Few events showcase the power of redemption as beautifully as the repentance of a hardened villain.
But few events undercut the nature of redemption as starkly as a villain who forsakes evil without self-reproach or fallout.
Unfortunately, today’s media culture slants toward the latter. At Lorehaven, I’ve pointed out how various Marvel TV shows misrepresent redemption. But those aren’t the only offenders. Pixar’s Toy Story 4, as popular as it may be, never deals with Gabby Gabby’s manipulative tactics. And in the recent Star Wars trilogy, Kylo Ren chooses the light side during the climax without acknowledging the magnitude of his crimes.
Some readers may object to my criticisms. But all of the films I listed stray from a biblical understanding of repentance and redemption. Christian fiction isn’t immune to the fallacy either. We all can probably think of a book where an antagonistic figure turns at the end for ambiguous or unpersuasive reasons.
The issue is not that a villain can’t or shouldn’t reverse his devolvement. As examples like Eustace demonstrate, a masterful storyteller can peel away a character’s scales until he’s a new (albeit painfully raw) person. But your theology needs to be grounded first or you’ll risk communicating a misleading message.
4 Marks of True Repentance
You might hesitate to question someone’s sincerity, but as Christians, we’re called to be as wise as serpents and discern between the flock and the wolves disguised as sheep. Although I could name several differences between fake and genuine repentance, a villain specifically needs to display two traits and undergo two consequences to prove that his heart has changed.
Trait #1: The Villain Must Be Honest about His Failings
How many times (in fiction or in real life) have you heard apologies that included phrases like these?
- “I’m sorry you felt that way!”
- “It was a mistake!”
- “I’m sorry for [insert lesser offense here].”
All of the above lines, though perhaps relatable to the situation, are insufficient to address sin, which requires a clear, direct confession. If David had mumbled about endangering a soldier’s life or “crossing a line” with Bathsheba, he would have downplayed his “bloodguilt,” as he puts it in Psalm 51. Until he admitted that he committed adultery and attempted to cover it up with murder, he was maintaining a facade.
Too often in fiction, villains make excuses instead of getting down on their knees. “I just couldn’t let the man who did that get away,” John Walker claims in Falcon and the Winter Soldier to justify beheading a surrendered combatant. In episode two of What If, Thanos similarly absolves himself. And sometimes a villain doesn’t vocalize anything at all! He just flips a switch from bad to good yet never deals with his past.
As Christians, however, we ought to realize that we can’t earn redemption with works. No amount of effort on our parts can atone for our rebellion against God. Unless we lay our sin at the foot of the cross, the weight of it only increases. That’s why villains can’t repent without accepting responsibility for the pain and chaos they’ve wrought.
Trait #2: The Villain Must Feel Remorse
Whether a villain owns up to his transgressions or not, the motive behind his contrition can still be blurry. Has he actually recognized his wickedness, or does he simply want to evade a negative side effect (such as a tarnished reputation)?
In the real world, after Ravi Zecharias’s abuse was exposed, his response may have sounded penitent at first. But as the bombshell report earlier this year reveals, not only did Zecharias minimize what happened, he also regretted being caught more than his mistreatment of women.
The best-selling novel Thirteen Reasons Why has multiple flaws. But one is how the protagonist, Hannah (who’s portrayed in a sympathetic light), watches a man rape her former friend, and instead of intervening, she places the blame on another bystander. As she mopes about it afterward, readers are left wondering whether she knows she behaved like a coward or just hates the gnaw of guilt.
While personal suffering can heap shame upon the perpetrator so that he eventually confesses (as in David’s case), it shouldn’t be the primary impetus. Repentance isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card—and that truth leads straight into the next category.
Consequence #1: The Villain Must Make Reparations
In some stories, a character doing the right thing at the end is all that matters. But can redemption be reduced to an exchange of roles from villain to hero? I’d argue that it should involve a lot more sweat.
After Zacchaeus came to Christ, donating his money to charity wouldn’t have rectified his extortion. He needed to return what he’d stolen—with substantial interest! After the US government imprisoned Japanese-American citizens in internment camps, promising not to repeat the discrimination wasn’t enough. So President Reagan signed a bill in 1988 compensating survivors. Repentance isn’t a pledge to improve our conduct in the future. It’s a step forward to repair the damage we’ve caused as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.
How much more meaningful would Toy Story 4’s conclusion have been if, instead of confiscating Woody’s voice box, Gabby Gabby had prioritized helping the toys around her find homes? How much more compelling would The Rise of Skywalker have been if, instead of escaping through a sacrificial death, Kylo Ren had lived to humbly serve the society he’d been bent on destroying?
When a villain immediately transforms into a hero, the audience won’t be able to tell whether he’s truly repentant or merely jumping into a new beam of the limelight. Without a drive to remedy his wrongs, his redemption will mock Scripture.
Consequence #2: The Villain Must Experience Poetic Justice
All too frequently, reformed villains bypass the natural outcome of their misdeeds. Gru never faces a penalty for his schemes in Despicable Me. Nor do John Walker, Kylo Ren, or Gabby Gabby. God’s mercy, however, doesn’t alleviate the unpleasant results of our sins here on earth. After all, David lost the son Bathsheba bore to him, and Moses never saw the Promised Land.
How much more impactful could stories be if villains owned their mistakes, cleaned up the mess, and willingly submitted themselves to the rod of correction?
When you let a villain dodge punishment, you reject poetic justice and the real-life crucibles that repentance calls us to endure. The world needs more characters like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, who voluntarily labors for long hours in a Siberian prison camp. Christ’s forgiveness removes the eternal consequences, but not necessarily the temporal.
To Save a Wretch Like Me
Donning the mantle (and gaining the acclaim) of a hero may seem like a noble ending for a villain. But as our faith teaches us, the path of humility, with all of its challenges, is far more inspiring and conducive to growth. Imagine how memorable villains would be if they lowered themselves to servants and no longer pursued notoriety because they’ve learned that some of the most important actions in life are quiet, not loud.
When you depict a villain’s conversion accurately, you have the opportunity to help readers practice repentance after the model of John Newton, who spent years as a slave trader before grieving over his barbarity. The “amazing grace” he later wrote about in his classic hymn compelled him not to forget his sin but to mourn over it and strive to abolish the slave trade in England. Powerful grace ought to generate powerful repentance.
And powerful repentance reminds readers that, although the decision is costly, its effect will ripple into eternity.
Josiah DeGraaf is the summit & marketing director at Story Embers and the program director of The Young Writer. He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations and loves to take normal people, put them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then force them to make difficult choices. Someday he hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, and themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. In the meantime, you can find him teaching young writers at the Young Writer’s Workshop or writing short stories at his website as he works toward achieving these goals.