Story theme: Redemption narratives

I recently wrote summary posts about two stories that I called ‘redemption narratives’: “The Girl Who Never Was” and “She Shall Have Music“. That’s a kind of story theme that we can all recognize as being fairly common in girls comics generally: in Jinty there are a number of other examples.  But how does this sort of story work?

Take those two stories as an initial guide: the protagonist is a difficult or disagreeable, probably dislikeable, girl who has some personal failing or issue that drives the story. It’s because of that failing that the story progresses; it may not have been due to something that was her fault that the story started off in the first place, but it is because of her moral or social problem that it continues and develops the way it does. Tina Williams lands in the alternate universe where magic works because of her conceited and annoying ways; Lisa Carstairs’s father doesn’t lose his money because of her, but if she wasn’t so obsessed with continuing her piano playing exactly as before, then she wouldn’t find herself in the same difficulties. It’s not just what happens to the protagonist (or how she is challenged in the story) but how she reacts to it. She has to be ‘the architect of her own misfortunes’, as Mistyfan puts it in her post about another redemption story, “Black Sheep of the Bartons“.

Does the story have to feature some sort of disagreeableness, some sort of outright nastiness or callousness on the part of the protagonist? No: I’d say that you could certainly include ‘guilt’ stories such as “Stefa’s Heart of Stone” and “I’ll Make Up For Mary”. The protagonist here  suffers huge pangs of guilt and despair because of the loss of a loved one – a best friend or a sister in the case of these two stories, but in other cases it can be a parent – a very natural feeling, but the failing here is that she lets those emotions overwhelm her and distort her common sense. The guilty feelings of the protagonist drive the story forward, but this guilt is portrayed throughout as excessive, as an indulgence that the main character should resist. It’s the lengths that their grief drives them to that causes their difficulties in their separate stories.

Also, it’s not just about having an objectionable main character who is nicer by the end of the story. “Curtain of Silence” and “Land of No Tears” are not what I would call redemption narratives, despite having protagonists who start off pretty disagreeable and end up much improved. (Likewise “Battle of the Wills” is not, nor I think “Pandora’s Box”, but sports story “Black Sheep of the Bartons” is one I would class as such: Bev Barton isn’t horrible so much as thoughtless and reckless, but her carelessness nearly brings tragedy to her family.) Why don’t “Curtain of Silence” and “Land of No Tears” count? Because when the girl main characters are swept into their initial circumstances – enslaved by a dictatorial coach, forced into third-class citizenship in a future world – their thoughts are not primarily about how they can continue to maintain their status quo ante but about how they can defeat their antagonist. Yvonne and Cassy aren’t just trying to get back to where they were at the beginning: their story is about a positive rebellion, not a futile rejection of the truth that the outside world is telling them. They end up much nicer than they started out being, but that’s not the whole reason for having the story in the first place – it’s because they have faced extraordinary circumstances which would change anyone by making them realise that some things are bigger than individual concerns.

Does the character who ends up being redeemed have to be the protagonist, or could they be the antagonist or villain? Overall I would say it has to be the protagonist, as the main character that you are supposed to sympathise with and want things to turn out well for, but maybe one counter-example is “Wanda Whiter Than White“. Wanda is not the main character of the story and she makes Susie Foster’s life a misery with her sanctimonious ways. At the end, it is revealed, as Mistyfan explains in her story post, that ‘Wanda’s own past is not as white as she would have us believe. In fact, she is on probation after being caught stealing.’ Rather than this reveal being painted as purely a victory for the main character, it ends up with Wanda being ‘truly redeemed when she tells a white lie to help Susie in return for Susie saving her life’. The reader wasn’t rooting for Wanda’s redemption all along, but it is a satisfying ending nevertheless.

What choices could the writer make that would move the story out of the category of being a redemption narrative? Let’s take Lisa Carstairs’ story as an example. As with the OuBaPo exercises, thinking about how a story could work differently will give us a view on how the stories actually do work.

  • Imagine Lisa’s parents still losing everything at the beginning of the story, and Lisa still losing her piano. The story could then have taken a different turn: rather than being about Lisa’s misguided piano obsession and selfishness, it could have been another kind of story entirely, for instance a mystery story where Lisa finds out that her father’s business partner was a crook who needs to be brought to justice. Perhaps Lisa’s piano playing could help her to find the clues she needs, and her obsession with it could be turned to a good cause in that way, so that she needs no redemption.
  • Or let’s say the story stays as being about Lisa’s obsession with playing piano but it’s portrayed as something not to be frowned on, rather as something acceptable or allowable. How would a story work where she can continue to be focused on playing piano to the exclusion of everything else, including her family? Perhaps her family would have to be a nasty, uncaring one, to make her disinterest acceptable.
  • Or perhaps the story could proceed more or less as it does, but with an unhappy ending where Lisa gets her comeuppance. This would make her into a more of an anti-heroine than normal but would not be unheard of.

Here are the examples I would identify as fitting most neatly into the category of ‘redemption narrative’ (core examples) and as being closely related to this category without necessarily definitely being classed as such (edge cases).

Core examples

  • “Dance Into Darkness” – Della just wants to live her life down at the disco with no regard for other people, but when her wish is granted she eventually discovers there is indeed more to life than her own self-interest.
  • There are a number of stories that are driven by a bereavement: the main character makes poor decisions as a result of her strong emotions of grief and anger because she is afraid of being hurt again. “The Ghost Dancer” is one of these, as is “Nothing to Sing About”, but of course “Stefa’s Heart of Stone” and “I’ll Make Up For Mary” are the strongest examples.
  • “The Girl Who Never Was” – discussed above
  • “She Shall Have Music” – discussed above
  • I said above that I thought that it needs to be the protagonist who is redeemed, not one of the other characters. In “Go On, Hate Me!” the antagonist is driven by grief into bullying the protagonist but in the end all is cleared and the antagonist is redeemed, so I would be tempted to class this alongside “Wanda Whiter Than White” as a clear example of this kind.
  • Jackie’s Two Lives” is more about the perils of wish-fulfilment, but Jackie’s snobbishness and the fact she is ashamed of her own family is definitely a character flaw that drives the story and she is cured of it at the end.
  • “Left-Out Linda” develops the redemption pretty well by recognizing that you can’t usually turn around your life by yourself: you have to have some help.
  • “Paula’s Puppets”: Paula has to learn to forgive her enemies rather than attacking them via the magical help she has been given.
  • “Tearaway Trisha”: Trisha’s recklessness has caused a serious accident; she tries to make amends but has to change her own character in order to do so.
  • “Valley of Shining Mist” has a clearly didactic message about the improving aspect of high culture: by playing the violin, Debbie will transcend the impact of her abusive family, who are low-class in their lack of culture and their morality.
  • In “Who’s That In My Mirror?” the protagonist’s selfish nature is made very literally visible and becomes more and more so until finally she is driven to renouncing it.
  • Worlds Apart” is the ultimate morality tale – one by one, six girls are shown the worst outcomes possible for each of their specific character flaws, and they have a chance to repent. The psychological development is minimal but the impact of the story was very dramatic.

Edge cases

  • “Fancy Free “- I know the main character is so independent that this may well be characterised as a fault, but I don’t really quite remember enough about the story to say whether it is the main thing that drives the whole plot.
  • The Four Footed Friends” – arguably another case where someone other than the protagonist ends up being redeemed, though it all feels a little sudden. “Hettie High-and-Mighty” likewise features a fairly sudden change of heart on the part of an antagonist who has mostly been about making  the protagonist’s life a misery until that point. I don’t think “The Kat And Mouse Game” quite counts, either: Kat may perhaps have realised the error of her ways at the end of the story, but will her change of heart actually stick?
  • I haven’t really made my mind up about “Gwen’s Stolen Glory” – it feels like it is mostly a story about deception, though clearly once Gwen owns up to the big lie this is a kind of redemption of her former deception.
  • In “Kerry In The Clouds”, Kerry is a day-dreamer imposed upon by a woman motivated by her own unfriendly concerns. Kerry’s day-dreaming nature is cured by the end of the story, but I don’t feel the main driver of the narrative was to improve her character.
  • The main character in “Mark of the Witch!” is hot-tempered and angry at all around her, and she comes to seek a more peaceful set of emotions by the end of the story. However, so much of her story is about the persecution and abuse that her neighbours visit on her that I don’t see her story being primarily about her renouncing her hot-headed ways.
  • I’m not sure about “Pandora’s Box” and whether it counts or not. Pandora’s witchy aunt does chide her at the beginning about being too cock-sure about her talents and says that she will need to use magic sooner or later, and this is all true: but I’m not sure what sort of morality story that adds up to – not a conventional one at any rate! The main nod in this story to more conventional morality is the fact that Pandora goes from disinterest in the pet she is stuck with (her black cat familiar, Scruffy) to loving him dearly and giving up her heart’s desire in order to save his life.

One last question struck me when thinking about this. What sort of things might the protagonist have done that means she needs to go through this process of redemption in the first place? Clearly it must be something negative: the story has a moral imperative of some sort, warning readers against some kinds of behaviour. But at the same time, some things would be beyond the pale of course, and would mean that any character doing that would be irredeemable. (There might therefore be some useful comparisons made with story villains: what does their villainy consist of?) If a character killed or seriously hurt someone on purpose then that would be beyond the pale: there are a number of villains who have gone this far, sometimes with a laugh on their cruel lips, but it would be hard to imagine that a girl protagonist could do this and still recover the moral high ground at the end of the story.

In the stories above it looks like the sort of wrong-doing that needs castigating but is still redeemable is often about emotional warmth and consideration for others – it’s not about ambition (by itself) or cleverness (by itself) for instance. An arrogant protagonist can still be the heroine, but if she is cold, selfish, or inconsiderate then that’s a good signal that this is a character marked down for improvement – by whatever means necessary. Preferably it will be a Shakespearean denouement, whereby her own moral failing brings about such a huge disaster that she has no option but to change her ways! And being too afraid to risk emotional commitment comes in for a bit of a kicking too, via the guilt / grief stories. The obvious next question: is this moral imperative specific to British girls comics? Do UK boys comics have redemption narratives too? Or those in other countries? My pal Lee Brimmicombe-Wood reckons that Japan’s flourishing manga industry has many stories about mavericks who insist on going their own ways – but in that industry’s story constraints, the mavericks are always right and never forced to realise that actually, there was a reason why everyone was telling them they were going about things the wrong way…

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28 thoughts on “Story theme: Redemption narratives

  1. Another story where guilt overrode the common sense of the protagonist and created all her problems in the story was “The Black and White World of Shirley Grey” in Tammy. Shirley Grey blames herself for her friend Tricia’s accident by lying to Tricia’s mother about where she was (practising her diving in a dangerous cove) – although Tricia told Shirley to do this, and Tricia herself must take the blame for not listening to her mother or Shirley about the dangers of the cove. Shirley won’t listen to her parents and friends who say it’s ridiculous and she should stop blaming herself. She now refuses to tell another lie, but is taking it to the extreme of not telling even a white lie, no matter the circumstances. This is is getting her into deeper and deeper trouble, both at home and at school, but Shirley thinks it’s a punishment for Tricia’s accident.

    Not sure if this would be a redemption story either. Still, Tricia learns some common sense, Shirley learns that things aren’t all black and white, a vicious bully gets tamed while the classmates learn courage in standing up to her, and a fat, badly dressed woman is shocked into improving her figure and dress sense.

    1. So in this story and Wanda Whiter Than White, the message is that moderation is more appropriate than extremism or perfectionism. That’s different from the message about emotional warmth, isn’t it.

    2. Your last para has something else about the morality of the 70s (and now) – a fat woman is sadly fair game to be shamed into changing herself!

    3. I’d have to call this a ‘guilt’ story rather than a redemption one. Shirley obviously isn’t thinking rationally due to her guilt over the accident. It’d only count as a redemption story, to me, inasmuch as Shirley finally regains her friends’ respect after alienating them with her refusal to lie. The bully was more or less bound to come a cropper, as ultimately that’s what she was there for. The turnaround with the big lady was predictable but necessary; it had to happen for Shirley to return to grace. It would’ve been more realistic for her to have remained cheesed off with Shirley – and fat.

      1. I did feel the resolution of the story was a bit contrived in places, such as the fat lady slimming down and how Shirley was cleared of the shoplifting charge the bully framed her for.

        1. Contrivance, that’s the word I couldn’t think of; wish I were better able to get into these in-depth discussions; just plod along really. Shirley’s shoplifting conviction had to go too, as the circumstances under which she received it weren’t just. Read Lindy in British Library last week (640 pages – phew!) and Pavement Patsy ended with a similarly wronged person’s conviction quashed. Another recurring theme: mysterious sponsor or benefactor (usually darkly attired) helping from behind the scenes, whose motives are initially unknown.

            1. Yes, in both the BL and the ’86 Tammy Annual, but in the former only really to see where the edits were made. Already grumbled about the latter’s failure to reprint unused material from post-23/6/84. Of course reprints in Annuals and Holiday Specials were commonplace, but due to Tammy’s end this was a wasted chance, nothing less. We can only hope Rebellion have unseen material in their possession and they’ll release it. Tammy 692, where are you?

          1. Darkly attired indeed! You’re right, lurkers of this sort normally are dressed in black / dark clothing. There’s one such in “Curtain of Silence”.

            1. So had the one in Pavement Patsy, whose name I forget; they were quite sufficient to lend the lurker an air of mystery. We seem to have come full circle: these darkly-clad individuals are generally seeking redemption through the stories’ protagonists, having themselves been wronged through injuries, the deeds of others etc.

  2. Paula’s Puppets: Paula starts off as a selfish, spoiled girl who becomes more mature, so it could be redemption, just as it was for the man who was really to blame for the trouble.

    Tearaway Trisha: I’m not convinced that Trisha should take the blame for the accident. I think there was an oily patch on the road somewhere.

    Fancy Free: she was a bully and the most difficult pupil in her school, and only wants her freedom. A lot of her behaviour can be attributed to her home life, with an uncaring mother who does not even clean up the place, and an absent father that Fancy yearns for. Her difficult behaviour does drive the plot, yes, but so does a growing mystery about her absent father.

    1. But Fancy does change her behaviour in the end, doesn’t she? Is that a redemption story do you think, or is it much more about the absent father and disinterested mother? In which case perhaps it would be more about the realism of an emotionally-deprived home life…?

  3. In some stories redemption is the name of the game. One is Tammy’s “School for Snobs”, about a special school that is designed to cure snobbery. The first story is a serial focusing on two snobby sisters who are sent to the school. One sister responds to the therapy pretty readily, but the other sister is a hard nut to crack. Sequels used a “snob of the week” format, where a snob arrives each week and is cured by the end of the episode (or the next one if it’s a two-parter). This format showed that snobbery comes in all shapes and sizes and there are many different types of snobbery. Some episodes even dealt with adult snobs (such as a secretary and a butler) rather than girls.

  4. The most common failings that appear are selfishness, spoiled brattiness, conceit, greed, snobbery or difficult behaviour. It is unusual to have a character who is downright nasty. There are exceptions of course, such as bully Cluny Jones in Tammy’s “The Clock and Cluny Jones”.

    1. Snobbery, indeed – very much one of the possible character traits that is looked down on as being one of the most negative things. That applies to girls comics throughout its history I guess.

  5. There is a foil to the redemption story – the story where the protagonist starts off all shy and lacking confidence. She is underrated and even bullied, but emerges a much stronger and more confident character by the end of it. Not sure what I’d call that type of story though. Examples are “Tears of a Clown”, “Alice in a Strange Land”, and even “Gwen’s Stolen Glory” (the protagonist starts off considered no good at anything and emerges with new strengths and self respect, though the road getting there is more of a redemption story than a strengthening one).

  6. A pretty common type of story in the redemption line is one where a girl is sent to special institution or home for sorting out. She’s not delinquent or criminal – she just needs a little toning down. Tammy’s “School for Snobs” is one example of this. Another is “Queen Rider”, adapted for Tammy. In some cases the institution is a sadistic one that mistreats its pupils, so our problem protagonist turns into a crusader against it. One example is “The Four Friends at Spartan School” from Tammy. Jinty never ran this type of redemption story. “Merry at Misery House” does not count here as the protagonist didn’t need toning down; she was sent to the institution unjustly.

  7. There have been stories where villains redeemed themselves in the course of the story, but most of them are minor villains in comparison to the really big villain of the piece. One example is “Lori Left-Behind”, where Lori is exploited by the man who takes her in after her parents go away. She runs off, and then things take a turn when both she and her abuser fall foul of a really huge villain. The abuser has reformed the end of the story and redeem himself by saving Lori. She says he’ll be one of her pinups now.

  8. One type of redemption story I’ve not seen is where a special school turns a really horrible girl around. (Special schools tend to deal more with difficult girls or wrongly accused ones in girls’ comics.) Take Nancy Norden in Judy’s “Be Nice to Nancy” for example. Nancy is the most hated girl in school (and been expelled from her previous one) because she’s a vicious bully, the most vindictive girl you ever saw, and a troublemaker who loves nothing better than wrecking things for others. Plus she is blackmailing the protagonist, Yvonne Baxter. At the end of the story Nancy is sent to special school. But just imagine if there had been a sequel that shows how Nancy fares in special school. How would her redemption have taken shape? I imagine the road would have been an extremely thorny one with a totally unsympathetic character like her. Readers would more likely have been rooting for comeuppance than redemption.

    Misty is the only comic I know where a horrible girl is sent to a special school to be sorted out. But of course it is complete stories where the girl is punished Misty style.

    1. It is nice to see when stories work on the redemption part and it doesn’t have the protagonist change their ways suddenly.

      As for Mistyfan’s comment about Be Nice to Nancy it certainly could be interesting to see an antagonist in a sequel trying to redeem themselves. While not a sequel Sorry Sue does a good job of taken the common story of a jealous girl playing tricks on her foster sister and sets it after those events, focusing on her trying to make up for past actions.

      1. I doubt Nancy would set out to redeem herself of at first, given what a nasty piece of work she is. If I was the writer, I would have her nursing revenge against Yvonne, and plotting to break out of the school to do it. Even the kids at the special school would despise her because she’s so horrible and makes their lives a misery. But when Nancy escapes, something terrible happens along the way. Nancy ends up say, crippled or blind, or falls foul of someone even nastier than her. Perhaps I could throw in some amnesia to give her a clean slate, so to speak. She is finally subdued.

          1. Think I would drop the amnesiac bit now. Give her an accident that has her think she is going to die, but she is rescued. Perhaps by Yvonne. A long hard road to recovery follows, in which she becomes less horrible.

  9. One story that did use the theme of reforming delinquents was Judy’s “Baker’s Dozen”, which was about a brat camp for two rival gangs.

  10. Misty’s Winner Loses All is another where guilt overrides common sense, which is what starts the trouble. Sandy’s father has sunk into alcoholism because he irrationally blames himself for his wife’s death and he’s on the brink of being fired for drinking. To stop him drinking, Sandy strikes a bargain with the Devil, for the usual price. Dad stops drinking and becomes the man he once was as the Devil promised. But he still blames himself. When Dad finds out what Sandy did and why, he saves her from hell by offering his soul instead. So there is is redemption there. Another more unsavoury girl also learns her lesson. But really – this has to be one of the bleakest endings ever in girls’ comics.

  11. The Perfect Princess had a protagonist who’s a real horror. The story could have gone in the direction of a redemption story or using the candidates for princess as a means to turn her around. But it didn’t.

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