Redemption arcs can be tricky things. After all, what does it mean for a character to be redeemed? According to Dictionary.com, redemption is “an act of redeeming or atoning for a fault or mistake” or in the biblical sense, it can be “deliverance from sin”, which is often reached after some sort of payment is made, often in the form a sacrifice. Though not all stories are biblical, most often in fiction, redemption arcs still tend to have some undertone of sacrifice, whether it is by the actions of another character or by self-sacrifice.
This post will focus on the different approaches writers may take when it comes to redemption arcs.
Disclaimer: This post contains spoilers. It’s really hard to talk about character arcs without giving things away. I have done my best to limit spoilers to well-known stories, namely Daredevil; The Lord of the Rings; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; and Les Misérables.
Destructive Cycle Arc
Perhaps the most frustrating version of a redemption arc is the one that never comes to full fruition. Just when you think a character has turned around, they do something stupid that makes audiences like myself want to claw their eyes out. And I’m not talking about the hero making a mistake or two, I’m talking about said character taking their entire character arc and putting it in the blender. Sure, one could argue it’s also the most realistic because people fail time and time again, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
“I’m not seeking penance for what I’ve done, I’m asking forgiveness… for what I’m about to do.” –Matt Murdock, Daredevil
I’m using a Netflix original because try as I might, I couldn’t come up with a character from a book. As one of my friends who’s big into superheroes remarked, there’s a reason Matt doesn’t have many friends. When he says he doesn’t get along well with others, he means it.
He prefers to work alone, but throughout the show he wrestles with bringing about justice without sacrificing his conscience. He even makes the sacrifice play only to survive and end up depressed, so he takes advantage of his friends and pushes them away. I just want to see him and his friends happy, but that might not happen anytime soon, especially not if he keeps being a jerk and sabotaging his friendships.
This is a popular one when it comes to redemption arcs. So much so that it’s practically cliché at this point. Character X is such a dirtbag that they can’t possibly be likeable until they finally make a decision to reform, and—oh, no! Now they’re dead.
Yes, I understand that this is an incredibly simplified version. Self-sacrifice usually involves deeper motivations than an accidental death, and it’s usually not so trivial. But this kind of arc is so common. That, and the self-sacrifice play doesn’t always turn out the way characters expect it to. Sometimes, it has a habit of turning around and hurting somebody they love instead, which can have some of the opposite effects of the intended sacrifice.
“I would have followed you. My brother. My captain. My king.” –Boromir, The Fellowship of the Ring, film edition
Boromir just wanted to do what was best for his people, but he went about it in the wrong way because his father had encouraged his greed. He tries to steal the ring from Frodo, then repents after Frodo is gone and sacrifices himself to protect Frodo’s friends, Merry and Pippin.
Only, repercussions still creep up. Once his father learns of Boromir’s death, he takes out his grief on Boromir’s brother Faramir. Frustrating! Yet Pippin ultimately manages to save Faramir, so it can’t be said that the self-sacrifice arc in LotR was for nothing.
Though the self-sacrifice arc can be really well done, perhaps we can agree that there’s something intrinsically satisfying about a character who gets a chance to reform and doesn’t die for it. Of course, if a character was behaving villainous for earlier portions of the story, there will still be repercussions—otherwise, the arc feels cheap and unjustified. That’s when an alternate redeemer comes into play—when one pays the price for somebody else’s actions.
“‘But even a traitor may mend. I have known one that did.’ And he looked very thoughtful.” –Edmund, The Horse and His Boy
Another great example is Edmund Pevensie from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I really wanted to use Eustace from the later books, but I figured more of my readers would be familiar with Edmund. He starts off as a cruel brother, ready to torture his younger sister even after he discovers that she’s not lying about finding another world simply so he can be named a prince and have sweets.
All of the Above
You know, putting well-developed characters into a category is difficult. More often than not, if the writers have the time to develop the story, the characters fit into multiple categories. Sometimes a character will blunder about through the self-destructive cycle, then spend some time in the successful arc, then ultimately make the sacrifice play.
“I am reaching, but I fall, and the night is closing in, as I stare into the void, into the whirlpool of my sin. I’ll escape now from the world, from the world of Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean is nothing now! Another story must begin!” –Jean Valjean, Les Misérables, film edition
Les Mis certainly has plenty of time to develop each character. Over the course of the book, Jean Valjean goes from a petty thief to a convict on parole to a successful mayor to a loving father, not that he ever really stopped being an ex-con. All the same, he initially comes to the realization that his actions as a thief are wrong, not just that the world has wronged him after he steals from a bishop who turns around and offers him mercy by saying he gave to Valjean what had been stolen.
Then Valjean decides to live as a mostly-honest citizen by taking on a new identity and doing his best to help people make an honest living. Though it doesn’t always work out, and his redemption is conditional only as long as he doesn’t make other people suffer for his mistakes. Long after he adopts Cosette, he ultimately sacrifices himself to protect her boyfriend Marius and to protect her reputation by disappearing should his identity as an ex-con ever come to light.
Other great stories with various redemption arcs:
- Avatar: The Last Airbender (Not a book, I know, but Zuko’s redemption arc is perfect, and there are some spin off graphic novels I’d like to read.)
- The Black Cauldron (The Chronicles of Prydain, book 2) by Lloyd Alexander
- The Boy Who Steals Houses by C. G. Drews
- Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (The Chronicles of Narnia, book 5) by C. S. Lewis
So there you have it—my take on the various types of redemption arcs. I’m sure audiences may differ on their preferences, but I’m partial to the last two types.
Let’s chat! What are some of your favorite redemption arcs? Any of your favorite characters fall into the types listed above?