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.
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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 in terms of more modern cinema and TV are usually Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, or perhaps even Breaking Bad. Some arguments can be made for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its characters. There are so many options that one can easily find themselves saturated with characters to focus on when it comes to studying redemption arcs as well as how they add narrative value.
But I want to consider a rather relevant and recent example that doesn’t get as much attention as I believe it should. I want to focus on this character and delve into their arc specifically because it is an arc that doesn’t work. That is Negan from The Walking Dead. I can already feel the eyes rolling but Negan has always been a major talking point in The Walking Dead circles but also beyond in pop culture. Be it the controversy of his catch phrase, or the problems his character’s brutality caused for the watershed.
What doesn’t get talked about enough is the fact that he is now getting portrayed as a member of the survivors, or as a protagonist, in stark contrast to his antagonistic roots. While his antagonistic persona still surfaces from time to time, the writers are attempting to give him a redemption arc that simply cannot work.
And just like in any walk of life, being successful in your own endeavours can stem from learning where others have failed. So, for this reason and this reason alone, I felt it appropriate to touch on Negan character and his arc after Season 8 of The Walking Dead.
Negan’s Arc Post-Season 8
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.
Now morality is an interesting subject to talk about and I could talk about morality all day long. It is an aspect of sociology and psychology that is fascinating. But we need to separate individual, relative morality of a person and collective morality of a society to really grasp at the reason Negan’s redemption isn’t working.
For Negan, and other villains, their own sense of individualistic morality is – for the most part – self centered and self serving. Even in the case of leaders like Negan was, everything he does benefits him or those close to him. Their morality only matters to the extent to which it impacts their long term goals, wants, and needs.
A societal or cultural moral code is generally constructed from the collective belief that something is ‘right’ and something is ‘wrong’ regardless of how any one individual may view this moral judgement. That is how things such as mass murder, rape, and crimes against children became an absolute no-no from a cultural and societal moral standpoint. So, for a redemption arc to work, it needs to obey and conform to these cultural and social morals. Often times villains or people we consider ‘evil’ do not hold the cultural or societal morals that any given civilisation or group of people do.
And that is why Negan’s arc will never work and why he can never truly be redeemed.
Negan has comitted or facilitated at least two of those types of crimes we listed above. 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. While the second crime wasn’t as evident in the show it still played a role and was very much present, even as an undertone. 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.
I briefly want to move onto another pop culture example that doesn’t work in my opinion;
Darth Vader’s Arc in Star Wars
When I hear people discussing redemption arcs in writing circles, usually it is a matter of time before Darth Vader is referenced. Many writers cite Darth Vader as having a very satisfying redemption arc but often skim over the fact he slaughtered children.
Darth Vader is a good example of how redemption arcs can be skewed by emotional story telling. The dynamic that plays out between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader compels us to a moment of satisfaction for how Darth Vader dies saving Luke. But this satisfaction is often mis-aligned with Darth Vader’s actions. We don’t feel satisfied because he ‘redeemed’ himself. We feel satisfied because Luke changed Vader’s mind.
We tend to focus on the father son bond that broke decades worth of conditioning in Darth Vader. That is what makes Vader’s death or his ‘redemption’ so satisfying. But categorically speaking, Vader did not redeem himself and he never can. He simply saved his son.
Saving one person – even a son – cannot undo the massacres at the Jedi Temple of kids, or the decades of murders, or the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on his hands.
So, if Vader and Negan are bad examples of a redemption arc, 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. Just think of some of the most popular TV shows and cinematic releases. Quite a substantial portion of them feature protagonists that aren’t, in a broad sense of collective morality, ‘good’. 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.
While many writers, authors, and literary scholars will argue the two are different names for the same literary type, I disagree. There is nothing wrong with holding that opinion but in my own opinion there are subtle differences between the two that set them apart.
So, the anti-hero is a common trope thrown around and talked about in many different articles as well as writing circles, but the second? The second is far more interesting if you ask me.
These two tropes are ideal literary tropes to forge a redemption arc with. They allow for both the emotional scope and the narrative potential to develop into very compelling arcs for your story. But, there are the key differences between the tropes (and as briefly touched upon the two tropes often have differing definitions);
An anti-hero is, in my opinion:
- 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. The emphasis is that their reasoning is usually morally ‘right’ in relation to the natural laws of life.
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. This stems from the characters moral compass as Thanos could have, quite easily, doubled the available resources using the Infinity Stones to accommodate for more life. 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.
The duality of the anti-villian can make it a difficult trope to really pin down and definitively say a character is a true anti-villian. There will always be nuaces to a character that may have anti-villian qualities on an individualistic scale. But what I have found crucial when it comes to identifying characters of this trope and writing characters of this trope is how they interact with the narrative.
How a character interacts with the narrative defines them as a villian or a hero and the same can be said for anti-heroes and anti-villains. Trying to write an anti-villian, for example, without much relation or context from the plot is a good way to get the trope muddled. This muddling of the trope is what can give rise to redemption arcs that don’t make a lot of sense.
Again, referencing Negan from The Walking Dead, you could make the argument he falls into the scope of an anti-hero. You could also make a convincing argument that he is an anti-villian. So, what is he?
This question of ‘what is Negan’s trope’ is a prime example of why writing a redemption arc without much context from the plot as a whole can confuse things. Negan should never have been a protagonist after Season 8, just like Vader was never a protagonist in the Star Wars films or TV shows after destroying the Anakin Skywalker persona. This shift of antagonist to protagonist can absolutely work if a redemption arc is handled appropriately.
And that leads us nicely onto;
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 omnicide, genocide, or rape, or kill children – for example – are very bad candidates. These kinds of crimes have no basis or common ground for sympathy or empathy from the viewer (or reader).
And do note that when I use the term ‘crimes’ that 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 towards other characters.
For a redemption arc to be satisfying, and make sense from a storytelling perspective, sympathy or empathy is needed from the viewer or reader and the ‘crimes’ need to be seen as redeemable.
Think about your characters in your own context. If you character murdered someone to protect their child, in the real world, how would you feel towards such a person? Using this as a basis to forge your redemption arcs is always a good place to start.
Give some thought to how you would react meeting a war criminal that has committed a genocide. Nothing a person like that can do will allow them to be redeemed. You wouldn’t want anything to do with them.
So, why is this okay in the context of TV, cinema, or literary works? I always find using my own emotions and opinions when writing characters very useful to gauge where I want their arcs to go and how I want their arcs to finish.
Redemption Arc Characters
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 (only 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 this article helps you answer how to write a redemption arc for your own characters!
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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