Redeeming Villains: Why it Goes Awry So Often

We see a lot of redeemed villains, I think especially in younger or more uplifting stories. It can be great if it’s done right, but…why is it done wrong so often? A villain can really make or break a book, and a poorly redeemed villain just sours the whole story for me. That being said, let’s dive into a closer look at what makes these arcs go wrong!

What is a Redeemed Villain?

A redeemed villain is generally the main antagonist of the story, though they can be a less prominent character. This character eventually grows and redeems themselves by the end of the story, often joining the hero’s side or something of the like. They learn the error of their ways and how to be better, plus earn forgiveness.

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Some Villains are Irredeemable

The biggest problem I often have with these stories is that the villain was too far gone to be redeemed. Did they murder a bunch of kids and puppies? Did they torture the hero to near insanity while laughing? Are they the stuff of nightmares? Then, they probably can’t be redeemed, even if they act a little nice at the end of the book.

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Think about it: if you’re the hero, can you forgive this person? Could you reasonably put aside the things they’ve done, let alone have them by your side? Think about everything your hero and others went through at the hands of your villain. Depending on how intense or irreversible that damage is, you won’t be able to redeem this villain. I don’t mind a happy, forgiving ending, but it has to be warranted. The villain can’t have acted completely inhumane throughout the entire book, and then do one good act to be the hero’s new BFF.

Unearned

Say there’s a villain that has the potential to be redeemed. One way this can go wrong, is when there isn’t any way they earn the forgiveness. If Jane bullies Timothy the whole book, why is she going to become his friend at the end? What has she done to earn it? She has caused him distress, and that shouldn’t just be swept away. It’s not enough for her to see her actions are wrong, she has to make amends for them.

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Maybe she was making Timothy do her homework, and he started to fall behind in his own classes. After whatever makes her realize she was wrong, she could go to the teacher and explained what happened, sacrificing her marks and possible suspension so that Timothy will be alright. Timothy is no longer suffering academically, and he knows that her remorse is genuine. She has willingly given up marks she would have gotten away with, for no other reasons than knowing it was dishonest and hurt Timothy.

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They likely will not be best friends right away, but there is room there for a friendship to grow now.

Out of Place

But, what if the villain has no reason to realize they are wrong? Sometimes villains seem to just become forgiving out of the blue, with no clear reason for change. There has to be some factor that made them change their mind, that made them realize the error of their ways. Maybe they never realized the impact of their actions before, but seeing the hero breakdown forces them to face that. Maybe they notice how close the hero is with her friends, and comes to understand how lonely they have made themselves. However you approach it, there just needs to be some reason to their change of heart.

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Villains are human (or at least of similar complexity) and a radical lifestyle change doesn’t drop out of the sky. People grow, they don’t switch from good to bad like a light switch.

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In short, redemption arcs for villains are compelling when done right, however when the villain is too far gone, doesn’t earn their redemption, or has no reason to turn away from the dark side, it may leave the reader with a soured impression of the book. While there are some exceptions (say, a villain who was mind-controlled into doing some horrible things but fights to snap out of it or something), generally villain redemptions work best when they avoid these problems.

Do you like redemption arcs? What are some things you think make a good or bad one?

Thanks so much for reading! 🙂 I post new content on Saturdays, so be sure to follow and stay up to date!

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2 thoughts on “Redeeming Villains: Why it Goes Awry So Often

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  1. As you say, one of the major risks is trying to redeem a villain who has gone way too far – that’s really off-putting for me. Another aspect is that just as everyone has the point of no return elsewhere, so it is with what is needed to get redeemed. Thus, there’s the risk of the story ending with the villain surviving and turning coats while his good deeds are, in the eyes of some readers, not enough for it.

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