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Should Villains Be Redeemed?

O villains, villains, what are we to do with you? Villains play a key role in most stories. Unless the force opposing the hero is something from nature—such as a storm or terror-inducing dinosaur—you can bet your hobbit pipe that […]
| Jun 7, 2016 | 18 comments |

O villains, villains, what are we to do with you?

Villains play a key role in most stories. Unless the force opposing the hero is something from nature—such as a storm or terror-inducing dinosaur—you can bet your hobbit pipe that somewhere in the shadows, a villain lurks.

It’s strange how the heroes are the center of the story, yet if done right, the villain often runs the show. He or she becomes the magnet for attention precisely because they’re the obstacle in the hero’s path.

I’m sure they love the attention, being villains and all.

But besides filling the role of opposition, what’s their purpose?

Our first instinct is to say that they provide contrast to the hero, a clear-cut picture of the divide between light and dark, right and wrong.

The word “villain” brings unsavory connotations to mind, at least for me.

  • As villains, they do bad, sometimes awful things
  • As the hero’s nemesis, they stand for everything that’s wrong
  • For the most part, their deeds are illegal, dishonest, and criminal
The White Witch

Image from narnia.wikia.com

The list of villains we love to hate is long and diverse, but some are particularly reprehensible for the things they’ve done.

  • The Joker
  • The White Witch
  • Sauron
  • President Snow
  • Darth Vader
  • Khan

I could go all day, but the point is, fiction contains some nasty folk. What are we to do with them?

1. Love Them

I can’t think of many times this has happened. Sure, villains like Loki hold endless interest because they don’t act as we expect. They’re not thoroughly evil, void of conscience or remorse.

But when the key moment comes, they reveal their true colors.

2. Hate Them

This is the far easier route to take. From our youngest days, we’re taught that bad people do bad things, and they deserve punishment. I’ll admit hate is a strong word to use, but I mean it more in the sense of a desire to see them pay for their crimes.

Have you ever read of or seen a villain who filled you with loathing so deep it went to your marrow? Who did unthinkable things any court would condemn? Whom you hoped got what they had coming and then some?

I have.

They clearly deserve the fire and brimstone of justice.

But is there no room for mercy and forgiveness, even for the most loathsome, debase soul?

A while back, this came up in a conversation with some friends of mine, and we wondered, should villains be redeemed?

The Redeemed Villain

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re not as far from being villains as we’d like to think. Sin corrupts everyone, and but for the grace of God, who’s to say we wouldn’t be the next Joker or Voldemort?

With that perspective, things change.

No one is beyond saving, as proven by the fact that no one deserves it. Even villains. I’m not saying every villain should be end up with a change of heart. That’s not true to real life. But neither is assuming there’s no hope.

I get the reasoning. Our ingrained sense of justice wants to see the hero triumph and destroy the villain. It makes sense, and villains need to pay for what they’ve done.

But a redemption story packs a powerful punch impossible to ignore. Seeing a hardened soul gradually softened to the point of remorse and repentance affects us on a deep level.

To answer the question, being a villain doesn’t disqualify them from being redeemed.

Do you think villains should be redeemed? Why or why not? 

*This post appeared in original form in June 2015 at zacharytotah.com.

Zachary Totah writes speculative fiction stories. This allows him to roam through his imagination, where he has illegal amounts of fun creating worlds and characters to populate them. When not working on stories or wading through schoolwork, he enjoys playing sports, hanging out with his family and friends, watching movies, and reading. He lives in Colorado and doesn't drink coffee. He loves connecting with other readers and writers. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, Goodreads, and at his website.

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Tamra Wilson
Member
Tamra Wilson

It all depends. I love Darth Vader’s redemption. He turned to the Dark Side out of love, and he left it out of love. Another example is the Phantom of the Opera, in the original novel, he reforms before he dies when he sets Christine free.

However, some villains are too evil and can’t just be redeemed like that, they have to want to. Khan is a good example, he wants revenge and only revenge. Loki too, he may love Frigga, but even she knows her son is too dangerous to be set free.

R. J. Anderson
Member

Yes, I think it’s a good point that motives matter. A villain who is motivated by selfish greed or lust for power, and who cold-bloodedly manipulates, deceives and betrays others in order to achieve that goal, is very different from a villain who does evil in the false belief that they’re serving some kind of greater political or philosophical good, or who turns to evil in a misguided attempt to save their loved ones. The former shows all the signs of being irredeemable, because they care only for their own twisted ambitions (i.e. the White Witch, Sauron, President Snow); the latter still show a longing for truth and love and goodness even if they’re looking in all the wrong places for it.

Tamra Wilson
Member
Tamra Wilson

Oh, totally, using the Phantom of the Opera as an example, he wants so badly to be loved, but he is so despised for his deformities that the only way that he could get what he wanted/needed he had to resort to kidnapping and murder. Clearly mentally unstable.

On the flipside, Loki (also unstable) wants nothing but revenge against those who have “wronged” him. Even though Odin, Frigga, and Thor have done nothing but love him.

R. J. Anderson
Member

This question is at the heart of one of the biggest controversies in Star Wars fandom right now — whether Kylo Ren, after all the crimes he committed on-screen in The Force Awakens (not to mention all the other acts of assault, torture and murder it’s hinted he committed beforehand), can or should be redeemed.

To me it’s virtually a no-brainer, given the way he’s shown visibly struggling with his conscience throughout the movie, even admitting that he is being “torn apart” between his loyalty to the Dark and his secret longing to return to the Light — a struggle which we were never shown or even hinted at with Darth Vader, until the very last moment when he chose to turn against the Emperor to save Luke. If a villain seared by a lifetime of evil acts — including the torture of his own daughter and the destruction of her beloved homeworld and all its people before her eyes — could be redeemed in the end, then surely a young man who is still deeply conflicted about his loyalties and has only a few years’ worth of evil deeds behind him can’t be wholly beyond the pale?

Besides, if the moviemakers had wanted to make TFA the story of how Kylo Ren became irrevocably evil, all they had to do was show him smiling after he killed you-know-who, and having his eyes gleam Sith yellow with the newfound surge of Dark power. Instead we’re shown him gasping, teary-eyed, visibly shaken, and practically unhinged by what he’s just done. In fact the script explicitly says that Kylo feels weakened by the terrible act he’s just committed, rather than strengthened as Snoke apparently encouraged him to believe.

I’d love to see a really well done redemption story for Kylo, and not one that ends in the usual cop-out of having him sacrifice his life to save one of the heroes. But only time will tell whether the filmmakers are skilled enough to pull it off… or whether they really intend to go that route at all.

As far as really well done villain redemption stories in recent years go, though, I can’t think of any better than Zuko’s character arc in the original Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon. He seemed like such a selfish, spoiled, unlikeable boy in the first few episodes, it never even crossed my mind that he could become anything else. Yet as more of his backstory was revealed and as harsh circumstances forced him to change his goals and his ways, I started to care about him… and by the end of the story, he’d become one of my favorite characters. It was really well done.

Tamra Wilson
Member
Tamra Wilson

I agree about Kylo. I really like how they worked with him. He really wants to have… something, he doesn’t know. I think he wants companionship, from the way he was practically begging Rey to join him using the reason of her Force strength. He learns that Jedi aren’t allowed to have close relationships, so he thinks that the Dark Side is the only way he can have close relationships. I also hope that the writers decide to have him figure out that he’s been lied to and perhaps end the Sith threat.

Hannah Williams
Member

Perfectly said about Kylo, and I also desperately hope they do not kill him by the end. After all he’s done, he has to live to make it up to me!

And YES, just YES on Zuko. 🙂

Kat Vinson
Member

Zuko came first to my mind, too! (Probably as we just finished the series a few days ago.)
I think often, part of what makes a villain redemption palatable is when there is still a bigger baddie behind the redeemed villain. We get the of depth of seeing a villain redeemed along with the satisfaction of the irredeemable villain getting his just desserts. For Zuko, there was his father (& sister). For Vader, the Emperor. For Kylo Ren, there is still Snoke.

R. J. Anderson
Member

Ooh, that is an EXCELLENT point. As long as there’s a bigger Bad behind the scenes, it makes it easier to accept the idea of redemption for the lesser bad guy. Kind of like us sinners and… oh, I don’t know, maybe… Satan?

(Apologies to anyone who got that reference. I couldn’t resist.)

Kat Vinson
Member

😀

Kat Vinson
Member

It’s something I realized from watching Asian dramas. Taiwanese dramas in particular often like to have everyone redeemed and happy by the end of the story and it sometimes makes me want to pull my hair out. Every single bad guy doesn’t have to have a sob story that makes you feel sorry for them or suddenly become besties with the people they tormented up to the very last episode.

Scott
Guest
Scott

It’s a great question – should villains be redeemed – but I ultimately agree with what Tamra said above: it really depends on the story you’re telling, and the framework you’ve already set up for the overall message to give the most impactful climax and resolution. For instance, I can’t imagine “The Lord of the Rings” being as powerful as it is without Gollum’s total submission to his corruption and depravity, taking the One Ring down with him into the fires of Mount Doom. To reiterate, Darth Vader is a great example of the redemption being the best path to take. If you have a larger cast of characters like you do in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica TV show, have the ability to showcase redemption from both sides – how some characters (the Sixes) change and embrace their redemption, while others (the Cavils/Ones) stay their evil course.

Great post, Zachary – this topic has been on my mind lately as well.

Parker J. Cole
Member

Villains should be acceptable to redemption. However, there are times when their personal choices stop them.

Kevin C. Neece
Guest
Yaasha Moriah
Guest

To me, the main question is not “Should villains be redeemed?” but “Should they be redeemable?”

I reached a point in my childhood when I grew bored of the orcs. Orc always equalled bad. Wasn’t there ONE orc who realized that being an ugly mindless minion might not be a life of purpose? I grew bored of rats. Rats in anthropomorphic tales like Redwall were always evil (unless you counted The Rats of NIMH). The bad guy becomes too cliche when he is irrevocably evil.

The main thing to me was that, in real life, every being–however brainless or evil or frightening–was a soul and would answer to God. I couldn’t see even the lowliest bad guy as a mere expendable.

(Side note: I’m always just as curious about the minions as about the villain. Why are they following him? What do they hope to gain? What makes him attractive to them? What are THEIR motives for being bad?)

There’s some value to redeemability, even if the villains are not, in the end, redeemed. There’s a quote: “Every villain is the hero of his own story.” Hitler thought he was a hero and if you read about the man behind the monster, you find him both eerily relatable and extremely abominable. Stalin, same thing. All the world’s worst villains acted out of some common human desire that then became twisted. There’s a lesson in that, if we choose to write about it.

No, not every villain should be redeemed; that would become its own cliche. Some, like Javere, might even look their redemption in the face and choose destruction instead. But the POTENTIAL to be redeemed adds a depth to their character and an emotion to their inevitable downfall; it offers a greater sense of realism to the story than if they were ugly and irrevocably bad.

Eric
Guest

I pretty much agree. That said, I’m more forgiving to irredeemable villains if they come across as stand-ins for forces of nature rather than actual characters.

The title characters in the 1946 film version of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” are completely irredeemable, but it rises above the “orc” feeling that you mentioned because rather than coming across as the main villain’s motiveless “foot soldiers,” they come across more as personifications of death itself; trying to reason with them would be like trying to reason with a forest fire or a bolt of lightning. I feel portraying the killers this way rather than fleshing them out more actually made them both more memorable and more terrifying.

Outside of cases like that, however, I’m with you; I have no use for orcs.

Lela Markham
Guest

One of the most compelling villain redemptions (almost redemption) was Golum in LOTR. He wanted to come to the light and he very nearly did … until he thought himself betrayed and abandoned and he reverted to type. It was one of the greatest portrayals of the struggle between flesh and spirit I’ve ever read or watched, and my heart broke for him when he found a reason to stop resisting his ingrained nature. His return to the “dark side” was not inevitable. He was a creature warped by darkness, not darkness itself.

Joanna
Guest

I’m just gonna leave this here….

https://youtu.be/kzjpOMez4nw

Tyrean Martinson
Guest

I think it depends on the villain (the root word comes from an old word that meant peasant, so that always makes me wonder about it). I think that motives definitely matter, and there are real life criminals (villains by any other name) who have done such horrific things that it’s hard to imagine them redeemed. And yet, Christ gave his life for each of us, not just some of us. I like the comments and conversation about Zuko and the “bigger” villain behind the scenes – it’s interesting to think about that scenario and that metaphor for the real world. I don’t know that I think every villain should be redeemed in fiction, mainly because I don’t think every villain and real life repents. Fiction may be pretend, but it always gives an imaginative reflection of reality.
Thank you for this thoughtful article. I’m currently working on a WIP where I don’t have the “villain” really figured out yet. He’s into family honor and vengeance, but he also wants to claim something better than he finds in himself – a kind of selfish desire to “keep” goodness for himself and his family, even though he isn’t really a good guy.