Transphobic Villains and Redemption Arcs #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

A photoshopped image of a wooden toolbox which has a notepad, five books, an iphone, a mac keyboard, and three black pens inside of it. On the front of the toolbox is written "#AuthorToolboxBlogHop"

Hey, it’s been a minute.

I went on an unannounced hiatus for two months because, frankly, I needed a break. Between COVID and the end of spring quarter of my MLIS program, I just lost the energy to write anything. So I spent the past two months reading a disgusting amount of manga, knitting, and chilling out to some lofi or ASMR. I’m not completely back to 100% right now, but I’m back now, and here to talk about the nuances of transphobic villains and redemption arcs. I’ve talked about the dangers of including transphobia in your story in a previous post, so be sure to look at that one as a reference!

The great thing about creating a transphobic villain is that it literally villainizes transphobia. As the reader empathizes with the heroes, they will instinctively align themself against the villain, their actions, and their ideals. The dichotomy between the hero and the villain often acts as a line which the readers can use to navigate morality. In classic children’s tales, that line is usually clear cut to teach right from wrong (think Cruella de Vil), though in stories geared towards adults, it is often more murky (think Batman). The clearer the line, the more likely it is that the reader will align themself against the villain.

However, if that line is too murky, the reader may end up empathizing with the villain, which could very well cause them to see merit in the villain’s beliefs. Let’s say you create a villain who sometimes does good things, or maybe their acts of villainy are all for a greater purpose, or they’re only considered a villain because society maintains a narrative that what they believe is wrong. A reader would naturally feel for that villain, at least a little bit. Now, imagine that the not-so-evil villain is transphobic. What message does that send? Simply, it subtly tells the reader that transphobia is something justifiable, which is absolutely not a narrative you should support.

To go a step further, when it comes to villains, it’s important to consider the redemption arc. The redemption arc is meant to transition a character from villainy to heroism; but it hinges on two important facts: 1) the actions of the villain prior to the redemption arc must be forgivable in some way, and 2) the villain must change over the course of the redemption arc to show that they will no longer commit acts that require forgiveness. 

A great example of this is Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender. Throughout the series, Zuko doesn’t really ever do anything truly heinous; for the most part, he aims to capture, rather than kill, Aang. At every turn, his actions are overshadowed by the cruelty of true villains like Admiral Zhao, Azula, and Firelord Ozai. After a difficult journey, Zuko grew, faced his own weaknesses, sincerely apologized, and made reparations with Aang and friends. Had Zuko been more cruel or had he not taken steps to grow and make up for his wrong-doings, his redemption arc would have failed because it would have been either unfulfilling to see a cruel person be forgiven or unrealistic to see him forgiven without doing any work to prove he has changed.

Those two elements to a successful redemption arc are exactly why I wouldn’t recommend them for a transphobic villain. (This is with my usual caveat that this only applies to cisgender writers, as you’ll see below!) 

First, if you’re cisgender, writing that kind of redemption arc implies that transphobia can be forgiven by a cisgender person. The only people who have a right to forgive a person for their transphobia are transgender people. Imagine if some asshole came up and smacked your beloved ice cream out of your hand and onto the ground. You’d be mad, right? But then imagine a random passerby came up and said to the asshole who ruined your day, “Oh, I forgive you, I’m sure you did that for a good reason!” That’s (very simplistically) why it’s not a great look for a cisgender person to determine the redeemability of a transphobic person. If you’re a trans writer, this doesn’t apply to you, obviously.

As for the second element, hard effort and reparations, the situation is fairly similar, though a bit more nuanced. If a cisgender writer comes up with the plot points that lead to self-growth, apologizing, and repairing relationships, that implies that cisgender people have a right to determine the method and circumstances surrounding those reparations. Let’s go back to the ice cream and the asshole situation. Let’s say you argue with the bystander and say, “Hey, you don’t get to forgive that asshole for me,” and they ignore you and turn to the asshole and say, “If you do a silly dance and say you’re sorry, they’ll forgive you!” At this point you’d probably be flabbergasted and verging on pissed! The bystander doesn’t have a right to decide if and why you would forgive the asshole, but now they’ve made it into a whole thing, and if you tell the asshole to buy you a new double scoop of mint chocolate chip now after all of that, you’re the one who’s going to look like an ass. In a similar (but more painful and traumatic) way, trans readers will be harmed by a cisgender author giving a transphobic villain a redemption arc. Again, though, this only applies if you’re a cisgender writer.

Whatever path you take, a transphobic villain is an opportunity for a compelling narrative so long as it is written wisely and with care. As always, make sure that your work isn’t harmful or unrealistic by having transgender bias readers. Definitely warn them that the villain is transphobic before you send them a draft, though, so they know what they’re getting into!

What is this “#AuthorToolboxBlogHop” thing?

I’m glad you asked! I’m a part of this author blog hop where a group of bloggers write about the same theme (in this case, resources & advice for writers). There are some requirements so other participants can know which posts are for the blog hop and which are not. If you want to learn more, you can check out the details and the list of other participants here!

18 thoughts on “Transphobic Villains and Redemption Arcs #AuthorToolboxBlogHop”

  1. Oooooo, lots of valuable insight. That analogy really helped me understand what you’re saying. Prior to reading this article, I wouldn’t have written a transphobic anti-hero, but not because of the valid points you’ve made, and more I think because I gravitate toward anti-hero traits that are morally gray as opposed to heinous. Now that I’ve read this article, I can see that I was doing the right thing but not for the right reasons, and it’s an important distinction, because it’s not just my own work that I make decisions about. I work with critique partners, for one, and now that I have a better sense of why this situation is problematic for cis writers, I’ll be able to talk about it if need be. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad that it helped! And I don’t think your initial reasoning is necessarily wrong. Very few stories try to create an anti-hero who is truly a wretched person, and those that do tend to be intentionally uncomfortable. I can imagine a plot that follows a heinous transphobic anti-hero that tries to confront readers with how many people who are viewed as good are actually terrible people, but I would only be comfortable with that kind of narrative if it were written by a trans person.

      Like

  2. Thanks for explaining the subtleties of this. Writing around identities different than one’s own is a challenge that requires effort to do well and respectfully. Thank you for educating about this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent explanation, and analogy. Writing and redeeming a transphobic villain, as a cis writer, is a bit like shoving the ‘white saviour’ narrative into a novel about BIPOC. (Cis saviour complex? Is this also a thing in books?) As you say, bias/sensitivity readers are a critical component of writing a respectful, honest story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you liked it! I can definitely see the similarity! I haven’t read many books with a “cis savior complex”, but I may have instinctively avoided them. Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

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