4 Paths to Redeeming Your Villain

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Have you ever fallen in love with a story villain? Or at least found yourself liking them somewhat against your will? Seems a little weird, experiencing all the happy feels for this character, but I think we’ve all been there.

When a villain is well written and well rounded, they can tug at our heartstrings just like the protagonists do. This can be cruel, since the villain is usually destined to fail. I say usually because stories can include a change of heart for the enemy.

Is this what you’d like for your bad guy or girl? Let’s take a peek at the villain’s journey and see what their path to redemption might look like.

Understanding Character Arcs: Positive Arcs

First, we need to have a basic understanding of character arc. In essence, this is the transformation a character goes through from the start of the story to the finish.

In the opening pages, she’s lacking something internally. Often, this comes out of a wounding event from the past — a trauma that was scarring. She was compelled to don emotional shielding to protect herself from the pain of that experience and any possible recurrence.

This emotional shielding comes in the form of bad habits, defense mechanisms, personality flaws, biases, and skewed beliefs. While intended to protect the character, that only creates more problems. They’re so destructive that they create a void in her basic human needs. This void leads her to pursue a story goal (outer motivation) that will fill that need. But her emotional shielding cripples her, keeping her from succeeding and becoming fully realized.

Throughout the course of a positive arc, the character recognizes those internal problems and begins to address and change them. This enables her to grow and deal properly with her past, eventually ensuring that she meets her goal and achieves fulfillment.

Understanding Character Arcs: Negative Arcs

That transformation is the essence of a change arc. It’s the one most protagonists follow. But there’s another, lesser-used arc form that’s common for villains.

In a failed arc, the character is unable to overcome their issues and the demons of the past. She fails to make the necessary positive changes that would enable them to achieve satisfaction and fill their inner void. Characters following this arc end the story either back where they started or worse off than they were to begin with.

Very often, this is where you’ll find the villain in your story. She may be aware of the wounding event from her past, but she’s already tried to deal with it and has failed. Now she’s embracing her dysfunctional behaviors, believing they’ll make her stronger. Or she may never have faced her past and is living in denial, refusing to address it. Either way, she’s destined to continue living an unfulfilled life that lacks closure — unless she’s given the opportunity to try again, and this time, succeed. Then…redemption.

How To Go About Redeeming Your Villain?

So as an author interested in redeeming your villain, you first must know her backstory, which will tell you what she’ll have to overcome to succeed.

  • What wounding event from the past profoundly impacted her?
  • How did her view of herself or the world change because of it?
  • What new behaviors, beliefs, habits, and responses developed as a means of protecting herself from a recurrence of that event and the negative emotions associated with it?

There’s a lot of backstory to explore, but questions like these will get you started. 

. . . .

Once you’ve got a clear vision of your villain’s history, you can use one of the following techniques to get her back on the road to healing.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

1 thought on “4 Paths to Redeeming Your Villain”

  1. There’s another option I like. It’s based on a model of the Heroine’s Journey based on Inanna’s Descent. In the OP she emphasizes the character re-evaluating wrong beliefs. In the Descent, model of the Journey, the kick-off is a betrayal and the loss of one’s home. This is how you get the character to re-evaluate their life choices, because one rethinks everything about one’s life when one is betrayed.

    Furthermore, the character usually gathers “weapons” to take with them on the journey. But like Inanna at the seven Gates of Judgment, the Journeyer loses a weapon at each successive Gate, until at last she faces the antagonist completely weaponless. I put weapons in quotes because these don’t have to be literal weapons. They are often assets, or beliefs, or approaches to life that prove useless when reaching a particular Gate (or test, if you like). Inanna isn’t carrying weapons, she’s wearing jewelry and carrying objects that represent the seven Me, which are aspects of divine power.

    For instance: in Dragon Age: Origins, the PC is given treaties to gather allies. But the treaties do no good initially because the respective allies always have some problem that prevents them from honoring the treaties. Asajj Ventress in the Clone Wars keeps using Sith methods and approaches to get revenge on Count Dooku, but keeps being knocked back. Her own apprentice betrays her, which breaks her usual approach of cruelly treating people as things. She values her own survival over all (a “weapon”), so Dooku deprives her of her refuge when he orders Grievous to destroy her clan of Dathomir Witches. Losing these weapons = redemptive journeyer realizing their way of thinking will not avail them. They will have to change their way of thinking in order to survive / succeed.

    Also the redemptive journeyer is confronted with a former victim, who may gain the upper hand over them, just as Inanna’s sister Ereshkigal hangs her up on a hook like a piece of meat. If you read the Epic of Gilgamesh you know that Ereshkigal’s grievance against Inanna is that Inanna caused her husband to be killed by Enkidu: “Lord help the sister who comes between me and my man!”*

    One way to know the redemption is sticking is when the Journeyer doesn’t resist whatever ordeal their former victims are putting them through. They are humbled: Teal’c, Angel, Spike, Xena, Cara Mason (“Legend of the Seeker” show). In “Grimm” Adalind Schade voluntarily yields up her hard-won powers when she discovers she’s unwittingly given her past victim the ability to destroy her and her family.

    Anyway, read more about this journey in “45 Master Characters,” where the author relates the Gates to the seven chakras:

    ~ THE ROOT CHAKRA: focuses on feeling safe and secure in the world, and is located at the base of the spine in one’s perineum. For this Gate, the Journeyer may run to a supposed shelter, like Ventress does, but the shelter is unavailable, or not as safe as previously believed.

    ~THE SACRAL CHAKRA: located in the genitals, this chakra’s energy is about creative power, particularly as it concerns sex, power, and money. If your character believes “Screw the rules, I have money,” their Gate will be a person who believes, “Screw the money, I have rules” (pithy names taken from TV Tropes).

    ~THE SOLAR PLEXUS CHAKRA: Self-esteem and self-worth, the energy for which is located in the navel. This is supposed to be power center of the body. Obviously, this one lends itself to the Journeyer facing doubts, shame, and questions of self-worth.

    ~THE HEART CHAKRA: is within one’s heart, and it represents unconditional love, of yourself and others. But this must be balanced: too much self-love is the path of narcissism and self-absorption, too much love of others makes one a doormat, a victim.

    ~THE THROAT CHAKRA: This chakra is all about “speaking the truth.” You must be able to clearly, unambiguously, speak what’s in your heart. If your Journeyer is always downplaying their values and what they know to be right — snitches get stitches — this is the Gate for them.

    ~THE THIRD-EYE CHAKRA: aka one’s Third Eye, above and between the eyebrows. Intuition, imagination, and inspiration are governed by this chakra. The sixth chakra is supposed to connect the bearer to knowledge of the truth to be spoken of with the Throat Chakra. If the Journeyer can’t discern the right path for themselves, the right thing to do, or the right choice to make, this chakra is their Gate to help them learn to trust their intuition.

    ~THE CROWN CHAKRA: connection to spirit and a higher power, and of course it’s located at the top of one’s head. This is the “crown chakra” connecting you to divine energy. A Journeyer in a story about faith may find this is the Gate that tests them most, especially in a horror story.

    I believe “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler also talks about the chakras, and how they can be adapted for narrative purposes.

    *From “White Christmas” with Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby. Goes double I guess when the sisters are goddesses, and one of them rules the underworld in particular 😀

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