crippling guilt or are trying to find happiness.  Maybe they never really wanted to be evil in the first place but ended up doing it to try and save the people they loved.  Anakin Skywalker is a fabulous example of this.

Image result for anakin skywalker gif
*gets off chair*  *curls up on floor*  *cries*

He chooses in the end to protect his son from Darth Sidious, giving him a redemption arc as he realizes that the light side is better and he had been tricked.  However, none of this would have made sense if we didn't know why he joined the dark side in the first place.  All he's trying to do is protect his family, and he will do whatever it takes even if it means joining the most evil force in the galaxy.  

If you have your character suddenly change their mind with absolutely no reason behind their switch, you're going to have a very confused reader.  Really this goes with one of the main rules of writing: Don't force your character to change for the sake of plot, force your plot to change because of the character.  Boom.  Done. 

Now here are some ways to make your redemption arc less stupid:

1. Have your character struggle with his former life after he's turned to the light side.
Because that is literally all I think of when trying to describe good versus evil.  Light and dark side.  My brain is turning into a Star Wars episode.  But anyway, on to my point.  If your character does not have some kind of conflict after turning good, you have a problem.  In fact, your character probably shouldn't turn "good" all at once.  Most things like that happen gradually, and even if it seems like your character made the decision on the spur of a moment, things will happen that lead up to his choice.  That being said, once he's made his choice he's unconsciously going to think like he had before changing, and it's going to take him a while to completely fix his problems, if he ever actually manages to do so.  

2. Have your character face difficulties joining the good side.
Would you trust someone who'd been shooting at you five seconds ago?  Yeah, me neither.  So make sure that the people he's siding with don't trust him.  Especially if he's the main antagonist.  I mean, you've got someone who's been working for the entire novel to stop the protagonist, and now he's sided with him!  I don't think I'd trust him very much either.

On a totally unrelated note, what if the antagonist pretended to have a redemption arc but he was actually just tricking the people into letting him into their group so he could beat them?  Can this happen?  Because it should.  It's okay if it takes awhile, you'd have to write an entire book.  

Image result for wait for it hamilton gif

So there you have it.  Ways to make your redemption arc less stupid.  Some of those points sound very similar, but I'm trying, here, okay?  This is something I have some trouble with, because I want people to be happy and eat cupcakes.  Faith is better at making characters' lives miserable, so if you have any more questions talk to her and I'll be in my Hobbit-hole watching people and characters do stupid things.

Seriously, though.  There is nothing worse than second-hand embarrassment.  I can't stand it when characters do stupid things and I'm powerless to stop it.  I yell at the screen or the books or internally at real people and get really angry when they don't take my advice.  Sometimes it gets so bad I can't take it and just walk away and let the silly peasants deal with it themselves.  

Image result for wait for it hamilton gif


  1. Ah! Great post! I saw the title and thought, "YES! Star Wars! And redemption arcs!!" Two of my favorite things. =) I liked your point about how uncommon it is for one person in a society to be the one and only person to recognize a problem. That one bothers me, too. Often either a group of people will see the problem or lots of people will see the problem but are too afraid/lazy to change it. The likelihood of just one person noticing is very slim. I mean, where did their brain get the capacity to think outside of their narrow societal constraints? Who taught them to think that way? What instigated this new way of thinking? Details please!

    Anyway, great post! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Awesome post! Redemption arcs can be awesome - or terrible as you write. I especially loved what you said about "Don't force your character to change for the sake of plot, force your plot to change because of the character." I've never heard that sentiment put into words, but that's a great way to say it and I absolutely agree.

    1. Thank you! I am kind of proud of that line actually. (bounces like an excited kiwi)