I love a good "redeemed villain" story, but creating a good (i.e., plausible and emotionally engaging) one isn't easy. The chief villain of Shakespeare's AS YOU LIKE IT, Duke Frederick, undergoes a sudden conversion at the end of the play, repents of usurping his brother's dukedom, and enters the religious life. Not very believable in real-life terms, but since the change of heart occurs in a romantic comedy, we can suspend disbelief. Usually, redeeming a bad guy is more complicated. How can his or her character arc be made convincing?
A traumatic backstory that arouses audience sympathy can help. So can showing hints of goodness in the character, however tenuous (the "save the cat" moment Jacqueline often mentions). Regina, the Evil Queen in the TV series ONCE UPON A TIME, commits several murders, both by her own hands and by proxy. Her reign is characterized by tyranny and cruel atrocities. She magically curses not only Snow White but the entire realm. Flashback episodes, however, show Regina as a victim of her dictatorial mother, who slew Regina's true love and forced her to marry the king. Although kind to Snow White at first, Regina developed bitter hatred for her because young Snow's carelessness betrayed Regina's secret love and led to his death. As mayor of Storybrooke in our world, Regina adopts Henry, illegitimate son of Snow White's daughter (who initially doesn't know her own true identity—yes, this series is complicated). Regina's love for her adopted child, at first mostly—though not entirely—autocratic and self-serving, gradually develops into a deeper, unselfish affection, which plants the seeds of her repentance and desire for redemption. While I enjoyed seeing the Evil Queen grow into the heroine she becomes by the end of the series, I did, however, have trouble suspending disbelief in her redemption at times, because she commits some horrifically evil deeds in the flashbacks. But the series does show her growth toward goodness as she struggles with the terms of her redemption and her reconciliation with former enemies. For instance, whereas in her youth she pursued implacable, disproportionate revenge against Snow White for the results of Snow's childish mistake, in a later season Regina demonstrates maturity in forgiving a mistake by another character that also threatens to destroy her happiness.
Jaime Lannister in the "Game of Thrones" novels and TV series doesn't have a "save the cat" moment early in the saga. Instead, he's introduced with a "shoot the dog" moment. Caught in an incestuous act with his sister, Cersei, he pushes the witness, young Bran, out of a window, maiming him for life. This is one of several evil deeds Jaime recently mentions in rebuttal to the lady knight Brienne of Tarth when she calls him a "good man." His self-awareness about his dark past highlights the change in him over time. Among other changes, his relationship with Brienne has evolved. At first, he treated her with mocking scorn; now they are friends and lovers. Some details by which the series lays groundwork for Jaime's redemption: He slew the former king, gaining the title "Kingslayer," from sound motives, effectively saving the country from a mad tyrant, but as the nickname indicates, he's regarded negatively for this act. Most of his evil deeds are inspired by love and loyalty toward his twin sister and their mutual children. Yet when she crosses lines in ways too extreme for him to accept, he breaks with her, showing that he possesses a core of honor and decency. The audience also feels sympathy for him when his sword hand is cut off. By the current climactic season, he has demonstrated his reformation in action by offering his services to the heroes trying to overthrow Cersei.
Some fans may feel his past crimes are too serious for any credible redemption, though. What does it take to achieve a plausible reformation and redemption arc for a character guilty of egregious evil? Is there ever a "moral event horizon" that, once crossed, can never be re-crossed?
For fans of vampires, werewolves, witches, and demons, Brian M. Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg edited an anthology on this very theme, THE REPENTANT (DAW, 2003). I reviewed it here in my "retro-review" monthly blog post series on VampChix:VampChix
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt