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Monday, November 5, 2018

3 Redemptive Character Types

I love a great redemption story, but not every character who finds redemption is the same. So today I've outline three types of redemptive characters and what to watch for and consider when writing each.

Type 1: Characters Who Think They Are Worse Than They Are

If you are familiar with the story of Les Mis and you are like most people, you were probably thinking that stealing a loaf of bread to save your starving family is really not that bad of a sin. (And certainly having to spend 19 years in prison is waaaay too much, whether or not you tried to escape.)

Yet throughout the story, Jean Valjean consistently feels that he is falling short, even though most of his mistakes and sins are actually rather minor and understandable in comparison to his trials and accomplishments. Time and time again, Valjean sees himself as far worse of a human being than the audience does. In fact, he can't bear Cosette, the one person in his life he can love and who loves him in return, finding out about his sins, and in his death scene, asks her not to read his letter about them until he has passed away.

Valjean is not a terrible person. He's an amazing person! But nonetheless, his story of redemption is perhaps one of the most powerful and moving.

You can write redemptive characters the same way. However, like everything in writing, you need to be balanced. One of the easiest mistakes to make with this character type (or really, in any redemptive story) is to become too sentimental or melodramatic. If you go overboard about how wretched your character feels about herself, it can become annoying. If the gap between what the sin actually was vs. how awful she feels about it, is too big without an explanation, it can become more annoying. To be honest, there is a rather large gap between what Valjean commits vs. how awful he feels about it, but the gap is explained in how his society and other human beings (such as Javert) treat him for it--which further enables him to feel wretched.

A third problem can arise when you render the character's emotion improperly or poorly, particularly by having it all illustrated through the character on the page instead of allowing the audience to feel it first. Unless you are in a denouement where you want to release and validate all that emotion, usually less is more.

Characters of this type tend to have a lot of inner turmoil and conflict, so getting the emotion right is key. (You can find all my tips on rendering emotion in my Writing Tip Index.)

Watch out for: Sentimentality, melodrama, repetitious emotions, too wide of a gap between the sin and the poor self-esteem (without an explanation), and poor rendering of emotion.

Consider: Inner turmoil/conflict and how it is portrayed, how others and society may view the character and how it compares or contrasts with how he views himself and also how that affects his relationships, how shame and guilt and the sin motivate his actions or dam his progression.

Other Examples: In the movie DragonHeart, Draco thinks less of himself and is harder on himself for having given half his heart to save a boy who grew to become an evil king--what was meant to be a noble act, even a holy act, ends up haunting Draco for the rest of his life. In Disney's The Lion King, Simba blames himself (thanks to Scar) for his father's death, which leads to him turning away from his place in society and even his true identity.

Type 2: Characters Who Give into a Moment of Weakness

Before the Reynolds affair even started, Hamilton discloses to the audience that he is in a state of weakness--exhausted, overworked, and lonely. Despite being popular with the ladies, he is not out and about looking to be promiscuous. He's minding his own business, trying to save his job, when a woman seeks him out.

Essentially, the entire song "Say No to This" is about Hamilton literally praying to God that he can resist temptation, and out of weakness, giving in again and again and again, and being mad with himself about it, but . . . giving in again.

Like I talked about at FanX, I think this is a human experience we can all relate to (though ideally ours isn't about an affair). We all have weaknesses, whether it's a brownie, impulsive spending sprees, or even lust.

This type of character needs redemption because she actually did do something pretty bad. She might have gotten caught in the moment, experienced powerful temptation, given in to a weakness, or felt overwhelming desperation. Any of those particular things can be powerful motivators--leading people to do things they would not typically do.

I once had someone tell me that all human beings really have personal boundaries rather than personal standards. We may think we would never do X, but when we get pushed enough--from being stuck in shortsightedness, powerfully tempted, overworked, or desperate--and Y situation happens, we might.

One thing I love about this type of character, is that the experience is so human, and even if we may hate it . . . relateable.

And I think that is key to this type. Even if we completely disagree with what the character does, think they were stupid, or anything else negative, we have to understand it. We have to be able to relate to it on some level, or at least see how it could have happened. If not, it will be annoying, it will be a fail. I would say most of the time, the sin is not going to be something premeditated--exceptions to this are when pressures are ongoing and intense (ongoing exhaustion, ongoing temptation, ongoing desperation). The character will probably feel bad or, like Hamilton, angry with himself ("How could I do this?!")

Watch out for: Situations and setups that aren't relatable to the audience--or rather, are not rendered in human, relatable ways, are not properly explained. The sin should probably not be done flippantly; it's done in a moment of weakness not laziness--there is a difference.

Consider: These powerful components--being caught up in the moment, experiencing personal weakness, powerful temptations, desperation, and ongoing trials and hardships and what that does to a person. Think in terms of boundaries rather than set standards. Explore how your character reacts and feels about what she has done, to capitalize on the human experience.

Other Examples: In Lord of the Rings, Boromir as well as a number of other characters experience moments of weakness when confronted with the Ring. These are great examples of individuals dealing with limits--the edge of their boundaries and capacities.

Type 3: Characters Who Discover Wickedness Never was Happiness

Another perhaps particularly powerful redemptive character is Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series. In fact, he was so redemptive that a lot of people seemed to forget what a total jerk he actually was. Snape dabbled in the dark arts when in school and actually even invented lethal spells. While he is a rather gray character, I think we can all agree he was once a "bad guy"--Death Eater and supporter of Voldemort, et al.

. . . until that journey became particularly personal in that Voldemort was going to kill the love of his life.

It may have been all about Lily, but ultimately Snape was true to the Order of the Phoenix, to Dumbledore, and to Harry.

In this type, the character is intentionally doing wrong. It may be that they are a villain or a "bad guy," or it may be that while once goodhearted on page, they went down the wrong road, but whatever the case, they are committing sin left and right and purposefully. If we had the power to grant one person absolution, I think most of us would pick someone of the other two types before we considered this one. In fact, in the story, this type may not even seem like she is going to get a redemptive arc at all.

In some stories this character may be an anti-hero, in which case they will be handled a little differently than a bad guy or villain.

Unlike the other two types, we may not relate to this type as easily, at least not until later--likely when they begin the redemption process, or at least when we get a better understanding of why they are the way they are. Snape, for example, was easily hated by most people for most of the Harry Potter series. A slight exception to this is that in some cases, this type may do things that people privately wish they could do--wouldn't life (seemingly) be easier if we didn't care about doing wrong things? They may also have a cool factor because of it.

However, if they are a redemptive character, at some point they will realize, that in some ways, wickedness was never happiness. In some cases these types embody more of a theme or a lesson than a relatable emotional experience, like the prior two.

An important part of this character type is validation. The audience needs to see--have it validated to them--that this character truly does evil things. Then during, or after the redemption, the audiences needs it validated that they are truly a changed person.

The contrast between how wicked the character is and how much redemption she receives can create a very powerful storytelling effect. Often in highly powerful examples of this trope, the character sacrifices his life--either literally in death or figuratively in how he chooses to live out the rest of his life.

Watch out for: Glorification of wrongdoing in the overall story; failure to validate wickedness and redemption; flat redemption where the redemption isn't "earned," developed, or adequately explained.

Consider: What led the character to choose wickedness, what caused them to change, how that change will affect their circle of relationships and whether the change will be accepted by others (will they be tolerated or forgiven?). Also watch the breadth between their bad deeds and the extent of their redemption. What of their life is sacrificed?

Other Examples: In Star Wars Anakin Skywalker turns to the dark side but ultimately dies saving his son from Emperor Palpatine. In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, after trying to destroy Christmas, the Grinch learns to appreciate it, and his heart grows two sizes.

In the future, I may expound on these three types and talk about writing the story arcs.


  1. I don't know if this comment is too late, but how does the first redemption arc differ from the others in structure?

    1. Hi Vicky,

      I think I would have to take some time to think about that more in depth. One thing that I often see with the first type of character, is the character learning or realizing they aren't as terrible as they think and/or they can forgive themselves and/or they are forgiven or redeemed by a higher power. This is usually either at 1) the climactic moment or end of the middle, or 2) the climactic moment or end of the end (if that makes sense).

      Valjean learns he is redeemed by God at the very end.
      In another show I recently watched, the character learns to let go and forgive himself after the "All is Lost" moment of the middle, which then prepares him to face the antagonist at the end.

      However . . . with that said . . . something similar may happen at those points with the other two types. It may be more of a question of content than structure. And the beginnings may be more different. With the first type, there is a sense of unfairness. So the beginning may work to convey that to the audience. The middle will turn up the heat with that, by making the costs greater and more painful--the character will probably be feeling time and again that he or she doesn't measure up and can't meet the story's requirements. Basically, from his POV, he keeps falling short.

      In the second type, the beginning may mention a weakness, which the character gives into when the costs get high through the middle (perhaps). She will then have to deal with that mistake and the ramifications of it at the end of the middle or in the actual end.

      In the third type, the beginning may show the character doing wrong or where his wrongdoing originated (and it will be legitimate wrongdoing, not like stealing bread to feed family). We'll likely see the problems of those choices, developed through the middle. At the end of the middle, or the end of the end, there will likely be a very high price to pay, and she will see the errors of her ways. Because he or she is the "baddest" out of the three types, this usually means the character must pay a high cost to be redeemed. The other two types may as well, but if this one doesn't, it might feel like something is off.

      The higher the cost the first type has to pay, the more sympathetic the character--because the audience sees it's undeserved to some extent.

      So . . . maybe that was a little rambly--I'm replying off the hip--but hopefully that gives you more to think about. I think the main concern is to show the gap between what the character actually does (which is somewhat understandable) and how terrible he or she thinks it is, and then finding ways to make that more intense through the middle, probably.

      now that I think about it, I don't know that that structure is so different than what happens with the other two, as they are likely to hit key moments at about those points in the story as well.

    2. I was having trouble planning the character arc of my protagonist since it's a little different than the usual redemption arc, and the change arc didn't quite fit his story. This helped clear things up, thank you :-)


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