In this series, I’ve previously looked at why you should consider a villain redemption arc, when is the right time in a story to redeem a villain, and the things to avoid. Now it’s time to finally look at how to write the villain redemption arc.
Just like with any good writing trope, a villain redemption story relies on one important ingredient – A story arc. In cartoons, you may see villains changing their tune completely with the minimum amount of convincing, but that is mostly due to time constraints. In a novel, particularly in a fantasy story, you have more space to write an ongoing story arc to show the villain’s gradual change. In real life, people don’t change their entire attitude in a single day or after hearing a single heartfelt speech. It takes years for that sort of change to happen. Here are a few other ways that you can write this story arc:
- Leave Hints Throughout the Story
Similar to dropping foreshadowing throughout your story, leaving some hints that your villain has the potential for good will help when it does come time for them to change. It goes beyond ‘they’re evil but still love their pet dog’. Even the worst people in history had loved ones and pets they cared for. It could instead be an indication of the outside forces that turned them bad or having them show a hint of sympathy at a time when they didn’t need to.
- Research Real Life Cases
All good writers do their research, and the same is true here. It is useful to look up some real life examples of former extremists who changed their attitudes to see how it can happen realistically. Check out this story of a former member of a South African militia. You can see that there was a key moment when he realised that he was on the wrong side, but it only came about after a long period of doubt, and even that wasn’t enough for him to leave the militia immediately.
- Show the Consequences
So the villain has left their evil ways behind, now they can join the good guy’s team and fight evil themselves, right? It isn’t quite as clean as that. Actions have consequences and even if the person has been forgiven and is trying to redeem themselves, they will have to deal with these consequences and travel a difficult road to redemption.
First there is the emotional weight they have to deal with. How do they feel when they realise the thing they’ve believed in their whole lives was a lie? Do they respond with denial, depression, or by turning their anger against a new target? It isn’t always easy for people to abandon their old lives, especially if they still have family ties towards it.
They don’t have to be completely perfect straight away, but can instead transition into being good, or at least better than they were. It is more realistic, and holds more emotional weight, to show them accidentally letting out an offensive slur, acting aggressively, or holding onto old habits rather than immediately opening a puppy farm. And of course, there will still be a lot of guilt for them to deal with.
- Make the Punishment Fit the Crime
Even if you want your character to be forgiven, they should ideally have to undergo some form of punishment for their crimes first. A reader will feel cheated if a former villain immediately gets away with everything they did just because they said ‘I’ll be good from now on’. Similarly, if a villain has taken steps for redemption but still receives an unfair punishment, the reader will feel equally cheated.
- Subvert the Tropes
As much as I’ve said that there are certain tropes that should be avoided, you can still put interesting twists on them to create a unique story. Take the mind wipe, for instance. Instead of brainwashing the villain into their own ideology, suppose the hero has to do it because they have no choice (I seriously thought this was how Gravity Falls was going to end). This opens up the possibility for the hero to question their own morality, having a sort of redemption arc of their own. Perhaps they could use it as an opportunity to teach the villain how to use their powers for good. And what could happen if the villain does get their memories back? The story possibilities that come from subverted tropes are endless.
There are a lot of villain redemption stories which weren’t handled well. But those that are become some of the most emotional, interesting, and though provoking stories of all. Be sure to focus on the story arc and avoid the pitfalls and you can have a unique redemption plot in your own novel.