Redeemable Characters in Writing

I don’t analyze characters quite enough, but I have noticed with my antagonists in particular I have a hard time making them stay bad. Maybe it’s just that I’m one of those people who finds redeemable qualities in every person, or that somehow that lack of control I have over my characters fates them to return to the light. I’m not delusional, I know my characters aren’t real people and can’t make decisions for themselves but I’ve found that in creating complex characters, and using that personality type while you’re writing things happen that you never planned for. The characters interact together and they have control, you’re just writing out what happened.

Antagonists are generally the characters I have the most control over, they can either be the most detailed or the least, early on in my writing I was very bad at writing antagonist so they tended to be quite boring. I was just getting used to writing the good-guys well, so it was easier to write my bad guy if he had good qualities. Even so, what makes a redeemable character? Obviously there needs to be something to redeem, this character needs to have some dark past or bad decision they have to come back from. Are they searching for redemption, or not? Are other people trying to redeem them? is this character an antagonist, or an anti-hero.

We all know the role of the antagonist, they’ve got their three goals—power, riches, or dominion—but anti-heroes are far less examined. Anti-heroes are the swoon-worthy dark loner guys who are often the one the girls are trying to redeem so they can justifiably fall in love with them. This is the vampire, the ex-con, the survivor’s-guilt, the person who feels they can’t be redeemed. Another kind of Anti-hero is the good-guy who uses shady methods to get the job done. Needless to say, their means-justify-the-ends attitude never really gets them the happiest ending.

Two examples I can think of from shows I like are Lelouch vi Britania from Code Geass, and Damon Salvatore from Vampire Diaries. Lelouch set out to defeat the evil government he is a disowned heir of, and in order to regain his status as prince he has to kill off all of his half siblings who are also heirs, and at the end (spoilers) he has his best friend kill him in public so that his entire family line is abolished and a new government can be established. Damon on the other hand is the bad-boy, the does things to be bad and doesn’t believe he has any redeemable qualities except when the girl does her damnedest to prove to him he’s a good person. We’ve seen the archetype before and it’s a great romance/close friendship setting. However it came be done wrong… (ahem… Edward Cullen)

A character I have using the first example is Julian Halo, who is consumed with loneliness, jealousy, and separated from this family by the fact they he is human and the rest of his brothers are Shadows, he uses “contemptible means” via experimentation on Shadows to turn himself into one. By the end of the story (spoilers) his brothers realize what he has been doing, and rather than disgracing him for the difficult decisions he made, harming others in the process, they accept him and let his relationships with the people he hurt to be his punishment. One of the people Julian experimented on the most was his own son, Iszeldier, and this relationship was hurt the most.

At the end of Julian’s role as an antagonist, he apologizes to Iszeldier, expecting his son to want nothing to do with him, however, Iszeldier not only forgives him but pleads to rebuild their relationship from scratch. However, Iszeldier’s wounds were deeper than Julian’s and he is the reason I am writing this.

As Iszeldier’s story is progressing, slowly the things Julian did to him are becoming evident, and slowly the other characters are beginning to realize just how damaged Iszeldier is. It comes to the point where Julian’s manipulation of Iszeldier is used against the other characters by another antagonist and this wounds Iszeldier even more deeply sending him further and further off the deep end. Iszeldier his hiding his horrible past throughout the story but as his friends are aware of something ten-times more horrible than what his father did to him, it becomes harder to act happy since the other characters now know what he’s been through. Through this second traumatic experience, Iszeldier’s motivation is changed and after taking his revenge on the second antagonist (Ira), he reveals the whole truth to free himself from the guilt and shame, (i.e. rape) and then he takes out his anger from having his pride crushed on his friends and family.

As someone who has primarily written redeemable antagonists, it is going to be incredibly hard for me to write about Iszeldier towards the end of his story because I don’t want Iszeldier to be a redeemable character. In the beginning he is portrayed as a wounded character who is happy in spite of his shame, but slowly he loses the ability to fake it, he seeks help, and not soon after new shame is piled on top of him and it’s too overwhelming for him to overcome. He seeks help but it’s never enough for him, so he takes revenge instead, and then runs from his shame. His role as an antagonist comes out with his twisted motivation, growing darker and darker even as his friends and loved-ones reach out to him, but unfortunately, it’s not going to end well for him.

On the other hand, Ira, possibly the most evil character I have ever written into existence is a redeemable character. Ira is first introduce as the internal pest of Irwin Halo, a Nova of anger which controls Irwin’s emotions, and by the end he redeems himself by saving Irwin’s life and trapping himself in the Nova world for a hundred-twenty years. Despite this being his decision, he still blames Irwin and Mark for the seclusion and loneliness so he plots his revenge and takes it out on the Halos, Mark’s son, Irwin’s son, and Jules’ son, all suffer hideous manipulation, humiliating all three of them and their fathers. Ira commits too many crimes against them to count and when the he is finally defeated he is locked up in a new kind of solitude. In the Nova world he had infinite power, but when he is taken out of the field by William and Iszeldier, he is locked up in a normal cell with no power and no escape. He goes crazy, but slowly realizes he is helpless to do anything about it. He eventually regains his powers but is quickly defeated again when Iszeldier takes his revenge on him, and he finally sees the consequences of his actions. As Iszeldier becomes the primary antagonist, Ira drifts closer to the Halos and redeeming himself, taking small steps towards helping them until he is finally given back his former role as Emperor of the Nova world, and agrees to rule the Novas fairly with William at his side.

As a writer I figure things out as I go. Yes, I outline, yes I try to analyze all my characters for their roles and personalities, but my characters still surprise me.  I did not intend for Iszeldier to be an antagonist when I first came up with his concept, however, Ira’s role has stayed the same dabbling between Antagonist and anti-hero almost every other book. My take away I guess is to expect changes and revisions, you can never create a perfect story or even a decent one the first outline. As you flesh out the details, the characters start acting to your script and the end result will always be far better than you first imagined it!

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