A very controversial character development depending on the character in question. A character who was misled into doing something evil? Potentially redeemable. A character who gleefully commits murder and doesn’t come off as remorseful? Probably not. There’s a lot of nuance in the idea of redeeming a character. Can it be done well? Absolutely! There are some fantastic examples of this. That being said, it’s very easy to mess this up and create some really negative connotations.
Redemption stories live and die based on whether or not they are believable to the reader. It’s a slow and careful process that requires the character to do some self-reflection and growth to change. It’s difficult, but there needs to be sympathy for the character from the reader’s perspective for them to actually care. Someone who murders people gleefully and shows no guilt for having done so does not feel like a character who can be forgiven. There is a limit to how far someone can go before they’re considered irredeemable and, unfortunately, it’s different depending on who you ask. Some may justify mass murder if the context behind such an action could be justified while others may claim that such an evil act cannot be forgiven. But as the writer, you can justify a redemption arc by giving the proper context of who is forgiving the character and by taking your time with it.
How does a writer redeem one of their characters? It’s a complicated question as it really depends on what the character has done and the context behind their actions. Can they be redeemed? Should they be redeemed? It’s a difficult question and often has a very subjective answer based on who is writing the characters. Though the easiest rule of thumb is whether or not the world they are in would accept their redemption arc. Take Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender as a great example of a redemption arc. It’s impossible to talk about redemption arcs and not talk about Zuko. He easily has arguably one of the best redemption arcs ever written because of how much care and nuance was put into it. It’s slow and methodical, really showing how arduous the journey of redemption can be. It’s not an easy path but we love him because he tries his best, fails from time to time, but never gives up. To the audience and the characters within the world, he’s earned his redemption.
Now in the context of redemption arcs, it does not necessarily only apply to the villains of the story turning a new leaf. Sometimes the heroes of the story, the protagonists, allies to the protagonist, or background characters are working towards redemption. An interesting example of this is Skyward by Brandon Sanderson. Spensa, a delightfully aggressive character in all respects, is working towards redeeming her family name because of what her father was accused of. One of the core parts of the story is finding the truth behind her father’s actions and redeeming her family name. In this sense, there’s no villain being redeemed here. The hero’s redemption arc is one that’s easier to get the reader to root for as we are actively viewing the story through their perspective.
Redemption arcs can be complicated and messy but just like real people it can also be inspiring and beautiful. It’s a delicate and careful thing to create but a successful redemption arc, no matter how it’s written and portrayed, ultimately must be believable to the reader.
Hope this helps!