Mar 29 2011 3:00pm

Rotten then Redeemed: Pick Your Delights

It all starteSkandar Keynes as Edmund Pevensie in Narniad with The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Sure, I liked the magical wardrobe and the kids and the talking animals, but it was Edmund, the boy who sold out his family for hot chocolate and Turkish Delight who captured my imagination. And Edmund Pevensie was just the first in a long line of characters in need of redemption who have captured my imagination and my heart.

What makes a good redemption story?

First of all, redemption is only possible if the character has done something for which he needs to repent.  In other words, the character has to do something that’s trulybad rather than just having his motives misunderstood by others while actually being a good guy.  (For example, Francis Crawford in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles is seen as a bad guy by his friends and family for a large part of the series, but we, the readers, know his motives are pure, so he isn’t so much in need of redemption as in need of better PR.)

And the best redemption stories are also love stories. Arguably, all redemption stories involve love in one way or another, but I’m talking eros, full-on romantic love, not agape, the love that Aslan, say, bears all the beings of the world, which leads him to sacrifice his life for Edmund. 

Since Edmund, I’ve been fascinated by the redemption arcs of, among others, Spike from the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel”, Logan Echolls from “Veronica Mars” and Jaime Lannister from George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” which will soon be an HBO series, Game of Thrones.  (I have to give honorable mentions to Sydney Carton, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, Mr. Rochester, Boromir of Gondor, and Angel of “Buffy.” I love you all, boys, but I just don’t have space to do your stories justice!)

Robert Marsters as Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer1. Spike the Vampire

Spike is a terrible former-poet and current vampire who has no qualms about the trail of bodies he’s left in his wake (his nickname comes from his habit of torturing people with railroad spikes.)  At first, Spike is just a sarcastic villain who, surprisingly, allies with the forces of good to save the world at a critical juncture.  Eventually though—after a series of misadventures that leave him unable to attack humans—Spike falls in love with, of all people, Buffy Summers, the Vampire Slayer and the one girl in all the world who’s anathema to his kind. 

Because of his love for Buffy (and, let’s be honest, his deep-rooted love of mayhem), Spike turns his hand to killing his own kind, fighting side-by-side with Buffy and her gang to defeat vampires, other monsters and even a god.  But according to the complicated (and sometimes contradictory) moral scheme laid out in the Buffyverse, Spike can’t truly repent or be redeemed without a soul.  Because of this character flaw, Spike reverts to his old self and tries to rape Buffy, who deservedly kicks his ass. In his horror and shock at what he’s almost done, Spike sets out to get himself a soul, with its attendant burden of guilt and madness. Although having a soul alone isn’t, obviously, a guarantee of redemption, it’s the first step on a long road that leads Spike to sacrifice himself for the same species he once thought of as Happy Meals on legs.

2. Logan Echolls

Though the least criminal of this bunch of bad lots, Logan is undoubtedly a bully (Veronica refers to him as the “obligatory psychotic jackass” of their high school), who organizes and videotapes fights among the local homeless population. Veronica was the best friend of Lily, Logan’s former girlfriend, and after Lily is murdered, Logan turns on Veronica for unspecified reasons.  For a long time, Veronica suspects that Logan might have murdered Lily himself, but eventually the pair fall in love. Veronica’s influence and his love for her make Logan into a better person (though it takes a while.) Eventually, his love for Veronica leads him into an act of self-sacrifice that’s truly surprising when I consider the character at the beginning of the series.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones3. Jaime Lannister

Jaime Lannister’s story is the most complex of my beloved tales of redemption (it’s also still unfinished, which makes it more suspenseful.) At seventeen, Jaime Lannister killed the king he was sworn to protect, and ever since then he’s been known as the Kingslayer, the man with shit for honor, whom no one in the Kingdom of Westeros trusts. And they’re right to distrust him because when A Game of Thrones opens, Jaime’s been involved in a secret, treasonous affair for years and subsequently tries to murder an innocent to protect that secret. (He’s also violating his vow of celibacy, but that seems rather a minor crime at this point.) 

Three enormous books later, everything we thought we knew about the Kingslayer is turned on its head. Jaime is deprived of something that has formed the core of his sense of self, and has find qualities within himself that enable him to live with his changed state. He embarks on his long and painful journey to becoming a better human, trying to live by a code of honor that no one believes he possesses any more.  

Jaime’s sea-change is also motivated by love, but in a very different way.  One of the major signs that he’s changed is his renunciation of the relationship that has defined his adult life.  Another character in the series calls love “the bane of honor, the death of duty” and that’s certainly how Jaime has experienced sexual love to this point. On the other hand, his long-dormant idealism is certainly reawakened by his contact with a woman who represents true honor and goodness in a series full of morally ambiguous characters in shades of gray.  Whether he’s in love with this woman is a huge question. I believe that he is, albeit unaware of his feelings for her, but there’s nothing concrete in canon yet to tell me whether I’m right or not. (I have high hopes that in July, A Dance With Dragons will clarify this situation a little bit!) 

Long before he finds his soul, Spike tells Buffy: “I know you'll never love me. I know that I'm a monster. But you treat me like a man.” To me, that dichotomy between monsters and men is what makes redemption stories so compelling.  They offer the hope that love can change people for the better, that actions, however monstrous, do not permanently define your character, and that it’s possible to strive for the good no matter how badly you’ve screwed up in the past.  And at the end of the day, that’s a comforting thought for everyone, even if you’ve never betrayed your family for Turkish Delight!


Regina Thorne is an avid reader of just about everything, an aspiring writer, a lover of old movies and current tv shows, and a hopeless romantic.

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1. Taragel
There's just something about a bad boy turned good...eh? I'm actually in the camp of folks who kind of love the misunderstood bad boy who actually is really good and just in need of better PR. (Marcus Flutie from Jessica Darling's series, Heath Ledger in 10 Things I hate about you...etc. Do I dare count Tim Riggins as one of these? He does commit a criminal act and get into brawls and stuff, but while he's broody, he's not usually out and out nasty.

I could never really ship Buffy/Spike and I came a bit closer with Veronica/Logan but recently I've been rewatching VM and I think they took Logan's redemption just a little far, esp. in S3. He actually ends up treading a line on a different trope I really hate: the martyrization of a character.

Anyway, wonderful thinky thoughts! Can't wait to watch Game of Thrones and discuss with you and discover the marvels of Jaime!
Clare 2e
2. clare2e
I found the Buffy/Spike thing so shocking and wrong at first, and I think that's why I liked it so well later! It's nice that a redeemed jerk can always turn jerky again when you need a champion a-hole to handle something.
3. ninjamonkey73
Oh, Spike... I didn't specifically 'ship Spike and Buffy (we must never speak of teh-sexing-that-brought-the-house-down), but man, the redemption arc had me at hello. I'm a sucker for tortured souls that find a reason to change, which is odd considering in R/L, I'm not that optimistic about a person's ability to change.

I feel compelled to share Spike's awful poetry:

My soul is wrapped in harsh repose,
Midnight descends in raven-colored clothes,
But soft... behold!
A sunlight beam
Butting a swath of glimmering gleam.
My heart expands,
'tis grown a bulge in it,
Inspired by your beauty...

Oh, William, you sad, tortured soul! You aren't even a vamp yet!
Regina Thorne
4. reginathorn
@Taragel - Yeah, I like the misunderstood-but-not-really-bad guys too (Lymond is one, and I definitely put Tim Riggins in that slot as well. He never does anything out and out evil and the person he hurts the most is himself.) But I am a totally hopeless romantic and in fiction (I stress this is ONLY in fiction!) I love the idea that love can be an instrument of redemption and change.

I feel that with Buffy/Spike, I just went where the show took me (especially after "Fool for Love") and I think they wanted the innate "Romeo & Juliet" quality of vampire/Vampire Slayer to continue after Angel left the show, so they had to make the OTHER vampire on the show fall in love. But I liked where they went with the story (in general), although I'm not a fan of season 7. As for Logan, I think I agree with you on the Season 3 version, but I felt as if some that was part of the more problematic season 3 in general.

I'm wondering how much of the slightly less rotten Jaime they will show in the first season of "Game of Thrones." I mean, he is definitely a villain early on, and although I find his redemption arc moving and wonderfully written, he's obviously got some serious payback coming his way for the things he did!
Regina Thorne
5. reginathorn
@clare2e Heh! I think I literally gasped in shock when Spike had the dream about snogging Buffy! It had simply not occurred to me that this would ever be on the cards. (And yes, his ability to fight demons was definitely key to the success - such as it was - of that relationship. Given the choice, I don't think Spike would ever have given up his demonic powers for Shanshu, the way that Angel was tempted to do!)
Regina Thorne
6. reginathorn
@ninjamonkey73 - oh, I definitely like this trope in fiction, not real life. In real life, I want my husband, who is kind, steady, dependable, funny (and handsome) and has never done anything truly nasty in his life!! But in fiction, I find redemption stories utterly compelling, perhaps because a snarky villain is often the most interesting character in a story!

And poor William, he needed redemption from the awful poetry, didn't he!
Donna Cummings
7. Donna Cummings
I hate when there is TOO much redemption. LOL It's like declawing a wild animal or something -- the part that was so intriguing is obliterated. I liked Logan much better when he was snarky and fighting off his feelings for Veronica Mars. He ended up a little too tame. :)
8. nutmeg3
I confess that for me, one of the best things about a redemption arc is how emotionally tortured the hero seems to feel at some point. A hero who's too...whatever - arrogant, well-balanced, anything along the hero continuum - and doesn't feel some serious angst at some point tends to bore me.
Regina Thorne
9. reginathorn
@Donna Cummings Well, to be honest, Logan was probably my least favorite arc of the ones I discussed, and as you say, I think it's because he stopped being snarky and sarcastic. I don't know whether you watched "Buffy" but Spike was pretty snarky and fabulous and there was some falling off in the snark factor once he got his soul, it's true, but not that much. As for Jaime, he might be a lot more honorable, but he's just as sarcastic as he ever was when he was eeeeevil incarnate! (Maybe that's why I like redemption stories; the villains usually get the best lines.)

@nutmeg3 Hey, you, thanks for commenting! I feel that there can be a blandness to the more conventional heroes sometimes and of course we don't feel so bad for someone who did awful things when they are tortured, as opposed to the nice guys where it doesn't seem earned! I would be happy to go on at length about the hurt-comfort trope as well :P (I guess one counter-example is John Crichton from "Farscape" who's pretty well-balanced at the beginning and then goes progressively crazier as he's more and more tortured.)
10. cyberducks
Brian de Bois Guilbert! I loved that British miniseries mostly for him and Rebecca, and the main title music. Bois Guilbert and Rebecca were so much more compelling to me than the bland hero and his even blander lady love. Seriously, the guy they cast as Ivanhoe was a clod.

In general I will always go for the tortured hero or anti-hero, or redeemed villain over the straight-forward hero type.

And Jaime Lannister is the bestest - his character arc is one of the best things in the books.

You should make a post about Jaime and Eugenides in all their one-handed glory...
Naz Keynejad
11. nazkey
Beautifully written, of course :-)

I have to say that for me, the more "evil" a character, the more interesting. I find it hard to believe that anyone is born evil. Something has happened to them at some point that has turned them into the villain and their journey through their own personal hell … and of course, their ultimate redemption, is far more interesting and appealing to me than those characters who start out pure as the driven snow.

It's funny you start out with Edmund. He's my favorite Pevensie. I read the books when I was 10 and even then, on some level, I understood why he was fooled by the White Queen and his need to somehow "distinguish" himself. His act of betrayal was self-serving of course, but it had very distinct reasons. In later books, Eustace beat Edmund in the whole redemption arc (although, since I love dragons in general, I don't know if I liked the concept of Eustace's villainy - use the original meaning of the word here - manifesting itself in the form of a dragon was appealing to me, but whatever!)

Ah … Jaime Lannister! But see? I love him. I love his callousness, his non-chalant way of approaching life because you know what? He really doesn't give a crap, does he? He's set himself on a path and is following it. And THAT's what makes his journey to redemption that much more sweeter.

I don't know if you're a fan of David Eddings' Belgariad & Mallorean, but there's a character in it that epitomizes your concept here and if you haven't read the books, I won't spoil it for you. If you have, I think you know who I'm talking about.

Keeping in mind that I'm not especially articulate today, let's just say that the "good, decent" characters always bore me. Their idealistic approach to life is really not very realistic to me. Unless the author has found a way to add some shades of grey (see Eddard Stark), then I have no interest and am usually pretty annoyed by the good guys.

PS This is one of the many reasons why I'm fascinated by and just love Gaius. Even though his redemption in the end is purely self-serving, he is redeemed … kinda. ;-)
12. Misa Buckley
I think my favourite redemption story is Bialar Crais, from Farscape. From the one-dimensional, insane military to a deeply layered, complex man who eventually sacrificed himself for the one he loved, his journey is a beautifully-wrought arc.

But even as he became "good", the audience was never truly sure where his loyalties lay. Not until that final scene, and I know several people who were taken aback, both by his heroics and the fact they got him so wrong.
13. js11
I love the redemption arc for Jaime through the ASOIAF series, and I'm pretty fond of redemption arcs too, I guess. (I love when Edmund takes care of the WW in Prince Caspian and then non-chalantly tells Peter that he knew his brother had it under control.)

I like the canon ships in Harry Potter, but my favorite ship is very much non-canon (Draco/Hermione), because while it only lives in fanfic, it's almost always in the redemption arc format, with Hermione giving him the incentive to change for the better.
15. Keira
Great post! LOL at the photo captions, especially the first. :D

I adore a good redemption arc and especially a bad boy redeemed by love. I also very much enjoy hate to love, which often ties in -- as it did with Logan/Veronica and Spike/Buffy, among others.
Regina Thorne
16. reginathorn

Brian de Bois Guilbert! I loved that British miniseries mostly for him and Rebecca, and the main title music. Bois Guilbert and Rebecca were so much more compelling to me than the bland hero and his even blander lady love. Seriously, the guy they cast as Ivanhoe was a clod.

Poor Steven Waddington! He really couldn't hold a candle to either Ciaran Hinds or Susan Lynch in that miniseries, could he? I think the screenplay interpolated several scenes that made BGB more sympathetic and romantic (he joined the Templar order because the woman he loved married someone else; he essentially tells Rebecca he'll throw the fight so she can live, etc.) and they really worked! By the end of that I kept thinking "Ivanwho?" (At least in the 1982 version, Anthony Andrews was also somewhat charismatic, though Sam Neill still stole the show!)

In general I will always go for the tortured hero or anti-hero, or redeemed villain over the straight-forward hero type.

I think some of it for me is that I read a lot of Victorian novels as a kid (a weird kid!) and the "heroes" were always so boring and self-righteous in many of those. (Not the Bronte versions, obviously, but Sir Walter Scott et al.!)

And Jaime Lannister is the bestest - his character arc is one of the best things in the books.

Martin really excels at creating complex and ambiguous characters (there are points in the novel where I feel sympathy for basically everyone except Gregor Clegane), but he really outdid himself with Jaime. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined he'd be my favorite character in the series by book 4!
Regina Thorne
17. reginathorn

YAY! A "Farscape" fan! I love Crais's entire arc - I was never wholly unsympathetic to him even in the beginning after we saw why he so badly wanted Crichton to be guilty of his brother's death (so he could be relieved of the burden of guilt that he himself carried.) And once Scorpius was introduced as the main villain, he was about a million times creepier and scarier than Crais. Like you, I loved that he continued to be so totally ambiguous, but the end of season 3 is just stupendous and moving. I couldn't believe I cried over Crais and Talyn, but I did!


I'm really in awe of Martin's skill at making the reader's view of Jaime turn around so radically. There are inklings that he's not a cardboard villain from the beginning (his affection for Tyrion being one of them) but really, he's quite a nasty piece of work in book 1. One of the things that I really love about Jaime's arc is that he's doing it all so privately, in a way. Because other than Brienne, basically no one, including his own family, think that the Kingslayer is ever going to be anything more than that oathbreaking teenager who killed Aerys!

As for Edmund, I love that he never quite forgets what he did. His betrayal and redemption changed him for the better, in many ways, and I like that he helps out Eustace as well.

In the HP universe, I think Snape would definitely have qualified under my "redemption arc" theme, but I have to confess that I just don't really like Snape all that much, even when he's being heroic. I think it's all the petty ways that he makes Harry's life miserable early on that bother me!
Regina Thorne
18. reginathorn

Alas, I can take no credit for the hilarious captions; they were done by some clever person here at H&H, but I loved them as well!

I adore a good redemption arc and especially a bad boy redeemed by love. I also very much enjoy hate to love, which often ties in -- as it did with Logan/Veronica and Spike/Buffy, among others.

Oh, yes, I like the "my only hate turned to my only love" thing as well. I think both of those types of stories - redemption/hate-turning-into-love - hinge on a character's having hidden depths, unbeknownst to the other person (or sometimes the reader.) And a clever writer or showrunner will make it very convincing. I do think these stories sometimes work better in print because they are thought out from the beginning and tend not to be so much "hey, actor x or actress y is really popular with the fans, let's find a way to keep them around." (Joss Whedon, though, certainly seemed to love redemption arcs, given that we've got Angel, Spike and Faith, with arguably Darla as well.)
Regina Thorne
19. reginathorn

I've tried to answer your comment several times and for some reason it never posts! So this is a condensed version of my earlier replies: I absolutely agree that the 1995 "Ivanhoe" miniseries played up the relationship between BGB & Rebecca and Susan Lynch and Ciaran Hinds were wonderful in it. I love that he offers her great libraries if she'll become his mistress! Heh! Poor Steven Waddington was seriously miscast as Ivanhoe; at least in 1982, Anthony Andrews had a slight prayer of holding his own against Sam Neill as BGB but in this one, not a chance!

As for Jaime, he's really a tribute to what a good writer Martin is! I never imagined he'd be my favorite character after I'd read about him at the beginning of A Game of Thrones.
20. cabepfir
(this was what I already told you)
Interesting! I'd love to read your opinions on Brian De Bois Gilbert and Rochester as well ;)

I suppose I'm attracted to redeption stories too - as well as to stories where the evil guy is not that evil after all (I'm thinking about Snape from HP and about my everlasting love, Richard III, painted black by tradition and apparently whiter).

I also suppose my level of morality lowers when reading fiction - for example, I was never really shocked by Jaime throwing Bran out of the window, mainly because I considered it more a plot device, indispensable to start the story, than from an introspective point of view.

Now I add that in general I appreciate when, under an ugly/evil/condemnable aspect, you find out a "good" character. Less when a good guy turns out to be in fact evil, even if sometimes I can appreciate that too (for example, in ASOIAF I expect Margaery to become some kind of monstruos tyrant). I was thinking also about stories like Beauty and the Beast, where the Beast isn't that despisable after all.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
21. tnh
Heh! I think I literally gasped in shock when Spike had the dream about snogging Buffy! It had simply not occurred to me that this would ever be on the cards.
One of the most likeable things about Spike is his tendency to tell the truth, which is why his reaction to that dream was so funny: "Oh god, no. Please, no."
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