What We Talk About When We Talk About Redemption Arcs
"Who is redeemable?" and "Who is really redeemed?" might be the least interesting questions to ask.
Every once in a while Book Twitter gets on to the topic of redemption arcs - character arcs where an evil or villainous character sees the error of their ways and learns to be better. There are a lot of questions to ask about redemption arcs. Who gets one? When is it okay to have one? What does a person have to do for their redemption to be plausible? What are the ways they can go wrong? And why do we seem to give them to straight, white, male villains so much more readily than to others?
There are a lot of reasons why a reader or writer might be drawn to a redemption arc. Maybe we have complicated feelings about guilt, shame, personal growth and healing, and those feelings are easiest to address when they can be written in villain-sized letters. Maybe we have a strong belief that anyone can learn to treat people better if they want to and are given the tools. Maybe in a world full of scary people on scales both large and small, it's comforting to imagine a made-up scary person who can see the light and change. Or maybe we just like this particular villain and we want to see their life improve.
But a surprising number of intelligent people are simply against redemption - or at least, against the way it happens in 99% of media. That character isn't sorry enough, they will argue. They haven't faced enough consequences for their evil deeds. They haven't made enough amends. How can we possibly say they are redeemed?