This is an odd subject, maybe, but it came to me the other day when I read an online fantasy story and found the hero’s “redemption” from his tragic past jarring and unnatural. Here are some tips to make the hero’s redemption, if you’re trying to pull it off, convincing. (Tomorrow’s for villains).
1) Make sure you spot all incidents that are redemption-worthy.
I’ve read lots and lots of fantasy about heroes with angsty pasts. (Sometimes I wonder if fantasy worlds are the orphanages of other worlds who just don’t have the time and space to care for tragic babies). The problem is that sometimes the author will have the hero angst about one incident in his past, while passing lightly over others that are just as stupid, maddening, guilty-worthy, or offensive.
If I read one more hero angsting about his dead first love while he’s doing stupid shit, like rushing into trouble and pulling other people after him, and there’s no indication from the author that this stupidity also needs redemption, I will not buy another of that author’s books ever again.
Fantasy authors in general focus too much on their characters’ pasts—that frozen psychology thing where the characters seem to be stuck on a trauma even if thirty years passed between it and them—and forget that their presents, the stories we’re reading, are also important. By all means, have the character get over some guilt in his past. But don’t ignore the things he may do while in the grip of that guilt. They shouldn’t get excused if that incident in the past, which half the time is more minor than what happens to the hero in the story anyway, doesn’t.
2) Similarly, don’t go looking for things to redeem the character from.
A common question on Mary Sue litmus tests asks about pointless angsting and whether other characters eventually convince the poor Mary Sue that she’s not really responsible for whatever it was she “did.” It’s there for a reason. Fantasy authors sometimes create characters who beat their breasts over everything bad that happens around them, even if it’s incredibly, stupidly obvious that it’s not their fault. Just as you shouldn’t allow one trauma to overpower everything in the story, though, know when things are just mistakes and not traumas at all.
Yeah, yeah, the obligatory disclaimer: If the character has a personality that permits constant angsting, then it’s fine for her to shriek and scream and decide she needs redemption from the tiniest little thing. In that case, though, the biggest problem is that personality trait, not the things that happen to her. Work on redeeming your heroine of being so utterly self-absorbed. It would make her a much more interesting character than that clingy vine.
3) Eyes are not windows.
Minor point, but this shows up a lot with redemption-requiring characters: their eyes reflect “hidden depths of sorrow” or “unknowable sadness” or whatever other wonderful adjective + emotion pair the author is dreaming of today. We’ve discussed before how using just eyes to show all these emotions is beating a dead horse. This particular kind of phrase is overused to the point of being dry bones. Please, please, please have an outside observer notice other things about the character that point to a secret guilt than having him look into her eyes and drown in her sorrow.
4) Fighting is overrated as a means of redemption.
Say that the hero’s main guilt is that he was careless with watching his younger sister, and she swam out into the middle of a flooded stream and drowned. So now he sees her face everywhere he goes, is blamed by his parents (or was before they died), is very protective of young girls, and so on.
What I want to know is how fighting several bad guys is a means of redemption for that mistake. It doesn’t click. You could say that if he’s fighting bad guys who want to hurt a young girl, then he’s redeeming himself, but it wasn’t as though he failed to save his sister from bad guys in the first place, or that lack of courage lost her her life. It’s carelessness that was the problem. As long as the character doesn’t address that, it should haunt him.
Yet somehow the hero kills a bunch of people, and everything is all right again.
You have to identify the main problem that’s at the core of the character’s guilt (you, at least, should know it even if your character does not). As long as he ignores that, then he’s going to keep making the same mistake or error. Fantasy has a distressing tendency to ignore this and insist that if someone displays enough courage in the face of evil, that solves and makes up for everything. But someone can be courageous to dawn and back and still be irresponsible enough that someone else gets killed because of it.
War is not the answer—not only to all conflicts, but also not to minor character conflicts. I’m extremely disappointed when the author forgoes soul-searching and other mistakes and admissions and responsible actions in an attempt to turn the character into a hero via the sword, or by magic. A heroine who makes up for the time her magical powers burned someone to death by burning the evil guys is dumb, to me. I’d be much more impressed if she studied ferociously to gain control of her powers. If she’s incapable of doing that, or if other characters in the story don’t march her into training by the ear but praise her when she blasts the villains, the “redemption” is pretty insipid.
5) Let the characters get to some parts of the epiphany on their own, please.
The second part of that Mary Sue litmus test question I mentioned is the other characters crowding around Miss Guilty Sue and reassuring her that no, of course not, she doesn’t have to blame herself. The conversation usually goes something like this:
Miss Sucky Fantasy Heroine: Woe, for I have killed my father!
Friend 1: No, no, he just burned the house down by stumbling against a lamp, and you happened to be sleeping outside. You didn’t do anything.
MSFH: But I killed him. I’m alive, and he’s dead! WAAAAIL!
Friend 2: We know how strong a person you are. You must have lived for a special purpose.
MSFH: But I don’t know what that purpose is! WAAAAIL!
Friend 3: There, there. Here are some special magical powers, and knowledge of a destiny, and you can save the world now!
MSFH: But I don’t know what my father would say if he saw me doing this. I killed my father! Woe! WAAAAIL!
Friend 4: I’m getting tired of—
(All other friends shush him, or glare at him angrily, and go on consoling MSFH).
MSFH: WAAAA- wow, I can defeat the bad guy! And I suppose it might be not my fault.
Friends: Awwww, we knew you could do it!
Friend 4: I’m sorry. You are so totally awesome, and I’m so sorry that I ever said anything mean to you! (ideally, under his breath Even though you put our lives in danger by keeping us awake until dawn with your wailing, and any halfway sane person would have tried to help herself, not relied on everyone else to do it for her).
I agree with Friend 4. Fantasy heroes have a grand tradition of not only feeling guilty for the stupidest things, but inspiring everyone around them to try and help them out of that guilt. There is sometimes a character who expresses impatience or tells them to try and move past that, but if there is anything at all judgmental in that character’s behavior, he or she is smacked down faster than you can say, “Ha, a sensible person!” The only people who are allowed to tell the character to move past that are usually wise mentors who remind them they need to save the world.
I’d like to see a redemption story where the character actually thinks things over, and comes to her own conclusions about what happened. Or, hell, even a redemption story where the character appears to have moved through some stages of emotion, instead of entering “Massive Guilt” and getting stuck there. These are really rare, though. What usually happens instead is that during the climax with the villain, the heroine remembers everything that her friends have said to her, or one especially important phrase, and is able to put her guilt aside and pull through.
The rest of the cast shouldn’t be there just to prop MSFH up. Give her some backbone and make her do some of the thinking on her own.
6) Actions, not words.
I now laugh hysterically when the only thing a guilty fantasy hero can do is listen to, and spout, psychobabble. The power of the word is a grand thing, but if all he does is talk about his inner child and perform actions that are inconsistent with the real problem (see point 4), then as far as I’m concerned he hasn’t made up for anything.
Show him doing things that would help him to move past the guilt and prove he’s really sorry. It’s amazing how few fantasy heroes who, say, angst over killing someone in the past attempt to find that person’s family and help them, or pick up the responsibilities that the dead man left behind, or, hell, go to the magistrates and turn themselves in if they’re that damn guilty. Instead, wandering all over creation and having nightmares about the dead person is enough to “help.” Oh, and listening to their friends spout Psychology 101 crap about guilt, of course, and how the murder was probably self-defense, and isn’t it wonderful that we have this helpless and inept marvelous person to save the world?
If fighting is overrated as the means of redemption, then crying, having nightmares, and talking about it are overrated as the steps in moving past it. This is one place where our modern love of therapy and self-help comes zooming into the fantasy world out of nowhere. In a fantasy, there’s often a concrete thing to be done, or a series of concrete things, that can repair the damage. Don’t have your hero ignore them for the sake of that lonely cliff in the wilderness where he can sit and look tragic in despair. Or I’ll come up behind him and push him off the cliff.
Enough tormented heroes who snivel, already.