For the longest time, I found that there was a kind of story that always interested me: the story where a villain teams up with the hero in order to stop a larger threat. Usually, in these stories, we see the hero’s integrity and raw strength matched with the villain’s ruthlessness and cunning. While it often makes for great drama, I often wonder about the possibilities left open by their partnership. For me, those stories are a window to possible redemption tales, where you can see how Dr. Von Doominator could be genuinely heroic (or at least more effective) if given the chance.
I suppose it’s my Catholic nature that gets me interested in the concept of a reformed villain. If we let our sins and mistakes define us, how much more powerful will our atonement and salvation be? But I think there’s more to it than that.
For one thing, I often find the default protagonists and heroes of many stories to be, well… boring. Their victories are usually inevitable, so why bother giving them flaws or dreams or any kind of a personality? Villains, on the other hand, often get a more complex treatment (if any). They get to have vaulting ambitions, tragic backstories, and moral quandaries right before making the terrible decisions that lead them into conflict with our heroes. They get to have a meaningful past, even if they won’t have a future by the time the story comes to an end.
I suppose, in the end, that’s why I prefer a reformed villain over a default hero. Quite simply, when a former villain sets out to do good, it has more meaning, both for them and for the overall story.
Usually, a villain moves the story along by their immoral choices and actions, requiring heroes to react before it’s too late. So when a villain makes a moral choice at the right time, it can change the whole game. It’s why Darth Vader turning against his master in Return of the Jedi is the crux of the Empire’s downfall. It’s why the embittered Jaime Lannister asking Brienne to seek out and protect Sansa Stark in A Storm of Swords has more of an impact than getting the same task from the noble Lady Catelyn. That spark of hope from an unexpected source can really grab the audience’s attention and make us truly appreciate the act.
I’d also add that, unlike the wish fulfillment and easy writing that a typical hero can bring, seeing a villain struggle with their decisions and face the trial of redemption is more reflective of our everyday lives. We may not be tyrants or mercenaries or cruel stepparents, but we’ve all done things we regretted or hurt people unintentionally, even for our own gain. We can sympathize more with a flawed person trying to do the right thing than we can with an inherently noble person who never has to wrestle with right or wrong. That’s not to say those characters aren’t good ones (who doesn’t want a little fantasy now and then?). But when it comes to what feels more human, it’s easy to see why a reformed villain carries so much weight.
And that’s not to say that reformation is ever easy. It shouldn’t be. It’s a long and painful road. Darth Vader might atone by sacrificing his life and overthrowing the Emperor, but he’ll still leave behind a fearsome reputation and the scars he’s left on both his children. Jaime Lannister may aspire to do better with his life, but he still has to contend with the pain he caused to his brother Tyrion, the war he helped start, and his lifelong reputation as “The Kingslayer.”
It’s in our nature as a species to both make terrible mistakes and to strive for better. We’re noble, flawed, ignorant, wise, brave, cowardly, kind, and cruel—all at the same time, depending on what stage we’re at in our lives. Heroes and villains are no different, and that focus on internal change and seeking to do good can make for a more powerful story than a bland tale of Good vs. Evil and Good Triumphs Forever and Ever, Amen.
So, if you’ve got any reformed villains you’d like to discuss or debate, feel free to do so in the comments below. I’d love to hear what kind of redemption tales you like (or don’t like) the most.