Dakota Flint started a discussion about redemption in romantic fiction today, and I started writing a comment. Of course, me being me, my thoughts wandered down the road and over the hill, then planted themselves down and started growing toward a thousand words, so I decided to post it here instead.
I like redemption as a theme or plot device in romantic fiction, especially when Character A thinks they've done something horrible, but it takes Character B's POV to show them that it wasn't -- that it wasn't horrible or it wasn't their fault or every other option was worse or whatever. This is common in romance (and in het romance it's usually the Guy who's the one tortured with the whatever guilt) and can work really well as a device for bringing the characters together and deepening their relationship. Unfortunately, some writers don't seem to have figured out how to balance the idea of a character who's stuck in one POV and needs to be shown another way of looking at something, with the idea of a character who's, like, not a total moron.
I just finished a het romance where the Guy has these massive issues about what a coward he is, and how it's his fault his parents were killed and all. When he was a kid, some enemy assassins attacked their home to take out his family. His father shoved him into a crawlspace or something and locked the grate so he couldn't get out, just before the bad guys showed up in the room. So the Guy was right there, listening and sort of watching through the grate while his parents were slaughtered. He was screaming to be let out while it happened, and there was so much noise from what was going on that the bad guys didn't hear him, but as soon as things quieted down (and everyone was dead), he shut up too so they wouldn't find him. He's felt this horrible guilt for that all his life, thinking he should have kept yelling so the assassins would have let him out so he could fight them.
Right. Multiple assassins versus a twelve-year-old. Yeah, that would've worked.
And even after the Girl pointed out that he would certainly have been killed to no purpose, he was still arguing that it didn't matter, he was a coward and should've fought them, so it's his fault his parents are dead, etc., like he's just not getting it. He's very touched that she's trying to defend him (to himself) but he's not buying it at all.
So of course at this point I'm eyerolling and have a strong impulse to work the guy over with a baseball bat in hope of jarring loose a few braincells, 'cause dude, seriously. :/ I mean, I could understand him feeling guilty -- survivor's guilt doesn't require any specific fault, nor does rationality play much of a part. And it would've been easy enough for the writer to have him say, "Well, yeah, you're right of course. There would've been no point in my getting killed too. But I can't help feeling awful and guilty about it." That would've worked, showing that he does have a brain in his head and that it can function when prompted (although I think most people would've come to this realization themselves by the time they hit adulthood) but that his head and his gut are still in conflict. He still has issues, but he knows he has issues, and that what he feels doesn't make any objective sense. That would've been a nice conflict thread, as he worked to get past the guilt.
Instead, in this book, the guy just comes across like an idiot, and an unbelievable one at that. And I've seen it over and over, where a character insists on carrying this completely ridiculous guilt, insisting that no, it really was their fault that whatever happened. I mean, sure, there actually are people who are just that messed up by their experiences, but they have massive issues and if a main character is that messed up, dealing with it pretty much has to be one of the major focal points of the story. If it's not, if it's just presented at face value -- "Yes, adult Bob still believes, with full awareness, that it's his fault his baby brother was killed by that pack of rabid pit bulls, despite the fact that he was only three when it happened," -- my connection with the character (and the story, and the writer) just breaks down. I can't buy that a strong, reasonably smart character would believe this, and I can't understand why this writer would present a character who did believe that as strong or reasonably smart, much less as classic Hero material. The way it's usually presented, it feels like the reader is supposed to somehow admire this character for being Just So Responsible that he's taking all this unearned guilt, and in a romance, the (mostly female) readers are supposed to want to cuddle and nurture him or whatever. It doesn't work, at least with me; I just want to smack him.
What it comes down to is that this is a chunk of character development which is too often done badly. In order to set up a significant redemption moment, the character has to believe that he's done something significantly bad. Whether he has or not is up to the writer -- I'm all for misunderstandings or set-ups or whatever -- but he has to believe he's done something bad enough that the redemption is important. But it also has to be something that is redeemable, whether the character eventually realizes that he didn't do anything that terrible, or whether someone important to the character gives him forgiveness, or somehow helps him forgive himself, or however it's worked out. The sin has to be significant in order for the redemption to be significant.
Setting up a straw-man sin -- OMG, I just stood there in my playpen and let those dogs eat the baby! -- deflates the whole thing. When the second character points out that, "Umm, dude, you were three. You couldn't have done anything," then if the first character does a facepalm and suddenly gets it, that's still pretty weak because a normal person would've realized, well before adulthood, that no, a three-year-old couldn't have done anything, and that while he might still feel guilty, he isn't actually guilty. But if, after having the obvious pointed out, the first character still refuses to acknowledge that his three-year-old self wasn't guilty of anything except being three, that's even worse; it says something about the character which needs to be dealt with as its own issue, and if it's not then that's a major flaw in the story. Instead of feeling sympathy for the character, or feeling happy relief when the redemption happens, I just feel impatient about the whole thing and sarcastic thoughts start running through my head, about the character and the writer both.
The whole sin/redemption device can be very powerful, but the sin component has to be strong. Either the sin itself has to be real and significant, or the circumstances which led the character to wrongly believe in his own guilt have to be legitimate, something that's clearly reasonable for an intelligent person to believe and be fooled or confused by. If the sin and guilt are lame or unbelievable, then the whole device breaks down, and the readers' response isn't going to be what the writer had hoped.