Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, incorporating a redemption arc can be a beneficial way to make your story relatable. After all, just as all humans have flaws, characters should be flawed as well. A redemption arc is not possible without something to redeem. Some of the most well-loved movies, books, and TV shows center around a character’s redemption arc. If you’re wondering how to make your writing more relatable, you’ve come to the right place.
In this article we discuss:
- What Is The Meaning Of A Redemption Arc?
- When To Write A Redemption Arc?
- How To Write A Redemption Arc?
- Examples Of Redemption Arcs
Before diving in, note that redemption arcs can be as varied as protagonists are unique. There is not a one-size-fits-all redemption arc just as there aren’t cookie-cutter protagonists. While there are tropes that have been used time and again, as you read through this article, take note of how you can make your character’s arc unique to the individual character.
What Is The Meaning Of A Redemption Arc?
The meaning of a redemption arc is dependent on the intention of the author, as well as the genre, plot, and individual characters in the book. A redemption arc is when a character either 1) performs a heroic act that essentially makes up for his previous wrongdoings, or 2) is redeemed by another character.
The act can be external, internal, big, or little. The repercussion is that the act performed by the character helps make up for what he did in the past. Additionally, a second character could proactively act to redeem him (consider Victor Hugo’s portrayal of the Bishop redeeming Jean Valjean in his 1862 novel, Les Miserables).
Every character will have a different meaning behind their redemption arc. This is part of the enjoyment of creating stories and these particular character arcs. The redemption arc can be applied to any genre and any character.
For villains, a redemption arc can be extended by the protagonist and rejected by the antagonist. This will have a much different meaning than if the protagonist earned his own redemption on the last page. However, the meaning of a redemption arc can change based on the character it is applied to. It’s important to know when to write a redemption arc.
When To Write A Redemption Arc?
Just as the meaning of a redemption arc changes from character to character, when to write a redemption arc is also subjective. When deciding what type of character arc to include for your villain, your protagonist, or your secondary characters, it is essential to first dive into who they are. Write out their backgrounds, goals, dreams, and fears. Get to know what makes them who they are.
Is your protagonist the type of character who would offer redemption to another? Is your villain a character who would never be able to redeem himself no matter how gracious the other characters are? What about your secondary characters? They should be nuanced even if they are not given much page time. Consider how even a sentence or two of dialogue can include a redemption arc.
As you research your characters, consider the other character arcs and what most naturally fits with each character. It is unlikely you will want to write a redemption arc for every character in your story. If you are writing a memoir, maybe you are the protagonist and you experienced your own redemption arc. Include this and give it realism by writing about the details that truly matter. The term redemption arc may sound heroic, but often, it is the small details that give it the power it deserves.
How To Write A Redemption Arc?
Writing a redemption arc is similar to writing any other type of character arc. However, the redemption arc may feel a bit more nuanced than other character arcs. Below is a process to help walk you through step by step. After you walk through these steps, keep reading for specific examples of redemption arcs.
Step One: Know Your Character
Before launching into your redemption arc, it is important to know your character inside and out.
- Are they the type of character that will work to redeem themselves?
- Would they be humble enough to accept redemption from another character?
- Are they cocky or proud?
- Are they heroic and selfless?
Know the answers to all these questions so you can better articulate how to incorporate their specific redemption arc. If your character is selfless, forgiving, and shy, it may take some time for them to accept redemption from another character or publicly own up to their mistakes.
Step Two: Reveal Your Character’s Goal
For sake of example, let’s assume you’re writing a redemption arc for your protagonist. It may help to create a goal that opposes their redemption.
For instance, let’s say you’re writing a mystery crime novel. Growing up, your protagonist never felt loved by his father, who is involved in illegal activities. When the father is sentenced to fifteen years in prison, your protagonist’s goal is to break his father out of prison with the hopes of earning his love. Against all odds, he succeeds, but his father goes back to his old ways, consequently hurting the protagonist’s friends. The protagonist’s inner goal (earn his father’s love) conflicts with his external goal (break father out of prison) in that it results in harming those he loves.
Step Three: Reveal Your Character’s Weakness
In the above example, the protagonist’s strength (sacrificing for those he loves) is conflicted by his character flaws or weakness: Going too far for those he loves and placing too much weight in what his father thinks of him. These unmet needs result in those he loves being hurt by his actions. His inner morals (wanting to extend help) conflict with his need (to be loved). When your protagonist’s goals and weaknesses oppose each other, you create tension. This sets the stage for your protagonist’s response, which directly leads to the redemption aspect.
Step Four: Show Your Character’s Response
How your character responds to the repercussions born from his weakness is essential to his character arc. When determining your character’s response, you have two standard options:
- The first is to see his weakness for what it is and work with it for his redemption. Staying with the above example, he could apologize to his friends and work to reverse the wrong done to them.
- The second is to see his weakness and become overwhelmed by it. Again, to stick with the above example, the friends could offer forgiveness when they see the protagonist is incapable of redeeming himself.
Step Five A: Reveal Your Character’s Response To Their Response
In the fifth step, it’s crucial to reveal your character’s response to himself. Does he accept his weakness in seeing it for what it is, take proactive steps to right his wrongs, and therefore earn redeem himself? Or does he remain blind to his weakness and unable to work for his own redemption? Often, individuals’ responses to their mistakes reveal more about their character than the mistake itself.
Step Five B: Reveal Your Character’s Response To Others’ Response
Whether you choose to write a redemption arc that your character earns or is given, his response to others is equally as important as his response to himself. How does your protagonist respond when others extend redemption? Maybe part of their character arc is losing his ego enough to be able to accept forgiveness. Maybe you’re writing a trilogy and your character won’t be able to accept redemption until the last book. If you’re writing nonfiction, portray your experience or the experience of the protagonist you are writing as true to fact as you can. How your character responds to other characters will reveal much about his own character.
Examples Of Redemption Arcs
Before wrapping up this article, let’s dive into some examples of redemption arcs.
- Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All The Light We Cannot See depicts Marie-Laure LeBlanc in charge of protecting a diamond wanted by the Nazis. Her opposite, Werner Pfennig, is with the Nazis and finds both the diamond and LeBlanc. However, seeing the Nazi actions for the cruelty it is, Pfennig refuses to let LeBlanc be killed or the diamond to be taken.
- Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, is the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete, and World War II airman. In 1943 Zamperini’s bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Captured by the Japanese, Zamperini was a prisoner of war in two separate prison camps. After torture and other unimaginable difficulties but with his spirit unbroken, Zamperini was released. While Zamperini struggled to overcome his difficulties and battled post-traumatic stress, he became a Christian focused on evangelism, and emphasized the power of redemption. Zamperini is a true example of a redemptive character arc and exemplifies the power of extending redemption to those who least deserve it.
- Part true and part fiction novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is the story of an Australian robber who escaped prison. Knowing he can’t return to his country, India becomes his destination. He makes his home in the slums, fights in Afghanistan with freedom fighters, and builds a health clinic with free service for those in need.
- As mentioned above, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is a classic story of redemption. The protagonist, Jean Valjean, is a convict who steals from a bishop. Despite his thievery, Bishop Myriel extends redemption and saves him from going back to jail for his crime. Throughout the book, Jean Valjean works to help his fellowmen, forges his own path, and seeks forgiveness. Valjean’s character arc is one of redemption not just for himself, but for a myriad of other characters as well.
Redemption arcs are powerful because they offer hope to readers. Hope is powerful and can last long after the book is closed. Whether you choose to incorporate a redemption arc for your villain, your protagonist, secondary characters, or apply a redemption arc to a myriad of characters over a series of books, redemption arcs can transform characters in a compelling way unique to themselves.
As you go about your redemption arc, consider the steps and examples illustrated to help you on your journey. Remember, redemption arcs are unique to your specific character. This type of arc is not a one-size-fits-all. Do the necessary research you need to create a compelling character arc that will not only transform your characters but inspire your readers for years to come.
Whether you prefer to outline every scene of your book (plotter) or write to find out what happens (pantser), do your best to read many, many books in your genre. As you read you will discover examples of what has been done well and what shouldn’t be done. Take all this to heart and then write well. You’ve got this!