Legendfire.com is hosting its annual ‘Legends contest,’ and this year the topic is ‘Redemption.’ At first, I was a little worried about this topic and didn’t know how I could handle it in such a small word limit (only 3500.) Redemption by definition is a very character driven thing; meaning for it to be a truly effective and meaningful device, the character must be well-developed and have some sort of emotional connection with the reader. That’s hard, but not impossible to do in so few words. (But I suppose that puts the challenge into it!) No, the biggest worry I had was setting up a redemption arc. For a character to be seeking, or find, redemption, it follows that they must have committed some atrocity in the past. This can either be in their back story or, as I prefer it, earlier in the story itself. In Treasonists, Zyrina grows more and more jealous and spiteful of Nerolie as the book progresses, until she finally crosses the moral event horizon. The build up to that point takes a long time, but it helps foreshadow the transition into villianhood and makes redemption all the more meaningful. However, in a short story I can’t do that effectively.
Whilst thinking about how I was going to approach this challenge, it seemed inevitable I was going to be stuck in a generic redemption quest story. A character feels depressed, angered and guilty, haunted by a bad choice in the past that isn’t fully revealed until nearing the end. He seeks redemption, and just after revealing his dark and troubled past to the reader he sacrifices something for someone else, redeeming himself. How many times have you seen that before? (And how many of those are romantic comedies?)
First, I had to get that image out of my head. Because, frankly, looking at a black & white still of a man sitting on the floor, head bent and sobbing with a cigarette and flask of whiskey is depressing! Now, I’m all for having sad themes in my writing – I even like a good teary ending sometimes – but the generic image wasn’t helping me at all.
So first, I changed the character. I changed every little thing about them, from their gender and age to their preferred drink. Then, I addressed the next problem. How was I going to set up a redemption arc in 3500 words? I didn’t want to rely on flashbacks because in general I find them a poor method of storytelling (lets ignore the fact I use the device in Treasonists for now) and that’s especially true in this case. That meant my only option was to have the Atrocity happen in the beginning of the story, or throughout. Putting it throughout would mean the first part of the story lacked focus, especially dangerous with so few words.
Another important aspect of a redemption story is scale. Anyone who has read anything of mine before knows I think and write on a large scale anyway, which is why I stick to novels. But scale is especially important with this kind of theme. For example, I am not going to feel particularly moved if someone wants to redeem themselves for stealing a candy bar. However, a Cop may want redemption for shooting when he didn’t need too, or a military commander may seek redemption for sending men into a suicidal mission. Similarly, the redeeming act needs to be at a larger scale for effect. Using the same example, I’m not going to be moved when someone returns the candy bar, But will be much more impacted when the cop saves a criminal from death, or when the officer holds off an attack to let his men escape themselves. Put generally, the more a character had to gain from the first ‘bad’ act, the more they need to lose in their redeeming act, and both need to be at a large scale for the story to be effective. Writing about someone stealing from a supermarket, and then returning the candy, will fit in the word count, but it won’t be fun for reader or writer (…unless there is some twist?). Writing about a general sending his men into the Somme, and then holding a German counter attack while the rest escape is exciting, but too long. The challenge here, for me, is to figure out something that is exciting, short, and still allows room for character development and plot maturity. Some people may be perfectly adept at writing well on a smaller scale, but I am not.
Eventually I came up with not one, but two redemption arcs that run concurrently. Weird, I know. I went from searching my brains to find one, to creating two that play against each other in the story. And it will fit. I think, I hope. Whats more, it allows me to explore a nice twist and an outside-the-box perversion of ‘Redemption.’ .
If anyone is interested, you can still sign up for the contest, the final ‘due date’ is December 28th. You can sign up for fiction, non-fiction or Poetry. Legendfire is a good bunch and I’m excited to read the other entries – They never disappoint with their creativity and unique thinking. Somewhat ironically, I will be surprised if one of the entries follows the generic redemption quest I outlined above.
Also, you get this nice little badge.