Vegeta. A proud Saiyan prince. One of the greatest and most powerful warriors in all the universes. Antihero. Bad boy. Tough guy. Redeemed villain.
If there is one thing that people like more than a hero, and even more than a villain, it’s a villain who becomes a hero.
It’s no great wonder why that is, of course. It’s nice to keep such entertaining figures around instead of killing them off. It’s interesting and inspires hope to watch them transform and become better people. And, as Jim Butcher once pointed out via his most famous character, Harry Dresden, it is incredibly reassuring to have something which once frightened you suddenly be on your side. A threat becomes a protection, like the ravenous wolves that ancient humans turned into man’s best friend.
In all of fiction, there are few more singularly iconic villains-turned-hero than Vegeta, of the exceptionally long-running Dragonball franchise. His popularity caught even his creator by complete, baffled surprise, and after several decades of exposure, Vegeta’s place in fandom’s hall of fame is undoubtedly secure. The girls want him, and the boys want to be him.
…which is kind of messed up, when you think about it.
I mean, yes, he turns over a new leaf, becomes a member of the main cast, becomes a hero, defends Earth and the universe and such. And, yes, he exudes raw, aggressive masculinity, proud and violent, which, say what you will about women, they like strong, powerful, handsome men. But somewhere along the way, it would seem that everyone, both the characters within the story and the audience experiencing it, managed to forget how genuinely villainous, how truly evil, Vegeta really was.
The man slaughtered an entire planet for fun.
He stopped there, on the planet Arlia, on a lark. He got to know the locals just enough to see they were under the rule of a tyrant, deposed said tyrant, and received the praise and thanks of a liberated people. Then he simply killed them all with a wave of his hand. All for a little bit of amusement. And, just to rub it in, the moment of planetary destruction came just as a pair of star-crossed lovers, separated by the tyrant in question, finally held each other once again. And they all lived happily ever after… for one millisecond. Then they died. All of them. Wiped out. Extinct. Murdered on a whim.
I’m sorry, but that’s at least as bad as any other villain in the story, or in any story. At least when Frieza destroyed Vegeta’s planet and race, he was trying to maintain his regime by mowing down a population of powerful, violent upstarts who were anything but innocent. But it would seem that the devastation of planets and populations in general is something that they just don’t worry about in that universe, given the later introduction of Beerus, and the even later tournament wherein entire universes were wiped out without a trace. It has become something that people can overlook and completely forget about, just as long as it doesn’t happen to them.
That’s pretty twisted for a bunch of otherwise-saintly heroes.
Dragonball in general seems to make a habit of having bad guys become good guys, and nobody has any problems with what they did before. Yamcha was a bandit in the desert. Tien and Chiaotzu were cruel, brutal bullies in the service of a petty master. Piccolo was a murderous, would-be despot. The android siblings 17 and 18 would have destroyed the entire human race if left to their own devices. Each of these soon found a place among Earth’s most stalwart defenders. Even Frieza, whose evil is never forgotten, becomes a comrade for a time when the fate of the universe is at stake. Time and time again, the franchise takes its most cruel, long-running villains and turns them into nice guys. And everyone just accepts it.
Neither is this remotely limited to Dragonball, or to anime! There are such famed examples as Spike and Faith from Buffy and Angel, Adalind Schade from Grimm, Aeryn Sun from FarScape, Teal’c and Tomin, Inigo and Fezzik (remember, they were going to murder a girl and start a war?), Zuko, Catra, Loki, Magneto, Emma Frost, Regina Mills, Crowley, even Darth Vader (albeit only at the end), and most of the cast from The Vampire Diaries and The Originals. All of these villains and more, like Hiei from Yu-Yu Hakusho, like Anubis from Ronin Warriors, like Pixie from Monster Rancher, and like Vegeta, went about doing evil, raining hell on the heroes, leaving bodies behind them, and nearly destroying the world… and nobody has an issue with this once they join the good guys. In fact, we love it! We love it, and we love them!
How? How is this done? How do you take someone who did so much bad, and make everyone forget about it?
How do you redeem a villain so thoroughly as that?
Well, it’s actually not that complicated. Indeed, from what I can see, the formula is bizarrely simple.
Mind you, the points I’m about to go over are not remotely set in stone. There is a great deal of flexibility to be found in how one does this. They don’t even need to be set in this exact order. This is less of a road map and more a set of very general guidelines, like a tourist guide. Every storyteller is perfectly free to tinker with them, in fact I encourage it! 😉
Step One: Establish Their Villainy
Not only is being a villain intrinsic to becoming a redeemed villain, but the audience needs to see them that way, to understand what makes them a villain in the first place.
Zuko served the Fire Nation and was the first character we saw pursuing the Avatar and his friends all around the world, trampling everyone in his path. Catra led troops against peaceful villages, and her madness nearly wiped out the entire planet, which was only stopped by the sacrifice of the mother of one of the heroes. Adalind Schade tormented and tried to kill both the hero and those around him, beginning with his elderly aunt. Spike, Faith, Klaus and every vampire around him, they all left blood-soaked wakes behind them. Loki schemed and murdered for power. Teal’c and Tomin both served unworthy masters and slaughtered many innocents, as did Aeryn Sun.
As for Vegeta, I refer you to his stop on Arlia, that planet I mentioned him destroying for fun. Anime villains can be especially cruel, but neither Hiei nor Anubis destroyed an entire planet just for kicks and giggles. Neither did Hiei ever once turn on an ally, which Vegeta did several times, first when he killed Nappa, his last remaining Saiyan comrade, and then when he turned against Frieza’s army and killed those who once called him a friend, and then yet again when he so desperately wanted a rematch with his rival, Goku.
Vegeta came from a bloodthirsty race and was always proud of it. He very much went the extra mile to live up to that legacy.
Step Two: Make Them Interesting
This is just part of good storytelling: the characters must be interesting. Especially in a cinematic format, this is what keeps the audience most entertained and invested in the outcome. However, it’s even more important when it comes to redeeming a villain, because once their villainy has been established, we need a reason to care about what else they do and what happens to them.
This is easily the most flexible part of the recipe, as the ingredients of interest can be added at any time during the villain’s journey. However, they are also the most important, and need to be added constantly. If they’re not interesting, then the audience will… well… lose interest.
There are any number of tricks and tropes that further this in specifically a positive manner, rather than one that just makes us hate them even more. To just mention a handful:
Charisma and Humor
Because these are naturally attractive forces in any human. They speak to wit and force of will both, to the virtues that make us gravitate to leaders and appreciate any presentation. Who can ever forget Loki, both when he is loud, a’la, “I am Loki! Of Asgard!” and when he is quietly mocking, “Are you ever not going to fall for that?” And let’s not forget the rhyming jokes which first endeared Fezzik and Inigo to us! “Anybody want a peanut?”
Vegeta might not be especially charming, being not at all interested in subserviently ingratiating himself with others. But that, itself, adds to his masculine charisma: he does what he wants without caring what others think of him for it. He speaks with will and acts without restraint. He might not have much sense of humor, but, well… he is still the center of a good deal of humor, isn’t he?
Again, this is generally more entertaining to see, especially as the hero must often figure out the villain’s weaknesses in order to triumph. But as for redeeming a villain, change comes most naturally for humans when we come up against something that we can’t simply go straight through. A limit to our power, our strength, our arsenal, our precision, something that requires adaptation and evolution. Zuko is a fantastic example of this, not only because he loses a lot early on and throughout the entire series, but because he demonstrates courage, tenacity, cleverness, and even humility, which humanize him and make us like him. Heck, he’s an exiled prince out to reclaim his honor, which gives him both a quest and a limit that can hardly be defined.
Dragonball Z and successive additions to the franchise tend to rely most on brute strength and power, losing much of the subtle artistry of martial arts as is found, albeit in an exaggerated form, in the original Dragonball. Thus, the limits which Vegeta and other characters face are largely those of raw power. Their enemies simply possess so much devastating, destructive power that the only way to keep up is endless, exhaustive training. There are only a few times where plans and strategies using the materials at hand actually come into play. Still, once Vegeta, who is introduced as this mega-powerful bad guy, is driven to his limits, well, from then on, he is right there alongside the rest, forever coming up against that wall, and forever pushing against it.
Those limits and wits come into play here, especially. For most characters, limits are something that one has to use one’s wits to compensate for, and we get to see how they really think and feel. There is something very satisfying on a primal level when we see anyone overcome something with the use of their brain. We weren’t always at the top of the food chain, after all, and overcoming something that seems invincible is always a rush, even when it’s a diabolical villain doing the scheming, because that just makes them all the more dangerous to the heroes. That’s how Adalind was such a fearsome foe even after she lost her witchy powers, let alone when she got them back!
I’m always going to remember when we saw Vegeta scheming against Frieza in their race for the dragonballs on the planet Namek. There’s not much scheming that goes on in the franchise, really, but that was a most entertaining exception. First he snatched one dragonball and hid it in a very simple place where no one else would think to look, and which required a piece of specialized technology to locate. So long as he could keep one, after all, he would hold an advantage. Then he infiltrated Frieza’s ship in a manner which no one suspected, found five more dragonballs, and caused a careful distraction which bought him just enough time to steal all of them and make his escape. Then he found the seventh, and almost won the entire contest right there and then, if not for a few mitigating factors. Time and again, he proved to be one of the smartest characters. Which, goes into the next point.
Badass With a Point
If you’re going to have a character with a brain, they’d better be using it. The beauty of intelligent villains is that they can contrast with the hero’s point of view, offering a perspective that the hero may have never considered before. And for a villain-turned-hero, they can complete or even, in the eyes of fans, surpass the hero’s viewpoint, making them all the more easily beloved. Spike, for instance, had one the sharpest wits in fiction, and in every argument he ever had with anyone, he always had a point which he could verbalize perfectly. Poetic, for a guy named Spike.
Goku and the heroes are… well… idealistic. To put it very mildly. Goku is so innocent and naive even as an adult that it’s honestly annoying. His insistence to not kill gets almost unbearable at times. Cue Vegeta and his brutal zeal for bloodshed. He takes far too much pleasure in it – witness: destroyed a planet full of innocents for fun – but he also has a point when he defends the choice to kill their enemies. What if they returned? What if they gained some advantage? What if they took Goku’s son hostage? Goku thinks of none of this, enjoying the fight and even the drama every bit as much as Vegeta, only without the death. That is, except for those villains who won’t be stopped any other way. Which is Vegeta’s entire point, that they have to stop their foes permanently, and it is a valid one.
Connection to the Hero
This is an obvious and pervasive trope. It creates an automatic personal stake in any conflict, enhancing both the tragedy when a villain dies and the joy when they are redeemed instead. Faith is automatically connected to Buffy as both are Slayers, Catra is childhood comrades with Adora and obsessed with her, and who can ever forget, after killing his mentor and supposedly killing his father, the moment with Darth Vader says to Luke Skywalker, “I am your father!”
Goku and Vegeta are the last two full-blooded Saiyans of note in their universe. The rest are either destroyed along with their planet, exiled somewhere far from their enemies for being too weak, or killed in battle on Earth, as with Nappa and Raditz. They are effectively the last survivors of their planet and their race, which makes for an inherent, immediate, and powerful connection, one which comes to define both of them as enemies, rivals, and friends. It’s really the first thing we ever knew about Vegeta, before we even knew his name.
Make Them Hot
I mean… duh! Humans can be petty, shallow creatures, ready to forgive far too much if the object of their forgiveness is hot as hell, exuding power and confidence, the things we crave on subconscious, animalistic level. And out of everyone I’ve mentioned thus far – with the exception of Darth Vader – I think we can agree that they are designed to be quite attractive.
Vegeta being quite definitely and definitively not an exception to the rule!
Step Three: Confrontation
To emphasize again: this is not a process that is written in stone. Many villains are introduced as evil, confronted, and then made more interesting as a means of fleshing them out and showing how they are redeemed. However, it is an absolute: the hero must, at some point, face the villain, and one or the other must be defeated. For a villain that is later redeemed, however, there are at least two key points to keep in mind: how powerful they are and how they are defeated.
Victory can’t be impossible, but it can’t be too easy either. Easy is boring. The hero and villain must be a match for each other. Magneto and Professor X are both powerful, albeit in separate ways, and Emma Frost is absolutely the Professor’s match in telepathic strength. Faith has the same Slayer strength and resilience as Buffy. Hiei and Anubis both start out, in their respective anime, as being notably stronger than their respective foes, making for a huge upset when they lose.
Vegeta follows that last pattern most closely. Not only does Goku require intense training to match him, but doing so still pushes him to within an inch of his life. And all this after Vegeta had gone a few rounds with Goku’s friends. Heck, if I recall correctly, Goku actually needed his son Gohan to step up towards the end, because he just couldn’t quite do it all himself. It was only in later years that Goku became truly stronger than Vegeta, and Vegeta was never truly very far behind!
Defeat Without Killing
This may be the trickiest part of any confrontation, let alone one that has such life-altering significance. When the hero wins – if the hero wins, because they don’t always – it can be a tightrope walk to avoid killing off the villain so that they can be redeemed later. Sometimes it isn’t even deliberate. Buffy did her best to kill Faith, to feed her blood to Angel, and that was before Faith threw herself off a building and into the back of a moving truck, to deny her the prize. It was just sheer Slayer tenacity which kept her alive long enough for a hospital to get her on life support, and she still lingered for months in a coma. And Klaus Mikaelson talked his way out of death by the very skin of his teeth on The Vampire Diaries, second season finale, when he was surprised by a collection of brutal enemies who had no qualms with killing him.
Vegeta’s continued life, however, was a very deliberate choice. He was quite nearly dead, lacking the strength to do more than drag himself into his ship and flee Earth with his life. But there was one warrior of Earth left standing: Krillin, able to stand and wield a sword. He could have finished Vegeta off right then and there, with no further fanfare. But Goku pleaded for his life, as he was the only other living Saiyan. The connection between hero and villain came into play at a pivotal moment, and it altered the course of the universe’s fate.
Step Four: A New Quest
So, once the villain has been introduced, made interesting, and defeated without being killed, there is the obvious question: what comes next? Well, if they keep being evil, then they just move on to the next scheme, the next evil thing they do. If they are to be redeemed, on the other hand, then their path eventually needs to pass through a few necessary stops. Not necessarily in any particular order, mind you, but, still, they pass through them.
A Greater Evil
Naturally, for the villain to join the heroes, there must be something for them to unite against. A mightier force, a deadlier foe, a greater evil against which neither can prevail alone. Often, these are their former masters, as in the cases of Teal’c, Tomin, Zuko, Pixie, and Anubis. Sometimes they are outside forces that are simply much more terrible than themselves, much as the Mikaelsons both are, when introduced, and face, including Silas, the Hollow, and their own relatives. Inigo and Fezzik became heroes because they needed their former foe’s help to get revenge for Inigo’s father, so they helped rescue a princess in exchange.
Vegeta gets both. Not only is Frieza a great tyrant whom Vegeta once obeyed, but successive villains seem to come from nowhere, including the Androids, Cell, Majin Buu, and more.
I believe I already mentioned a few times how change comes in response to hardship. A villain’s redemption is no exception. In order for them to be turned from their darker path onto a better one, they need a reason to change course. Facing a greater evil goes a long way towards that, as does their defeat at the hero’s hands, but there’s more.
They might be brought low in humility. They might face the futility of their previous existence up to this point, or suddenly feel the weight of their sins falling onto their heads. The latter is much more the case for Teal’c, Tomin, and Aeryn Sun, two of which joined the heroes early in their respective shows and came face to face with their previous sins later on. Faith and Regina Mills both had to suffer for the sins we saw them commit in order to be redeemed. As for facing futility, Crowley becomes the King of Hell and even enslaves Lucifer himself, only to be deposed and then rise again and be brought low and rise again, in a cycle that proves exhausting to his spirit.
Humility is not exactly Vegeta’s cup of tea. He doesn’t exactly feel guilt for anything he’s ever done, but there are moments where we see him reflect on how he has been so utterly surpassed by Goku, and then by Gohan.
And then there’s how it might truly not be entirely their fault. I’ll always remember how Goku said that while burying Vegeta’s fresh corpse. He was revived with the dragonballs, but it was a gesture of respect and sympathy towards a foe whose evil path was not entirely his own responsibility. He was raised to it by his people and driven to it by his master. He never had a chance, really. Not until he was defeated, spared, and his ambitions to overthrow Frieza were ignited.
There is a certain measure of forgiveness to be found in that. Zuko was a product of his family, as was Regina. Magneto was driven by the horror of being a Jew in Auschwitz. Tomin was indoctrinated from a young age, alongside his entire people. Teal’c was aware of his master’s evil, but knew nothing else he could do but slightly temper their fury, to spare an unknowing handful of innocents here and there. Anubis and others were literally controlled within their own minds. Speaking of, the journeys of these various characters brings me to…
This is where the villain truly begins to shine as a human as well as a hero. They really change, to leave behind “evil,” though they remain “dangerous” to the very end. Zuko is my favorite example here, with one of the best, most wayward journeys from despicable villain to honorable hero in fiction, through all the mistakes he made. Klaus and Adalind both become protagonists when they gain daughters that they are driven to protect. Teal’c gains friends and experience on planet Earth. Hiei becomes comrades with his former enemies.
And Vegeta? Well, he, himself, comments on how he realizes that he’s settled down, married Bulma, and had a son named Trunks. He became less prone to instantaneous violence and casual murder. He began to live for something other than his pride. And that brings us to the final step.
Step Five: The End…?
Every story and every journey has an end. Hollywood would very much like to avoid such as long as they can make money off it, but, sooner or later, one must always say goodbye. Everything comes to a head, and here, at the ending, hero and villain and redeemed villain alike can all go the way of the dodo. And, really, what better seal could be put on a villain’s redemption than to give everything they have, even their life, to see it through?
Zuko almost dies to save Kitara’s life. Faith eventually turns herself in to police custody and confesses her murders, and then almost dies to save Angel. Aeryn Sun almost dies several times. Teal’c is ready to give his life to atone in one of the earlier episodes of the series, and that’s just the beginning of his journey. Klaus eventually dies to see his redemption through to the end, to protect his daughter. Crowley ultimately sacrifices himself to stop a terrifying enemy, as does his mother, Rowena. Darth Vader is defeated, then saves his son at the cost of his own life. Anubis dies to save Lady Kayura, the last living relative of the Ancient One who rescued him from the darkness. Inigo almost dies for his revenge.
Vegeta, being a warrior in Dragonball Z, gets to die multiple times for his redemption. First he’s killed in battle by Frieza, purchasing time for Goku to heal and return to the fight. He gets brought back, and years pass before his redemption becomes complete. He walks a darker path again, for a moment, but then turns round again and gives his life in an attempt to stop Majin Buu. He’s brought back again, in time, but his transformation from bad guy to good guy is finally completed.
…which, goes into the next part. For those who sacrifice and then are brought back from the beyond, what is next?
Faith gets out of prison, eventually, survives the process of saving Angel, and stands with Buffy as a true comrade against the First Evil, becoming one of the main cast members at the last moment.
Zuko does much the same, surviving and becoming a lifelong friend to the heroes, and the lord of his nation.
Inigo and Fezzik get what they’re after, rescue their allies, and escape.
Teal’c devotes his life to safeguarding the galaxy and building a free nation for his people.
Tomin leads his people in peace and liberty.
Spike also dies and comes back after a great transformation of himself, and he joins the eternal fight against evil.
Magneto and Emma Frost both join the X-Men as steadfast allies.
Loki… has a very confusing ending that both has and hasn’t actually happened, but he basically becomes a hero who gives his life and doesn’t.
The Mikaelsons and their counterparts on The Vampire Diaries either die or live in peace as humans until they eventually die.
Adalind raises in peace the children she had with her former enemies.
Darth Vader finds peace in death as Anakin Skywalker.
Aeryn Sun stands by her husband to raise their son in peace.
Regina Mills outlives many of her friends and keeps saving her son.
Catra sacrifices herself to save a former foe, and then is rescued, coming to be one of the family of heroes and the love interest of Adora.
The Androids find peace, one of them having a family with Krillin and the other protecting animals on an island.
Hiei lives a long life, watching over his sister from afar, watching over the effort to keep demons from causing mischief in the human world ever again.
And Vegeta? Well, he raises his children alongside his wife, defending them all and saving the universe.
In short, after a long journey through the dark, the redeemed villain’s story, like the hero’s, may end sadly, but also triumphantly.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Past sins and destroyed planets forgiven and completely forgotten.