How bad can someone be before redemption isn't possible?

Nick B

author Nick Bailey, formerly Quellist.
Feb 13, 2014
We have a character on the good team ( a major character too) who has serious issues. She can be downright evil ( under the influence of a sentient alien artifact) but is actualy a decent person. Basicaly it is a personality disorder brought about by a symbiosis with the item.
I am a bit worried that she may sometimes go too far and that readers may end up hating her before understanding why this happens, or maybe even in spite of the fact she isn't in control at times. I don't want to drop an infobomb trying to justify it so it is really just hinted as to what is happening, more and more until it should click for readers.
She does kill some people rather unnecesarily at times but we want readers to be able to not totaly blame her but to blame the entity that takes over without stating that is what happens every time and being tedious. Also at first, the reader should in fact find her to be pretty nasty.
Afraid I havn't yet read any Abercrombie ( had to look up Glotca.
I suppose the thread should read - how bad can a character get and still be redeemed in the minds of the readers...
Jaime Lanister is pretty hate-worthy at first, and then his arc gets completely turned around.

Even kids lit plays with this at times and gets away with it; think of the snivelling, sneering awfulness of Narnia's Eustace Scrubb, who then goes on to become one of my favorite characters in the next book...

Or Snape. You can't get more awful than Harry Potter's Snape. And that gets turned around neatly.

Edit: You can go pretty far, and still have your character forgiven, as long as it's convincing.
I agree that Jaime is a great example.

I actually never disliked Glokta...(I shouldn't tell people that)

Really with the exception of killing kittens for fun and doing anything really sexually depraved, I think most people can have redemption in the eyes of the readers.
I think if it is made clear a character is morally not to blame because her actions are governed by an alien entity, most people would accept pretty much everything up to and including child murder and still allow her to appear redeemable. But two things arise:
(1) Merely making it a "personality disorder" probably won't be enough for the majority. Your readers -- well, most of them -- won't be mental health professionals, and won't accept someone can get away with the worst of criminal actions simply because her mind is a bit odd. After all, many murderers in real life have mental health issues, but your average person in the street won't forgive them -- think Ian Brady -- and so your readers may well expect her to be punished in some way.
(2) Even if she is wholly controlled, she must herself want to be punished for what she has done and must undergo a good deal of guilt when the alien control is lifted, if not before.

Personally I never found anything remotely redeeming in Glotka, who had no excuse whatsoever for being a torturer and I can never understand how simply his being witty and self-deprecating could allow people to forget that. But then, that's the lawyer in me.
Don't worry TJ it isn't 'just' a personality disorder - the entity literaly takes control in high stress, low willpower moments. The trouble is, she loves the feeling of power that comes as she relinquishes control but conversely hates that loss of control too. The bi-polar personality is an effect on her generally, brought about by the entity, making her go from nice woman to nasty bi* * * .
Her journey takes her through this and hopefully out the other side, while her counterpart character does the opposite, he ( also under the influence of an alien artifact) controls it well at first then goes into a huge decline after a big emotional trauma. I'd just like to guage just how bad they can get before the simply become irredeemable.
I havn't read enough of ASOIAF to see how Jaime turns out but he did try to kill a child... These guys won't go that low.
IMO a reader might forgive anything of a character, except cruelty towards children and animals.

Even then, I can think of caveats, not least in Charles Dicken's Great Expectations (cf Miss Haversham and Magwitch)
No-one is beyond redemption, but having the reader accept it may require skill.
Jonah was quite cross about Nineveh being spared. I think it was Jonah and Nineveh.
Firstly, I'd advise avoiding specific psychiatric terminology such as "personality disorder" and "bipolar personality". "Bipolar" refers basically to extreme mood swings between elation and depression, certainly not between good and evil. People with a "bipolar disorder" can be unpleasant and even violent when at the peak of their "high" phase but this is due to disinhibition- the loss of inhibitions releases what's already there, same as with alcohol. Most bipolar people are great company, happy and amusing, when "high", but can turn nasty if their brilliant ideas are obstructed by more level-headed people who appear to them as merely boring, unimaginative and unambitious.

"Personality disorder" I'd suggest avoiding for a different reason- no one knows what it means and that includes the professionals. It's a catch-all term that can be stretched to include just about anyone who's not boringly normal. What the public knows as a "psychopath" or "sociopath" is one specific variety of personality disorder. And to most people, "psychopaths" are simply "very bad people". A lot of it comes down to the medicalisation of morality.

However, as regards your question of how far can a character go and still retain the reader's sympathy- depends on what other qualities the character has, and also are you writing from an "in-world" perspective in which the character's behaviour might anyway be deemed acceptable or even admirable?
I'm just re-reading one of George MacDonald Fraser's "Flashman" books, whose first-person narrator and central character behaves despicably throughout most of every book, nonetheless a very popular and even sympathetic character because he's so well-written and amusing and honest with the reader. The honesty is crucial- you can make a cynic sympathetic, but not a hypocrite.

Do you describe the character's bad actions from her own POV while doing them, or her own POV remembering them afterwards, or others peoples POV? Does she retain her good personality as a "hidden observer" even when the alien is in control? Does it just take over and move her like a robot or does it distort her perceptions eg so that she might attack someone because she thinks they're hostile when they're not? Or just remove inhibitions so she kills people she's vexed with for normal reasons, ie overreacts?
Can I just point out at this point I have been working for a long time in the mental health field, working with people with varied psychiatric issues and/or learning disabilities. I do not use the terminology loosely. I do not use ANY psychiatric terminology within my writing, anything that shows in the characters is up to the reader to interpret however they will.
I also do not intend any insult with any terms I have used in this post, simply saying what the issues are. I wholeheartedly appologise if anyone finds any terms I use as insulting.
As for the rest of that ( my apologies for getting sidetracked) the pov changes throughout so you see it from many angles. She isn't the main character but one of the main characters.
@Quellist. Well you certainly don't need to apologise to me- I do not feel "insulted," just trying to get as much clarity as possible. In fact I detest the habit of so many people on other forums who attempt to suppress discourse by constantly claiming to be "offended." l too have worked in the mental health field for many years, by the way.

"she loves the feeling of power that comes as she relinquishes control but conversely hates that loss of control too" Exploring that in depth sounds like the way to go. For me, that would make your character interesting- the ambiguity.
That is pretty much what she comes down to, she loves the power but hates the consequences.
Well the sort of redeemed Darth Vader in Star Wars (I only mention because of your storm trooper icon), but they did kill him off in the process.

Another option is the more the artifact is used the more the character turns. Maybe the character embraces it and eventually turns fully evil! beyond redemption.

Or maybe there is a specific turning point where something happens and the character reallizes things have gone too far and it has to stop.

My opinion is the redemption is more likely if the character interviens to turn things around vs the author. That is, the character's morales force the end vs something external like the artifact breaking making it stop or team mates helping.
I would like to think that for real people there is no point where redemption is impossible so long as the individual is sane. And by redemption I mean a willingness to face up to and take responsibility for past actions and a genuine commitment to be a better person in the future. I believe that people always have a choice. There is no point at which they've gone over the line and lost the power to choose differently. That's too easy an excuse. I believe that in principle, but with any one individual I would always wonder if their reformation was real.

In a book, of course, we could see into a fictional person's heart and mind, if they are a viewpoint character, and know whether they are sincere or not, and if they have really changed. And in a book a character could be manipulated by some supernatural force that impelled them to do what they did. But as a reader I would not accept that scenario in the first place without believing that there had to be something in that character that whatever it was could manipulate, some streak of cruelty, or monstrous selfishness that had been suppressed, otherwise they could have resisted. And because I would never accept that the character was entirely innocent, no matter how hard the author tried to convince me, there would have to be something much more than the artefact or whatever it was just stopping, before that character would be redeemed in my eyes.

The question is difficult to answer because we're all different. What I will forgive is not the same as what you or anyone else will forgive. And to add to your troubles, you have three separate view points to consider in asking this question. The POV of the person herself - will she / can she forgive herself? The other characters in the book. Who among them will forgive her and who won't? And then of course there's the readers.

This will all come down to a balancing act, where you have to consider how bad the crimes were, how much responsibility there was by the character, and how much contrition she shows / experiences. But the one thing you can be certain of is that you will never please everyone. You just have to make it as real as possible and hope that most people agree with you.

Cheers, Greg.

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