Antagonists and Other Bad Characters pt 3.
Typically redemption is for the flawed protagonist. They have a troubled past, or made bad choices harming others around them. It gives the character room to see the error of their ways and an obvious path for growth. The same can be true for antagonist (ant.) characters.
I’ll get this out-of-the-way immediately: the main ant. is unlikely to have any true redemption moments. I think the sub antagonist gets more chances at redemption, thereby undermining the main ant. Take a look at Darth Vader and the Emperor (again I understand that these are not literary characters, it is a pretty clear and easy example though.) I would say that in ‘Return of the Jedi’ the mantle of main antagonist shifts away from Vader to the Emperor. With the demotion in antagonist status Vader is now capable of being redeemed by his son which leads in turn to the defeat of the Emperor.
I do not believe that the true villain, the major antagonist should be redeemed. They can have their good traits (like puppies, kind to the elderly or some such) however mostly they just want to see the world burn to ash.
I recognize that they CAN be redeemed. I feel that in doing so it lessens their impact. It is like paying someone a compliment and then following it up with ‘However…’
Redemption as I said allows for tremendous growth. Since it is the holiday season I think of the Grinch and how he stole Christmas. There is a prime example of the antagonist being redeemed at the end. All was forgiven, no harm no foul. Now, everyone likes him. No one cares that he decimated their houses, invaded their lives or possibly allowed the roast beast to spoil for lack of refrigeration. Of course the lessons in that story are that the spirit of the holidays is not in the things, but rather in the people and relationships. So long as we are with those who we love, everything else is just icing on top of the cake.
Ok, back to my faux literary analysis of the Grinch. I would suggest that he transitions away from being the antagonist to more of a redeemed anti-hero, and now the notion of material greed, a thing/emotion/feeling, is the antagonist. That very thing that the Grinch pushed aside when his heart grew in size. It also touches a point from my first post in this series where I implied that the antagonist could be something like a natural disaster. Something (anything) really that the protagonist must struggle against.
So like a drug/alcohol addict battles the addicting substance, the Grinch battles materialism and selfishness. Implying that he was a protagonist all along. (oooooo clever!)
Ok, in short: I think a true antagonist is unlikely to be eligible for redemption without losing a significant portion of what made them the antagonist in the first place. I think that redemption undermines their foundation. If applied to a sub antagonist it again weakens the main ant. position allowing the protagonist to triumph in the end.
As I stated earlier the redemption of a character is excellent for promoting growth, conflict and resolution. All of these elements are terrific for a writer because they touch the core of existence. Who has not run into conflict in their life? Hopefully there was resolution to it and people learned from it. These elements allow the reader to care more for the characters and invest in their story. Redemption is a powerful tool for creating a deep and real connection with the reader.
I am not saying there are no other ways of reaching the reader. There are many of course. Redemption though is something many of us hope for regardless of how great or small our wrongdoing might be.
I feel the need to disclose the fact that at present none of my major characters (those in my manuscripts and published short stories) have any redemption planned. It is mainly the protagonist or his / her assistants that are in need of redemption. Several of my sub-antagonists are set to be redeemed, but I am planning on that in order to assist the downfall of the main antagonist.
Wrapping it all up (in twinkling lights and tinsel…)
Redemption is not for everyone. Those who can be redeemed are usually not going to be the true villain of the story. It is an excellent way to reach your readers and have a dramatic interesting story.
Something I will touch on next time is my philosophy on traits for characters. Allowing your Antagonist to be likeable, next time.
Thanks for reading!