Thursday, March 12, 2009

Character redemption

I love stories where characters redeem themselves and make up for what they’ve done in the past. The worse the crimes, the greater the conflict and the harder the characters have to work to win even a little peace of mind for themselves and acceptance from others.

That being said, there are a few caveats about writing redemption stories.

Through a single event

Inspiration fiction is probably the only genre where redemption through a single event could convincingly work – for instance, something similar to Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus. In other genres, it would be more difficult to pull off.

At the risk of invoking Godwin’s, imagine a Nazi officer whose life is saved by a kindly Jew. While this is a stirring event, it’s unlikely to make the officer come to the sudden realization that everything he’s been taught about Jews is wrong. He’s more likely to think that perhaps one or two Jews aren’t as bad as the rest of their ilk – which is probably what the Jew would have thought too, were their positions reversed.

A single event is rarely powerful enough to overcome years or decades of conditioning. The powerful shift in mindset that leads to redemption is something that usually happens over a period of time, rather than in a moment of enlightenment (although the latter is more dramatic to portray).

Through love

This isn’t easy to pull off, though it worked for Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. However, if a character repents of his past ways and reforms solely due to his love for someone else, that’s going to lead to some thorny questions.

Is he redeeming himself because he genuinely believes he was wrong or because he’s hoping to win his love interest over? And what if the love interest doesn’t or can’t return his affection? Perhaps that’s one reason Sydney Carton’s story arc had to end where it did; not only was it wrenching and dramatic, but there wasn’t much else he could do.

Through amnesia

I have a soft spot for this plot because I wrote a fantasy based on it, but amnesia has been overused in genre writing and redemption through this particular plot device isn’t new either. I’ve come across romance novels, SF and even a Star Trek episode which use a similar setup.

Still, it’s all in the execution. Part of the appeal of this premise is that you can have a relatively quick change in a character’s personality or mindset when they start out with a tabula rasa. Be careful, though, that the rest of the world isn’t too quick to accept the amnesia story – for all they know, the character’s faking it to avoid having to take responsibility for past crimes. And if the character really can’t remember what he did in the past, it’s going to be easy for others to pin crimes that he didn’t actually commit on him. Lots of story possibilities, in other words.

Redemption, through whatever form it occurs, should never be given too easily to a character, and they shouldn’t make a 180 degree turnaround either. However far they progress in an ethical or moral direction, there should be moments of regression, times when they show hints or more of their old selves. Because redemption doesn’t mean erasing the past, just rising above it, and continuing to climb no matter how many times you fall.


Madison said...

I like to play with character redemption. It's fun! :D

Tara Maya said...

I agree with you. It's funny, though, you can always find the exception which worked.

One event: Le Mis. Jean is a bitter criminal, and the priest's one act of kindness changes his ways. Believable because it was really prison which had made Jean bitter to begin with -- his original crime was only trying to get food for his family.

Redeemed by Love: Snape in Harry Potter. Believable because he wasn't doing it to impress but because love was still driving him.

Anonymous said...

I was going to bring up Snape as a great example of a redeemed character. It works in two levels:

1. It is as much a redemption of the character as it is a redemption of the reader's expectations of said character. We thought he was one way but he turned out to be quite different. Rowling does that with several characters and it works most of the time (James Potter being the exception).

2. The redemption is well within the capabilities of the character. I think the problem with many redemption scenarios is that author fails to show the characteristics in the character that could lead to redemption so when it happens we don't believe it because it comes from a source outside of the character's make up.

Marian said...

Snape is a great example of the exception, Tara, though now I'm wondering if most "redeemed through unrequited love" characters end up dying.

I think Snape also works because we can see some goodness in him long before the revelation in the last book. As ralfast said, the redemption comes as much from his own character as from his love for Lily.

Barbara Martin said...

Interesting post as I'm currently working on a character who is going through a redemption for his past sins.

Marian said...

Such a character can be a lot of fun to write. If you put them through enough suffering for their sins, and if they behave with courage and good sense, the readers can't help taking their side.

writtenwyrdd said...

Very thoughtful. I don't care for an easy fix in a character flaw. It rarely happens in real life--although I think it can and does happen, just like sometimes you find a person who can snap their fingers and quit a destructive habit because they decide to do so.

but when reading about a sea change in a character, it frequently seems too convenient to the book plot. And too much convenience is annoying and ultimately does not serve the plot.

A redemption where someone has had to suffer, however...that provides a visceral link for readers. You cannot fix the past so you have to be punished a bit in your process to evolve or make amends. Perhaps this is the Judeo-Christian motif raising it's head (the expectation of punishment for sins committed) but perhaps it is a truth that we all feel regardless of religion or culture.

Easy in fiction is not a good story, at base, though.