Monday, July 9, 2012

Why Redemption Stories Work

I'm a big fan of redemption stories. From books to film, there's nothing better than seeing a terrible person become someone I like. But why do stories like these have such a strong attraction? Here's three examples that highlight why I think they're so popular.

The Characters Overcome Themselves
Vader Attacks Jedi on Kessel
It may be a little bit schadenfreude (pleasure from other's pain), but we like watching others overcome adversity.

One of my all time favorite redemption stories is Star Wars. Sure the whole saga has rebels and Imperials battling for supremacy, but the only character who has to make the decision between right and wrong is Anakin Skywalker. Even if George Lucas decided unconsciously, he chose well when he set the framework for Star Wars on the redemption story of Darth Vader. With the entire galaxy mirroring the choices of one man, the stakes are dangerously high.

But the choice has already been made, right? Darth Vader is a bad guy.

Yes, but what fun is that? If you like tragedies, then maybe you're okay leaving it there. But most people, myself included, prefer to hope for something better. We want the bad guy to either get beaten (the hero wins) or have the villain see the error of his ways and stop the insanity he's set in motion. And how amazing is a story when both happen?

Vader, behind the mask, actually feels sorry for what he's done. The price he paid to become the Dark Lord was higher than he expected and reversing that choice will literally tear an empire apart and destroy him. But he'll make that choice because he has to.

They Show That Those Who Fall Are Just Like Us
Macbeth's Regret
In his book, Story, using the tale of Macbeth, Robert McKee shows what actually makes characters more likeable. In Act 2, Scene 2, Macbeth has given into his wife's urging and killed the king in order to promote himself. But instead of being happy over his life to come, he can only think about what he's done. 
I'll go no more:
I am afraid to think what I have done;
Look on it again I dare not.

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas in incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

Macbeth feels remorse and guilt for what he's done. Have you ever felt remorse or guilt? Of course you have! When we fail, we have to pick ourselves back up and try again. Of course, I'm not saying our sins are at Macbeth's level, but we like to see someone fall and get back up again because we've fallen and had to get back up again too. 

They Provide Hope
Max Bringing Charlie Back From the Edge
One of my current favorite redemption movies is Real Steel (oddly enough, it's another story where the son brings his father back from the edge). Even from the beginning, we like down-and-out loser, Charlie. He's a hard working ex-boxer, who is witty and funny. But he also rushes in to things far too quickly. He's arrogant, self-centered, and has lost everything in the world of robot boxing.

Enter Max, the likeable kid who's thrown into Charlie's world and see's his dad for what he is, a hustler and consummate bull-crap artist. But Max has all of Charlie's good habits, without the cynicism that comes from his father's experience.

Instantly, we hope Charlie can pull himself together for Max's sake. That hope keeps you going through one try/fail cycle after another. But when it finally does pay off, the rush from the emotional payoff is pure gold. And that is why redemption stories will always be popular. Because the elation we feel from seeing someone overcome themselves and arrive at a better place.

The Final Frame
So what are some of your favorite redemption stories and why? Are there aspects of redemption stories that you hate?

1 comment:

  1. Redemption is my favorite, because we all have things in life we strive to overcome, and it's great to see bigger-than-life characters overcome their giant problems. Some of my favorite redemption stories include:

    The Kite Runner. If you haven't read this book, you must! It is about a man dealing with his selfish past, and learning to forgive himself for his failures.

    The Count of Monte Cristo. Some might call Dumas's brilliant tale a revenge story. It isn't. (Hollywood version plays up the revenge of course, and the movie sucks.) It's about Edmond Dante's realization that revenge is destroying everything he loves, and his self-control to let it all go.

    Les Miserables. This is probably the greatest of redemption stories. I don't really need to explain why.

    Speaker for the Dead. One of my favorites.

    There's a few. I could list a dozen more, because like I said--redemption stories are my favorite. These four are some of the best, though. Nice post!


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