In classic storytelling there are two types of characters, good guys and bad guys. They both serve important purposes. The hero is intended as the person we should all strive to be and who’s story we want to follow and watch as they succeed. The villain is needed to provide a foil to them, give the hero somebody to fight, create conflict by keeping them from what they want, and show us what we shouldn’t try to be.
In recent years, writers are starting to deconstruct classic villain tropes and present different types of villain. There’s the anti-hero who fits in a morally grey area (Game of Throne’s Tyrion Lannister), the protagonist villain (Lolita’s Humbert Humbert), and the redeemed villain (Ebeneezer Scrooge, perhaps the most famous example). Not that there’s anything wrong with the classic baddie, there are many big bads who we all love to hate. But it’s reached the point where that character has become clichéd and boring and we like to see different types of villain and villain story arcs. These often form some of the most interesting and memorable stories of all. Changes to society mean that some people who were previously seen as villains are now the heroes, and vice-versa. Here are some reasons why I really love the villain redemption story and why you should consider it in your own stories:
- It opens up the possibility for more types of story other than the standard good vs. evil. This post on Tumblr gives a whole list of villain redemption stories which have hardly ever been seen so far.
- It asks some important questions, like can people ever be truly forgiven for an act of evil. A good example is a book I recently reviewed and haven’t stopped gushing about since, Before the Court of Heaven. It tells the story of the real life German assassin Ernst Techow. In the first half of the book I hated him because of his racism and lack of empathy for his Jewish victims. In the second half he goes through a surprisingly touching change of heart but no matter how much good he tries to do, he can never change the terrible things he did in his youth and never truly forgive himself.
- There is some of the best potential for character development. Like the example above, the hero isn’t the only one who has to go through the hero’s journey. Character development is the key stone of all good stories and what could be better than the development from bad to good?
- More potential for drama. I don’t think that story tropes should be thrown in purely for the sake of increased drama, but if a story is lagging then a villain redemption plot could be what it is lacking. It is unique, emotional, memorable, and opens up the doorway to many more future stories.
- It can teach the protagonist an important lesson about themselves and have a great impact in their own story arc. Villains are supposed to be the opposite of the hero and keep them from what they want. One way for the hero to get what they want isn’t just to defeat the villain but change them for the better. It says a lot about a hero if they are willing to take a chance on the villain instead of taking the easy option of running their sword through them. Or perhaps the change in the villain inspires the hero to change in a way too or shows them what is truly important.
In my next post, I’ll talk about when to redeem a villain and when not to, and provide more examples of villain redemption stories done right.