Create Killer Twists: Learn How to Redeem Your Villain

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

Quick Tip

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

Life-or-Death 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.

Epiphany Redemption

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.

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23 Responses to Create Killer Twists: Learn How to Redeem Your Villain

  1. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 10-11-2018 | The Author Chronicles

  2. Natalie Shannon says:

    I have read everything Stephen King has ever wrote and I love the Dark Tower Series. I read all the books and also the Graphic Novel series that talks a lot about Roland’s early life. Those graphic novels/comic series helped me gain insight to Roland’s character and the relationship he had with all of his friends. It also talks a lot about Walter “The Man In Black” In all my reading I found that Walter is just a puppet for the Crimson King. Walter does whatever the Crimson King tells him.

    I thought the movie was just okay. I feel that the movie studios did not give enough time, money and effort to the film. You know the old saying “Don’t judge a book by it’s movie.”

    • Sacha Black says:

      Thanks for the info, I had a feeling someone would be able to give me more insight into The Man in Black, the movie definitely doesn’t do the character justice. Haha I totally agree – you really can’t judge a book by its movie, thanks for reading 🙂

  3. Kessie says:

    It’s kind of like Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender. For the first season or two, he’s one of the main antagonists, chasing the heroes from town to town, burning everything behind them. But he’s accompanied by his somewhat silly uncle, who goes from bumbling sidekick to moral paragon as you realize he’s only there to try to redeem Zuko from his revenge quest. And Zuko only wants to kill the Avatar because his father cast him out in disgrace, because Zuko had an iota of morality at one time. You’re rooting for him to turn good and join the heroes from early on, and the pressure on Zuko to join the heroes only increases after he’s apparently accomplished his goal. Such a great character arc. Of course, he’s only one of several villains, namely his Queen-B sister and his father who basically wants to burn the world.

  4. I’m reading 13 steps to Evil now! It’s very helpful!

    • sacha black says:

      Hi Traci, ohhhh thank you so much, I really appreciate that. I’m really glad to hear you’re finding it helpful 😀 😀

  5. This post was really helpful.
    Thank you, Sasha. Now I must find a copy of 13 Steps to Evil.

  6. Talia says:

    Ooh, I love this!! I don’t tend to redeem my villains very often, but one time I did. It wasn’t the actual villain, just one of his henchmen (but in this particular story, he was the main antagonist), and over the course of the story he realized what was really going on was that the true villain was using him and didn’t care about him at all. I mean, it’s kind of cliche, but it was my first novel, so… xD Thanks for posting!!

    • Sacha Black says:

      Ohhhh that’s so awesome, I absolutely love a redeemed villain… henchman or otherwise. Thank you so much for commenting. Also cool that your story was able to branch out to give other characters some limelight. I’ve thought about that for one of my series 😀

  7. :Donna says:

    I really love this 🙂 Thanks, Sasha!

  8. Natalie Shannon says:

    What about if a “villain” is not the real villain? What if a person is called a villain by the protagonist or “hero” but as the story progresses, we figure out the “hero” did something horrible and blamed everything on the “villain” Would that cheat the readers if they believed the hero was truly good only to find out later in the book or next book in the series that the villain was the true good guy? Would that upset and possibly lose your readers?

    • Sacha Black says:

      It sounds like you have a twist in your story – which is a great thing to have. I’d say that it would be good to drop some subtle clues as to your heroes true identity throughout your story. Tiny foreshadowing breadcrumbs, that way the readers are fed the clues and brought along on the journey with you and it feels realistic to them. If it’s a total 180 flip on who they thought the hero was with no forwarning I’d suspect they might not accept the change. Change typically needs to be earned (good or bad change)

  9. Great post. Like Becca, I want to feel that there is a sliver of possibility that the villain can find their way back to the light. Nothing drives me more crazy than a book or a film that has a villain who is “evil for the sake of it” or is hungry for power “just because.” Ugh, no thanks. Everyone has a reason for what they do and who they are, and it’s is that reason and the belief that maybe–under the right circumstances–they might heal enough to turn back, that draws me in.

    • Sacha says:

      I completely agree. Slight tangent on the why/motive but I’ll admit, there’s been an occasion or two that a cliched villain has turned my eye. Walter in the Dark Tower (movie version and NOT the book version, in the book he has a solid motive) doesn’t really have a motive and he’s dressed in black and yada, yada, but he just plays him so darn well that I can’t help but love him as a villain. Those extreme examples aside I fully agree. Humans are driven by ‘why’ we have reasons for doing everything, and when we don’t it jars the reader because it’s unrealistic. Also totally agree with you – that what if factor, the unknown of what they’re going to do is like an unanswered question – in other words brain crack! 😂😂

      • I think the difference with that example is that if you understand King’s universe and the ongoing battle of good and evil, you know there’s more to Flagg/the man in black that what you see on the screen, and knowing that keeps you engaged. You don’t need the backstory and motivation in the movie because you have it already.

        I realize not everyone has read all the books where this character has appeared, and not all who saw the movie would have read the books, but I do think because of King’s fan base a lot would have and so they had a bit of license as to how developed The Dark Man was in the film. Flagg/the man in black is, in some ways, “an original evil” character with his rich King Universe history just like Vader is an “original evil” character. So, I think there’s an argument that they actually need to apply certain cliches to give him the feeling of age, power, and evil importance, if that makes sense. 😉

        • sacha black says:

          ahh yes, I agree – I’m technically one of the ones who has seen the movie and not read the books. I had to google the plot after the movie because I was so surprised. But I think the world building was there even in the film, so that give some of the context to the conflict between them and I totally agree about the clichés to create the age and power. 😀

  10. What a great post, Sacha. Thanks so much. I’ve taken notes!

  11. The best villains are the ones that are somewhat redeemable—even if they don’t ever see the light. It makes them much more interesting, imo, and the possibility that they could be redeemed adds to the story. You are, as always, the Villain Queen, Sacha. And I mean that in the best way possible :).

    • Sacha Black says:

      hahahaha, I most certainly am *cackles* I do love me some superbad villains.

      Thank you as always for having me here to coach, it’s a great honor.

      I totally agree about the possibility of redemption making them more interesting – it’s unexpected and keeps the reader guessing and that imo is always a winner 🙂

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