One of my favorite things a book/movie/TV show/etc can do is give me a compelling antagonist that’s forced to go on a redemption arc. There’s something about watching the bad guy realize what he’s fighting for is wrong that makes me clap my hands together in delight. I am sucker for these.
But how, and why, do they work? What is it about redemption arcs that draw us in?
First, the basics:
Most* redemption arcs follow a five point-ish formula.
- Our Bad Guy that is usually very competent in one element of their Badness is introduced and we’re shown What They Want. This is almost always in conflict with what the hero wants.
- Bad Guy meets hero and is a Great Big Jerk. Sometimes this relationship will span for most of the narrative. The antagonism between the hero and the Bad Guy needs to be established pre-narrative or developed over the course of the narrative so that the reader will buy into the Bad Guy’s struggle to redeem themselves later. Often times the hero, or some part of their journey, is the catalyst for what will eventually influence our Bad Guy’s shift.
- Bad Guy suffers a Great Loss that kicks them to their lowest point. They can lose anything, but it has to be important to them. The loss of status, beauty, power, a loved one, etc, won’t matter to the reader/viewer at all unless they see how much it torments the Bad Guy—and this loss usually exposes that despite their hard exterior, our Bad Guy still has a squishy marshmellow center.
- Bad Guy begins to question their role, and has a shift in loyalty. I think a gradual shift is more satisfying, but sometimes it happens in an instance. The seeds that prep the reader/view for this shift must be planted earlier on. Usually there’s backsliding before they can make the official switch.
- Bad Guy makes the switch to the hero’s side (preferably not successfully at first, and usually with a lot of angst and discomfort), and I scream with delight.
Now for every formula, there’s going to be a story that breaks the rules and is still fantastic. Yet I find that the longer it takes our Bad Guy to get through these points, the more satisfying the eventual redemption is.
Jamie Lannister in Game Of Thrones is an easy example—when we meet him, he’s arrogant, self-assured, and cruel. Jamie is completely convinced that the Lannisters and the way they move through the world is not only acceptable, but right. His inflated sense of self-worth could fill all of King’s Landing. When Jamie loses his hand, he’s kicked down to his lowest point, and we get a wonderful narrative of him struggling between sides and trying to understand what he should be fighting for. It takes awhile, and it’s so satisfying.
For me, the most satisfying redemption arc of all time is the one that belongs to my idiot surrogate son, Prince Zuko of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Warning: MAJOR spoilers for A:TLA ahead. If you haven’t watched this show, wtf are you doing? Are you serious? GO WATCH IT. THAT’S AN ORDER. But seriously, don’t let me spoil this for you.
Zuko follows this formula gorgeously in Avatar, and it takes nearly three complete seasons for him to reach point five.
From the moment we’re introduced, we see Zuko’s competency: he’s clearly a skilled firebender, he’s royal blood (even if he’s an exile), and lives comfortably enough that he has Fire Nation crew at his disposal. We’re also shown that Zuko’s got quite the temper.
(Oh, and he’s hellbent on capturing the Avatar because he believes it’ll restore his honor.)
Zuko meets Aang, and true to the formula, is a Great Big Jerk. He’s basically a Great Big Jerk for all of season one, but we see these rare moments that tantalize the audience by promising there’s more there. Before we even get to any of Zuko’s flashbacks, we see him rescuing Aang from Zhao, we see Zuko giving up on his chase so that his crew can survive the storm. And don’t even get me started on all of his moments with uncle Iroh.
Each one of these moments is a nudge, a reminder that, just like real people, there’s more to Zuko than the persona he puts out into the world. He’s multi-faceted. These moments are tiny seeds that are being planted for the viewer to buy into Zuko’s inherent goodness so that we can see his potential before Zuko ever does. Even though Zuko almost immediately reverts back to being a Great Big Jerk, those tiny seeds are there, and we’re not likely to forget about them.
Zuko being a Great Big Jerk for much of season 1 hits a satisfying crux when he kidnaps Aang and carries him through a snowstorm, intent on (somehow?) getting him back to the Fire Nation. But in what ought to be Zuko’s moment of big victory, we see that he’s still unhappy. He tells an unconscious Aang, “[My father] says I was lucky to be born. I don’t need luck, though. I don’t want it. I’ve always had to struggle and fight and that’s made me strong. It’s made me who I am.”
As the audience, we BELIEVE this moment. Remember those seeds I was talking about? Zuko’s recognition that he’s born of struggle, that he has to claw and fight and scratch his way towards strength, isn’t just his angsty monologue—it’s foreshadowing for the viewers.
It’s the writers saying, look, our idiot fire prince has big things coming, but it will not be easy. Y’all are in for a ride.
It’s not until his sister attacks him that Zuko realizes the Fire Nation (and thus, the path to his honor) has turned its back on him completely. Much of season 2 is a nice blend of points 3 and 4, with Zuko constantly backsliding, constantly questioning. Yet he still hasn’t reached his Great Loss. From yelling at lightning storms to fighting off his sister alongside team Avatar, we see that his worldview is beginning to shift. We see that he can fight for the right side. And we want him to.
The narrative makes sure to prep us for this, too. One of the biggest punches comes in Zuko alone, when we finally begin to understand the kind of child Zuko was—awkward, a bit lonely, but with a good heart. Over and over again throughout season 2 we watch Zuko slowly, painfully start to make the right choices, like when he finds Appa…and after a fun lecture from Iroh, Zuko lets Appa go.
This journey for Zuko is not easy, and not without drama. He falls into a literal fever when he decides to leave his chase for the Avatar behind. But he makes progress. He improves. Point 4 nearly reaches its peak when we get to…that episode.
Yes, you already know what I’m talking about that.
The finale of season 2.
I can still remember it vivdly: Zuko and Katara talking about their mothers. Zuko realizing what they have in common and recognizing that the Fire Nation isn’t so different from the rest of the world. Zuko being saved by Iroh. Me, sobbing into my popcorn, “Finally, finally! It’s your destiny to help them, you big fire idiot!”
And then she shows up.
Azula offers Zuko everything he thinks he wants: acceptance into the Fire Nation at last, and his father’s approval.
And then Prince Zuko, my idiot fire child I stan forever, has the biggest backslide of all backslides…and chooses Azula. And I’m left yelling at the TV, “AFTER EVERYTHING IROH DID FOR YOU?! AFTER EVERYTHING WE’VE BEEN THROUGH TOGETHER?!”
Ugh, it still hurts, and I’ve watched that episode a thousand times. It hurts because the audience KNOWS Zuko is meant to fight for the good side, but we’re watching him make this massive mistake. The nail is slammed into the coffin when the fight is over, and Iroh won’t even look at Zuko.
This, my friends, is his Great Loss. It’s not losing his honor, or his firebending–it’s losing Iroh, who believed in Zuko when no one–not even the audience–did.
Remember: Iroh has always forgiven Zuko. After every failure, every screw up, Iroh was there to love him and pick him up and teach him. But this backslide is too much, even for Iroh to bear. The animators make sure to show the doubt on Zuko’s face when Iroh looks away. We see the victory die in Zuko’s eyes.
WHY, ZUKO?? AZULA DOESN’T LOVE YOU. IROH DOES. WHAT ARE YOU DOING YOU BIG DUMB NOODLE.
Deep breath. Okay. I’m still mad.
Look, Zuko had to make this choice. He had to lose what matters most to grow. And this is realistic. Even the best of people backslide, and it’s this massive backslide that makes Zuko’s eventual redemption even more beautiful. For the entire show, Zuko has had Iroh poking and prodding him towards the light, but it’s not until Zuko is alone and at his lowest point that he can make the right choice on his own.
Zuko has to return home to the Fire Nation, because it’s not until he gets what he thought he wanted to realize it’s not what he needs. He doesn’t belong there, not in the kind of Fire Nation that his father has built. He’s destiny is to live as the heir Iroh believes him to be, the Fire Nation prince that chooses the light over the dark, that chooses balance over violence.
And then we get what is arguably one of my favorite moments in the entire show: Zuko’s confrontation with his abuser, his father.
Joining team Avatar is great, but for me, THIS moment Zuko’s first big redemption I had been waiting three seasons for. THIS moment where Zuko stands in front of his father and realizes that his path to restoring his honor resides in his own choices. Zuko doesn’t know yet, but this moment redeems him for Iroh, too.
It’s the moment he confronts Ozai, and confronts every worldview he’s clung to.
For so long, all I wanted was for you to love me, to accept me. I thought it was my honor I wanted, but really, I was just trying to please you. You, my father, who banished me just for talking out of turn. My father, who challenged me, a thirteen-year-old boy, to an Agni Kai. How could you possibly justify a duel with a child?
When Zuko shouts “It was cruel, and it was wrong!” we finally see him realize—the things he’s done were cruel and wrong, too. He’s not fighting for the right side. He’s not meant to fight for the evil side, because Zuko is not evil. He’s never been evil, but his desperate need for his father’s approval drove him to do terrible things.
For most of his life Zuko believed that he needed his father’s approval to be worth something, and it’s not until this moment that we finally get to see our idiot prince see that no one—good or bad—is responsible for Zuko’s self-worth (honor) except for Zuko.
When Zuko tells Ozai that he’s going to join the Avatar and beg for Iroh’s forgiveness, there’s a reason we as the audience are screaming “FINALLY” and it’s not just because we want to see the angst prince getting annoyed by Sokka (although those moments are utterly delicious).
It’s because we want this for Zuko. We have watched him struggle, fight, and screw up, trying to claw his way towards redemption only to realize that he has to make it on his own. No one–not his father, not Iroh, not even Aang can give Zuko his honor back. Only his actions can.
(Note: Even after he joins team Avatar, it’s still not easy, because hello, it’s Zuko. He has to go through mini redemption cycles with the gang and earn their trust one by one.)
When Zuko finally meets his moment of redemption, it’s so satisfying because we had to watch him earn it. If A:TLA had started with Zuko already deciding to fight with Aang, or if he’d made the transition from villain to ally in a single episode with little struggle it wouldn’t have packed a punch.
In my eyes, redemption arcs that are so compelling for because they speak more to my experience than the arc of the golden hearted hero that goes from hero to…stronger hero. Watching a character that seems almost irredeemable when we meet them struggle and earn their role as a “hero” is so satisfying because it’s narrative that resonates with the human experience.
All of us have said things we regret. We’ve pushed away people we should have pulled closer, and we’ve trusted those we should have never wasted our breath on. We’ve done things we wish we hadn’t. And we know that once trust is broken, it takes a ton of work to earn it back.
Redemption arcs show us that even the castaways, the villains, the broken, the forgotten, and the feared can still contribute in shaping the world to be a better place if they work for it. Switching sides isn’t good enough—the Bad Guy needs to work hard for that redemption before they’re allowed to have a chance at forgiveness. The narrative demands that the Bad Guy’s actions prove their intent—whatever they’re feeling, whatever they want isn’t good enough if they’re not willing to act.
They have to do something to earn their place in the light. And they might not succeed—but they might as well try.
*there are always exceptions to the rule, but we’re sticking to the basics