3 Tips for Writing Effective Character Redemption Arcs by Rose Atkinson-Carter

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning
Reedsy 2023

Rose Atkinson-Carter

There is no character arc more satisfying than one of redemption. Sometimes called positive change arcs, these stories are great to read and satisfying with their payoff, but they’re not easy to write. To create a character who seeks atonement from past actions, we must lay the groundwork for a believable change without giving away too much too soon.

So in this post we’ll cover 3 tips for writing effective character redemption arcs.

1. Lay the foundation by knowing the ending first.

The difficulty in opening a redemptive story is portraying a character that seeks absolution from their actions alone. And until the great reveal later in the book, we only glimpse the beast in fragments. Motivation is key because it is their past which will define their actions now.

Knowing the ending is paramount. Knowing what haunts your character and has created their flaw, or inner lie, lets you work backwards. Because confronting this past memory will be key to attaining their redemption. You need to know what it means if they succeed or fail.

As an example; we have a train conductor helping passengers find their carriages and seats, she’s checking tickets and it feels fast and frenetic — our stressful situation is overwhelming with the many faces blurring into one. When the train finally leaves we’re exhausted — and in the time between trains our conductor takes out a picture of a small child, along with an artist’s rendering of if they were ten years older, and it begins again.

Some questions for her past might be:

  • What haunts our character here?
  • Is she responsible for a missing child?
  • Is she responsible for her missing child?
  • How is the train station involved, is this job new or old?
  • Were their well-intentioned actions which turned lethal?

Once the past is dealt with:

  • What is she doing at the start of this story?
  • How does this hint at what is wrong within?
  • What scenario could arise to give her redemption?

These questions subtly set up the character’s goals and wants, while still allowing the conflict of the inciting incident to derail their life towards a chance at change.

This scene gives us a glimpse at her character and quirks, but the juicy hook of her past is dangled as well.

2. Offer redemption with a last chance.

By establishing what haunts our character — as well as partially defining their present — we’ve laid the foundation for their positive character change. With just enough hints at the past, we’ve readied the reader for why this will mean so much.

Which makes our inciting incident be the opportunity for absolution. Even if it isn’t consciously stated, when the inciting incident appears the reader understands that this is the turning point in their life. More than that, who they are (flaws and all), tells us how they’ll go about making this change.

But to learn how they’ll go about it, we need to know who they are too. So before the inciting incident comes, we make our character credible by making them three-dimensional. So if your character is a brute bodyguard who spends their weekends baking cupcakes, they’ll solve a problem differently than an IT consultant who wrestles alligators for fun. Learning how your character solves problems can lead to how they’ll solve the ending.

  • How do they react in busy crowds, or empty streets?
  • Do they block the seat next to them on public transport, or are they always open?
  • Is food shopping a moment to pause, a nuisance, or would they rather get takeout?
  • Do they lambast themselves for simple mistakes, or float along with a betraying confidence?
  • Do they secretly enjoy others’ failures?

There are many questions which help character development, like those above, which help paint a picture of who your character is ‘outside’ the story so that you can better represent them ‘in’ the story. It might seem trivial, but this rounds out the character during the story setup.

With our train conductor, seeing her lonely apartment devoid of furniture and warmth shows us the emptiness within her. A wall littered with photographs tells us what sits in the shadows, both as the person she was and still is. If she takes out two mugs for coffee, only to place one back — we learn what was robbed from her is more than the loss of her child. By the time she receives a phone call from work and learns of the disappearance of a young boy — which happened during her shift — we’re certain of what this chance will mean and why. We also understand how her initial attempts have been somewhat futile.

3. The truth of the past gives them redemption

Once all the above is done, all you have to do is redeem the character and the story is finished. Easy.

Except the development of your character, their past and motivations, means we know a simple ‘pat on the back’ won’t cure their problem. Our wound is so entrenched in their character that to discover the truth will take more than surface accomplishment.

They either need physical redemption by a character, or to be pushed to mental limit where they recognize their own suffering and find redemption that way. In truth, you want both. Developing a believable arc will only work as much as you’ve created a believable character that can endure this change.

Our conductor throws herself into helping this poor family. She sees herself in them — “The mother turned away for a second… she was just paying for tickets…” — all reasons she knows. Her past is back and haunting at every turn. As she desperately tries to help this family and sinks deeper into a mixed reality of the past and the present, she mistakenly says her daughter’s name instead of the lost boy during a phone call. The truth emerges and she realizes she’s been trying to help herself all along. She realizes the suffering she’s been putting on herself is undue, and she can now help the family objectively.

The important part of a redemption story is the character realizing their true part in their story. Who they are at the start, must be different to who they are at the end — and while plotting this character arc is crucial, it’s not impossible.

(c) Rose Atkinson-Carter

Rose Atkinson-Carter is a writer for Reedsy and loves all things ‘craft’ when it comes to writing. When not creating endless character questionnaires, she reads a good book… or four.

About the author

Rose Atkinson-Carter is a writer for Reedsy and loves all things ‘craft’ when it comes to writing. When not creating endless character questionnaires, she reads a good book… or four.

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