At the Mary Sue, Princess Weekes argues that redemption arcs and character arcs are not the same thing. A character arc that involves growing into a better person doesn’t have to involve redemption; Inuyasha’s brother in Inuyasha grows over the series but he still has no interest in atoning for his shitty treatment of Inuyasha in the past.
In addition to the other examples the article cites, I think Conan might qualify. In Robert E. Howard’s one Conan novel, Hour of the Dragon, Conan loses his kingdom thanks to the machinations of the sorcerer Xaltotun. Finding a way to defeat the mage requires reliving much of his past — thief, mounted bandit, pirate, mercenary. Repeatedly he considers taking the easy route and going back to his old life, free of responsibility. But every time he contemplates it, he remembers the people of Aquilonia, and that they trusted him to protect them. He will not fail them! This effectively demonstrates that Conan has grown beyond the man he once was but there’s never any suggestion he feels bad about his thieving or piratical career (and as lover to the pirate queen Belit he killed a lot of innocent people). Character arc but not redemption.
Author Isabel Cooper says she can accept a redemption arc easier if it’s separate from real people: vampires, probably, repentant racists no. Well, maybe if they’re already repentant when we meet them, not if we have to watch them grow and change. Foz Meadows made a similar point a few years back: “In much the same way that an abuser’s past victimization doesn’t exonerate their present sins, we understand that, yes, even if a vehement bigot was raised to bigotry, they are still hurting us now, and we are allowed to be angry … If a reader belongs to one or more of the marginalised groups so profoundly and constantly reviled in the text by Elloren, why on Earth should they want to read six hundred pages about a fictional bigot struggling to view them, the actual living reader, as human? Why wouldn’t that be upsetting?”
Which makes it unsurprising (and fully justifiable) that Romance Writers of America awarded one of its recent Vivian awards to At Love’s Command in which the hero participates in the Wounded Knee massacre. After that he finds God and gets his sins washed away but apparently doesn’t do anything to atone for his actions.
I should note I’m going by online discussion — I haven’t read the book.. But if the assessment is accurate, that’s bad. As I discussed in an old post on Rise of Skywalker, getting your soul saved does not erase the need for redemption in the mortal world (I discuss here how that applies in the real world too). I suspect if the hero of the novel had been a Native American who killed white settlers or the leader of a slave uprising — i.e., someone who threatened the white status quo instead of upholding it — this wouldn’t fly. RWA later rescinded the award, clumsily.
One way to deal with a problematic past is to start after the character changes, as in Captain Confederacy: by the end of the first book, protagonist Jeremy Grey has walked away from being a propaganda tool for the CSA. His past doesn’t make him admirable but it’s more tolerable than if it started back when he took the job. Though once you get to the point of actively committing crimes against humanity, probably not.
#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holder. Bottom cover by Vince Stone.