How to Build a Character’s Redemption Arc


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in character, screenwriting

In a movie I watched this week, the protagonist starts out with relatable, even admirable, desires. But he gets caught up in his own success and loses everything before realizing what really matters in life and making a triumphant comeback – for the right reasons.

I’ll tell you in a sec what the movie was, but I bet you can think of a few of your own movie examples that play out like this.

It’s a character arc pattern that shows up in a lot of movies, and I’ve worked with many writers with stories featuring this type of arc. So today I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at how to build an arc like this effectively, using The Greatest Showman as our example.

**Spoilers below!**

This is the greatest show

One thing that’s really striking about The Greatest Showman is how efficiently the movie builds the main character’s emotional journey. Woven in and around the song-and-dance set pieces, we see protagonist P.T. Barnum rise from nothing, become seduced by success, lose sight of what’s important, hit rock bottom, and then get back on track after realizing the error of his ways.

It’s quite a ride, told in about 100 minutes, and still has room for musical entertainment and supporting characters to have their moments in the spotlight.

And it can only do that because it gives us all the moments we need, and none that we don’t.

The redemption arc, step-by-step

Here are the key phases that the character goes through on this emotional journey, with specific scenes or moments that dramatize that phase listed in the bullet points:

When we meet P.T., he’s young, poor, and looked down on, but he has big dreams:

      • Opening “daydream” scene.
      • Told to stay away from Charity (by her father, the wealthy man P.T.’s father does tailoring work for).
      • “A million dreams” song that young P.T. sings to Charity, and transitions us to grown P.T. & Charity, newly married and expecting a baby.

(That’s Sequence 1 – it shows us who the character is and what’s important to him — and I think this is an important and sometimes overlooked phase of this type of arc. This gets us on P.T.’s side before he starts misbehaving, so we have that push-pull of hoping for the best but fearing the worst. And the early insults help us empathize and understand why and how he goes astray later.)

Now, as a married father of two, P.T. is disappointed that he hasn’t given his family the “magical” life he wanted for them:

      • P.T. tells Charity as much, and she basically points out that their life, with the happy family they’ve created, is full of magic. Still, he knows they’re struggling and he can’t give them everything they want, and he’s not okay with that.

In Act 2, P.T. finds success with his new show (quickly named the circus):

      • We see him joyfully perform as ringmaster with his circus acts and bask in the crowd’s applause, seeing he’s made his family happy.
      • He buys his family the house he and Charity dreamed of as kids.

But somehow P.T. still feels looked down on:

      • The theater critic writes scathing reviews, and tells P.T. everything he’s selling is fake.
      • At his daughter’s ballet recital, P.T. sees the other girls making fun of her for smelling like circus peanuts. As a result, she wants to quit ballet – which has been her dream, but now she says she started too late to ever be good. And she even comments that ballet can’t be “faked” like the circus.
      • P.T. tells Charity he wants his daughter to be proud.

So P.T. strives to be seen as legit by bringing on a high-society theater producer, and talking European opera singer Jenny Lind into letting him produce her first American show.

Once he’s mingling with the society crowd, P.T. is a jerk to the circus performers:

      • While introducing Jenny Lind’s performance, P.T. slights the circus by saying Jenny is “more than just a sideshow novelty.”
      • P.T. tells his assistant, Carlisle, to put the circus performers somewhere less visible for Jenny’s performance.
      • And he shuts them out of the after party.

P.T. finds understanding in new friend Jenny, as well as the kind of success and approval he’s been seeking. But at the same time he loses sight of what’s most important to him:

      • After her show, Jenny toasts P.T., saying, “A man’s station is limited only by his imagination.” She confides that she sometimes feels that she doesn’t belong, too. “It leaves a hole no ovation can fill.”
      • P.T. leverages his current assets to put on an extensive tour for Jenny, despite Carlisle’s warning of how risky that is.
      • Charity asks P.T. when it will ever be enough for him. She says he doesn’t need everyone to love him, just a few good people – but he’s not ready to hear this yet.
      • P.T. goes on tour with Jenny. While he enjoys the admiration and approval he receives, his family feels his absence.
      • The circus feels his absence, too, and box office begins to suffer.

Then, things with Jenny come to a breaking point. She wants more than a business partnership, but P.T. hasn’t fallen for her so much as he’s fallen in love with the reflected glory of being associated with her. She tells him, “When you’re careless with other people you bring ruin upon yourself.”

And then things basically fall apart. P.T. arrives home to find the circus building has been set ablaze by protestors who don’t like the “freaks.” Jenny quits the tour, which ruins P.T. financially. Feeling abandoned and betrayed, Charity and the girls leave him.

But in the aftermath, P.T. is reminded of – and embraces – what truly matters to him:

      • The ever-critical theater critic offers (surprising) support, suggesting that P.T.’s circus is “a celebration of humanity.”
      • The circus performers tell P.T. he gave them a family and a home, and they want it back — they don’t want him to give up on them.

Now P.T. remembers what he really wanted and who all of this was for, and we see the big “From Now On” set piece as P.T. recommits to his circus family, and then makes amends with Charity. Together they rebuild the circus and get back to putting on the show. But P.T. hands off ringmaster duties to Carlisle, so he can spend time with his family.

Will it work in your screenplay?

This kind of arc can work in all kinds of stories and genres, but we see it a lot in stories that are based on real people and events …Perhaps because what happened in real life naturally lent itself to a redemption arc, and that’s what made the story appealing in the first place!

If you’re working with this kind of arc in your story, The Greatest Showman is a good example to take note of. And you can use the breakdown above as a template for planning out the step-by-step for your character. First, list out the essential phases the character must go through to complete the redemption journey. Brainstorm how to dramatize each phase, then weave those steps together with your other plot points, subplots, etc.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.