First off, I will be speaking in the Oak Room of the public library in San Mateo, California, on May 5th at 7:00 pm. The library is at 55 West 3rd Avenue. If you are in the area, I would love to meet you!

On March 16, 2016, Poppie wrote, Has anyone ever redeemed a bad guy? The villains in my fanfic story have once been good, then they were turned evil by dark magic, now they need to become good again. How can I make that happen in a convincing, non-magical way?

Several of you weighed in.

Christie Powell: I did a short story where the main character is extremely angry. It grows through the story until she snaps. She set a house on fire (magically) without realizing her little brother is inside. So she has to save him, and as she does she sees the consequences of her anger tearing everything apart, and that helps her to set her anger aside and start to forgive the people who hurt her. “The Christmas Carol” is a good example of a book with this rebirth plot. Even kid movies like Frozen or the Lego movie use it.

If this is a really bad person, I’d think it would have to be something pretty dramatic to be convincing. Shakespeare got away with “I ran into some monks and converted and now I’m going to make everything right again,” but that was a long time ago. Realizing that their actions are harming someone they care about seemed like a good one.

Bookworm: Poppie, here are some ideas:
Your villains could:
∙ notice something your good character(s) did that made him/her see the error of his/her ways
∙ get a nightmare that snaps them out of it

Your other characters could:
∙ slap him/her (literally or figuratively) out of it

If you want to be extra convincing, maybe a character can rant about it to the villains, giving the villains new POVs.

Jenalyn Barton: My favorite example of a villain gone good is Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender. It is a TV show, so they had a bit more time to work with his character, but there is still a lot to learn from it. I’ve watched the show over a dozen times now (yes, I’m slightly obsessed), and I’ve observed that Zuko’s character arc basically went through three stages: Establishment, Fall, and Redemption. In the first season, the story focuses on establishing his character. You will notice that even though he is a villain, the creators of the show waste no time in creating sympathy for the character. In fact, they do this from the start, by explaining his motives and giving him a rival villain who is even worse than he is. His back story is established in the first season as well, helping us understand why he is so determined to capture Aang. In the second season he has a fall from grace, where he loses his status and is forced to live the life of a fugitive. He learns some lessons on humility and such because of this, then has his major fall when he betrays his uncle in his attempt to regain his status. In the third season his character goes through redemption, when he realizes that having his status back has not made him happy at all, and that true honor comes from being loyal and doing the right thing despite the opposition. He then switches sides, and spends the rest of the season earning the trust of those he once hunted. By the end of the show, his change from bad to good feels ultimately satisfying. If he had skipped any one of these three stages, his change of heart would have felt hasty and contrived.

Emma: One of my favorite methods I’ve heard of goes like this:
The bad guy is forced to help the good guy in some way (either the bad guy is captured, and is literally forced, or because of unfortunate circumstances has to help the good guy… This could go in a million different directions). While helping the good guy, the bad guy either realizes 1) There is no reason to remain evil, 2) They actually agree with some of the things the hero does/says/believes, 3) They actually have come to care for the hero because of their kindness (whether this is through a brother-brother relationship or a romantic one is up to you). Because of a realization, perhaps the bad guy actually saves the good guy without really realizing what they’re doing. This could be a literal rescue or an emotional “rescue”, or anything along those lines. The bad guy comes to the conclusion after the rescue that they no longer want to be a bad guy anymore, and end up the hero’s sidekick, romantic interest, mentor, or even the hero him/herself.

Now, this does involve a relationship of some kind, and it would really work best on a quest story. But of course, the hero doesn’t have to change the bad guy. The bad guy could change because of his/her new found relationship with another good character. Anyway, I just like this idea because it highly involves sympathetic/likable characters, and would work best in a quest (my personal favorite type of story). It also doesn’t have to involve magic, and can be very convincing.

These are great!

I’m assuming that the original black magic spell can’t simply be lifted. Here are some more strategies that may help:

∙ If we can, it’s often best to work from character, so we might think about what’s least bad about each of our villains. For example, many years ago, before I became a writer, I had a bad boss: egotistical, self-centered, self-aggrandizing, self-important–self, self, self! The only admirable quality I could detect in him was generosity. If he were a character and I wanted to turn him, I’d work on that, because generosity suggests a smidgen of empathy–and empathy is villain poison.

∙ I notice a common thread in most of the post comments, particularly in Emma’s: relationships. The villain is changed by her connection to another character, who isn’t a villain. I used this in my Princess Tale, For Biddle’s Sake. The fairy Bombina, the villain, takes the child Parsley from her parents. Bombina’s evil stems from the joy she takes in turning people into frogs, for which she has been jailed by the fairy queen. When the story begins, she’s just gotten out. All this is lighthearted, unless you’re a current frog/former person. What starts to turn Bombina around is her love–which takes her by surprise–for Parsley. I won’t give away the turning point, but by the end Bombina is thoroughly reformed. She’s still sharp and prickly–we don’t want to make her unrecognizable–but she’s given up her frog misdeeds.

So our villain can care about another living thing, which doesn’t have to be a person, can even be a plant. The villain’s beloved is a tiny crack in her shell of badness. We can make the story widen the crack until our villain finds it impossible to keep being evil.

∙ We may be able to change him through reason. Our villain is very smart, but he hasn’t thought through the world view that underlies his villainy. If we can undermine his assumptions, we may turn him around.

∙ We can get to her through her self-interest. She wants power, for example. We may be able to show her through events in our story that she’s more likely to gain power by being a humanitarian. It may be a pretense at first, but we can nudge her toward more honest kindness with our other strategies.

∙ We can give him a flaw that we can exploit. Maybe he’s vain. In the fairy tale “Puss ‘N’ Boots,” for example, Puss works on the ogre’s vanity to get him to turn himself into a mouse. In a more serious story, we can use our villain’s vanity to our MC’s advantage, too. When he discovers the consequences of his vanity–or of any flaw–he takes the first step toward change.

∙ Magic has been disallowed, but maybe other outside interventions can be brought to bear. For example, her brain could be changed surgically or with medicine (modern or from another time period) or through hypnosis. If we go this route, we have to establish early that such a thing is possible, and there may be suspense over whether the procedure will work on her.

∙ If these characters were once good, we may be able to persuade them to remember their old selves, as long as their memories are intact.

∙ Here’s a weird one. Let’s call it The Silver-Lining Effect. The bad boss I mentioned above had the good effect of spurring me to find another job, which was a much better fit for me. I think this is common, a good outcome arising from bad behavior. Our villain, who is smart, realizes that his destructive actions may hurt some, but they also strengthen the forces arrayed against him, which is the opposite of his intention. Diabolically, he decides he has to embrace virtue. Then, he can be brought to turn truly decent–or not, if we want to keep his evil in reserve.

The Silver-Lining Effect is an example of the complexity in moral issues, which we can use to create layered stories. An example I think about regularly is homelessness and the beggars that one sees on the streets of many cities, especially in decent weather. I’m a big walker, often in New York City. New York, to its credit, is a great walking city, so it’s also a great place to panhandle. If I have change, if I’m not in a gigantic hurry, I’ll drop a quarter in a beggar’s cup. When I don’t, I feel guilty. When I do, I feel uncertain. I definitely haven’t changed anyone’s life with a quarter, and will my quarter go for cigarettes or worse? And I don’t make the interaction human, either. I drop in the coin and move on, rarely saying anything, rarely making eye contact. So I wind up guilty again. Was this a good deed or not? Upstanding people can argue both sides.

With villains we sometimes bring in moral complexity by revealing backstory. There are other ways as well. If we’re in our villain’s POV, we can show her thoughts and feelings, which can be different from what the reader expects. But even if we’re not in her heart and mind, we can demonstrate what lies beneath through dialogue and action. For example, the villain may be kind to his henchpeople; opposition is what brings out his despicable side.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Dark magic has made villains of Robin Hood, his merry band, and Maid Marian. Think of an un-magical way to turn all of them back at a single stroke. Write the scene in which this happens. You may need to start at an earlier point to set this up. If you’re inspired, write the entire story.

∙ Pick one of the characters above, could be Robin Hood or a band member or Maid Marian. Develop the character and work the transformation gradually.

∙ Reform the evil queen in “Snow White,” using her character as we know her: jealous and rageful. Use one or more of the approaches suggested above, or another that you come up with, but no magic allowed.

∙ Using the complexity of moral questions, create a switcheroo. In the course of an investigation, make Sherlock Holmes evil and Moriarty good, and totally confuse Dr. Watson!

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Great post, Gail! You are the queen of making up writing exercises.
    I once wrote a character who had to be sort of redeemed. It wasn’t that she was a bad girl, but she was very insecure, and so she made digs at other girls and became really mean. In the end she came to her senses and rescued her whole school during a bombing. It was really fun!

  2. I like that you mentioned having good qualities so the audience wants to see them redeemed.

    One of my favorite movies is `Megamind’ by Dreamworks. It’s about an alien who tries to be evil because he thinks its his calling. His schemes to take over the city never work until one day, by accident, they do! So he has to deal with the boredom of trying to rule a city. Like the other examples, it’s a relationship that pushes him to change for the better. He falls in love with a girl who has no idea that he’s a self-proclaimed super-villain. She lets him care enough for someone outside himself that he can finally see how his self destructive behavior is hurting everyone around him. Once he accepts responsibility for his actions, he’s able to change them.

    Even though Megamind starts out trying to be evil, he has good traits like enthusiasm and persistence. It’s his habit of not giving up, despite the odds, that helps him finally be heroic. Also, he has a sad (and over-the-top. It’s a comical movie) backstory, which helps the audience understand why he’d try so hard to be bad in the first place.

    That’s a long way of saying the movie follows all Gail’s suggestions on a good redemptive plot. 🙂

  3. Another kind of redemption story idea I sometimes use is that the character doesn’t know what’s going on. For example, my MC in one story I wrote was quick to judgment. She’d look at somebody and right away had a million thoughts on them.
    In one instance, she’s very cruel to a grumpy woman because she thinks the woman is a snob. In truth, the woman is grumpy because her life has been turned upside down in the last three days. By the end of the story, the judgmental girl figures out what’s going on and treats the woman right because she now understands the whole picture.
    Anyway, I think this is a very interesting topic and I love the post.

  4. Hi everyone! It’s Poppie.
    I have a question. I’ve been looking at my fanfic story, and I’m wondering: “is it kinda dark?”
    What makes a story “dark?” Is it themes? Is it setting? Is it incidences?
    Here are the things that make me think my Jack and Elsa story is dark:
    When Jack introduces Elsa to the Guardians, the Tooth fairy becomes envious of her, because she has a crush on him as well.
    The main villain (his name is Odion) finds out about her jealousy, and turns her evil, along with the rest of the Guardians.
    When Jack encounters Odion in his lair, he has a horrific vision of Elsa weeping over his dead body while Arendelle is being burned down by Odion.
    The final battle with the main villain (the Guardians are good again) is fairly intense. There is blood, but no one’s limbs are cut off (though I was tempted.) Odion does decide to torture Jack to death.
    Elsa hears his shrieks of agony, and helps the Guardians destroy a relic which holds Odion’s source of power. The latter character is overcome by the loss of his magic, and dies of despair. This saves Jack.
    Unfortunately, Elsa succumbs to a curse that Odion placed on the relic. The curse conquers her winter power, her body, and her soul….almost.
    A distraught Jack takes Elsa to the trolls to see if they can cure her. When they fail, he says good-bye and then kisses her. The kiss (you saw this coming) saves her.
    They also find out that that the kiss also gave Elsa eternal youth, like Jack’s. So that means they can get married, live happily ever after, etc.
    I look at the ending and think: “Is it too happy? What is more important? The happiness of the characters, or keeping with the overall tone of the story?”
    Any thoughts and opinions would be appreciated.

    P.S. This was a tricky question to put into words. If anyone finds it confusing, please say so, and I will clarify. Thank you! : )

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Doesn’t sound dark to me. When I think dark, I think depressing, but this seems like an adventure fantasy. I’d love to see what other people think.

    • I don’t think it’s too dark. To me, something too dark would have:
      an unhappy, depressing ending.
      a creepy protagonist I can’t relate to.
      extreme amounts of violence.
      everything that can go wrong does, but there aren’t any redeeming happy moments (falling in love is definitely a happy moment).

    • I agree that it doesn’t sound too dark. When I think dark, I think of sad and depressing endings, extreme violence that is placed within a story for no reason, and everything Christie V Powell said. From what I can see, your story is a thrilling adventure story, which automatically have intense things happening, and several big close calls for the characters. But that doesn’t make it dark. Remember, your story also has things to soften it up, including romance, friendships, and a happy ending. To me, a story that is considered dark would most definitely not have a happy ending, and would have a miserable, depressing, way too intense undertone, which your’s does not have. I think it sounds very interesting! 🙂

    • Poppie, I don’t think that sounds like it would be classified as “dark.” I think, like Gail said, that it’s more like an adventure-fantasy story. (Also, if you think about it, classic Disney stories have as much, if not more, gore and “darkness” in them, and they’re shown to three and four year olds!)

    • Song4myKing says:

      Adding to what everyone else said, not contradicting – I think the feeling of “dark” comes more from the over-all tone, including more the themes and setting than incidences. Yes, there would be incidences that would usually make a story dark, as would an abundance of dark incidences. But I think it’s more in how the writer handles it, how the main character responds, and how the incidences interact with brighter ones.

      Your example of Jack having a “horrific vision” would be one that could go either way. If the vision plunges Jack into despair and fatalism, and the scenes that follow seem to move inexorably toward its fulfillment, with nothing able to twist it off track, that would feel dark. But if Jack bucks the gloom and chooses to fight to his dying breath even in the face of the seeming impossible, you’ve got dark circumstances and a character who refuses to be overcome by darkness. (It looks to him like he’ll be overcome by Odion’s strength, but that’s no reason to first be squelched by his evil). But even if Jack succumbs to despair, it’s not necessarily all bad. You do have something that is able to twist the “inescapable” vision off course – Elsa.

      Think of a painting. You can have a dark painting, or a pastel painting, or a painting that seems so vibrant and full of light that it takes your breath away. Look closer, and the last one probably has that effect because the combination of lights and darks. The shadows make the objects seem more solid and light seem much brighter.

      The circumstances are the shadows and the attitudes can be the rays of light. Happiness and joy may be the brightest ones at the end that makes that satisfaction when you think of the whole thing. But when happiness is out of reach, there can be hope. And when hope seems to be gone, there can still be love, or nobility, or honor, or something else that evil can’t squelch. But I think hope may be especially key. You can have times without apparent hope, but if it goes on too long, it begins to feel too depressing.

      Good question, by the way! It and all the other responses have help me think through it myself – I’ve been having the same question about one of my WIPs.

    • I don’t know. to me, dark is a scene that has parts to cringe over, or something that may bother you later, despite a happy ending. So to me, this story is not too dark (unless you come up with-and painfully describe- overly creative ways of Jacks torture, but everything else is good). I’m not sure if you wanted a happy ending or not, but to me, it seems fine. struggle, complexity, subplots….it’s quite fulfilling. If you wanted a little more of an emotional connection, you could always have somebody get irreversibly hurt, or die. Maybe Santa is forced by age to resign, and Jack takes over, or maybe the tooth fairy, out of jealousy or pain, decides to join the dark side, but becomes hero in her last breaths. Otherwise, I think your ending is perfectly fine. A little predictable near the end, maybe, but it makes it all the more fairytale-like to me. I love it!

  5. Christie V Powell: I read the short stories, and I loved them! Great job on those. I hope you write some more!

  6. Audrey Lapinsky says:

    To Poppie:
    Trauma for the characters can force them to see life a different way, thus causing them to realize how bad they really are, and want to change it. Say, the only person one character loved died from something they caused. And it could break through their trance of dark magic, if that was the case.
    Another idea would be to have one accidentally find out that they are being controlled by dark magic, and find a way to escape.

  7. Erica Eliza says:

    I don’t comment much anymore (though I’m still reading) so I just thought I’d say thanks for blogging and I love it.

      • Ari DeAngelo says:

        Mrs. Carson, Your blog is amazing and I love your writing voice! I’ve read most of your books, but your book “Writing Magic” has helped me so much with my writing.


        I was very relieved. No one had ever told me that before. All I have ever been told by Literary Agents and Publishers is to polish and make your book perfect before sending it in to them.

        I was wondering if I could send you my query letter for my middle grade fiction book. I know you are an extremely busy author, but I would appreciate your advice on what my Query is missing or what I have in it that is unappealing to Literary agents.
        Please reply at your earliest convenience.

        Sincerly, Ari DeAngelo

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          I don’t know much about query letters. I don’t have to write them nowadays, and when I was starting out they weren’t important. A cover letter that basically said, “Here’s my book. I hope you like it and I look forward to hearing from you.” was all that was needed. I sent my editor a sample chapter or two with such a cover letter. She asked to see the whole thing, and that was that. I don’t think I’ll be helpful, and I am very busy. Sorry!

  8. This is such a great post, Mrs. Levine! I have a question, everyone. In my WIP, the story starts with the MCs living on earth (our world). They grow up on earth in an orphanage, because they don’t have any parents, and the story starts two days before their 15th birthday. On their 15th birthday, they accidentally get into some trouble, and meet someone who saves them. The person they meet happens to be from a different world, and for a reason that will remain anonymous, he takes them there. Once in the “new world”, the story really begins as the MCs find out about their past, and encounter several hardships that have to do with it. They end up staying in the new world because they cannot go back to our world. This is going to be a series (three books or possibly more), and I have a rough idea of what the whole series is going to be like. I’ve run into an uncertainty, though. I don’t know if I should ever have the MCs go back to our world again or not. I originally thought that going back would be completely unnecessary to the plot, and it is so far, but do you guys think it would be strange if the story starts out in our world, but our world is never mentioned again? I thought about solving this problem by having someone else come from our world to the new world that could be a minor character, but so far I don’t see the need for another minor character. Any ideas? Do you guys think it would be fine to never really mention our world again? If our world doesn’t really matter to the plot of the story, do you think that’s an excuse to never mention it again? If you think someone should go back to or come from our world, I would love to hear your reasons why. I’m open to any (wild, crazy– doesn’t matter) ideas!

    • This is portal fiction, I’m guessing? Books with similar “portal to other world” premises that come to mind are the Narnia series, the Inkheart trilogy, His Dark Materials trilogy (most known for The Golden Compass), and for something more contemporary, the Land of Stories series. In all of them, a group of kids are transported to another world, and ultimately must make the decision of whether or not to go back. At the end of the final book of Narnia, *SPOILER ALERT* all the characters get to stay forever in Narnia because SURPRISE, they’re actually all dead from a train crash on their way to meeting up to find a way back into Narnia. All except Susan, who stopped believing and wasn’t on the train, so she doesn’t get to go to paradise. (I think C.S. Lewis ended it his way because the books are Christian allegory, which I respect, but that still doesn’t want me to scream at him any less for the ending.) I don’t suggest ending your book this way. Inkheart ends with the MC’s family permanently moving from the real world to the fantasy world, without much regret. I guess the real world didn’t hold too much appeal to them, and that’s ok. The His Dark Materials series ends with the male MC returning to his world (aka ours, the normal one) while the female Mc remaining in hers (the magical one), despite the two being madly in love. They do so because leaving the portal between the worlds open is destroying both worlds (long story). The two sacrifice their love for the world, voying to return to the unopened portal spot each year, where they think they can “feel” each other’s connection across the divide. The Land of Stories book 1 ends with the MCs returning to their world, but now having a permanent connection and way back to the magical world through their grandmother, a fairy. I haven’t read the other books yet, but I’m guessing the series is going to end the same way. The trend I’ve been seeing in more contemporary MG literature is sort of an “in between” homeostasis. The MCs decide to stay in the real world for the time being, but the connection to the fantasy world is always open for them if they ever want to return. That seems to be the least sad way of ending things, which is why I think it’s so popular.

    • Sara-not-Sarah says:

      I think that you don’t really need for them to go back to earth if they are unhappy here and much more happy in the new world. But if even one character has a special connection or deep happy memory on earth, you could create conflict while they try to come back to earth. Or the whole trip into the new world could make them realize what they love about this world and make a way for them to get back. But I think it would be cool to just leave them in the new world, if it’s really unnecessary to come back to earth.

    • It sounds like our world isn’t really important to your story. That makes me wonder why it even starts here if it’s not important any other time. It seems like there ought to be some sort of tie in. They don’t necessarily need to go back, but maybe they find an artifact from our world only they understand how to use, or run into someone else from our world who they can understand when no one else does (especially an antagonist), or they inherit special abilities because of the difference. It’d also help if they struggle to understand a different culture, and this was a major theme– for instance, if they’re used to democracy and come into a hierarchical system where everyone automatically accepts bowing and scraping to the socially superior. Or find that slavery is still legal, or that females are in charge.
      The Beyonders series by Brandon Mull would be a good one to read for research on this topic, with the relationship between our world and his made-up one. One of the characters leaves and one stays.

    • Song4myKing says:

      In a book I recently read, the MC had not been close to anyone due to moving around a lot, and her father, whom she was not that close to either, had just died. So when she found herself in an “other world,” and became close friends with a group there, she didn’t think she’d mind staying. The idea was mentioned a time or two in the middle of the book, along with the not knowing if there was a way back. In the end, the villain sent her back, to her dismay. This was then the set up for the next book where her friends come to our world looking for her. Alas, I did not like the second book as much as I had hoped, so I wish she had just gotten to stay there in the first place.

      I’d say you could leave them there. As for mentioning Earth, I’d say to let them think about it – the good and/or the bad. And perhaps let it be an uncertainty for most of the first book. The fact that they’ll stay could be a part of the resolution of the first book, maybe. Then perhaps it might just be a fact of their past in the next books. Just one way it could work.

  9. Sara-not-Sarah says:

    I have a question. I’m a young writer, and last year after my birthday I started writing a project that I really want to finish (I want to finish it before my next birthday). I’ve typed up 22 chapters on my laptop the school gave me and shared them with my friends. I also downloaded them onto a thumb drive and shared them with the family computer. It’s about 70 pages all together, probably more. Whenever I read books, which is a lot, the chapters are so much longer than mine! I can be really good with detail in some other projects, but in this book I gave action in the first chapter and then had the characters think about the action with tension and stuff until it was continued, etc. so I haven’t paid much attention to showing and not telling. My chapters are either 2, 3, 4, or in one case, 5 pages long. Is this too short? I think they work in this book, but I keep getting self-conscious about my short chapters. Thanks to anyone who answers!!!

    • What’s your formatting? Double spaced? What size and what type font? Generally, page count in a word processor isn’t a great indicator of book page count, which is on average, 250 words. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with short chapters; I think James Patterson (or some other famous adult thriller writer) uses really short chapters. Is it chapter length you’re worried about, or book length? If it’s just chapter length, then just combine a few chapters to get fewer but longer chapters. If it’s book length, then jerk out this blog post about word count industry standards, and then flesh out/edit your novel accordingly.

      Of course, this is only if you plan on getting traditionally published. If you’re not planning on publishing or planing on self publishing, then you don’t need to worry about length; as long as you have a good story, no one will care. (Which is technically true with traditional publishing also, they have some more rigid “guidelines” they like to stick to.)

    • Check out Eragon and look at how short some of his chapters are.
      To me, the important thing about a chapter is that it has a plot arc, with a build up and mini-climax just like the story. So the chapter lasts as long or short as it takes to get the whole section of story down. Mine tend to run around 3000 words, give or take, but that’s YA so they’re probably a bit longer than yours.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I’m in the camp of short or long chapters according to what feels right. No editor has ever criticized any of my chapters for being too short (or long), including the half-page one.

  10. If anybody remembers the Sleeping Beauty story that I kept trying and failing to finish, and that ultimately turned out dark and creepy, it’s coming out in Daily Science Fiction tomorrow. THANK YOU to everyone who encouraged me to stick with it.

  11. Melissa Mead: Congratulations! I just read it on their website and loved it! Great job!
    Sara-Not-Sarah: My chapters range from 2 pages to 4 pages long. I think if the chapters are 2 pages or longer you’re good to go. Besides, sometimes shorter chapters are better. Hope this helped!

  12. Thank you all SO much for your advice and ideas! It’s given me a lot to chew on, and will definitely help solve my problem. 🙂 Congrats, Melissa Mead! Good for you!

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