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A redemption arc is a storytelling device in which a character starts out as bad or unlikeable but then makes amends for what they have done. They transform from villain to hero. Used properly, redemption arcs make for great storytelling. Readers and viewers love characters who transform and show growth. Bad guys and girls who turn good show the most growth and maturity of all.
Some bad-turned-good characters have more to make up for than others. A character who commits an act of violence must do a lot more to atone for their past transgressions and earn our forgiveness than someone whose bad behavior is nonviolent. In these examples of redemption arcs in science fiction, I present both types. The first three characters are killers who redeem themselves by making a great sacrifice. The final two characters are jerks and bullies who transform into better people.
Darth Vader from Star Wars
The most famous redemption arc in sci-fi is that of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy. It's so iconic that Disney attempted to recreate it with Ben Solo (Kylo Ren), the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa in the new Star Wars trilogy. Throughout A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and much of Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader is murderous and evil. We are led to believe Vader is irredeemable until the memorable scene at the end of the second movie when he tells Luke Skywalker, "I am your father." At first, Luke refuses to believe him. After all, he had grown up believing Vader murdered his father. That scene is a shock to both Luke and the audience. When Luke accepts the truth, he is convinced that there is still good in his father. While Darth Vader is trying to bring his son to the Dark Side, Luke desperately tries to appeal to whatever is left of Anakin Skywalker under the dark armor, while Vader continually resists.
Luke: Search your feelings, Father, you can't do this. I feel the conflict within you. Let go of your hate.
Darth Vader: It is too late for me, son. The Emperor will show you the true nature of the Force. He is your master now.
In the Star Wars prequels starring Hayden Christensen, we get Anakin's backstory. Several things lead to Anakin being drawn to the Dark Side: frustrations with the Jedi Order and Obi Wan Kenobi, the clever manipulation skills of Emperor Palpatine, the intense lure of the dark side, and an inability to deal with the loss of a loved one. Anakin is a man in love desperate to protect his wife from death. In an attempt to save her, he joins the dark side.
While Palpatine is torturing Luke to death, the conflict within Vader is clear despite the mask covering this face. Anakin Skywalker's life was tragic. Born into slavery on Tatooine, he and his mother were owned by a junk dealer. He becomes a Jedi Knight, but his troubled past haunts him. Losing what matters to him, he finally gives in to his worst impulses and becomes a monster. Watching his son dying before him, things that had been important to Anakin like love, family, and sacrifice come roaring back. Vader picks up the Emperor and tosses him into the reactor, getting electrocuted in the process. Father and son then have a poignant moment together before Vader dies.
"You already have [saved me], Luke. You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister...you were right."
Darth Vader: Redeeming the Irredeemable
Clarissa Mao from The Expanse
"This one won't be grateful for your mercy," Amos Burton tells Anna Volovodov in The Expanse episode Congregation. He is preparing to execute Clarissa Mao when Anna stops him, saying "It's not about her. It's about us." Thankfully, Amos doesn't execute Clarissa because without her heroic act at the end of the next episode Abaddon's Gate, all of humanity would have been destroyed.
Clarissa Mao's life is upended by the incarceration of her wealthy father and the confiscation of the family's assets. In the third season of the show, she decides to exact revenge on James Holden, the person she holds responsible for the downfall of her family. Clarissa plants an explosive device on the spaceship the UNN Seung Un. She then frames Holden for the attack, which almost gets him and his crewmates on the Rocinante killed.
Constantly dismissed and emotionally abused by her father Jules Pierre, dutiful daughter Clarissa uses revenge to try to win his love and respect. Jules Pierre favors his rebellious daughter Julie over her. Destroying Holden's reputation and ending his life is Clarissa's twisted way of trying to earn her father's love. Realizing Holden is not the monster she imagined, she assists him at the end of Abaddon's Gate, even though she expects to die in the process.
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"Do you think a truly good act at the end of your life can make up for all the terrible things you've done?"
Clarissa is shot but survives and returns to The Expanse in season five as a reformed character. Serving a life sentence for her crimes, she accepts her fate and doesn't make excuses for the terrible things she has done. When an asteroid attack devastates Earth, she escapes from prison with Amos's help. Finally free, she gets a second chance. When Amos tells her there's a way to live a good life without being a good person, Clarissa responds, "I like that." In the episode Winnipesaukee, she overcompensates for her past sins, going out of her way to save lives, even when it may not be the wisest course of action. And because she is serving as Amos's moral compass, he goes along with her decisions despite his own doubts. James Holden is stunned when Amos brings Clarissa aboard the Rocinante because, as an escaped prisoner, she has nowhere else to go. In the sixth book of The Expanse series, Holden initially distrusts Clarissa and is peeved by her presence on his ship but she later becomes a valued member of the crew.
The Amos and Clarissa Friendship Explained
Captain Crais from Farscape
When Commander John Crichton's Farscape module is sucked into a wormhole during an experimental space flight and flung out into another part of the universe, a space battle is in progress. One of the space fighters, a Prowler, clips the Farscape module and is sent crashing into an asteroid. Unfortunately for John, the Prowler is being piloted by the brother of Peacekeeper captain Bialar Crais. The Peacekeepers are Nazi-esque soldiers who keep order in much of the galaxy. Despite video evidence that John Crichton was not responsible for his brother's death, Crais is determined to hunt him down and kill him.
John is the only human trapped aboard the freed prison transport Moya with three ex-prisoners (D'Argo, Zhaan, and Rygel), the ship's pilot, and a Peacekeeper taken prisoner during the battle (Aeryn Sun). Throughout the first season, they are on the run from Crais and bounty hunters.
In the 88-episode series, Crais's sad backstory is presented early. We learn about his childhood in That Old Black Magic, the 8th episode. In the final episode of season one, Crais loses his command to another Farscape villain Scorpius. At this point, it looks like Crais is about to join the crew on Moya. Instead, redemption is delayed when he flees in the sentient gunship Talyn.
In Farscape, we know Crais is evil, but we don't often see it. His sad backstory is presented in season one, but we don't see much of his darker side until the fifth episode of season two The Way We Weren't. In this episode, we learn that Aeryn was part of a firing squad that killed Moya's original pilot. The ex-prisoners on the ship confront her. All had been tortured and all wondered if Aeryn had been one of their torturers. As a pilot, it's unlikely Aeryn ever tortured anyone, but we can assume Crais did or at least allowed it to happen. He also authorized the firing squad that killed that first pilot. We did see some of his cruel and obsessive side in season one when Crais snapped the neck of Lieutenant Teeg who was completely devoted to him. She went out of her way to protect him and cover up his descent into madness. Her reward for her devotion was a brutal death at his hands.
Unable to control Talyn, Crais is forced to enlist the help of Aeryn, bringing him back into contact with John and the rest of Moya's crew. It's at this point that Crais begins to ally himself with them. When Aeryn dies (temporarily), he is devastated and attempts to seek vengeance, despite declaring in an earlier episode, "I will track you down and kill you, Officer Sun. On that, I give you my vow." From this, we learn that Crais genuinely cares about his former adversaries. When John is cloned, the crew splits for several episodes with Crais, one version of John, Aeryn, Rygel, and Stark aboard Talyn. As a result of his growing closeness to Moya's crew, it isn't too big of a surprise when Crais chooses to carry out a suicide mission to not only save his friends but also to protect the galaxy from the terrible weapon Scorpius is hellbent on creating.
Willing to sacrifice his own life to save others, he is truly and fully redeemed. John never trusted Crais, so it's a shock to him when he learns what he plans to do. Aeryn is different. She had learned to trust Crais much earlier and believed he really had changed. As a former Peacekeeper who had done terrible things herself and changed, she recognized how Crais had grown and changed. This was something John wasn't able to see until it was too late to build any kind of bond with Crais.
I thought it was about my brother. It should have been about my brother. Somewhere along the way my priorities decayed. I realized I'd become more concerned with my own image and career.
— Bialiar Crais - Farscape
Crais - A Villain's Journey
Steve Harrington from Stranger Things
Steve Harrington never killed anyone, but in season one of Stranger Things, he is a jerk. He's a handsome and arrogant high school student who spreads false rumors about his girlfriend Nancy. When we first meet him, he's the typical and stereotypical popular kid. He is also a bully. He pressures Nancy to sleep with him, despite her obvious discomfort. When he learns that Jonathan Byers and Nancy are spending time together, he lashes out, assuming the worst. Despite the fact that Jonathan's little brother Will has mysteriously disappeared, Steve mocks him and breaks his camera.
Steve thinks that Jonathan is a weirdo and a pervert. He later goads Jonathan into a fight, telling him his whole family are screw-ups and it's not a surprise his younger brother is missing. Steve's friend Tommy spraying a slut-shaming message aimed at Nancy on the town's movie theater marquee leads to an argument between Steve and his popular friends. Feeling remorse, he helps the theater owner clean up the graffiti.
Steve decides to go to Jonathan’s house to apologize for their fight. When he walks in the door, he's shocked to see Jonathan and Nancy have hatched a plan to catch a monster called the Demogorgon. Up until this point, Steve had no idea this creature existed. Nancy and Jonathan shout at him to leave, and he does, racing back to his car. When he manages to get the door open after fumbling with his keys, he has a change of heart. As the Demogorgon is about to kill Jonathan, Steve rushes into the house armed only with a baseball bat and saves the day.
In later episodes, Steve endears himself with the show's fans even more, when he serves as a protector to Dustin and the other kids who are intent on hunting down Demodogs, a new kind of monster stalking Hawking, Indiana.
Why Steve Harrington is the BEST Character on "Stranger Things"
James "Sawyer" Ford from Lost
Many characters in Lost committed past mistakes and once they become trapped on the island are given an opportunity to redeem themselves. The creators of the show said redemption is one of its major themes.
"...these people were all lone wolves who were complete strangers on an aircraft... Then let’s bring them together and through their experiences together allow themselves to be redeemed. I think we’ve always said that the characters of 'Lost' are deeply flawed, but when you look at their flashback stories, they’re all victims."
--The Men Who Made ABC’s ‘Lost’ Last, The New York Times
While most characters in the show are in need of redemption, James Ford, better known by the alias Sawyer, stands out. Unlike most of the others who try to cooperate and help each other, Sawyer behaves like a selfish jerk. He loots the downed plane and hoards what he finds in the early episodes. It's not a surprise that when Boone loses her asthma inhaler refills, she suspects Sawyer. When confronted, Sawyer refuses to cooperate with the investigation, which leads to Sayid torturing him to find out where he hid them. Sawyer tells Kate he will let her know the location of the refills if she gives him a kiss. Reluctantly she does, and then Sawyer reveals he doesn't actually know.
In a season one flashback, we get glimpses of a better Sawyer. The career conman is close to success in swindling a couple named Jessica and David out of $160,000. However, when he discovers they have a young son, he abruptly cancels the deal because he doesn't want to harm a child. It becomes clear to the audience that his bad guy behavior is to some extent a facade. He deliberately puts distance between himself and the other survivors with his insensitive, cynical, and egotistical behavior. He behaves like this to hide the pain he has felt since childhood. By not getting close to the others, he believes he can't get hurt. As the series continues, we learn what a broken, troubled individual he is.
Sawyer's redemption is a slow, evolutionary process occurring over several seasons. He becomes a protector of his friends, threatening to kill those who might harm them, and risking his own life to save others. In season four, he and several other characters are in a helicopter that's losing fuel. He makes the heroic decision to jump out to lessen the weight, so they can make it to their destination.
© 2021 LT Wright