Some SFF characters start out good and stay the course. Some, of course, start out flawed and try to reform. There’s a lot of entertainment potential in a character who wants to do better. Here are some SFF stories about trying to be a better person…
S. L. Huang’s Cas Russell (protagonist of the ongoing Russell’s Attic series) has an unusual superpower (ultra-speedy physics and math computation). If she weren’t trying to be good, she would be a superlative villain, applying her math skills to all-round badassery. But the people she desperately wants to like her won’t if she stays on the dark side. They also won’t like her if she stops bad guys but also takes out a crowd of innocent bystanders in the process. Being a discriminating white hat (one capable of stopping the bad guys without causing massive collateral damage) is hard. She has a tendency to overdo it. But she has to try if she wants to keep her friends.
Kazuma Kamachi and Arata Yamaji’s manga A Certain Scientific Accelerator is the story of a fifth level ESPer (named Accelerator) who wants to be so powerful that other ESPers will stop picking fights with him. Accelerator has decided to power up by fighting twenty thousand level-three Misaka clones to the death. He would have become the first sixth level ESPer…except for that crucial moment when he began to see his victims as people.
Accelerator eventually reconsiders. His body count is already in the thousands. Can he redeem himself? Accelerator feels that he’s irreparably damaged. His actions, on the other hand, would seem to indicate that he does not really believe that redemption is impossible.
A shapeshifting entity takes on the persona of John Persons, PI (deceased). The Yithian protagonist of Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone is determined to put his disreputable old life behind him, to live amongst fragile mortal humans as though he were one of them—almost as though he were a white knight-style protagonist in one of the humans’ pulp detective novels. None of the humans of Croyden guess that there’s something uncanny slithering about in the shadows.
Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces series protagonist Ray Lilly would have been right at home in a hardboiled crime novel. In the weird horror setting in which he lives, Ray’s combination of criminal smarts, blind loyalty, and diminished executive function led him to dabble in the Dark Arts. Unlike most fools who flirt with inadvertently letting extradimensional predators into our world, Ray is given a chance to make amends for his bad judgement. Indeed, he’s not given any choice: Ray will spend the rest of his life fighting the horrors he enabled.
Edward and Alphonse Elric had a simple dream: use forbidden alchemy to drag their dead mother back from beyond the grave. Their effort was not entirely successful: their mother stayed dead, Edward lost his arm, and his younger brother was reduced to a soul bound to a suit of armour. Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist follows Edward’s efforts to make up for his terrible judgment and somehow restore his brother before the spell binding him to the armour wears out. More than that, Fullmetal Alchemist’s cast is almost entirely composed of war criminals trying their best to make amends for crimes against humanity committed during the Ishbalan War. Is redemption for genocidaires is even possible?
Flawed characters doing their best to become if not good, at least less bad, is such fertile soil from which to grow stories that there are dozens I could have mentioned but did not. Feel free to list all the excellent examples you are outraged I overlooked in comments below.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He was a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, is one of four candidates for the 2020 Down Under Fan Fund, and is surprisingly flammable.