Do you want to write a redemption arc for your villain? Awesome? Get ready for some emotional labor and tearjerking moments because it’s going to be a long and difficult ride.
Nowadays, fictional stories in movies, TV shows, and books are ditching the old “good guy gets the girl, bad guy gets a punch in the face” trope in favor of a more nuanced approach to storytelling.
Before the villain was an unredeemable one-dimensional character and the hero was the multifaceted complex individual. Now they’re both required to be complicated and sympathetic to the viewer.
Many writers even go one step further giving the villain a charismatic persona and a compelling motivation, so that the audience will be torn between rooting for him and rooting for the hero.
But there are also writers that go even further than that and turn the bad guy into the good guy through a redemption arc. And if you’ve clicked on this post, I’m guessing that you’re one of those writers.
What does the villain want?
Before The redemption arc can even begin, it’s crucial to understand why the villain is a villain.
Cartoonishly evil bad guys rarely get their own redemption arcs and for good reason: if your antagonist is evil just cause, it’s going to be impossible to justify any type of change.
Cruella de Ville doesn’t want to kill those puppies because doing so will save her starving family. She is vain and arrogant, she thinks that her vanity is more important than the lives of those dogs.
101 dalmatians would have been a really weird movie if halfway through the cruel and heartless villain decided out of the blue to become a vegan animal activist.
In order to make the redemption arc believable, the villain must have a compelling motivation that will make the audience sympathize with him, or (at least) understand him.
What does Catra want? Short answer: Adora and Shadow weaver’s approval.
Ok, it’s not that simple, but still, Adora is the gist of it. Catra’s actions, (especially the ones that are hard to justify) are usually an impulsive response to something that involves Adora and/or Shadoweaver.
Adora Leaves the Horde = Catra suddenly starts caring about the war with the princesses
Adora gets some new friends = Catra kidnaps them
Adora says that Shadow weaver has switched sides = Catra tries to bLoW UP THe eNtIRe PlaNeT
Catra grew up in an abusive environment, where kids are encouraged to compete and be hostile towards each other. From an early age, everyone she has ever talked to has either belittled her, ordered her around, been envious of her.
The only exception to that was Adora, who encouraged her and gave her affection. But then she joined the rebellion, leaving Catra in the hands of an abusive mother figure, a scary dude with red eyes, and (as Perfuma puts it) abandonment issues.
Catra goes through a lot of trouble in order to beat, capture, or win back Adora. So much so that when she has to choose between her own friends from the Horde and the faintest possibility of getting Adora back to her side, she chooses the latter (completely screwing over Scorpia & Co).
Her actions aren’t condonable, but they are understandable. She’s not mean for kicks, she’s like that because she’s been taught that it’s ok to lay all your anger and frustration on others.
And her best friend/love interest’s abandonment left A LOT of anger and frustration.
However, a crush is not enough to justify a redemption arc. She-ra and the princesses of power, fortunately, doesn’t give us a moral as shallow as “The things Catra does for love”.
Is the villain unhappy?
This might seem like a pretty dumb question, but it’s actually fundamental for the redemption arc of a villain.
Was Professor Snape having a blast while killing his friends on Voldemort’s orders?
Did rejoining the Fire Nation resolve all Zuko’s daddy issues and repair his terrible relationship with his sister?
No, of course not.
In order to be redeemed, the villain has to do something “bad”, but that doesn’t mean that he has to enjoy it. Someone who has a smile on his face while betraying, killing, torturing, and lying will most likely not become a saint by the end of the day.
“Every time he aims for his goal in the wrong way, he gets slapped for it. He enters the conflict and comes up wanting every time.”– Creating character arcs
We have already established that the character in question must have a motivation that doesn’t justify his action but explains them. Now we get to the part where the villain is punished for those actions.
To say that Catra was unhappy while being part of the Horde is an understatement.
She was still suffering the physical and psychological abuse she had grown used to. Add to that the pressure of being force captain, the loneliness, the need for revenge and you’ll have a perfect recipe for a mental breakdown.
The best example of this unhappiness is what Catra says after the Horde manages to invade Mermista’s kingdom.
“I thought that winning would be… different”– Catra
She has gained Lord Horak’s respect, conquered more than anyone else before her, and delivered a hard blow to the rebellion. But she’s not happy.
A lot of redemption arcs follow this pattern: when the character is supposed to be living the dream, they realize that it’s actually a nightmare.
This happens because the writer is not rewarding the villain for his misdeeds, but rather punishing him by giving him everything he wants instead of what he needs.
Think about this as your parents letting you eat all the junk food you want instead of giving you proper meals. The good taste gives you temporary gratification, but after spending a little too much time on the toilet, you start to think that vegetables aren’t that bad.
Catra (thinks that she) wants to destroy the rebellion, but when she gets close to achieving it, she realizes that it’s not good for her. Her fears, insecurities, and loneliness didn’t disappear, they just got worse.
After this realization takes roots, she is hit with the final blow: Scorpia is gone. The last person in the world who didn’t hate her has joined the “I don’t want anything to do with Catra” club.
What happens next? She gets a much-needed wake-up call.
The impact character
In the book “Creating character arcs” K.M. Weiland talks about the “impact character”.
“The impact character is the one who enables, empowers, or sometimes just plain forces another character to change”– Creating character arcs
Every story, even the ones with no redemption arc, has one character that comes in and acts as the voice of reason.
In The hero’s journey, it’s the mentor or the ally that slaps the hero in the face after a terrible defeat and tells him to pull himself together. In every shounen ever, it’s the love interest/best friend/dead family member that appears in a flashback and goes on with the usual “I believe in you” monologue.
But while in those stories the impact character is important, it’s also optional. Not every story that follows those formulas uses an impact character.
In the redemption arc of a villain, however, the impact character is fundamental. His appearance in the story represents the beginning of change. If the villain was twirling his mustaches, laughing maniacally, and only occasionally feeling guilty for his actions, now the tables have turned.
In She-ra, the impact character is Double Trouble. The mischievous shapeshifter is the only friend that Catra has left at the end of season 4. But rather than offering her comfort, they tell her the hard truth.
They take the form of the people that Catra has hurt during her time as force captain and recounts all the mistakes she made.
Even before being captured by Horde Prime, before sacrificing herself to save Adora, Double Trouble makes Catra confront herself (literally) and the possibility that she might not be forgiven.
This plants a seed in her mind and, even if she’s still clinging to her villainous persona at the beginning of season 5, she has started walking down the path of redemption.
Does the villain deserve a punishment?
Short answer: yes.
No matter what kind of story you’re telling, the villain needs to be punished before being redeemed.
No one likes to see a character that has hurt others get away with it. And if, in addition to that, they even get praised for their personal growth it’s even more infuriating.
Catra’s punishment begins in season 4, when she has a breakdown after realizing that she’s been left by everyone who cared about her. And it ends when Horde Prime (ironically, the person that she spent almost all of season 4 trying to get in contact with) tortures her and strips her of her will.
She-ra actually goes the extra mile by making this a voluntary punishment. Catra doesn’t change side after being tortured, that would make her seem opportunist.
She sacrifices herself as a way to make amends for her past mistakes and accepts the punishment that follows.
Can the hero trust the villain now?
Zuko’s redemption arc in Avatar The last Airbender is considered the golden standard for the redemption arc of a villain.
It hits all the beats that I’ve talked about before, and it also gives him the chance to form a bond with each member of Team Avatar after switching sides. Also, Even after joining the group Zuko doesn’t spend his time standing around: he becomes an invaluable asset to the team by teaching Aang firebending and fighting alongside them.
Something similar happens in She-ra and the princesses of power. After her big sacrifice, Catra is rescued and has the chance to make amends and be a useful member of the group.
First thing, she apologizes to Entrapta, which is a big step for her considering that water and apologies are her biggest fears.
Then, thanks to her adorable sneeze, she has the chance to bond with Glimmer and Bow during a mission. This is the first time we get to see her interacting with the group in a way that is not… well… homicidal?
Finally, she shows to be a useful member of the Best Friends Squad by rescuing a
kitten creature who’s planet fell victim to Horde Prime, and in return, convincing him to help the group.
Catra proves not only to be trustworthy and valuable for the rebellion but also a good friend and a person who’s able to get along with others and be compassionate. She’s also working on her anger issues, which is good.
Happy ending for the villain?
“Only when the character begins to act in harmony with the truth will he stop being punished and instead begin to be rewarded.”– Creating character arcs
“Creating character arcs” talks about a simple rule to follow in order to redeem the villain: punish him when he does something wrong, reward him when he does something right.
Now that the villain is redeemed, he’s a blank slate. Just like the hero, he will have to learn, practice, explore, and grow in order to earn his happy ending.
So the former baddy is now fighting alongside the hero and forming a relationship with the rest of the good guys. We get to see his personality more clearly his personality now that he is not constantly throwing a fit over world domination.
After joining the Best Friend Squad, Catra has the chance to show that she’s more than a tsundere cat. She helps the rebellion with everything she’s got, and she also becomes the impact character in Adora’s arc.
When Adora decides that self-sacrifice is the way to go, Catra is the one to tell her that she’s making a mistake. And, right at the climax of the story, she’s the one who “awakens” She-ra and helps Adora save the day.
Why a redemption arc is great
I never liked stories with black and white morality lessons, especially in children’s media, this kind of mentality can be harmful. That’s why I love well-written redemption arcs like Catra’s.
They show that people are nuanced, that they can change and be happy, that no one is born with “bad person genes” or “good person genes”.
Writing a story with a redemption arc for the villain tells your audience that the characters have agency, that they have to be held accountable for their mistakes, but also that it’s possible to be forgiven.