I Think I’ve Finally Figured it Out

I’ve always been a sucker for a well-done redemption arc in my fictions of choice, in both written and visual media. And I’ve always been puzzled by the vocal commentary that always arises on such occasions, to the effect that so-and-so doesn’t deserve redemption. Because – in my cultural tradition, at least – the whole point of redemption is that it isn’t something you get because you deserve it, it’s something you get because you’ve done something bad enough that you need it.

But if the naysayers are operating out of a definition of “redemption” that has no theological or philosophical dimension to it, but is instead merely a shorter way of saying “rehabilitation in the court of public opinion” . . . well, I may still think that a lot of them are full of it, but at least I can understand how they got there.

(Also – if you’re going to write a redemption arc, don’t cheat by making your character-to-be-redeemed guilty of something that they/their culture think is a Big Wrong Thing but that we, enlightened souls that we are, consider to be Not Really That Big a Deal.  They need to be really and truthfully guilty of something really and truthfully bad, or there’s no point to the exercise.)

4 thoughts on “I Think I’ve Finally Figured it Out

  1. Redemption might be at its most interesting when stripped of philosophy and theology.

    With some idea of an absolute – or at least objective – measure of worth, doing enough good to outweigh the bad becomes a question of maths.

    But with no measure other than perception, someone seeking redemption has a choice of focusing on doing good or promoting the good they have done; and if they choose promotion, a choice of methods to promote it.

    1. Either way, it provides the writer with a character who has an interesting past (however dark) and who is actively doing something in the present to make up for it, or who is struggling with being pushed or pulled in that direction for some reason.

      Which is a lot more interesting, as far as most readers are concerned, than a character who just sits around feeling guilty.

      (A character with a dark past who doesn’t feel guilty and keeps on doing dark stuff may also be interesting to the reader, but he or she is inhabiting a different kind of story.)

  2. I think for me a key aspect of redemption is that the person has to, at some point, both understand and be sorry for what they have done. If what they did wasn’t an accident then this requires an aspect of their character to change. I don’t find it necessary for the person to achieve anything.

    King Lear exiles his daughter and, having realised his mistake, encourages her to join in a war that kills her, but by the end of the play I do feel he has a measure of redemption. On the other hand, I never really believed in Lester’s redemption in American Beauty, because to me it came across as a temporary change in behaviour which I didn’t believe would have persisted if he hadn’t been killed. Since many people disagree with me on that one, I think redemption really depends on how you read that key moment of character change and whether you can believe it.


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