Stories often end with hope: things are set right, amends are made, broken lives are restored. None of us are so perfect that we haven’t needed a chance at redemption. Hope is a universal. You will never go wrong if all points in your story lead to a second, or third chance. Readers resonate with redemptive endings and you can write one too. (Redemptive endings aren’t the same thing, by the way, as a happy ending.)
What should your character be like?
Don’t think that a redemptive arc or a hopeful ending looks like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. It doesn’t. Not at all. This is one of the reasons why it is so important that you READ extensively in and out of your genre so that you can identify the character arcs and see the redemptive threads running through stories. A hopeful story can come from any type of character. Some protagonists are naturally virtuous and so their redemptive journey isn’t that steep of a climb. Yet the morally ambiguous character who has to wrestle with convention (or principle or other inner issues) and then chooses the right thing, forms a sharper contrast which can make an interesting and resonating read. The anti-hero can also be redemptive, even though they risk being unliked by readers. You can have a redemptive arc and still be gritty, tough, dark, and fully engage all of your genre expectations.
What’s the difference between a hopeful story and an HEA?
You’ve read your share of HEAS. The HEA (Happily Ever After) is often referring to a one-time event, often a wedding, in which all of the desires have been fulfilled. Similarly, aa hopeful story points to what’s beyond the last event, about forces of good, possibly from the other characters that will do good things in the world.
Regardless of the genre, redemptive stories reveal snippets of virtue in the lives of the characters. Imperfect characters make good choices at just the right moment.
To have an effective redemptive story, your protagonist must:
-Realize that they have been living poorly, treating others badly. Through fresh insight, revelation, inspiration, or a good-chewing out, your main character finally listens to truth and wants to do something about it, regardless of the consequences.
– React to the pain change will bring. We don’t like to be corrected, or told that our systems fail, or that our habits are self-destructive, or we’ve been believing a lie all this time. A redemptive main character may be forced to choose a new set of convictions and suffer as a result of it. This is a great place to develop conflict
-Wrestle with, or even deny, that their actions were harmful. No-one likes facing up to the things they do, but if your protagonist is going to eventually do the right thing, they must reckon with their mistakes. Their reluctance to accept their faults makes them human, which will resonate with your readers.
“Redemption is something you have to fight for in a very personal, down-dirty way. Some of our characters lose that, some stray from that, and some regain it.”
― Joss Whedon
– They have to do a 180 turn. Another word for this is “repentance”. It’s not enough to admit that there is a problem, you also have to take steps in the opposite direction from what you are used to and face the world from an entirely different perspective. This is also a tempting place to quit. Often, they realize that they can’t fix themselves. If they could, they would have done it before their life got so bad.
– They ask for help. This could come in the form of spiritual guidance, support groups, sponsors, counseling, accountability, religion — anything that encourages them to do right where they had done wrong before. This requires humility and teachability. This is really hard to do, even in the best of circumstances.
– They learn and grow, making mistakes along the way. Your story may dictate how much time you can devote to this, but I believe that the most believable and resonating redemption stories show the struggle of change. I think your readers want to see the struggle so that they can cheer your character on and see themselves struggling too.
-There’s a “reveal” of the new and it’s affect ripples outward. The other characters may not like the change. They may not trust the “new guy”. They don’t like how it makes them look bad. This will be a part of the redemption: your protagonist will have to make amends and regain the trust that was lost back when he was a trouble-maker.
“We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
I believe that we all have a moral law in us and we can recognized general virtue in stories of any genre and any setting. Redemptive stories highlight a return to these moral laws.
Some say that there is only one story: Creation, Fall, Redemption. If that is true (and I believe that it is) it’s a universal story that’s been writing on the human consciousness since the dawn of time.
Hope often is one of the key ingredients of a satisfying conclusion and your characters’ search for it can make a story worth reading.