Can writers make sexy villains without having them redeem themselves? Check out today's guest blog from Savannah Cordova.
Do Villains Need Redemption Arcs In Order to Be Sexy?
by Savannah Cordova
Everyone loves a bad boy. And by everyone, I mean “a lot of people, albeit with quite a vocally opposed faction on Book Twitter, as evidenced by the endless debate over whether readers are able to separate high-flying fiction from real life.”
And why in the world do we devote so much time to this subject? Because of fictional villains — specifically, the oh-so-sexy villains we love to hate, but just as often seem to genuinely love. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been swayed by a sexy villain or two — hello, Jafar from Aladdin and Cillian Murphy in Batman Begins — but I never thought too critically about them until the past couple of years. This was when I began writing about character development and dynamics on a regular basis, as well as engaging with more media analysis overall.
In that time, hoo boy, have I seen some things re: Villain Discourse. Some of the FAQs, for those curious/fortunate enough not to have encountered them before: Where should we draw the line between questionable and indefensible? When a character has a romantic relationship (or even just chemistry) with a villain, what makes that relationship too toxic to abide? Is it even useful to evaluate villains through a moral lens — especially in SFF, where they’re often so exaggerated as to be almost completely removed from reality?
Despite my eye-rolling at those who claim that shipping unhealthy fictional relationships is equivalent to endorsing them in real life, I do think the answer to the last question is yes. But it’s not because I’m concerned about the IRL consequences of romanticizing villains; it’s more that I care about what makes for an interesting, complex villain in a story — and, on a lighter note, to what extent “interesting/complex” overlaps with good old-fashioned bangability.
This is where we arrive at the question of sexy villains and redemption arcs, of which I’ve posed a somewhat oversimplified version in the title. A better, extended version of this question would be: Does a villain need to undergo a full redemption arc in order to be widely considered “sexy”? Failing that, how much redemptive potential do they need to cross that threshold? And finally, if a villain is given a strong redemption arc — potentially even going all the way from antagonist to deuteragonist — does that make them sexier?
Let’s start with the first query, the most straightforward: does a villain need a redemption arc to be sexy? To those familiar with fandom, it should come as no surprise that the answer is “hell no.” Tons of fans, maybe even the majority, are fine thirsting over characters with no redemption arcs to speak of. From Dracula to Heathcliff to Tom Riddle and oodles of film villains in recent years (including, yes, the villains in the Dark Knight trilogy), these guys may be lacking in the morality department, but that doesn’t prevent them from being seen as sexy.
(Also, before I go any further, I should address the elephant in the room when it comes to “sexy” villains: pretty much all the prominent ones are not only guys, but conventionally attractive white or white-passing guys. Attractive white women are starting to get more sexy villain rep — Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Emma Stone as Cruella de Vil — but with the enormous caveats that a) sexualizing women is a much more systematically oppressive, socially gross practice than sexualizing men [as we all know], and b) that these characters, if not quite good, do typically get more sympathetic explanations for their behavior than their male counterparts.
So for our purposes — because, sadly, there are limited examples of both sexy and immoral female villains, POC villains, and less-than-conventionally-attractive villains, and because the issues around them are weightier and not something I feel as qualified to talk about — this article refers mainly to the villains that dominate fandom discussions today. That said, I do hope to someday live in a world where more villains are considered sexy and evil regardless of demographics. Let’s manifest!)
Moving onto question two: just how redeemable must a villain be to maintain “sexy” status? In youth, I was pretty liberal about this (again: Jafar, Scarecrow, let’s not talk about it anymore) — and while I still don’t need a full redemption arc to invest in a character’s sexiness, these days I do want the author, showrunner, or filmmaker to throw me a few bones.
But plot twist: there are two elephants in this sexy villain room! Not only do most fans seem to prefer those Sexy White Male villains (which, to be fair, is a lot of what lazy creators are offering up), but so many fans also just… don’t care about what a villain does, who they hurt, or what goes on with them internally, so long as they’re nice to look at.
Kylo Ren, the bane of my pop cultural existence, is perfectly emblematic of this problem. (Serious Star Wars spoilers ahead!) As a disclaimer, I realize I’m unusually clear-headed about Adam Driver; maybe it’s because I first saw him as Hannah’s slightly odd boyfriend in Girls, maybe it’s because he’s got bizarre older-brother energy, but I’ve just never felt very attracted to him. The Star Wars fans do, though — and they overwhelmingly ship Kylo Ren with Rey (played by Daisy Ridley), despite their hostile and even occasionally abusive relationship.
I know, I know. Kylo renounces the dark side and helps Rey at the end of Rise of Skywalker — just in time to plant one on her (blech) and die cinematically in the rain. But not only does this eleventh-hour about-face hardly constitute a redemption arc, I would say that it’s not even a great redemptive moment. Critic Kayti Burt explains this much more eloquently than I do, but basically, Kylo Ren barely does any self-reflection or experiences any genuine remorse. He’s overpowered by emotion, yes, but the moment he joins Rey — and his other “redemptive” moments throughout the sequel trilogy, such as when he fights alongside her in The Last Jedi — are impulsive and self-motivated, not a considered attempt to atone for his sins.
What’s more, even before RoS came out and fans could only speculate on Kylo Ren’s fate, it had little impact on their perception of his sexiness — and, by extension, their desire to see him get with Rey. (Note that while shipping doesn’t always reflect fans’ personal attraction to one or both of the characters involved, in this ship — and in the others discussed in this article — it pretty clearly does.) Case in point: in November 2019, just before RoS’s release, there were nearly 11,000 works in the Kylo/Rey tag on Ao3. For context, today there are around 16,000… so if anything, fans found him sexier and more shippable before his redemption.
To be fair, there are other factors at work here — mainly, the fact that any long gap between trilogy installments is bound to be filled with fanfiction, and that the conclusion of said trilogy would leave many fans satisfied enough that they wouldn’t want to write anything more. But the fact remains that it didn’t matter whether or not Kylo Ren would be redeemed in canon. Fans loved him, wanted him, and shipped him unabashedly anyway.
So why does this bother me, someone firmly in the camp of “consumers are perfectly capable of separating fiction from reality”? Again, it’s not because I think every Reylo shipper actually wants to be in a relationship with Kylo Ren, or would put up with his crap if they were; it’s because I value strong, thoughtful narratives and well-developed characters, and that includes villains as well as heroes. Kylo Ren, and villains like him — those who receive the hasty, bare-minimum morality treatment — are an affront to the craft of storytelling.
“But what does storytelling have to do with pure, raw sexiness?” you press. I suppose I like to think that the combination of war-criminal-level degeneracy and a poorly executed redemption arc would preclude other readers and viewers, as it does me, from ever being able to find a villain particularly attractive. (You know, sort of like how the ridiculous and abusive dynamics in Fifty Shades of Gray make it tough to get on board with Christian.) Alas, this is not reality.
The good news is that you can hate a character, not find them sexy, and recognize that it’s okay for others to do so. Again, it’s still pure fiction; it’s not nearly as bad as, say, all those movies glamorizing Ted Bundy. But at the same time, I want readers and viewers to hold creators to higher standards — and it might seem silly, but finding weakly developed villains hot (and enthusiastically shipping them) does lend implicit approval to those stories and characters.
All that said, there’s still a ray of hope — one that arrives in the form of the answer to my third question. To jog your memory, that one was: even if not a prerequisite for sexiness, does a redemption arc still make a character sexier? The answer here, I think, is a tentative yes.
To my knowledge, there are relatively few mainstream villains who have undertaken a full redemption arc — which I define as a long period of reflection, internal change, and atonement (you can see why most melodramatic revelations in Marvel movies don’t qualify). I say this in part to justify the “tentative” qualifier, acknowledging that there’s currently not enough data to say for sure — and also to explain why the next arc I’m going to examine, purportedly in relation to sexiness, is technically about a late-teenage character rather than an adult character.
Certainly, I could have scrounged around a bit more and come up with a decent redemption arc belonging to a canonical adult character. But I’m certain those who have seen Avatar: The Last Airbender will agree: no one does a redemption arc quite like Prince Zuko.
For those who need a recap and/or don’t plan on rewatching ATLA anytime soon (can’t relate), here’s how it goes down, spoilers included: Zuko is an exiled prince who must capture the Avatar — a powerful master of the elements — in order to return to the Fire Nation and regain his father’s respect. In doing so, he will help the Fire Nation win the war they’ve been waging for 100 years to conquer the rest of the world. However, he slowly begins to lose faith in the Fire Nation, their goals, and their values… and over the course of three masterful seasons, Zuko goes from ruthless villain to internally conflicted soul to, finally, a complex deuteragonist who’s fully on the Avatar’s side, even when that means turning against his own family.
There’s so much to say about this arc and why it works so well, but the main reason is that it refuses to let Zuko off easy. He’s a deeply unlikable, annoying character at times, and the show doesn’t try to erase this in a scene or two; instead, he’s seen genuinely struggling over multiple seasons, experiencing setbacks and distrust from the “Gaang”, and only truly redeeming himself once he’s spent some time with them. Not to quote Hamilton in the year of our lord 2021, but one line succinctly captures the difference between Zuko’s redemption and other, less impressive ones: “Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.”
By having Zuko live with his choices and work hard over time to counteract them — as opposed to flip-flopping to goodness at the last minute and conveniently dying before he has to do much else — ATLA offers up a much stronger, more fleshed-out villain redemption arc than 99% of fictional media. But of course, the question at hand is not merely whether Zuko’s redemption arc makes him good. It’s whether it makes him sexier.
This is harder to evaluate than with other characters because a) canon Zuko is younger than most villains (albeit much older-looking than baby-faced Aang), which makes people (rightfully!) less willing to sexualize him, and also because b) ATLA ended so long ago that it’s difficult to say how viewers felt about Zuko before he was redeemed. However, given contemporary discourse and all the aged-up fanart and fanfiction in the ATLA fandom — Zuko/Katara is by far the most popular ship, despite not being canon — it seems safe to say that his redemption arc is a huge part of how fans perceive him. And how they perceive them is, essentially, as sexy.
Yes, as we’ve established, there’s little direct cause-and-effect between redemption arcs and generally agreed-upon sexiness — and we would need more legitimate redemption arcs in mainstream fiction to draw a more concrete conclusion. But from what I’ve observed (and what the Ao3 tags seem to indicate) it does seem to be the case that the more a villain redeems themselves, the better.
TL;DR, lots of people are attracted to irredeemable villains. It doesn’t make you a bad person, and it certainly doesn’t say anything about your real-life preferences in relationships. But isn’t it more satisfying to love a thoroughly redeemed one? And while not every villain needs a full-on redemption arc, wouldn’t it be nice if we had a wider range of narrative outcomes?
Plenty of villains these days have sympathetic aspects to them: a rough childhood, an understandable objective taken too far, or some other trauma that drove them to the place they are now. All I ask is for more creators not to leave them there… and, if they want to redeem a villain with sexiness in mind, to remember that while looks are extremely subjective, character development — at least in this fan’s eyes — is always sexy.
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, she enjoys reading contemporary fiction, writing short stories, and marathoning ATLA.
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