Redemption has always been a popular theme, especially in—though not limited to—the Inspirational market.
However, redemption arcs can easily fall victim to cliché or become artificial constructs designed to put a character in a good light as your story wraps up.
Done wrong, they come off planted, cheap, and undeserved.
However, crafted effectively, the redemption of a character can result in a most uplifting read, leaving a lasting impression on readers.
What exactly is a Redemption Arc?
It’s a type of character development in which your protagonist starts bad and becomes good in the end, often culminating in a heroic act that atones for their past.
What constitutes a bad protagonist can vary. It could mean:
- A curmudgeonly loner who learns the need for community (think Ebeneezer Scrooge).
- A spoiled princess who lives lavishly, only to learn that her subjects are suffering.
- Or it could truly be any deeply flawed individual who sees the error of their ways.
Whatever the case, for a character to be redeemed in the end requires plausible motivation for such a dramatic change. It should always be the result of some stark action—not merely their coming to a realization. To ensure readers follow a redemption journey from start to finish, plan ahead.
Take care not to paint your protagonist so hopelessly repugnant that readers don’t care whether they change or not.
Build the Foundation for a Redemption Arc
Your task is to create a character who can believably change.
To start building a redemptive arc, paint your character with serious flaws.
While every well-rounded character should have flaws, be careful to render yours with offenses worthy of atonement—like pride, selfishness, cowardice, or anger.
Make sure your character remains empathetic, despite their shortcomings.
That’s why it’s so important to create believable motivations for their actions. What has made them the way they are and seems—in their mind—to motivate their choices?
The Redemption Arc’s Catalyst
A protagonist with baggage needs a catalyst to jumpstart the journey to redemption.
A catalyst might be:
- Losing a loved one
- Witnessing an inhumane act
- Suffering a near-death experience
- Losing a home
- Losing a job
- Losing a life’s savings
As I mentioned, Ebenezer Scrooge is a great example of a character who enjoys a life-changing redemption.
In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by three ghosts who reveal his shortcomings and convince him that if he doesn’t change his ways, he’ll die alone and unloved.
Fear shocks Scrooge into realizing that greed has robbed him of the true gifts of life: love and community.
With a new outlook, he becomes a better person by blessing and supporting those around him.
Navigating the Redemption Journey
One problem with a redemption arc is when it feels unearned.
The longer you stretch the redemption journey, the more you can infuse conflict and thus credible character development.
Include in your redemption story:
1. Both internal and external conflict
Internally, your character might struggle with their arrogance or their inclination to lash out.
External conflict can come from other characters who either don’t believe redemption is possible or who want to maintain the status quo because they benefit from the protagonist’s negative behavior.
Conflict—the engine of fiction—can also make the redemption arc feel earned.
Does your character owe apologies to those he’s wronged?
Will they accept his apology?
How does he prove that he’s changed?
2. Establish obstacles for your character
For true change to be believable, it has to be difficult.
The protagonist of the Left Behind series, Rayford Steele, repents of his selfishness after the rapture occurs. Needless to say, that proved an immense catalyst for change.
Show your character tempted to return to old patterns. Relapses are a fact of life.
As your character overcomes each setback, readers will see that they’re changing.
3. Emphasize motivation
The catalyst need not be limited to the event itself.
Give your character reasons to fight to overcome obstacles.
Completing the Redemption Arc
Honor your reader’s investment with a pivotal moment that shows the journey paid off.
Do all you can to make it other than predictable. It must be fair, based on the groundwork you’ve laid.
Examples of redemption arcs:
- A character sacrifices their life.
- A character selflessly saves someone else from danger.
- A character surrenders an opportunity so someone else can succeed.
- A character leaves an evil group to join a good one.
1. Rushing the change
The decision to change may be sincere, but the process requires effort and time.
Show your character fighting old habits and even stumbling before they succeed.
2. Making your character unrecognizable at the end of their journey
Redemption shouldn’t erase a character’s personality.
For example, your character might remain sarcastic from beginning to end, but their sarcasm might become humorous as opposed to mean-spirited.
3. Redeeming the seemingly irredeemable
Beware of creating characters too far gone to have a plausible redemption arc.
Reserve redemption stories for characters readers will actually root for.
Examples of Redemption Arcs
- Jean Valjean from Les Miserables
- Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series
- Billy from Stranger Things
- Guy Montag from Fahrenheit 451
- Pierre from War and Peace
Redemption Arcs Result in Compelling Characters
A well-written redemption arc can be the perfect complement to your novel.
To include a redemptive character arc, refer to my Character Arc worksheet.
Even if you write from the seat of your pants (like I do), the worksheet can help with this type of literary device.