BLACK WIDOW: It’s really not that complicated. I’ve got red in my ledger, I’d like to wipe it out.
LOKI: Can you? Can you wipe out that much red? Drakoff’s daughter? Sao Paulo? The hospital fire? Barton told me everything.
The concept of ‘Redemption’ has always been tied in with the imagery of a debt being paid off. In the days of the Roman Empire, when the Christian Church was just starting to figure out what it believed in, the term was usually used in relation to the release of prisoners of war, or when securing the liberty of those who sold themselves into slavery, often to pay off a family debt.
I should note at this point that the Christian Church’s message (or parts of it at least) around this time was all about how mankind no longer needed to pay its way out of damnation because Christ had paid that debt through his sacrifice. Saint Paul, when writing his letters to the Corinthians, argued at length that the death of Christ effectively freed all Christians from slavery to the laws of the Old Testament or to death, and into the freedom of Heaven, thus redeeming everyone in one fell swoop.
You were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1 Corinthians 6:20)
Also reiterated here:
You were bought with a price; be ye not the servants of men. (1 Corinthians 7:23)
(To say that Saint Paul wrote some important letters is like saying that Alexander Hamilton had one or two things he wanted to get off his chest.)
Anyway, the idea’s still around that redemption for crimes should involve an element of cost, and I think that as a model of storytelling in particular, the model of someone earning their forgiveness is a really powerful and useful one. Partly because I think you can set yourself up for such a hard-sell if a character is forgiven their crimes without earning it in some way.
Yes, forgiveness is something we all want really badly at some point in our lives, but it’s really easy for your story to give the impression that you were just done with this plot-thread and had your character be simply forgiven as an excuse to never need to talk about those events again. Having a character undertake actions to earn forgiveness is just more powerful for a story and gives a better sense of there being a character arc, rather than simply an abrupt Thing happens, Forgiveness given, Done. Move On to Next Plot-Point.
The Wages of Sin
Ages and ages ago I found this thought on Tumblr and now that I have the perfect use for it, naturally, for the life of me I cannot find the name of the person who wrote it. Sorry, it’s another one of those quotes, guys…
Sin is expensive. Incredibly expensive. But the price isn’t paid in cash, it’s paid in mental, emotional, and spiritual pain… [God’s] anger towards lying, stealing, cheating, coveting, murder, jealousy, and pride is because all of these behaviours destroy relationships.
I don’t know why, but I found this quote to be really helpful in my writing. It’s a great way to crystallise, at least for me, what it is that a character is being redeemed for. Like, what is it that he’s making up for? He’s atoning for the pain and misery his actions have caused people, himself included maybe.
This harkens back to an earlier post in this series, because the actions of characters simply aren’t real in the way that emotions can be. I can care about a character’s tears and pain far more than I can ever bring myself to care that he’s lost his car, even if these two events are linked.
When plotting out any arc, but especially something like a redemption arc, or a hero’s fall, the first thing I do is make notes on the consequences of my character’s actions on his relationships with other characters. Not ‘and then he lost all his money’, or ‘and then he was lost in the woods’ sort of consequences. Rather, I think about things like ‘and then his mother realised that he’d been lying to her for months’ or ‘and then his benefactor had to suffer being arrested for fraud which he didn’t commit.’
Chances are that I won’t ever show those moments in the story at all. But the echoes of those scenes will be felt in the rest of the story, either when the character has to confront those relationships later on, or when a third character’s impressions of the main character are coloured already with the effects of his previous actions. I like to think it adds a sense of depth to the story, because things have clearly happened ‘off-stage’ as it were…
ELIZABETH: Commodore, I really must protest. Pirate or not, this man saved my life.
NORRINGTON: One good deed is not enough to redeem a man of a lifetime of wickedness.
JACK SPARROW: Though it seems enough to condemn him.
So… So sometimes, we write things because of plot reasons and they could be taken as having unfortunate real-world applications. I feel like plotting out redemptions arcs has forced me to confront something that I’d sort-of known in the back of my mind for ages, but now have to actually acknowledge out loud.
Basically, if we’re thinking about redemption arcs in broad terms of: Guy does Bad Thing, Then He’s Sorry, Then He does Good Thing to make up for it; there’s a problem in here somewhere. Like, there’s this inherent idea that one good act cancels out a bad act or something.
And I don’t think that’s really true in real life so much, but I do have to acknowledge as a writer that, again Fiction isn’t Real Life, and that this is an inevitable feature of story structure and I’m not sure how easy it is to avoid all together.
Like, I have a friend who, when we talk about X-Men and the respective world-views and histories or Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, keeps equating the two men’s awful childhoods. And the thing is, I will argue until the sun goes down that Charles’s experiences of his father dying in a lab accident when he was young, and his mother losing herself inside her depression and addictions, and his step-father being a prat and his step-brother beating him up – those are all terrible and all. But Erik literally lost his entire family and his own identity in the actual Nazi Holocaust, and then lost his daughter to a French mob because she was the child of a Jewish-Romani marriage.
These things are not the same, is what I am saying.
But I do have to acknowledge that they do perform the same function within the story. They both show two men’s different reactions to learning early in life about the cruelty inherent in mankind and build them into the strong but very different men that they are in the X-Men stories.
I don’t really have anything else meaningful to add to this point; I just wanted to raise the matter and point out its inherent problems if not managed carefully.
In really bad amateur writing this can manifest somewhat hilariously as ‘I wasn’t hugged enough as a child and thus I shall burn the world down and kill all who stand in my way.’ Naturally that’s the kind of thing editing and beta-readers will tell you about (when they stop laughing at you) but it’s worth thinking about as you sit down and draft out a plot. Some things don’t really balance each other out.
SHYLOCK I’ll have my bond; I will not hear thee speak: 1720
I’ll have my bond; and therefore speak no more.
I’ll not be made a soft and dull-eyed fool,
To shake the head, relent, and sigh, and yield
To Christian intercessors. Follow not;
I’ll have no speaking: I will have my bond.
(Act III, 3, 1720-1726)
OK, so this was a major feature of redemption arcs in early Victorian novels, and we don’t do this anymore. I bring it up only because it really was a trend, and I believe all writers should be aware of what has gone before us. OK?
The trend, especially in Victorian women’s Gothic novels went as follows: a female character makes some terrible mistake; she elopes with a dreadful man, she jumps the gun on a relationship, she disobeys her parents, she distrusts a faithful lover, that sort of thing. Then she is punished for most of the rest of the story for this act by basically suffering, just all of the suffering, until the universe has extracted a toll, a figurative pound-of-flesh from her in recompense. Then when her character has been redeemed by all of this suffering, she is rewarded either with a good man to marry her and take her away from her terrible existence, or death. I mean, she goes to heaven and all, but she’s still dead.
Victor Hugo’s character from Les Miserables, Fantine, stands on these women’s shoulders. Her having a child outside of wedlock is indeed punished by her miserable life including dying as a prostitute, before becoming an angel-figure after death, but she is at least distinguished by Hugo’s Humanist approach to her. Yes, she suffers for a mistake, but Hugo’s writing of her does not frame this as justice, as the world working as it should do. Rather she is used to shown the suffering endured by the helpless, and the unfair way the world was working and why it has to be changed.
The difference is all in the attitude of the writer, and I suspect that his audience at the time would probably have been struck more by that than readers of today, who automatically assume that this is a terrible fate rather than her just desserts.
And this is why I thought it was important to write my post on why we are leaving morality out of this series first. Because I could talk to you about the moral implications of a view that bad things only happen to bad people and that anyone who is suffering must have done something to deserve it.
But I think as writers we need to focus instead on the fact that this is terrible writing right here!
Because it means that the character, who is presumably the protagonist, isn’t making any choices.
She hasn’t chosen a single thing about her plot-line, she’s just being taken along by the story and deposited at the end. And that’s just not compelling. It’s never compelling to watch characters get pulled around by the plot, it’s compelling when characters push the plot forwards through their actions and the choices behind them.
Like I said before, the trend died a well-deserved death as writing trends moved on, and I don’t think it will ever come back (please, let it never come back). But it’s still worth thinking about, if only to make sure to avoid this in your own writing.
Paying Your Debts
“A Lannister always pays his debts”
So, we’ve now established the model of redemption as a payment of debt, and that a character should really make a deliberate choice to repay that debt in some way. So: How should a character go about doing that?
Well, you will doubtless be utterly thrilled to read that answering this question is all on you, as a writer. Yep, no easy answers here.
I mean, a lot of how your character pays off the debt his has incurred through his actions will depend on what those actions were and what effect they had.
Did your character’s actions get a whole bunch of people killed? Then I’m not sure how he can make it up to those people, per se, but he could go on this long quest in which he tries really hard to save lots of other people, and maybe go out of his way to teach other rage-filled lost young men about the importance of peace? That would be interesting to play around with.
Did he ruin people’s lives financially, like Ebenezer Scrooge is implied to do, not for personal reasons, but as a matter of business? In which case a life of philanthropy is a pretty good answer to earning redemption. This one’s a bit of a favourite, as you’ll see next time, but that’s mostly because the crime isn’t financial greed, but a callus lack of care for others, which is solved by taking an interest in the world and people around you. The issue is one of attitude, not actions specifically.
What you’ve doubtless noticed is something of a theme. I like all the elements of my stories to join up and connect to each other in some way, and I feel that redemption arcs are much more compelling when the manner in which forgiveness is sought and earned is directly connected to the reason redemption is required.
This sort of brings us back to that point before about a false equivalency, because it’s much easier for readers to feel unconvinced by a redemption arc when the Bad Thing the character did is wiped out by a totally unconnected Good Thing. Like, um, if a character causes the death of the hero’s entire family, but it’s totally ok by the end because he went off to volunteer at a hospital for sick cats. Like, volunteering to help heal animals is nice and all, but what does that have to do with the crime of getting people killed?
Having said that, I should note that there’s a more tragic take on that issue that you can try out if you are feeling sufficiently sadistic as a writer.
Because sometimes you can set up a character’s actions in such a way there’s just no coming back from it. Maybe they let a small number of enemies into their fortified and besieged city, and then those few enemies let in a whole army and now the whole city is dead except for our main character. So if everyone’s dead, then there’s no one left to earn forgiveness from. There’s no one left alive to sit our character down and say ‘Enough. You’ve done enough. It’s OK now.’ Right?
So our character spends his whole life potentially trying to redeem himself for his crimes against people who are too dead to appreciate his actions, and it eats away at him, over and over. What he’s done and what the consequences were and how he feels that he can never make up for it, but he must keep trying anyway. That it must have all meant something in the end.
This sort of character arc can really only end when the character dies. There’s just no way for him to reach the end of the arc alive and not have the thing feel really awkward afterwards, but it could be really compelling because there’s still the uncertainty in the minds of the reader and the characters involved themselves, about whether it will ever be enough. Especially if you leave it open-ended.
Like the Susan Pevensie character arc, it will likely never feel really complete, but in a good way. It hurts to read, because as empathetic readers we too get uncomfortable with the idea that we might never know if the good we’ve done in the world outweighs all the bad. And we will likely never get the answers in this life-time.
If you aren’t a horrible, sadistic writer though, remember to balance those books by the end!