Basic Plots: Rebirth

SpringHappy Spring! Despite what the groundhog said, yesterday marked the end of winter. On the calendar, anyway. With the strange weather patterns we’ve been having, it’s anyone’s guess what the next few weeks will bring.

But the concept of spring conjures images of blooming flowers, budding trees, growing grass. Animals migrating north or coming out of hibernation. Melting snow, April showers, flowing waters. In short, ideas of renewal and rebirth.

On Monday, March 12, Joan’s post touched on the premise that there are only so many plots in the world, and every story is a variation of one of those few. Christopher Booker even wrote a book on it (conveniently enough called The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories). One of his plot types? Rebirth.

Baby in nestI thought it was only fitting to explore that today.

In its simplest form, rebirth is the positive conversion of a character.

Yes, every main character in any story benefits from a story arc, particularly a redemptive arc. But this concept goes beyond that. Rather than the character changing in the course of a story designed with another, stronger theme, the purpose of this plot is primarily the enlightenment and transformation of a character. Look at the character’s story. If he is in search of the Holy Grail but changes as a person, it’s not a rebirth story; it’s a quest. If he’s just living his life, going with the flow (even if the flow is rocky) and changes as a person, his story is a rebirth.

I’m sure you’ll recognize many, if not all, of these examples.

  • A Christmas Carol (Ebenezer Scrooge)
  • The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (Grinch)
  • Beauty and the Beast (Beast)
  • Original Star Wars trilogy (Darth Vader)
  • Harry Potter series (Severus Snape)

The formula for writing a rebirth story goes something like this (I’ll be using Snape as my example):

    1. A character falls under the spell of darkness.
      It’s a lot easier to have a basically good person corrupted by evil than it is to start with an inherently evil person. It’s common to see a tragedy make a character turn from his natural goodness to succumb to darker influences.
      In the Harry Potter series, Severus Snape is just your run of the mill student at school, albeit one who isn’t very popular. He falls in love with Lily, who is one of the only people who is nice to him. But she only wants a friendship with him and falls in love with his nemesis, James Potter, and they have a son. This rejection sends him down a dark path, and he aligns himself with Voldemort.
    2. The character’s new status quo seems to be going well.
      There’s no reason to show a nice person do something bad and have it fail immediately. We need to establish that the choice to turn bad helps the character. Maybe it soothes a heartbreak or fills another need.
      With respect to Snape, he’s now involved with the wizard who is amassing power and seemingly can’t be defeated. Right or wrong, Snape is safe and has status, something his younger life lacked.
    3. The threat returns or strengthens, and the character is stuck in a seemingly inescapable state of agony.
      You always have to raise the stakes in fiction. This plot type is no different. The character is starting to see the error of his ways, but digging out of the hole looks to be impossible, or at least too painful to consider.
      Voldemort promised Snape he’d spare Lily’s life, but he didn’t. Now, Snape is known as a Death Eater, his reputation is permanently tarnished, and he’s left with nothing.
    4. The agony continues, with no end in sight.
      The villain needs to look undefeatable. Not only will the character not see a different outcome, but the storyworld itself probably will, too.
      In the case of Snape, Voldemort comes back to life and lays siege to the wizarding community. Snape feigns loyalty and becomes his right-hand man. It looks as though the Dark Lord will win the war, particularly with the death of Dumbledore.
    5. There is a final act of redemption.
      The character is given an opportunity to switch sides or stay evil. Staying evil would clearly be the easiest thing to do, but the character chooses to take the hard road, even if it costs him his life.
      In the case of Snape, he was a double agent, secretly helping the Order of the Phoenix battle Voldemort. Throughout the series, we’re never certain of his allegiance. In fact, he does some truly despicable things to maintain his cover. But in the end, his loyalty is proven, and his last act is to give his memories to Harry, which helps Harry not only understand all Snape’s motivations but also gives him the knowledge to win the war.

Yes, it’s true, not every rebirth story will follow this blueprint perfectly. Even in the example I shared, there’s some wiggle room. What’s important to remember is that early choices by the character take them down a dark road, one that initially helps them then proves to be painful and seemingly inescapable. A decision at the end will have the character choose a difficult but freeing path, switching to the side of good, possibly at great cost.

In other words, if you read or write about a character who seems bad but ends up being good, you’ve probably written a rebirth story.

Have you written a rebirth story? Do you have a favorite that you’ve read? Let’s talk about it.

Staci Troilo

52 thoughts on “Basic Plots: Rebirth

  1. Pingback: Basic Plots: Tragedy | Story Empire

  2. Love the example (surprising, uh?)! And I love rebirth and redemption plots. Severus Snape is a great and complex character, and it’s unbelievable what JKR did to him. She made us loathe him, even hate him for the whole series, just to reveal his tue self at the very end. Thinking about how I misjudge him still makes me feel guilty!

    I think rebirth plots or subplots are an awesome way to convey human complexity. Nobody is inherently evil, and nobody is completely good too. It depends on the choices the character makes, and there’s room for improvement. Always. Or for growing even worse.

    I read somewhere that the villain is the hero in his own story. He’s trying to get what he wants, just like the protagonist. So a rebirth plot can be seen like a shifting of the protagonist or the villain’s worldview.

    And I could go on for hours on this… So I’d just say: great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rowling really created a masterpiece right out of the gate. I feel like I could spend years analyzing her work and not scratch the surface.

      And yes, the villain is the hero of his own story. Or should be. Antagonists who are bad for the sake of being bad aren’t nearly as fun as those who are bad from the hero’s perspective but good from their own.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links | Staci Troilo

  4. Very interesting, Staci. I would not have thought of these in the same category or given this type of story the title rebirth, but now you point it out I see it clearly. I use this all the time in my children’s books, each of my “bad” characters, the trolls, the fondant snail, the baby cookie monster all end up being redeemed.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Do I have a favorite rebirth story? Ha! How about a rebirth trilogy! Gerald Tarrant of the Cold Fire Trilogy has to be the best anti-hero ever created. He ties for all time favorite character. Talk about a dark, twisted rebirth story. I’ve read that series twice (the first book three times) and will probably read it again. The man is unbelievable. ‘Nuff said before I go all fangirl 🙂

    Have I written a rebirth story? Kind of (Eclipse Lake), but the reader met the MC after the change and only learned of it in backstory so it doesn’t really count.

    This was a superbly executed post, Staci. I love that you used Snape to illustrate your points. Well done!

    As for that freaking first day of spring–it’s been snowing since last night and is still coming down. I’m off work today, snowed in. Hubby is outside with the snowblower trying to make a dent in it, but this is one nasty nor’easter. It’s supposed to keep snowing until ten o’clock tonight 😦

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I don’t know that I’ve ever quite gotten there. Will O’ the Wisp involved a massive character change, and she was different at the end, but I don’t quite think it fits the parameters. I had one who actually died and came back in Cock of the South, so physically but not character. Clovis did something bad that a reader could perceive as good, but did not change. Maybe in Enhanced League where Roger Warren made some bad choices, but wound up with the girl and a more positive life ahead of him. Even then, not exactly. I love this post, because daydreaming about plots is a big part of what we do. Very helpful stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I guess I would consider Book 14 of my series a rebirth one. One of the former villains sets out on her own quest to help the heroes. Think the only reason I’m iffy is my fantasy author mind keeps going to resurrection and reincarnation. Those two concepts seem to be highly used and abused in my genre.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think “fantasy” and my mind goes straight to “quest”. But you’re right; that genre does have a strong “rebirth” component. Seems to go hand-in-hand with the quest plot because a character usually has to become better to be worthy of what he or she seeks. I think if it’s done well (and I have no doubt yours is) then people won’t consider it overused. In fact, they may not notice at all, other than experiencing a sense of joy at the character’s arc.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It’s funny because many people see modern fantasy as dark politics more than quest. I think the genre swings between the two schools though. GoT is popular, so that’s the standard bearer. LOTR was that a while back. It’ll probably be another quest story once GoT is done.

        Maybe the best rebirth stories are the ones that happen naturally without the characters noticing. Feels like that happens to real people too.

        Liked by 2 people

      • You’re probably right about modern fantasy. I haven’t read any in a while, and I’ll admit (at the risk of public shaming) that I’m only through the first season of GoT and haven’t read any of the books. But I can see the political tilt to it. It actually probably makes it more relatable to people. We all see politics at play in our lives—government, family, work. But not many of us go on quests anymore.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Love this post, Staci! Guess I haven’t written about a character rebirth in that the transformation takes place during the time frame of the story, but the MC in my last book definitely experienced a rebirth from his teenage years. After reading this post, I will certainly be considering this type of character transformation for future works.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. I love this post. The Harry Potter series is one of my favorites, and I felt sorry for Snape even before it was revealed that he was secretly good. lol! In my series, Drake is my rebirth character. I didn’t know he would become that when I first created him, but as the series progressed, he made it very clear to me that there was more to him than I originally thought, so much so that I am now creating a novel (or maybe series of novellas – still working through it) about his life. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • I felt bad for Snape, too. At the end of the very first book, when we learned it wasn’t him (and really, did anyone think it was? but I needed proof) I had a twinge of sympathy for him. Just a twinge, because he did make Harry’s life miserable, but I sensed there was more to the story. He went on to become one of my favorite characters. Although, to be fair, I think Alan Rickman had something to do with that.

      As for your series, I absolutely LOVED Drake. Definitely a rebirth arc. And I can’t wait to see his story.

      Liked by 4 people

  10. This is a great post, Staci! It looks like I might have written a rebirth story with my latest book, Backstage … only the MC makes poor choices based on low self-esteem and lack of confidence rather than taking a dark road, and then everything spirals out of control. Somewhere along the line, she has to find some backbone and attempt to wrest back control. So, not a ‘bad’ character as such … does this sound like a rebirth tale? Thanks so much for this! As Anita and Jaye say on their comment, I need to add this to my notebook 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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