Thursday, March 12, 2009
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).
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.
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.