But in fiction--especially fiction written for children or younger readers--redemption often happens simply, in uncomplicated ways, and it's often not very satisfying or realistic for that reason. Furthermore, some people learn from fiction that forgiveness should be simple, and that it is something you can buy back from the person you wronged with easy, transaction-like offerings.
How many times have we seen representations of guys buying their wives flowers or chocolate to make up for whatever they did wrong but never actually addressing the underlying problems that caused them to make those mistakes? A peace offering can be a nice start. But it shouldn't be what makes the wronged party throw their arms around you and state that all is forgiven.
Recently, in The Cartoon That Shall Not Be Named Because I Talk About It Too Much, the storyline has been focusing on redeeming a long-time villain, sort of. (I'm planning to ramble about this on Tumblr pretty soon, but for the purposes of this blog, I'm just going to discuss what's relevant to the topic I'm covering here.) I mention this because--as usual--they're doing everything right. And I've been thinking about how incredible that is.
I've read so many kids' books where "I'm sorry" is enough--and where saving someone from danger or doing a favor for them or literally giving them a gift is enough to make up for lying to them, cheating them, hurting them, or insulting them. But these uncomplicated presentations don't tell you that "I'm sorry" is just a beginning. It's not the whole ticket to redemption.
"I'm sorry" means you recognize what you did wrong and that you on some level wish you had not done it. It does not mean you undo what you did, and it does not mean the person who was victimized is no longer suffering because of you. Intent is not everything. Especially when what you've done was not an accident.
Authentic redemption can occur in a story when someone not only apologizes, but tries to mend the damage AND proves through continued action and attitude that they have learned their lesson.
Right now, in my cartoon example, we have a villain who literally tried to kill the heroes multiple times, and now she's working with them only because she has no choice; the world is literally going to end and take her with it if she doesn't cooperate. The writers are really taking their time with this one--as well they should--because earning trust after immense transgressions should not be easy. But it's not just that these characters were on opposite sides of a war and were just doing their jobs. This character has gone on to commit very personal transgressions. This villain was raised in a different culture and has extremely poisonous beliefs. So far, she has unlearned very little, and most of her attempts at collaboration have been self-serving. The protagonist of the show is a little kid and his understanding of the situation is mostly just YAY SHE'S ON OUR SIDE NOW, LET'S BE NICE!--but the adults are not buying this.
And it's honestly a relief and a delight to see.
Children's media so often pushes an incomplex "always choose forgiveness" model. The "good" characters always trust so quickly and are usually rewarded for it. Holding onto suspicion and resentment is a negative character trait. Don't you know? You have to be pure of heart! But in real life, when someone continues to demonstrate that they can and will hurt you, it's smart not to trust them. And you shouldn't be demonized for refusing to forgive or trust someone who has abused you, no matter how sorry they say they are. Forgiveness is granted, not purchased.
This television show has actually covered this subject before--but between two of the heroes when one of them betrayed the other in a very personal way for a very selfish reason. The show devoted four more episodes to the fallout of the betrayal and the effect it had on the other characters. And as the plot called out for resolution between them, they had this dialogue:
"How can I make you forgive me?"
"You can't! You lied to me! You need to learn that there are consequences to your actions."
"I'm sorry! I couldn't help myself."
"I don't wanna hear your excuses."
By the end of this, the character who'd done wrong understood that earning trust again would be a process. They didn't just hug it out and go back to where they were, but they did acknowledge that now they would be moving forward. This is also built on a shared history where they have been allies for (literally) millennia, so that's part of the reason they know their rift can be mended and part of the reason why it was so devastating in the first place.
But now there's an antagonist-turned-reluctant-ally in the mix, and her only history with our heroes is a murderous one. During the course of working together to make it so the Earth does not literally explode, this character has more or less won over a naïve child, attempted to establish dominance fueled by something akin to racism in their universe, and attempted to kiss up to the character she thinks should be in charge. None of these attempts is going well. This antagonist is being tolerated. (And sometimes they just up and tie her to a fence like a dog if she gets out of line, so there's that.)
In the most recent episode of the show, this antagonist character delivers a massive insult to one of the heroes, and then spontaneously saves her from potential injury or death. The way she executed the rescue also put her in danger. And guess what?
She wasn't forgiven for the insult. The hero character she saved did not suddenly become grateful and chummy. She was still very angry.
The ice melted a little after an extremely awkward apology that acknowledged the wrongdoing and established a desire to be better. The character who'd been wronged even said "thanks." But not "I forgive you" or "I trust you." She accepted the apology in a heartfelt way and then just walked away.
That's how it's done, folks.
Being sorry isn't the endgame. It's a beginning.
When we write characters, we have to incorporate gray areas and messy relationships. If someone steals from you, the damage is not undone if the person returns your item. It's not undone if they give you two of the item. It's not undone if they steal and lose your item but say they're sorry. It's generally not about the stolen item. It's that the person has become someone who steals from you. Resolution can never be as simple as giving back the item. Not when theft removes trust as well.
Forgiveness has to be offered by the person who was wronged, not negotiated for by the person who chose to violate someone else. People--and characters you write--will have different terms for what it takes to earn their trust back. Some will take an apology at face value and flip a switch. Most will not. It's writing these sometimes awkward, sometimes chilly, sometimes heart-wrenching relationships that makes audiences get so invested in characters. We WANT to see them resolve. We WANT to see them getting along and know how much stronger they are for having been through this stuff together. but it will not be realistic or satisfying if big violations are resolved with one stroke, any more than a significant tear in a blanket can be mended with a single stitch.