Over the years, I’ve taught novel writing students whose stories were deliberately hopeless or who featured a sociopathic protagonist. One actual story was about a man who after learning he had only months to live, set about to torture and kill every person who had wronged him. In light of the recent rash of killings, this sounds almost too realistic. So why do the best stories almost always feature redemption in some form?
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss the rationale for including a redemptive story arc in our stories:
Redemption Isn’t Necessarily Religion
Some writers object when I advise them to write redemptive stories. But in our society, no matter what faith, people don’t want to think that all is lost. Why care about anything if we’re doomed? Sure, sci-fi, paranormal and other authors often paint dystopias, but generally these are interpreted by readers as warnings or exhortations to change before all really is lost. To include redemption is not to necessarily be religious. All that is required is for readers to walk away thinking they (or the protagonist) really do have a chance, however small.
The Protagonist and the Reader
Readers want to relate to and sympathize with the protagonist of a story. In many cases, they want to become that protagonist for the story’s duration. This is one reason writers have a harder time forcing readers into the point of view of evil or murderous characters—Hannibal Lecter notwithstanding (Thomas Harris’ high level of skill helped), we mostly just feel creepy in a bad guy’s skin. To buy into any protagonist’s journey, we must feel that the mission or goal’s outcome, however unlikely, will be a positive thing. Maybe this is one reason our Main Characters are often called heroes. We all want to believe we can make a difference. We’re desperate for a better tomorrow. We cherish the hope of being capable of changing for the better, even if we must fight for it.
Hope Floats All Boats
Far more skill is required to write an effective character who does not change or grow (in a positive direction) than one who, despite being imperfect, manages to at least hold onto that same hope. I’m facing this issue in my own writing: a story I’m working on is pretty bleak. The day-to-day of living with loved ones with addiction and mental illness is a grind to be sure. But if readers are going to be able to tolerate such a story, a healthy dose of hope is required. Even the most horrific stories—I’m thinking of Elie Wiesel’s Night—find a central character whose determination and hope enable a better tomorrow. This was the crucial element missing in the sociopathic protagonist’s story. It’s fine for stories to lay out the awfulness that goes on in our world. But when the protagonist carries a beacon of hope into the darkness, readers are empowered.