How to Write a Redemption Arc
I’m a sucker for a good redemption arc—here for all the Zukos, Darth Vaders, and Steve Harringtons. But with these shining examples, I notice when an arc falls flat. After comparing a few of Marvel’s redemption arcs, I questioned why some felt satisfying while others did not. Here’s what I learned and how you can improve the redemption arcs in your own stories.
Redemptions That Fall Flat
In Ant-Man and the Wasp, Ava Starr, a.k.a. Ghost, has chronic pain from being quantumly unstable. Her parents died during an experiment that caused her current state. She teams up with Hank Pym’s former partner to use quantum energy to cure herself, but doing so risks the life of Hank’s wife, Janet, who’s stuck in the Quantum Realm. Thus, Ava and the protagonists are at odds throughout the film. She’ll stop at nothing, including killing innocent people, to heal herself.
At the end of the film, Janet is rescued (against Ava’s best efforts), and she voluntarily gives Ava some of her energy. Everyone smiles tearfully as Ava’s condition is cured, and Hank and co. let Ava escape. They assume she will be a good person now, because she has no reason to hurt people anymore. Ava’s story ends there.
The issue I have with this arc? Everyone assumes that there is just this one barrier in the way of Ava being good: chronic pain. This is an ableist narrative, because it suggests people with chronic conditions or disabilities have a reason to be evil or are more likely to be evil than others, and once you’re cured, your evilness is gone.
Ava has not done anything to make up for the wrongs she has committed, either. She vaguely expresses remorse at the end—telling her friend to leave her because she is the one who hurt people and he shouldn’t be punished for her actions—but part of a strong redemption arc is the character making an effort to right their wrongs and restore relationships. Ava’s story is cut off before any of that can happen, and we are simply left to assume she is a decent person now.
A similar narrative occurs in The Eternals. Sprite is disadvantaged because she’s an adult in a child’s body. She wants to grow up, fall in love, be loved in return, and have a family, but she can’t; she looks like a kid, so everyone treats her like one. During the movie’s final battle, Sprite sides with Ikaris against Sersi and the rest of the Eternals, and she stabs Sersi with a dagger. She states how much she envies Sersi, who can live among the humans as a grown woman with no problems, and that she wants a fresh start.
After Sersi and the Eternals are successful in saving Earth, they all forgive Sprite, and Sersi turns her into a human with the leftover energy from the Uni-Mind. In one of the final scenes, Sprite is heading off to attend school and embrace her new life as a human, excited that she will finally grow into an adult. Again, the assumption here is that Sprite is a good person and it is just this one thing—being in the body of a child—that made her betray her friends.
But what happens the next time Sprite is unhappy with something, when she wants something she can’t have? Why do we assume that she won’t behave exactly the same way? The fact that she was able to stab a friend suggests some serious mental issues, and she has done nothing to redeem herself. Like with Ava in Ant-Man and the Wasp, we’re just supposed to assume that she’s a good person now.
Redemptions That Arc
Bucky Barnes is another Marvel character who’s at a supreme disadvantage. You can understand why he does horrendous things, like murder Tony Stark’s parents. He doesn’t have a choice, because he’s been brainwashed.
When Bucky’s memories return, he isn’t suddenly a new, happy person. He grapples with guilt for the things that he has done and he works to make amends—joining the fight against Thanos and seeking forgiveness from the people he has hurt.
Bucky’s redemption feels genuine because he is remorseful and wants to make things right. There are also serious consequences to his actions—most people don’t trust him and are afraid of him, even the ones who know that he was brainwashed. When Tony finds out Bucky killed his parents, he wants to kill Bucky in response. Not everyone forgives Bucky for what he has done, and Bucky has a hard time forgiving himself.
Finally, we have Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy. Talk about a disadvantaged character. Raised by Thanos, she had her body parts torturously replaced with cybernetics and was encouraged to be jealous of her sister, Gamora, and compete against her throughout their childhoods.
At first, Nebula wants to please her father, but she comes to despise him for his treatment of her. In Guardians 2, she blames Gamora for Thanos’s torture, trying to kill her sister before they reach an uneasy truce. Her redemption is slow and, even after reconciling with Gamora, she still makes the unwise decision to go after Thanos alone. Nebula’s weaknesses and flaws are not overwritten simply because she wants to do good things now.
The source of Bucky’s and Nebula’s change runs deeper than “here’s this thing I badly wanted and now I have it.” Their redemptions are tied to relationships and love—Steve’s love for Bucky and Gamora’s love for Nebula are largely what inspire them to change. Though their characters are still deeply flawed, they become willing to sacrifice themselves for others, a true sign of a redeemed character.
With these Marvel stories in mind, here are five suggestions on how to ensure your redemption arcs are actually about redemption.
1. Their weaknesses are still there.
Characters don’t completely change because they want to do good now. Ava and Sprite’s willingness to kill and hurt others to get what they want wouldn’t just go away. Bucky’s tendency to punch first, ask questions later, hasn’t disappeared now that his memories are back. Nebula’s instinct is still to go off alone. The redeemed character shouldn’t be a new person; they should be the same person with new desires.
2. They are motivated to change.
Villains need a reason for being villainous and a reason to change. That reason should go deeper than overcoming a disadvantage. Bucky doesn’t try to become a good person because he gets his memories back and isn’t being controlled anymore, he tries to do good because he wants to be good, because Steve believed in him when no one else would, because he cares about the people he hurt. Love and relationships are believable reasons why a villain might change.
3. Their actions have consequences.
All their wrongdoing doesn’t melt away once a villain turns good. Bucky’s actions as the Winter Soldier constantly come back to bite him. Nebula almost kills her sister, and her selfishness results in Thanos learning that Gamora knows the location of an infinity stone. The difference is that these characters now care about the consequences.
4. They want to make amends.
To be truly redeemed, a villain should want to make amends for the wrongdoing they have caused. They might do so by sacrificing themselves, Darth Vader-style, or going back to find the people they’d hurt. In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Bucky’s therapy involves making amends with the people he’s harmed.
5. They work to forgive themselves.
A redeemed villain may have trouble forgiving themselves for past behaviour, even behaviour that they had little control over. Bucky feels incredible remorse for his actions, which is partly what makes his redemption so believable. Nebula finds it difficult to confront her feelings at all, and it’s likely she doesn’t think she deserves forgiveness from anyone. We aren’t given much time with Ava and Sprite at the end of their respective movies, so it’s less clear how they feel about their actions.
What is your favourite redemption arc? What makes it authentic? Do you have a redeemed villain in your story?