Every reader, it seems, loves to cheer for the underdog—but not just for the physical underdog, the weak and small David dwarfed by the monstrous Goliath. Readers also seem to have a place in their hearts for the moral underdog, the failed and fallen character (in both senses of the word, the individual and that individual's choices and nature) who seeks a resolution or a reinstatement of his or her innocence or at the very least a return to a place of balance between his or her good and evil natures.
In fact, it has perhaps become a staple in the modern adventure story. For every Luke Skywalker trying to to the right thing there stands a Darth Vader who must be saved from the evil within himself. For every Superman with midwest values of right and wrong, there's a Batman of the urban sprawl who must learn to balance violence, judgment, and compassion.
Now when it comes to writing redemptive stories there are two main approaches a writer can use. The first is what I'll call the “Religious Approach.” The second, which is far more common, is what I'll call the “Bootstrap Approach”—based on the maxim about people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.
The Religious Approach
Writers who use this way of looking at redemptive stories tend to create characters who require the help from someone of something greater than themselves to either trigger or complete their restoration. In the Narnia books, the Pevensie children can't defeat the Snow Queen without the work of Aslan. Nor can Frodo (who struggles with the “sin” the one ring forces him to acknowledge and struggle against) make his way to Mount Doom to destroy the ring without the assistance of Gandalf (either white or gray). Nor can the narrator of Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane save himself. His saving requires the sacrificial work of Lettie Hempstock.
If it helps, think of this version as the Billy Graham version: “I discovered I was bad or needed change, and ____________ helped me achieve it.”
Writers of this camp tend to come from a background of religion, and draw from that theological upbringing. Without getting into too deep a catechism, the bottom line connecting all Christian sects is that humankind is fallen (or evil) and that it requires the righteousness of someone not fallen to substitute or count in its place.
In the world of comics, several of the best Sandman stories by Neil Gaiman are of this type. Morpheus' world is filled with victims, villains, stand-abouts, and heroes who try to do and be better, only to require the Lord of Dream's help to get there.
One of my favorite twists on this type of tale comes when instead of a mighty creature like Aslan having the saving grace (so to speak), it is instead the small, seemingly unmighty creature or character who provides the innocence required to trigger the fallen character's redemption, playing off the literary riff in the Bible of the Lion that is also the Lamb. Examples of this include the aforementioned Lord of the Rings—even with the mighty works of Gandalf and Aragorn, it's really the brotherly support of Samwise that strengthens Frodo and saves him from his own desires to keep the ring.
Other notable works in the religious approach include Les Miserables, Wise Blood, Crime and Punishment, and A Christmas Carol.
The Bootstrap Approach
As I mentioned before, this approach is far more common in contemporary fiction, no doubt beginning with the Age of Reason and coming most recently from the 19th Century push toward the philosophy called Humanism (in short, man is dependent on and reports to himself ultimately). As such, writers (and philosophers, although this isn't that sort of column) began to introduce more characters who were the authors and finishers of their own inner change toward restoration or innocence.
If it helps, think of this version as the Oprah Winfrey version: “I decided I needed to be a better person, and this is what I did about it.”
Perhaps my favorite example of this is Han Solo. Why does he turn around and help the Rebels destroy the Death Star? Simply because he chooses to. He makes a decision to be a better person, damn the consequences, and he does it. He needs no help from the Force.
Another is Damien Karras in Blatty's The Exorcist. Karras is driven by grief and loss of faith to be a stronger man. Unfortunately, his opposition is the Devil, but even against such odds, it's not God who drives him. It's a personal desire and drive to be stronger (some might say worthy) in spite of his lack of faith.
From the world of comics, I recommend Punk Rock Jesus as one of the best of this type story. Thomas McKeal, a former IRA type with a list of regrets and deaths in his wake, gets a shot at being the bodyguard for a clone of Christ. It's the ultimate bootstrap pull, right in front of “Jesus” himself, but doing it for him not because of him.
Such changes in nature can be linked to several catalysts:
- New love (a particularly obvious one)
- A new group of influencers (for example, Han Solo's sudden heroic band, more than he'd care to admit).
- An injury
- Sometimes just a well-thought out change in POV
- Grief from personal loss
- Prophecy (The Once and Future King)
- A sudden change in situation, such as location (Coraline)
- Revenge turned into forgiveness (The Man in the Iron Mask)
- Comparison to another generation (Catcher in the Rye)
- The list is almost endless
Other notable works in the bootstrap approach include The Shawshank Redemption, Blade Runner (the movie portrays this perhaps better than the book, I think as Deckard learns his own flaws and seeks to understand and change), The Outsiders, and the Harry Potter series (particularly if viewed from the story of Snape).
There's one last thing we need to examine as we discuss redemptive stories, and that's the failed redemption.
In this version, no matter whether the change is prompted by a religious, inner zeal or an outer change, whether influenced by outside help or inner will, a character makes every effort to be better (as he or she defines that, of course), but ultimately fails.
The quintessential “great American novel”—The Great Gatsby—is perhaps my favorite failed redemption story. Jay Gatsby creates a set of criteria for his change and success as a new person, only to find how wrong he was, and the very things he pursued end up destroying him utterly.
Some well-known works with redemptive failures include Ethan Frome, the Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series by Stephen Donaldson, Plath's The Bell Jar, and Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. Some might even include The Awakening by Kate Chopin on this list, though it can be argued that the heroine doesn't fail, but becomes someone the world isn't ready for yet.
Putting It All Together Into a Process
Okay, Sean. That's all well and good. Thanks for the background lesson on books and films with redemptive themes. But what do I really need to do to tell better redemptive stories?
I get it. We're in a generation of bullet lists and step-by-step processes, so I'll try to make it as USA Today as I can for all of us.
1. Your character (or multiple characters) must face the truth about himself or herself. He or she must, for some reason (see the list above) see beneath the surface to the flawed, failed creature shriveled there.
2. Your character must want to change for the better, however it is that he or she (or it) defines better. Whether the criteria are religious or personal, true or false, your character must begin on the path toward betterment. Sometimes this will be physical (as in an action novel) or psychological (in something less genre).
3. The road must be fraught with obstacles. As with any good fiction, something must get in the way of your protagonist getting what he or she wants. It can be a balrog on the bridge or a husband who wants a trophy wife (Their Eyes Were Watching God) or an dying father (Jane Smiley's 1000 Acres), but it must be something.
4. Small victories lead to great confidence. Edna Pontellier moves out on her own (The Awakening). Thomas Covenant is able to make the ring glow by himself. Luke Skywalker finally listens to the Force and blocks a laser blast while blindfolded. If you could warn your characters, this is when you would want to tell them to be careful, that pride comes before a fall.
5. New confidence leads to overconfidence, which becomes a new “sin” to be dealt with. C.S. Lewis wrote about this often, particularly when he mentioned the small goods that get in the way of the great good. Spider-man gets control of his life (or so he thinks) financially, only to have his plans disrupted and lead to Uncle Ben's death.
6. Your character must face the truth about his or her nature again. This new “sin” reveals the depth of wrongness inside to be even deeper and more troubling that the character though back in step one. This is that moment when Rick Hunter realizes he's not a hero after all (Robotech reference for those who didn't know), and when the monster created by Victor Frankenstein realizes that in spite of his desire to be better than his creator, he is perhaps just a monster after all. The closer a character gets to his or her redemptive goal, the more subtle and deeply entrenched the wrongs inside him or her become (or were there all along but can finally be seen). The problem may not have been sleeping around after all, but that was just a symptom of the of the true moral failing—for example, wanting to be known as the great lover without earning it by truly loving.
7. Rinse and repeat as needed. You know the cycle. Keep it going until your antagonist is either beaten down to the gooey human pulp you want for the story or built up from lesson after lesson until he or she practically gleams gold. Then, and only then, do you really sock it to him or her.
8. You character faces his or her moment of truth. This is where the crap hits the fan. It's all or nothing. Either all the growth up to this point comes to fruition, or it gets left off to the side of the road in the biggest moral failing in your character's life. This is when Carol Fry realizes at the point of a beast's stinger that she's not the hero, but Riddick is. This is the moment when Rorschach comes to terms with the facts—all he has done is for naught. The world will never let the little guy win. Best just to carry on and get murdered by your friends.This is when little Frodo drops either the ring or himself into the flames of Mount Doom.
9. Your character faces the aftermath. This will typically end in a brand new journey toward redemption or (perhaps the harder story to craft) a resolving to accept the truth about oneself and come to terms with being a lesser person in one's own eyes. Dr. Manhattan “unmakes” Rorschach, then leaves to contemplate the moralities of life... elsewhere. Riddick flies the survivors to safety, wondering if he's worthy of Fry's sacrifice after all. Deckard takes Rachael away—presumably to temporary safety and limited happy ever afters. Excalibur is returned to the Lady of the Lake. Karras leaps through the window to take the demon with him, away from little Regan. Edna Pontellier walks into the ocean to die. Luke Skywalker gives his father an honored death and sees his redeemed Force ghost.
None of this is necessary for your story, however. Not all tales are redemptive ones. Or even failed redemptions. There are plenty of stories out there with characters who couldn't care less about becoming better people. Hammett's Sam Spade, for example, is perfectly happy being the unhappy schlup with zero interest in examining the moral side of his choices. The same goes for Hemingway's existential heroes. All they're concerned with is simply surviving. He who makes it to the end of breath wins.
Still, although you don't need to weave a redemptive story into your fiction, it never hurts to have something redemptive going on—even in a subplot. This is particularly true for pulpy writers who focus on the action and less on the nature of their characters. So what if the hero isn't looking to better himself or herself. Perhaps the client or the victim in distress is, and the hero is that person's only hope. Sometimes telling the story from the POV of the “other” rather than the one looking for innocence or redemption can be the more compelling story.