The Redemptive Act

DarthVader_print_fullStudy writing long enough, and you’ll hear someone talk about complex characters and the importance of believable villains, the significance of sympathetic slime-balls.

Anyone can craft a one-dimensional bad-guy bent on world domination, but it takes a certain sense of subtlety to create a character we feel bad for, even while he or she is doing something nefarious.

One of my literary heroes, Flannery O’Connor, understood this. She took it one step further and said: “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”

What makes a truly powerful story? The chance for the bad-guy to become a good guy. Imagine Star Wars if Darth Vader doesn’t turn. Imagine Harry Potter if Severus Snape’s love for Lily Evans doesn’t convince him to watch over Harry? When Ben, from LOST, loses his daughter, he quickly finds the error of his ways. Ender spent his entire life learning to eradicate the Buggers, and when he does, he realizes they’d changed, and were no longer bent on destroying humanity. But perhaps the finest example is the Grinch—imagine if he didn’t return Christmas to Whoville?

In O’Connor’s stories, her villains rarely accept this “moment of grace,” and rarely are redeemed. However, each has an opportunity. It is this opportunity that is important. Without it, we will never have a deep, complex connection to our villains as we will our heroes. This simple act opens up a wide variety of emotional opportunities for our fiction. We can shun the traditional, one-dimensional good-vs.-evil plots and set up an emotional complexity that involves triumph and tragedy, victory and defeat—something that will last long before after the final page.

How do we accomplish this? Simple: have your villain do something good, as well as something bad. It should be significant, memorable. The addition of a simple scene like this will open up several possibilities and help you understand your character in a way you didn’t previously. 

Until next week, good writing.

2 Comments on The Redemptive Act

  1. janet anderson | May 28, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Reply

    I imagine Cinderella I dont know why but when you say bad guy can turni into a good guy well Cinderella’s evil step mother and step sisters ring a bell. And maybe your right the bad guy can turn good if their is an opportunity open.

  2. It’s hard to create a ‘good’ bad guy. Anyone can make the mad scientist, the prissy popular girl, or the power-driven dictator. We’ve seen these characters too many times before, and they’ve been done to death. It’s like beating a dead horse…with another dead horse (pardon the disturbing mental image).
    But that moment of redemption–that chance for the bad guy to say, “But what if I do this?” That moment is gold. It lets the reader as a question as to whether the villain will really alter his or her ways, or is this some sort of ploy to earn the hero’s trust? And if they really are trying to change, will they stick with it? Or will they just fall back into their old habits?
    The secret to making this moment work is the suspense. Your reader shouldn’t be able to easily predict what’s about to happen. The antagonist needs that extra little breath of life that lets them make their own choices.
    If your story is too predictable, you’re going to have a bad time. Think of a movie. If you can tell how the story is going to end within the first ten minutes of the film, the rest of it isn’t as exciting.
    Write well, write often.

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