Everyone loves a good redemption story. It is one of the aspects that I believe helped make the original Star Wars trilogy so endearing: Watching Darth Vader rise from darkness to save his son. Redemption is also a hopeful message. Not only does it assure us that anyone can become the good guy, it gives a feeling of control. If these characters are so in charge of their destiny, than maybe we can be too.
Today’s post looks at some ways to write a successful redemption arc. This is by no means a definitive “how-to.” Writing is variable and unique – pretty much every rule can be broken by someone who knows what they’re doing to achieve a powerful effect.
I only offer some hints as to how to successfully write redemption, while giving some warnings of missteps to avoid. For the purposes of this blog, I will be focusing on two examples of what I see as successful redemption arcs: Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender and Catra from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.
Okay, let’s dive in:
Redemption can be defined as “the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil.” So, in order for the saving to work, the audience has to want the character to be saved in the first place. For example, if I’m writing a story of this girl who was raised in wealth with loving parents who nurtured her every whim and supportive friends who were always there for her, then she turns out to be a sadistic child-murderer…well, no one is going to want her saved. They will just want her stopped. There’s no sympathy. This is just clearly someone who, at best, has severe mental issues, and, at worst, is pure evil.
To help establish a character for redemption, it strongly helps to give them sympathetic origins. For example, both Zuko and Catra come from abusive homes. Both are upstaged by either siblings or friends while being constantly ridiculed by those who should support them. Zuko’s own father literally scars him for speaking out of turn before banishing him from his home.
In Catra’s case, her maternal figure – Shadow Weaver – consistently calls her things like “failure” and “disappointment” while never once trusting her to do anything right. Her feelings are treated as irrelevant, as is her existence. For Shadow Weaver, Catra exists to help make Adora look good by comparison.
Sounds great to be a child growing up in these kind of homes, right? No wonder both Catra and Zuko end up with severe self-worth issues and base their value on the approval of others rather than what actually makes them feel good.
The Want vs. The Need
The “want vs. the need” is a common idea when it comes to character writing. It states that fully-formed characters often have two goals, one they are aware of and one that is often subconscious. “The want” is the surface goal. Characters want to find a treasure or get the girl or something tangible like that. What they need is typically not so simple, nor can it be gratified so easily.
For example, in The Lion King, Simba wants to run away from all his troubles and just live a normal life. What he needs to do, however, is face his past failures and return to his home to claim responsibility. See how much easier the want was than the need?
Catra wants to be as loved as Adora is. She wants the approval of the people who admonished her friend – so Shadow Weaver and Hordak. She wants to be recognized as worthwhile and have all her hard work acknowledged.
Zuko wants his honor – which he believes only his father can restore. Honor can be substituted for “acceptance/love” in this case. Zuko genuinely believes that he made a mistake when he spoke out (he spoke out to try and save soldiers’ lives) and blindly follows his father’s last order: “Capture the Avatar”, so that he might have a chance to regain the acceptance he so desperately craves.
When you’re writing a character you want to redeem, it can really help to give them this disconnect. Have them really want something, but have that want be misguided, and most importantly, have them fulfill that want.
The Want is Fulfilled
Both Zuko and Catra eventually “win.” They each reach the place where they told themselves they wanted to be. Zuko helps his sister defeat the Avatar and his father welcomes him home. Catra rises in the ranks of the Horde until she pretty much runs it.
But both of these pursuits cost them in terms of what they need. Zuko needs to learn to love himself, knowing that he is in charge of his honor – not his father. Catra needs love and friends, she needs to let go of her drive to succeed, because she never really needed it.
By giving these characters what they wanted, the writers force them to confront the hard truth: It isn’t really what they needed. This causes both to finally change, abandoning their previous drives to adopt new identities.
The Character’s Struggle
In each one of these characters’ journeys, there are false salvation moments. Like the audience thinks/hopes they will change, only to watch them double-down on the destructive path they are on. This is important, to show that hey, it really is a struggle to change yourself, especially if it’s a belief you’ve held virtually your whole life.
That said, redemptive arcs must balance the struggle with the sympathy. Audiences can give up on characters who just show their dark sides. When writing a character who you may want to redeem later on, you must always show the struggle.
We as readers or as viewers must get that there are forces at work within these characters we’re watching/reading, that they are trying to make sense of the world and their place in it. Yes, Zuko does imprison his uncle at the end of season 2 – but he also lets Appa, the Avatar’s animal friend, out of prison.
Catra constantly flops between letting Adora and her friends go and imprisoning them for the Horde. When she does her most evil act – banishing Entrapta and starting a portal to wipe out everything, she doesn’t do it to be evil, she does it well, because she’s kinda suicidal at that moment. She’s clinging so desperately to this idea that victory will make her happy that nothing else matters. She’s willing to kill herself to stop what she sees as Adora beating her, again.
The Apology is Accepted
Redemption is saving and being saved, so it typically involves more than one character. In Zuko’s case, no one works harder at redeeming him than his uncle. For Catra, it’s Adora – the person she spends so much time trying to kill never fully gives up on her, even when it would make things easier to do so.
So, when Catra and Zuko do redeem themselves, the approval they suddenly crave comes from the people they know they have wronged. Everything they do becomes a way to show they are sorry (not just say they are sorry). Zuko joins the Avatar and teaches him fire bending. Catra frees Glimmer and sends her back to Adora.
The redemption is fully complete when these characters understand that they are forgiven – and this does not necessarily happen when the person they wronged says “I forgive you.” It can be something as simple as:
Dangling forgiveness over someone can be its own form of abuse. Both Uncle Iroh and Adora never felt the hate that Catra and Zuko assumed they would – so, while it’s important that both Catra and Zuko showed that they had changed, it wasn’t the thing that gave them value.
They were both already and always valued in the eyes of those who loved them. At the end of their respective redemptions, they each understand that.
So yeah, I hoped this helped give you an idea of how to write a redemption character arc successfully. Remember, it must be character driven, not just happen because it’s convenient to the plot. Don’t force these things.
Watching shows like Avatar and She-Ra can help show you these arcs done well. They’re also, in this writer’s opinion, pretty great pieces of art overall.