I can’t write “redeeming villains” without thinking something like, “Yes, hi, I have two villain coupons, for that big red-eyed bloke over there, yes the one with the giant scar. Yes, and I’ll be redeeming him for one hero, please? Thank you.”
But amusing musings aside, sometimes our villain is faced with…something, perhaps the reality of his situation, that makes him realize that perhaps…he’s wrong.
Oftimes, the villain sees himself as the hero of the story, so a good look back at reality, a confrontation with the fact that actually he’s evil, might be just the thing he needs to decide to make a heel-face-turn. However, just because a guy realizes that he did a lot of messed up things doesn’t make it better. So how to redeem himself from this hole of villainy?
Death is a pretty common answer. There are reasons for it, but they’re explained on the TV tropes page and I’d be surprised if you couldn’t think of them on your own anyway. I for one am not fond of redemption = death. See the thing about death is that it is, after all, pretty permanent (or at least it should be) and so you can’t really do anything after you die. All that dying really does is take the villain out of the equation, which might have been helpful if he was still evil and causing problems, but I don’t see how that’s helpful after he’s turned.
There are all the TV trope listed reasons about seriousness and whatnot, but honestly, I think that a lot of people are attached to the idea that redemption equals death for the reason my husband came up with: plenty of folks don’t believe people ever really change. I vehemently disagree, but for those out there who think people don’t really change, it’d be vital the villain dies after his heel-face-turn. That’s the only way he could have truly changed – if he died before he got a chance to revert back.
But see, people DO change. Change isn’t easy, but people do change and to say otherwise is stupid and ignorant. Just usually we don’t notice because people don’t often change suddenly and dramatically. A heel-face-turn doesn’t have to be all at once, and when it is, usually I think it’s fairly reasonable given that coming head-on with your beliefs and having everything you know shattered is a life-changing event. It makes sense that someone would then go through a major change suddenly.
I for one prefer villains to live for a variety of reasons. One of them has to do with the fact that in a way, I think death is easy for someone so evil. They don’t have to spend as much time living with their actions. It’s possible that their actions were haunting them before, floating around behind them half-ignored, it’s possible that there’s space between death and the turn where their actions haunt them. But usually, when you screw up, it follows you for your whole life.
For me, the way characters deal with life events is often more important than the life event itself. Usually I’m worried about a protagonist recovering from something horrible – a scrape with death, torture, loss of a loved one, etc – because it’s important to me to write hope into my stories. What’s more hopeful than that people recover from bad things? Maybe my characters don’t do well, but showing how they work through things makes them human, and if they succeed in becoming stronger, don’t let the life event own them, maybe that can mean something more to a reader.
But I feel the same way about villains working through “oh crap I messed up”. I mean, that’s something we all go through, too. And being able to recover from messing up is also important. I see working through “oh crap I messed up” as a message of hope just as much as “bad things happened to me but I recovered”.
Also, forgiveness is really important to me. Probably because it’s a crucial element in my religion, but regardless, it’s important to me, for both parties. It’s important that someone who did wrong can receive forgiveness. It’s important that a victim learn how to forgive. I personally see it as infinitely more useful that a perpetrator realize his wrong and not only work to never, ever do evil again but also become a force for good than that a perpetrator suffers. While seeing someone get theirs is satisfying, it’s just…not really useful at all. A change of heart is. And because I’m a Christian, yes, I’m okay with the fact that if someone does evil but then has a true change of heart, they don’t get the punishment for their evil. (Although doctrinally there are some exceptions, like most murder.) But see, that’s the second half – the willingness to forgive. There’s plenty of works on vengeance and how it’s not actually a super-great thing and willingness to forgive is basically the opposite of an attitude of vengeance, making it the higher moral. (You can disagree, but that’s my view.)
So that means that it’s important to me that the villain get a chance to repent.
Sometimes death after redemption, or as a part of redemption, is just appropriate for one reason or another. Sometimes the right-hand man of the overlord realizes “aw crap, I’m evil!” and of course, he’ll turn on his previous master and die because doing anything else would be cowardly or just not make sense. But for me, I always find a heel-face-turn villain death to be incredibly sad. I feel the loss of potential, I feel the loss of the villain’s chance to work through his guilt, and even the loss of the protagonist’s chance to become a little better through learning to forgive.
Honestly, I don’t think that death makes for redemption. I think that a true change of heart complete with remorse for evil makes for the start of redemption, and if death is a way of displaying that, then death is a part of the redemption. However, dying is easy so it’s not much of a redemption. But living, living and doing better, that’s excruciating. Living is the hardest thing each one of us does.
So for me, if you really want to redeem your villains, they’ll live – they’ll live with the consequences of their actions and the task of doing better.