I've been thinking about what makes a redemption arc powerful (and what makes a good one). My friend Mirriam has posted recently about good and bad character deaths and what makes a good story and she's even shared her hopes for Hive to be redeemed on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Another friend shared the news that Benedict Cumberbatch is voicing the Grinch in a new animated movie and that turned into a conversation about how the live action film basically destroyed the Grinch's redemption arc by making him the victim of the materialistic Whos.
While there's nothing wrong with multiple redemption arcs in the same story, in that case, they just didn't work as well together as they should have.
So what makes a good redemption arc? I'm going to look at a couple of my favorites to figure that out. (Warning: spoilers abound for the various stories I look at read further at your own risk.)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
|A wonderful, awful idea.|
The Lord of the Rings
|My brother. My captain. My king.|
Edmund and Eustace
The Chronicles of Narnia
|This is how everyone should look after a redemption arc.|
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
|This guy is obviously redemption arc material.|
Marvel's Agent Carter
|Me too, Jack. Me too.|
Once Upon a Time
|Evil isn't always forever.|
Once Upon a Time
|It's magic, dearie.|
Avatar: The Last Airbender
Simply put, Zuko's redemption arc is a thing of beauty. His initial moments on screen establish him as a villain, the person who will be causing massive amounts of trouble and danger for our protagonist Aang and his friends. Yet before the first season is done, Zuko has been made into a complex figure who believes in honor and, though still a danger to Aang, isn't as dangerous as other characters like Zhao and Zuko's father, Fire Lord Ozai. Season 2 sees Zuko become an even conflicted character. Further exiled from his homeland and trying to make his way in the world, Zuko eventually is faced with the choice between two things: fighting his sister and joining Aang, or striking down Aang in a moment of weakness and being reconciled to his father the Fire Lord. Zuko chooses the latter in a heartbreaking moment that sets up his entire journey as a character for the final season. That last season sees Zuko reject the things he's always wanted -- his father's praise, being reinstated as prince of the Fire Nation, belonging -- for what he knows is right -- joining Aang, the Avatar and protector of the world. Zuko is already compelling as an antagonist. He wants things most people want, and he strives to live honorably even in difficult situations. But it isn't until we see him give up those things he's most desired and live in a lower, more humble and humiliating state than he's ever known -- all for the sake of his convictions -- that he truly become a character we can love and defend.
P.S. One character most people might expect to see here is Severus Snape. In my opinion, Snape's story is NOT a redemption arc, though he comes close. He's never truly apologetic for the things he's done and though he does sacrifice himself to protect Harry in the end, it's not because he's changed over the seven years of the books. It's precisely because his motivation HASN'T changed that he does so. However, I'll listen to arguments to the contrary if you've got one.