How To Write A Redemption Arc For Your Story's Characters

how to write a redemption arc villain in mask

How To Write A Redemption Arc

The question of how to write a redemption arc has always been one hot debate in literary and screenwriting circles. What acts are too much to come back from? What acts fall short of a satisfying arc? There are so many facets to consider - so let's start considering.

For this article, I am going to stick to TV and film media, as those tend to be the most widespread amongst writers as well as readers alike.

With that said, let's dig in.

Analyzing Redemption Arcs In Popular Media

The big ones to go for are usually Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, or perhaps even Breaking Bad - as far as TV shows and films are considered.

But I want to consider a big one that doesn't get as much attention as the others from TV, specifically one that doesn't work; Negan from The Walking Dead. Before eyes start rolling, his arc after Season 8 is an ideal candidate to express why - in my humble opinion - his redemption doesn't make sense and doesn't work from a storytelling perspective.

Negan's arc, as tempting as it is to buy into for redemption, isn't satisfying because there are some moral crimes that you cannot be redeemed from. Things such as mass murder, rape, and crimes against children are an absolute no-no for redemption arcs. 

And Negan? He checks at least two of those types of crimes. The mass murder of another community that didn't fall in line by his henchman (and his failure to stop it) and his favoring of multiple 'wives' coerced into sexual acts make Negan diabolical. These factors alone make his pseudo-redemption arc in the later seasons a joke.

The key - in my opinion - to making redemption arcs work lies in not just what the character has done, but who they have committed their moral crime against. Did they kill the main character's spouse? Or did they kill a supporting character? The latter would be much more suited to a redemption arc - for example.

But also, the viewer or reader needs to connect to what the character has done as something that they - under certain circumstances - may also be forced to do. This creates a form of sympathy in the reader or viewer that is needed for redemption arcs to function.

So, what does work for a good arc?

The Anti-Hero and Anti-Villain Tropes

We are living in a modern era where morally questionable protagonists are becoming ever more popular. But to truly understand how to write a satisfying redemption arc that doesn't take it too far we need to understand the tropes of the anti-hero and anti-villain. 

The first is a common trope thrown around, but the second? The second is far more interesting.

These tropes are perfect candidates to write a redemption arc with. But, here are the key differences between the tropes (that often have differing definitions);

An anti-hero is:
  • Someone performing morally questionable acts 'for the greater good' ideologically; think about a General sacrificing men in a battle to help win a war.
  • Or, someone performing morally questionable acts for someone else, or for a group of people; sticking with The Walking Dead, Rick Grimes is a good example of this. Or from Marvel; The Punisher.
In essence, an anti-hero 'does bad for good' and is often the protagonist we root for.

An anti-villain is:
  • Someone performing morally 'good' acts with morally corrupt reasoning. For example; Thanos from the Marvel cinematic universe. He wants to save the universe from poverty and overpopulation (both good acts) but wants to wipe out half the universe to do so. A real world example could be someone that collects charity money but skims a percentage for their personal gain.
  • Or, someone that is a story's antagonist but isn't morally corrupt. Sticking with Marvel, from The Punisher TV show, the law enforcement officers trying to stop Frank Castle would be anti-villains in this context.
In essence, an anti-villain is often an antagonist of a story that has noble qualities, or a character that performs 'good' acts for the wrong reasons, or tries to do good using morally deplorable acts.

So, How To Write a Redemption Arc, Then?

Both anti-heroes and anti-villains have the capacity for redemption arcs - as long as their crimes or bad deeds aren't too extreme. Villains that commit genocide, or rape, or kill children - for example - are very bad candidates.

And 'crimes' doesn't necessarily mean committing a crime in the law and order sense of the word. But rather, committing bad deeds or acts in the scope of the story.

For a redemption arc to be satisfying, and make sense from a storytelling perspective, sympathy is needed from the viewer or reader and the 'crimes' need to be seen as redeemable.

Some good examples in the media of redemption arcs that the writers got spot on in my opinion are;
  • Merle Dixon from The Walking Dead, and his arc after joining Rick's group of survivors in Season 3.
  • Boyd Crowder from Justified, and his arc across Season 1.
  • Microchip (aka David Linus) from The Punisher, and his entire arc across Season 1.
  • Steve Harington in Season 1 of Stranger Things.
  • Wikus from District 9
  • Denzel Washington's character in Flight
The list could go on but I hope that helps you forge your own redemption arcs!

More About This Article's Author

Stewart Storrar is a professional writer and filmmaker from Glasgow, Scotland. He has a passion for movies, films, TV shows, and books - but also enjoys his hobbies of skateboarding and gaming. He often delves in fiction and poetry. You can follow his Twitter here, and his YouTube channel here.

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