The Road to Redemption by Matthew Ward

More than anything, I love a character with a redemption arc.

I’m not picky. I’ll work on any scale. From Londo Mollari’s galaxy-shaping reversals in Babylon 5 to Javert’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it change of heart in Les Miserables there’s nothing makes me happier than seeing a lost soul turn back towards the light, if only for a moment. Moreso if they’re not the protagonist (I’m drawn to supporting characters more than the main cast). Especially if there’s no outrunning the consequences hounding their heels.

I know I’m not alone in this. I assume it springs from a desire (conscious or otherwise) for reassurance that we can atone for things that we’ve done in the past, even if they’re nothing more serious than a futzed conversation. Seeing characters grapple with altogether more serious lapses and still find a brief measure of peace in the striving has to be reassuring, right?[1]

On another level, I think we’re drawn to these doomed souls simply because you can’t have a satisfying redemption arc without decent characterisation. They have to feel real for any of the story beats to land. They have to be sympathetic – if only a little – for you to care whether they manage to walk towards the light, despite all the darkness dragging them down. Don’t hate the player, hate the game, and all that.

Even knowing all this, I’m still surprised at just how many redemptive character arcs trickle into my books. The Legacy Trilogy has a bunch, some playing out over a single book whereas at least one runs the length of the entire story, complete with wobbles along the way. The Soulfire Saga probably has more, despite its smaller cast … and the gears on a couple really start to grind in The Fire Within Them (out June 11th).

So, what have I learnt along the way? Let’s talk about that. Bear in mind that I’m mostly talking about redemption for supporting characters (because they’re my favourite) but the rules still apply to protagonists, gallant or otherwise.

You’ve Got to Care

As mentioned above, it’s no good if you don’t like the redemption seeker. It’s simply not enough for them to chase atonement because it’ll help the protagonist get ahead and keep the plot on course. You have to long for them to acknowledge their mistakes and embrace change. Hopelessly romantic? Maybe, but even the darkest story benefits from emotional contrast. Despite his toxically ironclad dedication to his duty, Javert from Les Mis is an honourable man[2]. Babylon 5’s Londo is a genuinely likeable, down on his luck rogue who badly wants to be liked.

Missed Opportunities

Just as protagonists mostly (but not always) need to reject the call to stand up and be counted for a satisfying story, so too does the redemption seeker need to be a bit sluggish out of the gate. After all, they wouldn’t need redemption if they had the nous to simply do the right thing from the very start. This can be anything from a full-fledged betrayal through to simply refusing to help at a vital moment.

As long as it feels like a natural progression of the character, the possibilities are endless … although of course the deeper the pit they dig, the longer the ladder they’re going to need to clamber back out. Think about Javert. In all versions of Les Mis, he has plenty of opportunities to let the clearly virtuous Jean Valjean escape his past, but initially can’t unbend enough to do so. Babylon 5’s Londo has so many chances to turn aside from his dark path but still does horrific things out of fear and ambition. If you listen closely, you can hear the audience screaming at him to stop.

Sacrifice

Redemption has to hurt for it to have value. The more terrible the character’s deeds, the greater the pain. It’s not just the karmic balance for the redemption seeker themselves that matters, but evening up the balance within the storyline. Go too light on the redemption seeker and it’ll cheapen what (should) be a pivotal turning point in the story.

Londo Mollari is warned long before the end that his only hope for redemption is to surrender to his greatest fear, knowing that it will destroy him[3]. By the time he really embraces atonement, the audience has a pretty good idea of what that’s going to mean – even Londo doesn’t – making his turn towards the light that much more poignant. Javert’s sacrifice is more immediate. Though he knows he’s done the right thing by finally abandoning his pursuit of Valjean, he can’t reconcile his actions with his duties and becomes his own executioner.

(And because I know I’m writing this for Grimdark Magazine) Redemption Can’t be Certain

Even when a redemption seeker’s finally done the right thing, the rest of the characters (or even the world) have no obligation to think better of them. Friends might be glad that they came through in the end. Others might actively hate them all the more for all those pesky missed opportunities. Some can even remain cheerfully[4] ignorant that a sacrifice ever took place.

Sometimes the worst punishment is to throw your life away and for no one even to notice. It’s not fair, maybe, but who said life had to be?

[1] I mean, until it’s gone midnight and you can’t sleep, and every questionable decision you’ve ever made comes crawling out of your brain to circle around your thoughts in a cackling chorus line. Just me? Fine. Be like that. Lie to yourself.

[2] With a wonderful singing voice if it’s the musical version. That ain’t nothing.

[3] No pressure, mate.

[4] Or moodily, because Grimdark.

Read The Fire Within Them by Matthew Ward

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Matthew Ward

Matthew Ward

Cat-servant and owner of more musical instruments than he can actually play (and considerably more than he can play well), Matthew Ward is the author of the Legacy Trilogy and the forthcoming Soulfire Saga. He’s also the architect of Coldharbour, and a roaming Creative Consultant and Voice Director in video game land, including Vermintide, Vermintide 2, Darktide and Aliens: Dark Descent. He’s afflicted with an obsession for old places – castles, historic cities and the London Underground chief amongst them – and should probably cultivate more interests to help expand out his author biography.

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