Today we are going to talk about something significantly more uplifting than child sacrifice: REDEMPTION ARCS.
I adore redemption arcs. So. Much. Watching someone go from being a jerk to a convincingly wholesome human being (or car or llama or whatever) never gets old.
There are so many redemption arcs out there to love, and in this post I will only be listing a few of my favorites. I am sure that I have forgotten some very important ones. But these ones are great.
Somehow it didn’t occur to me until I actually started working on this that it’s going to be pretty tricky to try to avoid spoilers due to the nature of the topic…so…
Since we’re talking character arcs here, this post will contain spoilers for the various stories from which I am drawing characters. General Spoiler: These jerks turn into the BEST PEOPLE EVER.
That being said, I am going to try to avoid some spoilers if I can. Before each character entry, I will list what level of damage that I deem I have done in the spoiler department, and you can read at your own discretion.
Steve Harrington from Stranger Things
SPOILER LEVEL: 5/10
I strongly disliked Steve. He starts out as the popular high-schooler who is used to getting what he wants. His friends are jerks and he’s a jerk. Then he starts recognizing his jerkness for what it is and DOES something about it. He makes friends with the nerds (and low-key adopts them) and wears a sailor uniform and no, Nancy does not deserve him. He is way beyond her at this point.
Kuzco from The Emperor’s New Groove
SPOILER LEVEL: 4/10
Kuzco is somehow endearing from the beginning, and yet there is no denying that he is a self-obsessed spoiled brat. Spending several days as a llama does WONDERS for this young man’s soul.
Also Pacha. What a wholesome, poncho-wearing human. He also does wonders for this young man’s soul.
Lightning McQueen from Cars
SPOILER LEVEL: 5/10
This kid- um, car. Lightning is a lot like Kuzco actually. He is extremely selfish and arrogant. When he gets stuck in the tiny town of Radiator Springs he thinks he’s fallen into a nightmare, but the wholesome friendships he makes there are just what he needed to learn that maybe there is more to life than winning a race.
And the road he totally destroys and consequently has to repave?? What is this other than a solid picture of his own character development, am I right? (Of course I am.)
Roscuro from The Tale of Despereaux
SPOILER LEVEL: 5/10
This is technically more of a fall arc with a redemptive epilogue. But let’s not quibble over that. The fact that the redemption happens is what counts. (I don’t tend to like fall arcs unless they get a redemptive epilogue.)
Roscuro is broken. His heart broke, and when he put it back together, he put it back together in a crooked way. He does truly nasty things as a result. He is consumed with going after what he thinks will fill the void inside him, no matter who he has to hurt in the process. But forgiveness allows him to heal and IT’S SO GOOD.
Ray from The Promised Neverland
SPOILER LEVEL: 6/10
Ray. My dear, dear Ray.
Basically, Ray feels like he is alone. In many ways he is alone. For a long time. For such a very long time. And that does things to you.
(Holy moly, I am trying to be vague here but it’s not easy, let me tell you.)
There are things that Ray thinks he has to give up- so he does- and he hardens himself against atrocities that he doesn’t think can be stopped, and essentially his redemption is about learning how to let himself care again.
The Geezer from The Promised Neverland
SPOILER LEVEL: 7/10
I never hated Ray. But I hated the Geezer. HATED him. When we first meet him he (a grown man) starts threatening children at gunpoint. AND THAT IS NOT OKAY. NO MATTER HOW TRAUMATIC YOUR BACKSTORY IS. THAT’S NO EXCUSE.
So I hated him. And he continued to be a jerk, putting my kids in danger ON PURPOSE and PLANNING TO KILL THEM and such. I was determined to despise him forever.
And then…suddenly…I didn’t?
He finally wakes up and STOPS being a jerk and I wanted to keep hating him on principle, but he became so protective of my kids and when he carried Emma home I lost all resolve. I welcomed him into my heart with open arms and tears. AND THEN he just got better after that.
Edmund from The Chronicles of Narnia
SPOILER LEVEL: 6/10
Edmund makes a very stupid decision. He betrays his siblings to a queen that is obviously evil in exchange for a box of candy. I mean…nice work, kid. BUT he later feels awful about it and then proceeds to be the most wonderful big brother ever (I mean, almost, he IS competing with Peter, so) and makes the most of the second chance that Aslan gave him.
Eustace from The Chronicles of Narnia
SPOILER LEVEL: 7/10
Ah, Eustace. What an obnoxious brat he is to begin with. But his time as a dragon and his encounter with Aslan profoundly change him. He gains bravery and humility and compassion, and we love him dearly.
Though being a dragon wasn’t exactly pleasant for Eustace, spending time as a nonhuman creature actually made him a much more decent human being (much like Kuzco’s stint as a llama). Through this experience, his friendships grew and deepened in ways they never would have otherwise.
Boromir from The Lord of the Rings
SPOILER LEVEL: 9/10
Kind of another fall-arc with a redemptive epilogue? But WHAT an epilogue though.
Unlike many of the people I’ve already listed, Boromir isn’t a jerk to begin with. He is a noble warrior, but he allows himself to be swayed by the power of the Ring and as a result he tries to take the Ring from Frodo- a truly terrible act. But he fully redeems himself immediately afterward by giving his life to protect Merry and Pippin.
Are those tears in my eyes?
Jean Valjean from Les Miserables
SPOILER LEVEL: 3/10
The unfairness and harshness in Jean Valjean’s life has made him hard and bitter. He has learned to take what he can in order to survive, and he can’t afford to consider others. But the way the priest treats him transforms him. he is given a picture of radical generosity and forgiveness that rattles him to his core. He dedicates his life to helping others after this encounter.
The healing power of forgiveness is not something I think I will be getting over any time soon.
Percy Weasely from the Harry Potter series
SPOILER LEVEL: 2/10 for general Harry Potter spoilers, 9/10 for Percy Weasley as a character
Um…is this yet another fall arc with a redemptive epilogue? Quite possibly.
Percy wants to gain recognition and praise, and he lets his desires drive him away from his family. He becomes entangled in the Ministry of Magic as it becomes more and more corrupt, and for a while he is blinded to it by his own greed and arrogance. But he comes to grips with reality eventually, and is mature enough to admit that he made a terrible mistake. He makes a full apology to his family for the way he treated them.
I love that even though Percy was an obnoxious jerk, he is ultimately mature enough to admit that he was wrong. That can be SO hard. It takes a good deal of humility, something that Percy does not have in abundance when the story begins. By the time we reach this moment of apology, he is not the same arrogant boy that disowned his family. It’s just such a beautiful character arc, even if he is only one of the minor Harry Potter characters.
Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender
SPOILER LEVEL: 5/10
Zuko’s redemption arc is talked about EVERYWHERE, by EVERYONE…for good reason. When people say it’s the best redemption arc, they are not exaggerating. It actually is. (If you don’t believe me, just WATCH THE SHOW already.)
Zuko had a Terrible Childhood. There was Trauma. Is this an excuse for terrorizing a twelve-year-old and his friends? NO. As a villain, Zuko’s motivation for his actions is understandable but NOT justified, which is the best way to portray villains in stories. So as a villain he’s already great, and then he had to go and have a character arc and blow us all away by becoming great as a hero too.
Good greif, Zuko.
(Oh, yes: Iroh.)
The thing that I love about his redemption arc is how (painfully) gradual it is. He doesn’t just flip a switch and become a different person (this works in some cases and is dramatic, but), he has to really grapple with things and he backslides and ultimately has to make a really momentous decision, but only after he’s been on a whole internal journey and I just…why don’t we have more like Zuko?
Okay…THESE CHARACTERS. Redemption arcs make me very emotional.
Some of these kids needed to get turned into animals before they were able to change into decent human beings. Some of them had to lose everything that was dear to them before they could wake up. Pretty much all of them needed friends and mentors to guide them to a better place.
Most of them had to let go of something that they believed would make them happy, so that they could grab hold of what actually mattered.
They had to let go of what they thought they needed: status, HONOR (looking at you, Zuko), an elaborate summer home named after yourself (complete with water slide), or a solid metaphorical wall to keep out All of the Emotions- and then let the family and/or friends help drag them out of the mess they’ve created for themselves.
Because, spoiler, what these kids really need is people to support them (which might include slapping them in the face from time to time). And to learn to support other people.
Sounds cliche, but it’s totally true. So.
What are your favorite redemption arcs? Have you ever gone from genuinely hating to genuinely loving a character? What do you think makes a good redemption arc? If you know of any redemption arcs as well done as Zuko’s will you please let me know about them at once?! I would love to discuss all the redemption in the comments!