Hey there guys, gals, and non-binary pals! Today, I want to tell you all about another book that I bought months ago and only recently finished (because I am trash like that). I posted one of my usual ‘pick my next read from my physical TBR’ polls on Twitter (which I started doing in an attempt to knock some items off of the catastrophically large pile of books I haven’t read yet) and the book that won that particular poll was The Tiger at Midnight, by Swati Teerdhala.
One aspect of this book immediately caught my attention, and that’s the redemption arc one of the main characters undergoes. It got me thinking about redemption arcs in general, and how authors sometimes don’t really get to pull it off well because they fundamentally misunderstand their own characters (I’m looking at you, J.K. Rowling).
What really struck me about The Tiger at Midnight and its featured redemption arc is how well it was done. Redemption arcs – especially those that feature the character being redeemed falling in love with a hero – can often be fraught with toxic pitfalls, but this book avoided them neatly and nicely. And in this blog entry, I break down what was it about this redemption arc that made it work!
If you haven’t yet read The Tiger at Midnight, let me give you a quick rundown of what it’s all about. Our two main characters, Kunal and Esha, are on opposite sides of a war. Kunal is a skilled soldier, a member of an elite squadron, and devoted to his uncle, one of evil king’s most loyal generals. Esha on the other hand is a feared assassin affiliated with the rebels, with a personal stake in the war since her own parents were murdered in the coup that deposed the rightful queen. When Esha seemingly murders Kunal’s uncle, Kunal and his squadron are sent on a mission to bring Esha back to stand trial. However, Kunal and Esha are thrown together thanks to circumstance and begin to discover that they’re not as different as they originally thought they were. Kunal begins to question his devotion and the side he’s on as he and Esha travel through the countryside and see just what Kunal’s uncle and the king he served has done to the kingdom.
Throughout the book, Kunal’s development in slowly realizing that he’s on the wrong side is shown in parallel to him developing feelings for Esha, which in and of itself was already a very compelling character arc. Needless to say, you can tell that the author really took the time to make sure the character on the villain’s side had his realization as a requisite to his romance with the character opposing the villain. As much as I love redemption arcs, this is the level of care you don’t very often see in fiction featuring the redeemed villain falling in love with a hero.
Let’s break it down. What did this book do to make Kunal deserve his redemption arc, and ultimately a chance at a romance with the hero?
The villain either is not involved in oppressive acts, or is coerced into being involved.
Your villain either cannot be involved in any oppressive acts committed by the Big Bad, or if they are, they have to be doing because they were coerced through lying/blackmailing/etc. It’s impossible to root for a villain who decided to kill people because he actually believes in the Big Bad’s philosophy, you know? No matter how otherwise sympathetic the character is.
In the book, Kunal is shown to be actively disapproving of his fellow soldiers’ more bloodthirsty tendencies. Not only that, but he’s outright uncomfortable with the life of a soldier. The only reason he even enlisted is because his uncle, who adopted him after his parents were killed, insisted. Several times in the book, Kunal professes his desire to only serve out the required time before retiring to the life of a painter. Not only does it make his heel-face turn believable, it also means that forgiveness for any part he did play is much easier to come by.
In comparison – and just because he’s my favorite villain-turned-hero to absolutely hate on because I 100% believe he did not deserve a redemption arc – let’s look at the example of Severus Snape. Not only is Snape involved in the murder and/or torture of Muggles and Muggle-borns prior to Voldemort deciding to kill Lily Potter, he actively believed in Voldemort’s message that they were inherently less-worthy. The sudden discovery of his tragic back story doesn’t change any of that, and makes it difficult to accept his heel-face turn.
The villain comes to the conclusion that the side they support is wrong of their own volition.
This one, in my opinion, is the most important part of having a successful redemption arc. The villain has to come to the idea that he and his side or wrong through their own thought process. This realization cannot come because of some personal gain the villain or villain-supporter previously had that will be lost; the villain or villain-supporter has to realize that what they’re doing is inherently, and in of itself, wrong.
In The Tiger at Midnight, as Kunal travels through the countryside searching for Esha, he sees the extreme hunger and poverty that the people suffer through because of his uncle and his king’s oppressive policies. He realizes how sheltered and ignorant he’s been, interacts with these people, and comes to the conclusion that, being in a position of power, he is able to actually do something for these people – and that, consequently, deciding to turn a blind eye and ignore what he can do is just as bad as the outright evil things his uncle and the king are doing.
Let’s turn once more to the example of Severus Snape. Not once is it shown that he truly repents supporting Voldemort’s desire to rule over Muggles and Muggleborns; he’s only ever shown serving Dumbledore because of Voldemort taking something – Lily – from him. Not through word or deed is he ever shown to ever want to save Harry or protect Muggles and Muggleborns just because it was the right thing to do.
The villain seeks the defeat of the Big Bad for its own sake.
Lastly, for a redemption arc to be believable, the villain has to actively seek the defeat of the Big Bad for its own sake. Here, a redeemed villain greatly differs from an anti-hero. The anti-hero can seek the defeat of the Big Bad for their own purposes and still be a hero by dint of not being a villain in the first place. The villain does not have this luxury because they began the story actively committing acts of oppression, or enabling acts of oppression through their own inaction.
As he makes the discovery of the sheer poverty, hunger, and death sweeping the kingdom, Kunal vows to help Esha and the rebels defeat the usurper king once and for all and swears to restore the rightful queen’s heirs to the throne. This decision is not predicated on Kunal’s feelings for Esha at all; he simply does it because it’s the right thing to do, and as someone with the ability to actually do something about the evil king, it’s his responsibility to join this fight and end the king’s tyranny.
What do you think?
☕ Do you like villain redemption arcs? Or are you tired of them?
☕ What do you think makes a villain redemption arc successful?
☕ What are your favorite villain redemption arcs?