ATLA dropping on Netflix this past Friday got me thinking. First, Zuko is has the best Redemption Arc. His outline should be the standard in my opinion. Secondly, I realized Redemption Arcs aren’t always done right.
A bad redemption Arc and can really hurt a story. The main problem with bad redemption Arcs is that they don’t feel real. They feel like the character changed only because the writer wanted them to. they didn’t earn it.
Redemption Arcs have to feel real. This is my outline to a good Redemption Arc.
1. Why now?
Why does your bad guy want to be good? There has to be events that leads to this point. Wanting to be good is actually the middle of the redemption arc.
Think of being Evil as a job or your major. You don’t just quit or change majors out of nowhere. You might’ve quit on short notice, but there were things that lead to that. You probably thought about it or wrestled with the decision often. There was something building into that moment.
It’s the same for bad guys. We need to know what lead to this. Also the bad guy themselves needs to know why they want to be good. They can’t kill the princess at the end of chapter 11 and want to be the hero’s best friend in chapter 12 solely because that’s how the writer wrote it.
Now that your bad guy has made decision to change for good (supported by canon events), they have to be rejected.
Forgiveness, Respect and trust have to earned. The Good guys aren’t supposed to be wiling to accept them with open arms. Remember they spent a large portion of the story fighting and or running from the bad guy. They should want nothing to do with them.
2.5 Rejection response
The bad guy has to response to that rejection. Their reaction depends on the character.
“I’m sorry. I’lll do whatever I have to for your forgiveness!!!!” *Crying their eyes out and while on their knees*
“I get why you want nothing to do with me,” *Wonders off into the darkness with their guilt and sadness*
“You need me!!! You can’t beat them without me!! I was trying to help you idiots” *Lashing out in anger unintentionally proving why they shouldn’t be trusted.*
3. The trials
The bad guy is given SMALL test to prove themselves (THIS IS NOT THE END)
The good guys haven’t accepted them yet but they are showing promise. They haven’t messed up YET. They personally think this is it. They are proud of themselves. They didn’t think they would’ve made it this far. They are finally started to separate themselves from the past.
4. The “What’s Wrong with Me” moment
Just when things were going well it falls apart. For the first time, they are confronted with their past and make the wrong decision. This moment is big on a personal, mental and emotional level for the character. They should be vulnerable, show emotional weakness and consumed by self doubt. Something that makes them ask “What’s wrong with me”.
Now this event or mishap has to be forgivable and understandable. Remember they are being redeemed.
Side note: Unless it’s a Failed Redemption arc (Failed as in they aren’t redeemed not as in bad quality redemption arc). Failed Redemption arcs are good too. After doing the work and almost turning things around completely, they just can’t. Old habits die hard.
If it is a redemption arc then this has to be a forgivable offense. They can’t kill the other princess in the middle of being redeemed and somehow be forgiven after it. It doesn’t have to a be huge event but it has to be something that warrants their self-conflict
5. Fight or Flight
What happens after depends on the character. This is when their resolve is challenged.
Are they going to fight to be good? Do they believe in themselves enough to keep going? Or are they ashamed to face it? Do they run away from the situation?
This is when the good guys come in and their relationship with each other builds. Do the good guys understand their emotional struggle? Are they willing to forgive this mishap because they saw them work so hard? Or does this mishap confirm their suspicions? Was this the one mistake they were waiting for to kick them to the curve?
Regardless of what way things go, something has to happen. Also remember the good guys don’t have to have the same reaction. Aang trusted Zuko way before Katara did.
6. The Action Apology
There’s somebody in the good group that the bad guy wronged the most or has the least amount of trust in them.
The bad guy has prove to them that they are good. it can’t be a simple “I’m sorry.” They have to do something that completely contradicts what was previously thought of them. This is their selfless moment. The breakthrough when they finally win the fight against their old self. This part is also full of emotion. Everyone has to feel this moment. The characters involved, the readers and or watchers. Tears should be falling.
7. The I am Not You
Now that the good guys have accepted them and they’ve conquered their past self, we have to see the fruits of the labor. When you plant a peach tree you eat the peaches.
The Action Apology was not the end. That good has to come to use. This is usually the final battle. I’m not saying they should take the MCs spotlight and fight the big bad, but they have to prove themselves useful.
If a redemption arc is similar to this outline its more than likely a damn good redemption arc.
Other than Zuko what is your favorite redemption arc? If you can’t think of anyone else, what part of Zuko’s redemption arc is your favorite?