This will be quite an exploratory post so bear with me. Let’s start with what feels like a safe statement.
People love redemption arcs but don’t always mean the same thing by them.
I think to an extent that’s because the two words in their purest form are somewhat mutually incompatible.
Redemption is an action. One single action happens and you’re redeemed.
An arc is an on-going chain of events. One thing leads to another.
Strictly speaking a cumulative road to redemption where one thing moves a person slightly closer to that end, until one final act results in the switch going from No to Yes, doesn’t make sense. In everyday parlance though, that’s exactly what a lot of people mean. It is the only logical way for them to view it when they’ve stripped away the religious connotations of redemption and instead view it through their prism of going from Evil to Good.
So far so sane I think.
The desire to see people turned from Evil to Good is a big part of what makes redemption arcs so popular, particularly for characters that people admire for their positive qualities. Redemption allows them to admire them without hang-up. I think it’s a big part of why fans clamour for them for particular characters (i.e. some fans wanting redemption for Azula in Avatar: The Last Airbender and the anger over Jaime Lannister’s last minute heel turn).
When I look at it this way, it feels like redemption arcs, if overused, can strip away a degree of complexity in appreciating fiction in that it would lose the probing of admiration for villains. I think that’s something that maybe happen a little too with some fan communities’ “they’re cool so I love them” takes.
The other use of redemption arc – a character arc that ends with the action of redemption, with no necessary movement towards it other than foreshadowing – leaves some of that complexity in for me. While they have changed their allegiance from Evil to Good, their personality is far less changed by the arc. The mix of positive and negative traits is more alive.
And I think watching positive and negative traits play out is what I love about redemption arcs. You can write grey characters without that idea of redemption, but without the big stakes it can get muted.
And I think this is why I’m beginning to feel a little meh about these redemption arcs that are cumulative journeys that end up with good people being the main game in town. Because those arcs are less about the play of positive and negative traits than the replacement of negative with positive. It’s less dramatic.
To a certain extent, I find arcs that end with the action of redemption more in line with how I see an accurate imitation of reality. Very few people change so much as to go from being evil to good. But a lot of people swap sides and moral viewpoints without really changing who they are that much. Is that how I think reality should be? Perhaps not. But if we are to assign moral worth to books, then exploring things that aren’t as we might hope they are should count. There is a lot, a huge amount, to be said for writing the reality you wish to see. I will not dismiss that for one moment. But there’s also something to be said about writing the process of a tiny step on the road to change that can permit another one too.
In a similar vein, I find myself intrigued by failed redemption arcs, in both senses. There’s something terribly realistic about those too, and terribly dramatic. The moment these thoughts started stirring, I started thinking of Jamie Lannister. I hated his ending in the TV series. It felt like the writers had thrown away everything that had come before. Now, having thought about it a lot, having read a good article…
… I feel exactly the same.
But with more nuance! Because I’m not against the ending per se. I find myself wanting more tragedies with uplifting notes. I am against the joining of a build-up that seemed to be a cumulative arc where negative traits slowly became positive ones, with an arc that rested on the one final action in which a character’s traits of a particular type came roaring to life. With very little foreshadowing I might add.
The idea can work though. The idea that someone can struggle between conflicting ideals of their self and at the end, they pick something self-destructive or societally unacceptable and we still like their story. When I start thinking of examples though – Heat, Cowboy Bebop, Tigana – none of them feel like they were going near redemption.
Redemption is a heavy word. Its use distorts conversations. I think when readers scent redemption arcs on the air, their expectations rise. I think an example of this from one angle is how the AtLA fanbase talk about wishing Azula and Jet had gone redemption arcs. Why? Lots of possible reasons, but I think with Zuko in their minds, they look for it elsewhere.
It doesn’t help that Zuko is objectively a gold standard for redemption arcs, a step by step journey of self-realisation that was dramatic and realistic all at the same time. He vacillates on what he wants, he undergoes painful moments only to find the world has changed very little. But because it’s only changed a little, every step is plausible, until suddenly he’s in a very different space. It’s something Belkar Bitterleaf, recipient of a very powerful journey of self-discovery himself, lampshades in this Order of the Stick strip:
“People don’t just change who they are inside in an instant. It doesn’t work like that. It takes time, so you don’t even know you’re changing. Until one day, you’re just a little bit different than you used to be and you can’t even tell what the hell happened.”
The real secret sauce to Zuko is we come to see him as another underdog, another tragic victim of the Fire Nation. His darkness is more than offset by the people surrounding him. Rooting for him is easy. When he overcomes that, he’s just doing what we want.
So should that be what all writers do? I think more writers should go with it, yeah. But if every writer did it, it would get overdone very quick. There shouldn’t be any one true redemption arc, and those stories that focus on the whole arc and modern sense of redemption shouldn’t be viewed as the only type. There should still be a place for the single action redemption.
Who knows? Perhaps there should be a story about someone who had that one moment, but only really changed their loyalties, not who they were, and have no interest in restitution, and how everyone handled it. Maybe there already is.
Perhaps there should be a story that refers to it as being around a restitution arc (I guess My Name is Earl says hi, huh).
Or maybe even a story that compares multiple types of redemption arc.
Or anything really. Because much as I love redemption arcs like Zuko’s, I don’t think they should be treated as the only correct game in town.