Writing the Redemption Arc: A Case Study

*SPOILER WARNING* This post contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. If you haven’t seen it yet, quit reading this post and head to the nearest movie theater. Otherwise, proceed at your own risk.

Since one of my current WIPs has a rather hefty redemption arc, I’ve been doing a bit of reading about them lately. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker couldn’t have come at a better time for me either. Not only was I able to watch it with the family over Christmas break, but the overflow of public opinion about the movie on social media has provided plenty of food for thought.

So for today’s post, we’re going to talk about redemption arcs in fiction using Kylo Ren/ Ben Solo from Rise of Skywalker as a case study. What works and what doesn’t in his arc? What lessons can we apply to writing a redemption arc?

First off, what is a redemption arc? Essentially, it’s a character’s progression from villain to hero during the course of the story. Redemption arcs form a popular trope in television, movies, and fiction, and I think the main reason for that is because they speak to the human condition. We’re all flawed and in need of forgiveness, so when we journey with a character through recognition of their failures and see them make a full turn, we can’t help but find their transformation to be uplifting, touching, and often beautiful.

However, as is clear from fan reactions to Rise of Skywalker, redemption arcs can also be incredibly divisive. We all carry our own past experiences and baggage into any form of media, be it a movie or a book, and we filter our perceptions of the characters through our own background. My ability to empathize with and relate to a particular character might be wildly different than yours based on my own personal experiences. Where one person sees the potential for a beautiful redemption arc, another sees a character who either doesn’t deserve redemption or is incapable of achieving it. We’ll get back to the quarrel over Kylo Ren/ Ben Solo in a minute.

Let’s dig a little deeper into what redemption actually means, before we talk about what works and what doesn’t in Kylo Ren’s story. According to my handy desktop dictionary, here are a couple of definitions for redemption:

Redemption (v.) – 1) to pay off, as a debt, 2) to set free; rescue or ransom, 3) to save from a state of sinfulness and its consequences, 4) to make up for

Based on this definition, what is required for a character to be redeemed?

  • Repentance – acknowledgment of sin/ debt/ wrongdoing
  • Payment – doing the work of paying off the debt or making up for the wrongdoing
  • And, I’d add, external evidence of the internal change – showing the character is a new or changed person (this would be tied in with the idea of making payment)

Perhaps a better question, who can be redeemed? If, like me, you’re a Christian and you believe that Jesus has paid the debts for all sinners who believe in Him, the answer is anyone who turns to Christ. But when it comes to fiction, there are some inherent limits on who readers want to see redeemed, who they’re willing to root for and celebrate at the end, and who they believe capable of undergoing such a drastic change arc.  

So how can we apply these concepts to create a believable redemption arc?

Remember the limits on who can be redeemed in the world of fiction.

We’re not talking real life here. We’re talking about fiction and getting readers on your bad guy’s side enough that they cheer when he switches to Team Good. Certain types of villains, whether because of their crimes or their personalities, will never garner enough reader empathy to gain their support. They’re the kind of baddies we just want to watch burn at the end. Don’t pick a villain like that for a redemption arc.

But here’s why Kylo Ren is so divisive: we don’t always agree on the dividing line between Team Evil and Team Making Bad Choices But Might Be Able To Turn It Around. One of our early encounters with Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens is a scene in which he interrogates the main protagonist, Rey, using the force to attempt to read her mind. The scene has great conflict as Rey ends up turning the force back on him and reading into his fears.

This scene is also the first time we see his face when he removes his helmet, and, like Rey, we’re a little surprised to see a glimpse of humanity in someone who’s been portrayed as a villain. [Side note: Adam Driver’s hair in this scene certainly doesn’t hurt his chances at winning empathy for Kylo Ren. I still want to know what kind of conditioner he uses. 😉] Like so many other scenes, this one presents us with a choice: how will we perceive his actions? What are his motivations? Does light still struggle against the darkness inside him? Do we want him to be redeemed?

Kylo Ren: the face that launched a thousand #Reylo tweets.

Kylo Ren does plenty of heinous things in the films, from standing by while the First Order destroys planets, to murdering entire villages, to killing his own father. But at the same time, the directors of the three films are careful to show how conflicted he is over his internal struggle between the dark and the light. For some viewers, he can never rise above the role of manipulative, abusive murderer. But others empathize with his painful backstory and struggle between dark and light.

For me, the takeaway here is that the more dramatic your character’s arc in the story, the more likely you’ll lose some readers along the way. If your bad guy is legitimately evil at the beginning, and not just an antihero or morally gray, it’ll take a lot more effort to convince readers he or she can change. In all honesty, some readers might not be interested in coming along for the ride, and that’s okay too. As I said before, we all have our own backstories and personal experiences, and each of us will relate differently to a character and their story.

Foreshadow the possibility of redemption.

Here’s one thing JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson do at great lengths in their films. Almost every time we see Kylo Ren, we see internal conflict: how desperately he wants to live up to his grandfather’s legacy, to escape his past with his parents and Luke Skywalker, and to earn the respect of the dark side leader he’s chosen to serve, and yet he constantly struggles with the pull back to the light. Sometimes it’s only evident in Adam Driver’s skillfully portrayed facial expressions; at other times it’s more obvious, like when he takes off his glove and reaches for Rey’s hand in The Last Jedi. But in all these instances, we see glimpses of Ben Solo still alive within Kylo Ren, leaving the door open for his redemption.

Create situations that force your villain to question his or her choices.

This really ties in with the previous point—any time you can show your villain struggling with his internal conflict between good and bad, that gives readers a chance to see that he might be ready to turn. Kylo Ren has plenty of these moments during the films—from his encounter with his father to that showstopping fight scene in Snoke’s throne room to hearing his mother’s voice on the ruins of the Death Star. Time and again he’s confronted with the light and forced to wrestle with his own conscience, until finally he realizes the only path back to wholeness is choosing the light instead of the dark.

Does this guy deserve a second (um…seventeenth) chance?

Be realistic about how far down the path of evil a person can go and still turn.

Here’s one point a lot of viewers struggle with in the sequel trilogy. Kylo Ren has numerous chances to turn back to the light side in the first two movies, and he makes some pretty key choices to stick with the dark–so much so that many people believed him incapable of redemption by the end of The Last Jedi. If you repeatedly show your villain choosing evil, it becomes a lot harder to convince your readers he can and should be redeemed at the end.

Lead up to the turning point in a believable progression, or make it a life-shattering moment.

Again, here’s where some Star Wars fans struggle with believability. Can a person who has repeatedly chosen evil suddenly change sides? What saves Kylo Ren’s arc for me is the fact it’s film instead of a novel. I haven’t read the novelizations—maybe they do a better job of digging deeper into his transformation—but as viewers of a film, we kind of have to read into the story beyond what we’re given. We never hear the character’s thoughts; we’re left to decipher what he’s thinking for ourselves.

That scene where he hears Leia’s voice, Rey heals him, and then he sees the memory of his father is nothing short of beautiful, but it only works with a fair amount of trusting that there’s been more going on inside Kylo Ren than we’ve been shown. In a novel, you do have space to go into more detail about the character’s thought processes and their reactions to the story’s events. Skillfully using this internal dialogue can make all the difference in your redemption arc’s believability.

Time to ditch Team Evil, Ben.

Don’t make the character’s decision to turn be based on self-serving purposes, not in the end, anyway.

Our poor, conflicted bad guy might initially consider joining Team Good because of some selfish reason, like getting the girl or advancing one of his nefarious plots, but if he ends up staying good only for self-serving purposes, is that truly a 180-degree repentance? Remember, at some point in his or her arc, the character must acknowledge they’ve been wrong and that Team Evil is, well, evil. Otherwise, how have they truly changed?

Let’s consider our friend Kylo. Wherever you fall on the Reylo ship (that’s a Kylo Ren/ Rey romantic relationship), the films make it clear the two have a deeper connection than merely being adversaries. Not only can they use the force to communicate, they relate to each other in a way no one else ever has—understanding the other’s loneliness and struggle with the light/ dark powers of the force. Some of Kylo Ren’s choices seem to be directly attributed to his relationship with Rey, like choosing to kill Snoke rather than her, and asking her to rule with him. (How romantic… 😉)

But when his ultimate moment of switching sides comes, it’s not because he has feelings for her. It’s because his mother reaches out to him, he finally confronts what he’s done to his father, and Rey shows him compassion through healing him. In his final redemptive act, the newly returned Ben Solo chooses to give up his own life to save Rey’s, showing that whatever his feelings are for her, they’re anything but selfish.

Show your character facing the consequences of their evil actions and/ or doing the work of redemption.

As mentioned above, Kylo Ren/ Ben Solo pays off his redemptive debt by giving up his own life to save Rey. This final sacrifice falls into place nicely within the Star Wars universe, where offering one’s life has been shown before as a means to redemption (think Darth Vader). The downside of this approach, though, is that we barely see Ben Solo confronting his past choices or attempting to right the wrongs he’s committed.

It ties the movie up safely, but what would’ve happened if Ben Solo lived? How would he have confronted the rebels and the rest of Team Good? Would he have faced a trial for war crimes? When you’re writing a redemption arc, be sure to think about these elements. How can you prove your character’s repentance through his or her actions? What real-world consequences should they face, given what they’ve done? What message are you leaving your reader about who can be redeemed and how?

Personally, I thought Kylo Ren/ Ben Solo was a fantastic character, such an interesting mixture of striving to be evil while wrestling with the good he couldn’t shake. For me, his ever-changing relationship with Rey and his redemption are the heart of this trilogy. But, that said, the films left a lot to be desired in how they handled his arc. A lot of the reason it works for me is because I have a writer’s imagination to fill in the gaps, and because the two lead actors do a stellar job communicating through facial expressions.

We can’t rely on excellent actors in a novel, so I’d recommend running your story through at least a couple of beta readers before sending it out into the world. The way we perceive our own characters and their stories doesn’t always line up with what we’ve actually written. And remember, no matter how well you write it, somebody probably won’t like it. Redemption arcs, by nature, seem to be divisive, especially if there’s a (potential) romantic relationship anywhere in the story.

What do you think? Do you like redemption arcs? Did you cheer when Ben Solo showed up on Exegol to help Rey? What are other redemption arcs you’ve either loved or hated in film or novels?

Header image credit: Darth Maul’s lightsaber by GooKingSword from Pixabay.

4 thoughts on “Writing the Redemption Arc: A Case Study

  1. I haven’t see TROS yet, but your blog post gives me hope that I may like it despite the varying reactions to it! (Twitter has pretty much ensured there were no spoilers left anyways lol).

    Redemption arcs, as you say, speak to our very human desire to be brought back from our past mistakes, to be given another chance. “To err is human,” after all.

    Great insight into how our past experiences and cultural framework filter how we make meaning from redemption arcs and all texts. We all have that invisible line of what we can accept as redeemable, so there will be a myriad of reactions towards such characters.

    Great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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