When a Character Isn’t Sorry for What They Have Done

Books do a lot of things. They entertain. They transport. They comfort. They also teach.

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In many of the stories we read, there are villains. Characters who do not have our main character’s, or anyone’s, for that matter, best interest in mind. They always have a plot or scheme of some kind, with a hidden motive hidden behind it (whether the story reveals it to us or not). Sometimes, that villain falls from his or her rise to power literally (ouch). Sometimes, they end their reign of terror with a fit of remorse for what they have done.

But many times, there is no remorse. There is no Darth Vader-esque redemption at the end of the story. Terrible things happen, and whether that villain is in the end punished for it or not, there are no sincere apologies. They would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for our sole hero or team of day-savers. They are already plotting their escape, even as they are cut off from the outside world they tried to take all for themselves.

How is this different than a redemption story? And why bother?

It hits audiences where it hurts

We love redemption stories. We love spending a little time believing they happen often. They do happen in real life, and when we hear about them, our hearts are warmed. But we are all also, in one way or another, in tune with the reality that there are people out there who will never apologize. They will never come back to the light side. And for someone who has been on the receiving end of unapologetic evil, that hurts.

Sometimes relatable stories are not lighthearted. They don’t make us feel understood in the sense that everything is fine, we aren’t the only ones, the author totally gets us. We feel understood in a much darker way. ‘Oh yes, I know how that feels. That was not a fun time.’ Contrary to what many readers apparently believe (sigh), prompting this kind of emotional response, as an author, is not only okay, but necessary. You have to make them feel things. They can’t always be happy things, nor should they always have to be. Sometimes a relatable story is real in an unexpectedly ‘hits too close to home’ way. Some people need that.

It sharpens much-needed contrast between your MC and your villain

While your main character will go through significant changes from the start of your story to the end (let’s at least hope so), your villain might not. That has the potential to make a much better story than you think it does. Not every character has to go through big changes, and the fact that the opposition to your MC does not can actually magnify the significance of the changes your MC experiences.

You can make a character round, give them depth, and not award them a revelation. In a way, that’s your way of making peace with the fact that they are awful and don’t deserve a happy ending. Because that is what a redemption story is: a story with a happy element tacked onto its ending, not just for the good guys, but for the bad guy, too.

It teaches your MC, and your reader, an important lesson

Books do a lot of things. They entertain. They transport. They comfort. They also teach. Even stories of fiction have important lessons threaded into their framework. A book can show someone that not all people are good, without leaving them totally empty and hopeless. As long as you have that changed-for-the-better main character to balance them out.

Maybe this is the lesson your MC needed to learn all along: that not everyone will apologize for their wrongdoings. That not everyone turns from bad to good at the end of a story. This has the potential to make them stronger, emotionally. Your readers, too. Just because someone else might never change, doesn’t mean they can’t learn to be a better person, for all the people out there who never will.

I love redemption stories. Which is why, sometimes, writing the opposite kind of ending to a character’s story is so much fun. Take an element of a story you love writing, then flip it. That is the best kind of challenge you can give yourself as a writer. Hopefully this background info will help you try it out in your next story.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter.

Image courtesy of The Jedi Temple Archives.

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