You might think a villain can’t be redeemed. After all, they’re sinister and twisted and think killing people is a post-dinner dessert choice. But even villains are people, and, no matter how coal-crusted it gets, they have a heart buried somewhere inside their ribs. Besides, readers love a good twist and what’s better than a villain suddenly seeing the light?
What is a Villain Redemption Arc?
A character arc defines the change a character goes through during your story. Typically a hero or protagonist will start from a lower point (flawed) and then, as the story tests them, they’ll build up to overcoming their flaw and defeating the villain.
A classic villain will spend the entire plot descending into the pits of evil, where eventually he’s defeated – in other words, it’s a straight-shot into the hell mouth. But a bad guy on a path to redemption doesn’t follow the same arc path. Note the diagram above is illustrative, not literal. Arcs will vary depending on your individual stories and plot points.
So how do you create a redemption arc?
If your villain is going to do a 180 and become good, then there should be a reason. Humans don’t do things without reasons, and in order for your readers to swallow such a significant change, you need to ensure you’re clear on why he’s doing it.
There are two things you need to know to create a realistic redemption arc:
- Why your villain is evil in the first place
- Why your villain is trying to redeem himself
Realism is derived from a multitude of factors, but one of the most important is having authentic motives. Villainy is a dark path for a reason – it’s hard to come back from – which is why you need a super-bright ‘why’ torch to help your baddie see the light.
The best way to create a ‘why’ (or a motive) is to understand where it comes from. For example:
- Maybe your villain wants a bigger pay off and this is how he thinks he will get it
- He could be taking an order from someone more powerful
- A more emotional reason might be that the hero appeals to his heart by saving someone the villain cares about
- Or perhaps the villain just wants to right a wrong or past mistake
Whatever the plot point for justifying your villain’s redemption, you can create added depth to their motive by linking it to an old wound in his past (you can use Becca and Angela’s Emotional Wound Thesaurus to help with this).
Types of Redemption
There are lots of outcomes to a redemption arc, but the two most common are ‘life’ and ‘death’. Either the villain dies in the course of redeeming himself (often to prove he’s become ‘good’), or he lives because the heroes see the change in the villain and do the right thing and save him. Regina, The Evil Queen from the hit TV show Once Upon a Time, is a good example of this. After spending several seasons as a villain, she endeavours to right the wrongs she caused by using her powers to delay the explosion of a device that will kill everyone. As a result, Henry (one of the heroes) says, “You’re willing to die to save everyone, that makes you a hero.” And he and several others work together to save both their town and Regina who is redeemed by her willingness to sacrifice herself.
Sometimes we don’t realize we have bad habits until someone tells us or we suddenly become aware of them. One of the most famous epiphany redemption examples is Scrooge from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The entire plot revolves around Scrooge going through an awakening. With the help of Christmas ghosts, he’s shown the impact of his actions which causes him to see that he’s been a leading a terrible life. The end of the story shows him as a changed man, being kind and charitable to others.
Quick Redemption Tips:
- It takes time. Just as a hero takes an entire novel to overcome her flaw, it will take some time for a villain to make this monumental change. Don’t let them flip-flop like a beached fish between good and evil – the change needs to build slowly throughout the book.
- Foreshadow, foreshadow, foreshadow. Readers don’t like to be cheated. You need to drop breadcrumbs throughout your story to let your reader know subconsciously that the villain is going to change, otherwise they’ll feel cheated. It doesn’t take much—the occasional soft glance from the villain, a nicely spoken sentence, an action that is ‘good’ rather than evil. Tiny clues.
- Don’t make it easy. It’s hard for the hero to overcome her flaw and likewise, it should be hard for a villain to overcome his. A quick way to make it harder for the villain to redeem himself is to catch him between two of his values. For example, while this character isn’t a villain, it still illustrates the point: Ned Stark in Game of Thrones values loyalty and wisdom – his wisdom tells him if he helps his King it will inevitably lead to his death, and yet, his loyalty forces him to help the King anyway.
- Don’t let them go soft. Villains are villains for a reason. Keep them authentic by retaining some of their sharper personality edges. Just because their actions are good doesn’t mean the whole of them will be.
Redemption arcs create killer twists because a villain doing a 180 is unexpected. But there’s lots of pitfalls you can fall prey to. Make the change of heart genuine by giving your villain a solid motive, let the change grow with the story, and remember that foreshadowing is key to bringing your reader along with you.
Sacha Black is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft A Superbad Villain. Her blog for writers, www.sachablack.co.uk, is home to regular writing, marketing and publishing advice sprinkled with dark humour and the occasional bad word. In addition to craft books, she writes YA fantasy, and her first series, Keepers, is due out in November 2017.