What Makes a Redemption Arc Effective?

Some of my favourite characters are villains turned heroes, like Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender, Scorpia from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I love seeing how these broken characters find wholeness and healing. 

But I find that redemption arcs can feel hollow when characters do not address the hard work that real redemption requires.

Two Examples of Redemption Arcs

ABC’s Once Upon a Time kicked off the mid-2000s obsession with fairy tale shows (like Grimm or the CW’s Beauty and the Beast). It told the story of Emma Swan, an orphan who grows up in the real world before coming to Storybrooke, a magical town in Maine, where she finds that fairy tale characters are real (and that two of them are her parents).

Once operated under a binary good versus evil, heroes versus villains morality. It had a few villains over the course of its seven seasons, but there are two in particular whose redemption arcs had different outcomes despite their similar beginnings: Regina Mills, aka the Evil Queen, and Killian Jones, aka Captain Hook.

Regina and Killian have similar villainous origins: they both experienced betrayal from a parent, and they both lost a loved one. Regina’s main objective was to destroy Snow White’s life, and Killian wanted revenge on Rumpelstiltskin, the “Crocodile” who killed his love and his left hand. They both sought redemption throughout the series, but they did so from different starting points. As a result, one arc felt more honest than the other and was, therefore, more effective.

Regina Blames the Author

Under the heroes versus villains binary of Once Upon a Time, good always wins (through achieving a happy ending) and evil always loses. After the heroes defeat Regina at the end of Season One, she decides to be good. At first, this amounts to not using magic and not trying to kill anyone, and she only does it so that her son will want to be with her again. She stays in this liminal “not good, but not evil either” space throughout Season Two and, in Season Three, joins the heroes in order to defeat a common enemy. It’s not until Season Four that she really starts to work at her own redemption.

Season Four introduces the Author, a being whose job is to record fairy tales in a magical storybook. Regina sets out to find the Author so that he can write her a happy ending. She says this is because she’s tired of losing:

“These stories in the book. I was written as a villain, and things never work out for the villains, so I want to find who wrote this book and make them… ask them to write me a happy ending.” —Season Four, Episode Three, “Operation Mongoose”

Instead of taking ownership of her actions as a villain, Regina pins them on an outside entity. She behaves as if she flipped a switch: first she was evil, but now she’s good. She expects good things to happen to her right away, and complains when they don’t. And, she even goes so far as to split herself into two, ala Jekyll and Hyde, so that she can destroy her “evil” half (it doesn’t work).

Killian Takes Responsibility

Killian Jones is the ruthless pirate captain of the Jolly Roger. In his backstory, he worked for Peter Pan as an errand boy and lived in Neverland for a couple hundred years. During that time, he thought of nothing other than killing Rumpelstiltskin, who, in this show, is an immortal being known as the Dark One.

In Season Two, Killian makes it to Storybrooke and achieves his goal—he gets the chance to kill Rumpelstiltskin and takes it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stick, and Killian realizes that getting revenge is an empty goal; even if he was really able to kill Rumpelstiltskin, he’d have nothing left.

After that, he starts making changes. He teams up with the heroes in Season Three, eventually becoming friends, and then lovers, with Emma. He realizes that he wants to get back to the man he was before his quest for revenge.

“Emma: I thought you didn’t care about anyone but yourself.

Killian: Maybe I just needed reminding that I could.”

—Season Two, Episode Twenty-two, “And Straight On ‘Til Morning”

Killian admits his wrongdoing and works to make amends. He struggles with reverting back to the man he was, but relies on his friends to help him.

Why Their Approaches Matter

Regina and Killian’s differing approaches to redemption are no more apparent than in their treatment of Belle (yes, Belle from Beauty and the Beast). Both Killian and Regina do something terrible to her in their story arcs: Regina keeps her locked away for years and takes away her memories, and Killian shoots her because she’s Rumpelstiltskin’s love.

Killian eventually becomes friends with Belle. And when she needs somewhere to stay after leaving Rumpelstiltskin, he lets her stay on his ship until she can find her own place. He also apologizes for the wrongs he committed against her:

“Belle: I don’t understand. Why would you risk your life for me?

Killian: Long ago I… I tried to kill you in the Queen’s castle once. I failed. But along the way I did something I can live with no longer. I laid a hand on you. And there’s the matter of my shooting you at the town line.

Belle: Yeah, well, you’ve changed since all that.

Killian: Maybe. I have a long road to travel before I can be someone I can be proud of. Despite the forgiveness of others, I must forgive myself, and I’m not there yet.” —Season Six, Episode Two, “A Bitter Draught”

Killian demonstrates that true redemption means repenting of his wrongdoings and working towards forgiveness.

Regina, meanwhile, barely interacts with Belle. She even takes Belle’s heart at one point (taking someone’s heart enables you to control them) in order to use her as blackmail against Rumpelstiltskin. She does not apologize to Belle, and she even says in Season Three that she doesn’t regret her past as a villain:

“I did cast a curse that devastated an entire population. I have tortured and murdered. I’ve done some terrible things. I should be overflowing with regret, but I’m not because it got me my son.” —Season Three, Episode 9, “Save Henry”

By the end of the show, Regina and Killian are both firmly in the hero camp. But, because Regina didn’t put the work in to really change, it doesn’t feel like she earned the title.

Give Your Character a Catalyst for Change

The strength of a redemption arc comes down to the character’s motivation for change. For Killian, it was the realization that revenge is empty. Zuko’s motivation comes down to honour: he thought only his father could restore his honour, but when he realizes he has the ability to do that himself, he starts to change. In She-Ra, Scorpia values friendship and loyalty. When she realizes that her friends in the Horde do not value her as much as she values them, she leaves them to find a community who will accept her.

Revenge. Honour. Friendship. These are core values to these characters, which is why they are such powerful motivators for change. Consider what your character’s main values are and how they might influence a redemption arc.

If you have a villain whom you envision changing for the better, make sure they start from their core ideals. This will ensure that their arc and ultimate path to redemption does not let them down.

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