How To Redeem A Villain

Got a villain you wanna redeem? Maybe it's one of your own, or maybe it's someone from something you watch or read. Redemption stories can be a lot of fun and very emotionally satisfying, but there are many ways they can go wrong. It can sometimes come off as the author trying to make excuses for the villain's actions, or simply being in strong denial over them. Sometimes the villains' actions are acknowledge, but sometimes they're forgiven just a little too easily and quickly. Sometimes, the redeemed villains are people who in the real world, would most likely never stop being terrible people. Here's what you need to know to write a redemption story that is both plausible and balanced.

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Is the character plausibly likely to become a right person given the right circumstances?

At its core, redemption is about choosing a better path and committing oneself to it for the long haul. It doesn't happen through doing one big dramatic act of good, because almost anyone can put on a good publicity stunt now and then. (A genocidal warlord can sponsor a charity for orphans without giving up being a genocidal warlord, for example.) Redemption happens through long-term commitment to being a better (though not necessarily perfect) person. (And this in turn means that it's perfectly reasonable for the protagonists to be wary around the villain, or to consider the villain 'on probation' until a long-term pattern of improved behavior is established.)

Anyone who can successfully commit to doing better can be redeemed. Someone who won't commit to doing better cannot be redeemed.

We know that in the real world, there are some people who will never change their ways. It doesn't matter what they hear or see, they will never muster up the heart to change their ways for the better because they just won't care. Many fictional villains would be this type of person in the real world, and many people recognize this on some level. This can make people's efforts to redeem such a villain seem naive and misguided, and make the villain's subsequent redemption seem contrived. So to avoid this kind of problem yourself, here are some factors that can indicate that someone is a hopeless case:

A long-standing pattern of gratuitous/wanton cruelty and heartlessness. This includes things like tearing down or torturing others just for fun, enslaving others for personal satisfaction, or killing people simply because one can. There's a major difference between someone who does something terrible out of genuine conviction that it's the only way, and someone who does it simply for fun or convenience.

A long-standing pattern of pettiness. For example, torturing or killing people over perceived insults or for being minor inconveniences, holding long-term grudges for one-time events, or things that the responsible party apologized and took responsibility for, or things that the responsible party could not be reasonably held at fault for.

A long-standing pattern of refusing to take responsibility. Essentially, blaming anything and everything else for one's behaviors, refusing to acknowledge that there's anything wrong with one's hurtful actions (or indeed, that one's actions even are hurtful), and/or refusing to do anything that one could possibly do to could help one act better in the future. (EG, learning better coping mechanisms, emotional management techniques, etc.)

All of these indicate a type of person who has no regard for anyone else's welfare, and will never have any. Someone who "secretly cares about people a lot" isn't likely to make a hobby out of brutally torturing them. Someone who is incredibly petty probably doesn't care about balance in justice nor taking in other people's perspectives and personal situations. Someone who refuses to take personal responsibility almost certainly isn't going to commit to becoming a better person simply because this person thinks that the fault lies with everyone and everything else.

This is also how you tell the difference between good people with bad ideas and people who are just plain bad. Good people can sometimes end up absorbing bad ideas through no faults of their own. Maybe they learned bigotry from their parents. Maybe religious leaders taught them that they had to do certain things to be worthy of God's love. Maybe they were told that they had to behave a certain way or else society would fall apart.

Good people with bad ideas make an effort to be good in the best way they know how to be. These people's actions are often led (or at least informed) by their consciences, and they try to be just, fair, and compassionate. They will usually try to avoid being wantonly selfish or cruel. They are often willing to admit when they are wrong, and they are often willing to take responsibility for their actions. It's their compassionate consciences, and their abilities to admit when they're wrong, that can eventually led them down a better path. The idea of inflicting pain on others, even for a "good" reason, is not likely to bring them any joy, and they'll try to do what they can to minimize the harm and suffering they cause. Good people with bad ideas do bad things because they have no way to know better and genuinely believe that they have no other choice. If they believed there was a better, kinder way, they would take it.

People who are just plain bad are not led by their consciences. They're pointlessly cruel and selfish, and any bigoted beliefs they pick up from others are used as justifications and excuses to abuse and exploit others. They won't bother trying to minimize the harm and suffering they cause, because other people's suffering doesn't bother them at all. They might do things that seem to be good sometimes, but it's because there's personal gain in it, not because they have any genuine interest in benefiting anyone else. Bad people do bad things because they want to or because it's convenient, whether or not they know better. If they believed there was a better, kinder way, it would make no difference.

Something else to consider is how desperate or emotionally compromised the villain is. People will do terrible things when they believe there's no other real choice in the matter, and being in a state of extreme emotion impairs one's judgment and self-control. Does your villain legitimately believe that it's a "kill or be killed" kind of situation? Is your villain lashing out after years of enduring mistreatment? Is there possibly even some displaced aggression involved? Any of these problems can potentially be mitigated and treated with counseling and education toward better life skills and coping methods. (In fact, if the heroes overlook or dismiss this possibility in a situation like this, it can make them come off as very cold, self-righteous, and self-absorbed.)

So when you're thinking about redeeming a villain, be real with yourself: are you looking at someone who plausibly has genuine potential to improve, or are you looking at someone who through repeated acts of willful and wanton cruelty has demonstrated a complete inability to care about others? And are there any factors that might indicate that your villain's current state of thinking is only temporary and can be fixed with therapy and education, or is it more likely how your villain operates on a permanent basis?

Experiencing pain and hardship doesn't make someone more "deserving" of redemption or forgiveness than otherwise.

When people see that a villain has been through some sort of hardship or tragedy, they often develop the opinion that the heroes should be more merciful and give the villain a chance at redemption. But there are a few flaws with this thinking.

First of all, the fact that someone has been through something terrible doesn't necessarily mean that this person is any more willing to become a better person than anyone else. (Consider that many depraved and remorseless serial killers had difficult and troubled childhoods.)

This kind of thinking is also uncomfortably close to abuse coupon logic. Abuse coupon logic essentially states that simply by virtue of being abused yourself, you get a free pass or consequential discount if you hurt others. Other people, up to and including your own victims, are supposedly obligated to be more lenient on you or even let you completely off the hook simply because you don't "deserve" that punishment after all the suffering you've been through. Now, reality check: No amount of personal suffering makes you any less obligated to take responsibility for your actions. Everyone has an equal responsibility to do their best to avoid harming others, and everyone is equally obligated to do their best to take responsibility when a violation occurs.

Likewise, having something terrible happen to you even after the terrible things you've done doesn't erase your obligation to take responsibility for your actions. Suffering some malady or misfortune doesn't erase or undo the impact of your actions. It does not mean that you now deserve forgiveness for what you've done in the past. (Though it is a good opportunity to reflect on just how miserable suffering truly is and how maybe one should endeavor to make people suffer less instead of more.)

Is this to say that villains can't have terrible and tragic stories? Of course not. Having a tragic backstory does serve to humanize a villain in your audience's mind, and if it serves to make them want to see that villain redeemed - so much the better, because they'll be happy to see it finally happen. It just needs to be shown that redemption comes from the villain's success at becoming a better person, no more and no less. (Furthermore, having every tragic villain turn out to be irredeemable is demoralizing to people who have been through horrible things themselves and ended up going down dark or at least questionable paths. These people deserve to be shown that there's hope for people like themselves.)

And finally, "does so and so deserve redemption?" is the wrong question to ask from the start. The question should be, "is so and so potentially willing to become a better person?" A chance to become a better person should be seen as something that everyone should have if possible, if only because it can potentially solve a lot of problems and spare a lot of conflict. Only when the person rejects or squanders such an opportunity, or otherwise demonstrates an incorrigible nature, should this person be considered a lost cause.

The villain actually having a point the whole time or having been wronged by the heroes isn't redemptive, either.

Once again, being mistreated doesn't give you a coupon to spend on mistreating others for free or at discount. And having a valid point can be part of a villain's motivation and can serve to make the character more relatable and sympathetic, but it doesn't actually absolve the character from taking responsibility in any way.

As far as having a valid point goes, the fact that the villain's opinions and feelings are justified doesn't mean that the actions the villain chooses to take are. For example, if someone you've had a crush on for awhile turns you down when you finally work up the nerve to ask this person out, you are justified in feeling sad and hurt. You are not justified in starting a smear campaign against this person. Likewise, if your boss fires you for questionable reasons, you're justified in being angry and possibly seeking legal help; you are not justified in killing your former boss's pet and child. Even if you were hurt or wronged, the wanton cruelty and malice in how you chose to respond means that you don't deserve to be let off the hook.

And if the heroes have wronged the villain in some way, it doesn't mean that nobody needs to take responsibility. It means that they all do. They all need to own up to their actions and try to do better in the future. (Which means that if the villain actually apologizes and takes responsibility while the heroes refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoing on their part, the villain is actually the better person in this scenario!)

Keep at least a modicum of pragmatism in mind.

If the main characters know full well that the villain they want to redeem is probably going to end up killing a dozen people or so along the way but do little to nothing to truly prevent it, you really need to ask yourself: why are they putting this villain's life or freedom above the lives of these other people? Why do their friends and families deserve to be put through that much grief and torment? How can the main characters possibly justify themselves to the bereaved without sounding like a bunch of self-righteous, self-centered prats? Are we honestly supposed to believe that the bereaved should just suck it up and be happy that the serial killer who took their loved ones away finally realized that Killing Innocent People Is Bad?

This goes extra if it's their actual job to look after people's safety and security in any way. Their job is to protect people, not to mollycoddle serial killers who won't stop killing. It doesn't make them "true heroes." It makes them failures at their job.

Some authors attempt to justify this kind of thing by saying that if the protagonists take action, this will make them no better than the villains. However, this is a false equivalence, because taking necessary measures to protect yourself or others is not morally equivalent to hurting people for personal gain or petty revenge. People's rights to protect and defend themselves must be upheld, lest they become victims of oppression and abuse.

Exactly what your characters should do when it's clear that the villain has no intention of stopping, of course, depends on the circumstances of your story. It could mean calling the authorities if it's feasible for them to do so. It could mean finding a way to restrain and render the villain unable to hurt anyone. Violence, naturally, should be a last resort and not a first - but if nothing else works, well, they can't be held at fault for finally resorting to it.

And once again, it's a good idea here to look at your villain's behaviors and be honest about what kind of person your villain probably is. Someone who has the potential for redemption isn't likely to be out hurting and killing innocent people simply because it's fun or convenient. If your villain does get up to that, you strongly need to consider that this is not a villain you want to try to redeem.

Figure out what's going on inside the villain to motivate this change.

What's going on inside of your villain, both rationally and emotionally, that makes changing in this way and going on this path seem like the best and most desirable option? What's in it for your villain? Is there safety and security? A sense of satisfaction from doing the right thing? Something else? And based on your villain's previous motivations and actions, does it make sense for your villain to want these things? Is your villain learning that there's a better way to do things, or learning to see things from a new perspective? If so, what makes this new way or perspective so appealing to your villain? Does being around the heroes and finding out that they're human beings with real problems and feelings after all cause your villain to develop sympathy for them? Put some thought into it and figure it out. (And try to come up with more than one thing here, because once again, multiplicity lends credibility.) This is what should drive your villain to change.

(While we're here, please remember that using a romantic relationship as a means to redeem a character is at best a questionable idea and at worst a horrible one. If romantic relationships really had that kind of redemptive power, domestic abuse wouldn't be nearly so prevalent.)

Now, some stories have a protagonist essentially soulwash a villain by magically "removing the darkness" or by essentially bombarding the villain with (for lack of a better term) love radiation. Either one of these usually make the villain's anger and resentment go away and awaken the villain's ability to love and empathize. There are a few problems with this. For one, it's often a lot less satisfying to see happen than actual organic development. Secondly, it's not how anything actually works, so it can feel contrived and cheesy, possibly even lazy. Thirdly, depending on how it's done, it can amount to rewriting the villain's personality. At best, this can be seen as a form of mind control that forces the villain into compliance with the heroes; at worst, it can be seen as a form of murder unto itself, as the original personality no longer exists. So please keep this in mind before aiming for soulwashing your villain.

Commit to the change yourself.

While self-improvement is often a difficult journey fraught with backslides, having the character slide all the way back into full-blown villainy (even temporarily) can undermine the having a redemption arc in the first place. It implies that this villain just couldn't be truly redeemed after all, and that those who believed it could happen were just naively idealistic and wasted their time. Furthermore, it's a great way to really rankle those who were happy to see the character redeemed.

Sometimes writers have a character go back to villainy because they come to realize their story now lacks a compelling antagonist. You can try to avoid this problem yourself by asking yourself just who is going to pick up the slack once this villain is redeemed. Do you have another villain lined up who'll be able to cause trouble for the protagonists in an interesting way and be just as compelling to watch? If not, can you make one? Make sure you work this out before accidentally leaving yourself short a good antagonist for your story!

You can potentially make things really interesting by letting the character stay in the story and have to deal with the long-term consequences of having been a villain before.

Many redeemed villains end up dying shortly after their redemption, or even earn their redemption through death. But what if they lived instead? What if they had to carry on in a world where they'll never be able to make up for or fix all the wrongs they've committed? How will they cope knowing that some people will never forgive them or feel comfortable having them around - nor should they be expected to? How will they deal with people who are still after their blood or insist that they need to "pay" for their misdeeds with their lives? How will they deal with the people who are so convinced that they're still evil that they'll take tiny wrong as a sign that they haven't changed at all? What about people who will try to use their feelings of guilt and remorse to manipulate them? What will they do when they don't know whether they're slipping into villainous behavior, or whether someone is gaslighting or morally abusing them? What might they do to make sure no one else ever falls down the dark path they took? Will their guilt and remorse motivate them to try to make the world a better place in some way, and if so, what will they be motivated to do?

All of this can make for great story potential, and if written well could potentially be very encouraging to anyone trying to be a better person after having been a terrible one in the past. It might even inspire some people to try to become better in the first place simply by showing them that it's possible, and by showing them that even if they can never make things perfect and even if the road ahead might be rough sometimes, it's still worth it. So think about what might happen if your villain had to live on and remain part of the story, because it might be worth exploring.

So, in summary!

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On Writing Sympathetic Morally-Ambiguous Characters
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A Few Things Writers Need To Know About Psychology & Psychotherapists

Protagonist-Centered Morality: What It Is, And How You Can Avoid It
Character Morality & Ethics - What Separates Your Heroes From The Villains?
Ethical Considerations For Fantastic Situations - Are Your Sci-Fi & Fantasy Heroes Ethical People?

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