Laurie Buchanan is the author of the Sean McPherson series of thrillers. You can find out more about her on her website www.lauriebuchanan.com, or by clicking here, read her latest post here, and buy her books here.
In fiction books, redemption arcs are tied to a character—the protagonist, antagonist, or even a secondary character—and vary by the author’s intention, genre, plot, and characters.
The dictionary defines redemption as “An act of redeeming or atoning for a fault or mistake.” In the definition, the word “act” implies action. Choices create action.
A redemption arc is when a character performs a heroic act that compensates for his previous wrongdoings or is redeemed by another character.
Is this always true? No. Experientially, readers know that there are exceptions.
Example of a Redemption Arc
Take Sean McPherson, for example. He’s the ex-cop turned PI protagonist in my Sean McPherson crime thriller novels. And while he hasn’t done anything wrong, he believes he’s responsible for his ex-partner’s death. Unfortunately, this belief has taken on the form and extensive weight of survivor’s guilt that tends to color his decisions—sometimes positively, sometimes negatively.
Readers ask if Sean McPherson is afraid of anything. Yes, he’s scared of failing others. Having experienced the horrific consequences of a violent crime (the one responsible for killing his partner), McPherson doesn’t want anyone else to suffer similarly. Instead, he wants to make the world a better place and protect people before they even know there’s a threat.
McPherson’s greatest weakness and strength are the same—his humanity and empathy. These make him willing to fight fiercely for justice for others.
I leverage McPherson’s fear, strength, and weakness time and again throughout the storyline. Why? Because opening him to great pain and sorrow is the perfect catalyst for an arc.
The redemptive act can be external, internal, big, or small. The repercussion is that the action performed by the character helps make up for what s/he did (or believes they did) in the past.
Redeeming an antagonist
Now let’s flip it.
The protagonist can extend a redemption arc to the antagonist. Will they accept or reject it? Will it work? That depends on how well you know your characters.
I maintain a “Character Bible” detailing each character: Their backstory. What makes them tick. Their personality type. Their strengths and weaknesses (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual). This information informs me if they’re the type who will work to redeem themselves or accept redemption from another character.
At the beginning of each scene, I reveal the character’s this-point-in-the-story goal. Then I create tension by introducing something (a person, place, thing, event, or opportunity) that opposes or obstructs their redemption.
This is where I can leverage a character’s weakness. It might be physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or a combination thereof. Does s/he go too far for those s/he loves? Does s/he allow themself to be held hostage by the opinion of others? Does the character recognize their weakness, or are they blind to it? If they’re aware, do they take action to change it? Or do they remain unaware, thus unable to work for redemption?
Does my character react (kneejerk) or respond (thoughtful) when an obstacle is introduced? The answer’s worth the price of admission because it reveals the character’s true colors—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Why Redemption Arcs
Redemption arcs are necessary because they offer hope to readers—sometimes even long after the last page is turned. One of my favorite redemption arcs is from Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See.
The story takes place against the backdrop of World War II when a blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, is charged with protecting a prized blue diamond that the Nazis want. A German orphan, Werner Pfennig, works for the Nazis but is repulsed by their cruelty. Pfennig and his cohorts find LeBlanc and the diamond. But to seek forgiveness for the Nazis’ acts, he doesn’t let the diamond be taken or LeBlanc be killed.
Redemption arcs aren’t one-size-fits-all. Instead, they’re unique to the storyline and characters. Readers love to love characters and love to hate characters. A well-written redemption arc goes a long way toward satisfying their desires.