The subject of redeemability didn’t cross my mind before I started writing books. Like all readers, I either like or dislike a book. Whatever misdeed the main character did (if any), they were either redeemed or punished by the end of the story, otherwise I might not have finished or liked the novel.
Character actions and traits are as important as the story itself. Every one of us have a personal line in the sand of what’s acceptable or not, and we may stop reading the book if that line is crossed.
This blog post is about exploring a generic version of that line. I discuss several character actions or traits, and how likely we, as readers, consider them redeemable. Or, if redemption is not reached, if they need to suffer the consequences of their act.
Before I dig into character redemption, let me first describe the limitations of this post.
- SPOILER ALERT FOR ALMOST EVERYTHING. Before reading this post, you should have seen, read, listened, watched and interacted with every piece of art created by humans, except Matrix 2 and 3, Indiana Jones 4, and Highlander 2.
- Redemption is in the eye of the redeemer. This is a subjective analysis and, at the end of the day, it’s my own humble opinion about what general audiences prefer. It’s just a guess. Some behaviors are clearly abhorrent–for instance, both you and I agree that drinking decaf is irredeemable–but others are a toss-up. So you may disagree with some, agree with others.
- This is a general (not personal) guess. I’m trying to guess what audiences tolerate, not my own preferences. For instance, a character that murders innocent people should not be redeemable in my personal view, but they are redeemable for most people. Seriously. I give examples, and even you are going to say “oh! but that’s okay.”
- Non-villain main characters only. This is about main character redeemability. Villains and secondary characters can even be charismatic and likable, but if they keep drinking decaf they’re a lost cause.
Main characters should either be redeemed or punished for bad deeds, and they should know what they did is wrong. This analysis doesn’t work for horror movies, for instance, and it also doesn’t work for ambivalent movies like Ex Machina.
- Redeemability correlates with penance. In fact, some books don’t care about redemption. They’re like a cautionary tale, a train wreck we can’t stop watching/reading, and most of the time the characters suffer the consequences of those bad traits. The Great Gatsby is a good example. Almost all characters are unlikable in some way (except maybe Nick) and they get their penance. I’m sure there are other exceptions to this list.
- This is not a comprehensive list. There will always be exceptions. I’m trying to describe general rules.
- “I don’t like your traits. They are mislabeled, confusing, ambiguous, you don’t understand what misdemeanors are, and I’m pretty sure redeemability is not even a word.” This is not an exact science, but I hope I can get my ideas across to most readers.
- Sometimes I’ll say irredeemable, and sometimes unredeemable. I have a short attention spam.
- This is going to get dark. I always try to keep my posts lighthearted, but parts of this one can be gloomy. This is a trigger alert. Themes like rape and pedophilia are mentioned.
- This is about all fiction storytelling in all types of media. I find it hard to separate books from comics, TV shows, movies, etc. The execution might be different, but the insights should be the same.
- This post is a bit longer than I thought it’d be. Sorry.
Transgressions on Trial
The transgressions are:
Quirks, Small Vices, Lying, Violence, Infidelity, Misdemeanors, Betrayal, Torture, Murder, Mind Control, Hurting Animals, Genocide, Sexism and Misogyny, Bigotry, Slavery, Rape, and Pedophilia.
Without further ado, let’s dig in!
There are some traits that we not only tolerate, we often like the character even if the character never changes.
A main character can be cocky, impatient, greedy, clumsy, and we’re usually fine with that. We often call those traits quirks. Perhaps if the character wasn’t as cocky, as selfish, or as greedy, they wouldn’t even be interesting.
Redeemability: Not needed.
We’re not as forgiving to quirks that make the character unlikable. Readers can empathize with them, but usually hope they’ll be addressed at some point.
This category includes most of the deadly sins such as pride, envy, jealousy, laziness, and also emotions like anger. These are ugly traits that can put the reader off if not addressed (either by redemption or penance). This can be done to an extreme like in the movie Amadeus, where Salieri has a miserable end of life experience, or like in the Phantom of the Opera, where Erik ends up dying of heartbreak.
But we also have our redemption stories, and The Grinch is a perfect example of that.
How about stalking? Well, it turns out that a lot of movies not only redeem characters that stalk others, they make stalking seem romantic. Amanda Chatel describes in detail 11 movie scenes that taught us stalking is romantic, which includes movies like Love Actually, The Notebook, and You’ve Got Mail.
Some characters take stalking to an extreme like Joe Goldberg on the Netflix TV show You. Joe stalks a woman through the show and they eventually end up in a relationship. Note that Joe definitely can’t be redeemed because of what happens later in season one. The show “You” is a psychological thriller after all.
Redeemability: Very High
Storytelling is about conflict, and one of the easiest ways to do that is by lying. Everybody has lied at some point in their lives, and some lie to themselves a lot. So the redeemability of a main character lying is clearly very high. One can argue that it depends on the lie, but for the majority of the cases, it’s fine.
More importantly, the way the lies unravel in a novel is what makes it interesting. Writers should resist the urge to explain the lie. This is why we’re often asking ourselves why don’t the characters just talk it out? Because it isn’t as interesting.
Redeemability: Very High
How we love watching fights. People that complain a movie or book didn’t have action scenes usually mean that no one was kicking someone else’s ass.
Unlike nudity, violence is not only tolerated: it’s expected. And we give a lot of leeway to characters that are defending themselves or fighting for a just cause.
We’re even okay when the main character hits people that could be considered innocent (as long as there’s an underlying reason and they redeem themselves or get penance). A great example of such character is Spensa, from Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward. Spensa is known as the daughter of a coward, and she often beats people when she feels slighted, even when it’s not exactly true.
How about hitting women or children? Readers usually frown upon those scenarios, but sometimes writers get away with them. There’s even a movie where the main character punches a kid in the stomach. I just hope he’s not Tony Stark.
Redeemability: Very High
It should be difficult for characters that cheat to have redemption, and yet there are a lot of movies and novels where infidelity not only happens, it’s justified–because the partner is bad–or ignored for the rest of the story. Breaking up before cheating is never an option, and it’s only cheating if you feel like you’re doing something wrong. Yeah, right.
An this doesn’t only happen in Hallmark movies. Mainstream movies do it all the time. There’s blatantly adultery in the movie You’ve Got Mail. The cavalier breakup the main characters have with their partners just rubs me the wrong way.
Redeemability: Unfortunately, very High.
This is when the main character is a criminal and does light criminal stuff (relatively), but they’re so attractive and confident that we can’t help but fall in love with them.
Characters like that can be thieves, con artists, mercenaries, or pirates (Hollywood pirates, not rape & pillage pirates). And it doesn’t matter if what they’re doing is for fun and not only to feed their family. Most of the time we expect that they’ll learn their lesson and start a happy family with us, but sometimes we even let them get away without redemption.
Betrayal is worse than lying because it’s deep and personal, and it’s more complicated than infidelity since it may have more layers, and its consequences affect more people. In fact, there’s a lot more to betrayal than working for the bad guy all along.
For instance, in what some people are saying it’s without a doubt one novel of the century, the main character is trying to destroy Earth, tricking his friends, blog readers, and newfound love. Ok, I confess. It’s me. This is how betrayal feels.
Now, seriously–in one of my favorite Young Adult trilogies Red Rising, the main character Darrow is an impostor that falls in love with Mustang, the daughter of the man who killed his wife, and a member of a race that enslaves and consider themselves superior to all the other races. Ouch. Talk about a political pickle. How can you even discuss that during Thanksgiving?
Still, betrayal is great for fiction and it’s used often. Here are seven ways writers add betrayal to their novels.
Redeemability: Medium high.
Again, this is about the main character doing the deeds. Are you okay with the main character torturing to obtain information? Two characters come to mind.
First, there’s Star Trek’s Captain Jonathan Archer. In the second episode of the third season of Star Trek Enterprise, Captain Archer tortures his prisoner by threatening to throw him out of an airlock. This goes against all of the Star Trek ideals, and this is why I consider ST: Enterprise the worst of Star Trek. Jonathan knows better, and he did it anyway. I don’t think he’s redeemable, but some people do.
Then, there’s Continuum‘s main character Kiera Cameron. Unlike Captain Archer, she has reasons to torture people because she grew in a perverse society where torture was the least of their problems. In short, she’s the type of character that could be redeemed, but unfortunately the show never addressed that. Either the writers didn’t have the time to do it, or, worse, they didn’t think it was an issue. And, I gotta be honest, I really liked Continuum, but I was disappointed with that.
Given that these two characters are beloved by many, I suspect that torture is something that a lot of people wouldn’t care. Either way, we shouldn’t “fetishize” torture when writing it.
Redeemability: Unfortunately, medium
And then, there’s HBO’s Barry. I’m not going to say anything about Barry, you’ll have to watch it. The series speaks for itself. Come back here when you finish season one, but you may need to grab your lower jaw from the floor and take a shower first.
Like violence, it seems that murder doesn’t bother most people even when they kill innocents. Barry doesn’t seem to like what he did, so maybe this is why he’s still redeemable in our eyes.
Oh, but those are simple murders. We’re fine with them. What if it’s someone who attacked New York City, killing hundreds? Think something like a 9/11 attack. Are they redeemable enough to have their own show on Disney+? Well, the answer to this question is a resounding yes.
But there’s so much we can take. Killing children must be the line in the sand here, right? Right???
Yep, you need another shower. I’ll wait.
Mind control is when a character makes another one do something, and, for this post, such action must be done against their will. So, despite of what Google suggests, mind control is bad. Really, really bad. I believe that the scariest villain in the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe is Kilgrave, from Jessica Jones.
What Jessica did under Kilgrave orders is obviously not her fault. There’s nothing to be redeemed here despite the fact the character was scared for life because of what she did.
The same is true for most heroes who became villains in the Reckoners trilogy even though what they experienced was not exactly mind control.
Is it always bad, though? Author Dorian Dawes argues that:
And in the same article, he mentions a few positive applications of mind control, like to cure PTSD or depression. So, for this essay, I’m assuming the usage of mind control without consent.
In my opinion, it should be irredeemable, but unfortunately this isn’t the case. What about when the “good” guys do it? Professor Xavier does that all the time, and people don’t seem to mind. Read here the 15 worst things that professor X has ever done.
This is X-Men (Vol. 1) # 6. Oh, the sixties…
Another example is Allison Hargreeves, a.k.a. Number Three in the Umbrella Academy Netflix adaption. She used her mind control ability to make Claire, her daughter, go to sleep. Her husband caught her, they divorced, and she lost custody of Claire. Since she’s still likable as a character, my conclusion is that mind control redeemability is medium.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not talking about dangerous animals, or evil animals. This section is about violence against cute and/or pet animals. The acceptance of such behavior is low.
Like a lot of these traits, people were more forgiving in the past.
But not today. According to Becca Puglisi, Some readers even check if the animals are still alive and safe at the end of the book. If the animals aren’t, readers won’t touch it.
On the other hand, gratuitous violence against ugly animals or pests seems to be acceptable, such as in this scene of Guardians of the Galaxy:
Now, seriously, maybe…. maybe there are extreme reasons for murder. But surely genocide would not be redeemable by anyone with common sense and empathy. It’d be like someone that helped the holocaust becoming a hero. This should never happen.
But if it’s in fiction, people are very forgiving. I’ll start with attempted genocide by mentioning Loki again in this post. He tried to completely destroy Jotunheim and kill all Frost Giants. They say the Frost Giants are ugly and evil, but is that an excuse for genocide? And what if it’s only Marvel Studios propaganda? Maybe they have a foundation to cure two-star-or-lower book reviewers or something.
Despite everything that Loki did or tried to do, he’s still described as “On & Off Trickster” and not as a genocidal murderer. We can’t help it–the lad is so funny!
Let’s move on to real genocide. Think about Marvel’s Gamora. Yes, she turned to the good side, but before she was part of the Guardians of The Galaxy, she was helping and working alongside Thanos. I’m pretty sure that in at least one of the “take your daughters to work day” she witnessed and even helped with the carnage.
It helps that, like Black Widow, we never saw or read about those stories. And since she was kidnapped as a child, raised as a weapon, and felt bad about the whole thing, our hearts were softened. Again, this could only happen in fiction, never in real life.
This all seems awful, but it’s fiction, so we let it slide. However, people would never like a character that didn’t repent or even had fun while doing the genocide, right? The thing is, we should never underestimate audiences. DC Comics has a character that did exactly that. Lobo. He’s arrogant, self-centered, and committed genocide of his own kind for fun. And he keeps killing to this day. But Lobo is surprisingly protective of space dolphins, so I guess he’s fine.
On the plus side, it’s getting harder and harder to redeem these type of traits in the redeemability scale.
Sexism and Misogyny
Sexism is discrimination against women, and misogyny is hating women. They still happen today but they were way more common in the past. Worse, characters from those times wouldn’t even realize that what they were doing was unacceptable. There was nothing to redeem because nothing wrong happened in their eyes.
The “Men Talk” clip from the 007 Golden Finger movie is a great example of such times. And classic literature is also littered with sexism.
Comics reflected what was happening at the time. This is 1975’s Daredevil. Ouch.
While I’m glad we live in different times, there are still current novels with rampant sexism, especially with the self-publishing crowd. There’s also a lot of damsels in distress stories which are at best veiled sexism. I read one recently where the woman was empowered and escaped by herself, but the whole setting for the scene up to that point left a bad taste in my mouth.
Sometimes female characters are there solely to be the romantic partner with nothing much else going for them. This can go both ways. A male character that’s in a story just as a romantic partner is also bad, but I’d argue that a damoiseau in distress could work because it goes against those tropes.
I won’t link any of the books I mentioned here, but unfortunately I have to conclude that some people still accept characters like that.
Redeemability: Very Low
Bigotry And Racism
The classic Gone With The Wind is both a “tale of strong women and appallingly racist.” Like with misogyny, tales with bigotry didn’t age well, especially when the main characters don’t even realize what they’re doing is wrong.
While racism is well alive today, would a racist main character that reforms themselves at the end of the book be okay in today’s world?
A couple years ago, The Black Witch did exactly that, and it caused a frenzy on twitter. The existence of these types of books show that there are still people that accept the redemption of bigotry in literature.
Bigotry goes beyond race, of course. It includes homophobia, hate of immigrants, hate of other religions, etc. This is a controversial topic, so tread carefully if you write a book with a main character that is a bigot, even if you plan to redeem them. The redeemability index for bigotry for most people is really low, as it should be.
Redeemability: Very Low
Some people say that slavery is a type of mind control, but it’s way worse than that. This is about owning people and treating them like discardable objects. Can we write a main character that’s a slave owner who’s also redeemable?
Writing about the ownership of people is a risky topic. The majority of fiction books about slavery have the slavers as villains. But even when the main character is a slave–like the famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who many say helped to start the Civil War–the story still can be controversial:
Tom’s mission in life is to forebear — to accept rather than challenge his circumstances. “The ‘protest’ novel,” Baldwin writes, “so far from being disturbing, is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene.”Heather Gilligan
A recent Young Adult book was pulled from publication because of the slavery theme, which included an insensitive slave auction scene.
The book will be published this fall after sensitivity readers evaluated the text. So, clearly even if the main character is not the one oppressing the others, the story can easily be offensive.
For the purposes of this post, I’m specifically talking about main characters (not villains) that start the story with the slaver dehumanizing mindset. Even when they help the main characters, if at any point in the story they showed disrespect and cruelty toward their captives, that character is irredeemable.
Some stories may have slave owners that are never happy with the situation. In A Respectable Trade, by Philippa Gregory, main character Frances is married to a slaver and is technically a slave owner. But the reader never gets to see the hate, disrespect, and racism that one would expect from someone who owns people, so she gets a pass for some readers.
There isn’t–and there can’t be–redemption for them.
Would you read a book where the main character rapes someone and is redeemed in the end? It’s a big, giant, NOPE. Even if there’s mind-control involved, it’d still be hard to forgive them.
In fact, rape is a tough topic even when it’s done by villains:
I could talk about the classic that everyone knows here, or about a book I read from a big publisher that was even worse than that set in the Aztec period. But I won’t link to them. This is just completely unacceptable.
Phew! I’m glad we’re done. I have a knot in my stomach as I finish this post. People are way more acceptable than I realized, but there’s no denying that it’s better today than what it was in the past.
Note that for this analysis I’m disregarding the possible advantages of writing main characters with the worst traits or who did the worst deeds and ended up redeeming themselves or being punished. Perhaps we should have a place in fiction for them, but we, as the audience, don’t need to read them. Let it to the scholars to handle those awful topics.
As for me? No, thanks.
Not Buying My Book?
Redeemability: Very High, but I’ll never forgive you.
Thanks to my lovely daughter for the stick figures. Also thanks to the whole family for the help with content and grammar.