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20091229 ZAdr 4531

This is why you don't want to take The Atoner for granite.

Teal'c: One day others may try to convince you they have forgiven you. That is more about them than you. For them, imparting forgiveness is a blessing.

Tomin: How do you go on?

Teal'c: It is simple. You will never forgive yourself. Accept it. You hurt others -- many others. That cannot be undone. You will never find personal retribution. But your life does not have to end. That which is right, just, and true can still prevail. If you do not fight for what you believe in, all may be lost for everyone else. But do not fight for yourself. Fight for others, others that may be saved through your effort. That is the least you can do.

Once, they were a major Big Bad. They did every crime one could think of, and did it with a song in their heart and a skip in their step.

But now, The Atoner has realized the error of their ways, possibly wants to make amends, and have decided that they will do so via heroic deeds. Simply going to jail won't do, because this isn't always applicable to their "sin." Besides, they have all these amazing skills from being a villain that would be wasted, and they can do more good out there.

The problem is, they often have to wrestle with going back to their old self, along with the massive guilt built up over years of carefree evil. Also, said previous villain skills usually involve killing people in very messy ways, which can result in karmically harmful situations. Other times their evil side won't go down without a fight, and end up manifesting itself as a Super-Powered Evil Side.

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that no amount of babies saved will make up for killing people in the past. The Atoner usually realizes that "Redemption is the path, not the destination" and continues for the rest of their life.

...which usually isn't very long, because Redemption Equals Death. Generally the only Atoners who avoid this are main characters of a series, who are already in the atoning stage by the series' start. Atoners often end up as Knights in Sour Armor. Those who believe redemption inherently equals death may well become Death Seekers.

A subtrope of this is "Assassin Wants To Quit." Stories involving them allow us to cheer on the assassin as they battle their former employers using the same murderous skills they honed during their previous career. Atoners sometimes go on a Redemption Quest in order to atone.

Would-be Atoners who are not sincere are trying to Buy Them Off. Not to be confused with the Aloner, though they can both coincide if the character is trying to atone for killing off everyone else on the planet. (And especially not to confuse with the Stoner, as the two are nothing alike.) The Atoner will often have difficulty winning people's trust and get accepted; must be very careful not to run into the Heel Face Door Slam.

Genuine atoners have a high chance of becoming The Woobie, especially if they were an Anti-Villain in the first place. See also, Be All My Sins Remembered, where they continue to suffer a guilt complex over their past misdeeds. Contrast with My Greatest Failure -- instead of a formerly evil character turning from his/her past, a good character feels the need to atone for not preventing a bad outcome (regardless of whether they could have changed anything). The Atoner may have experienced Go and Sin No More.

Examples of The Atoner include:

Comic Books Edit

  • In The DCU, post-Parallax Green Lantern Hal Jordan.
    • Until it was revealed that Hal Jordan wasn't really Parallax, that he was merely possessed by an evil creature named Parallax that did all of those bad things and therefore absolves him of all responsibly and exempts him from Character Development.
      • No, Hal still feels responsible for his actions when being possessed, just like Kyle when he was possessed during the Sinestro Corps War. Part of his interaction with the Corps is trying to rebuild the trust he lost when he killed his fellow Corps members and essentially destroyed the original Green Lantern Corps.
  • The title character of Avavar, despite not ever actually being a villain, becomes one anyway after being tricked into dooming the Kalen.
  • Batgirl: Making up for murdering a man is the bulk of Cassandra Cain's entire motivation, especially early in her career.

Barbara Gordon: "You were eight years old, you were raised in a bunker by a psychopath, you didn't know what you were doing... You were eight years old! And the fact that you have tortured yourself ever since proves the type of person you really are."

  • A Batman story did a variant on this: Issue #127 of his self-titled book showed an alternative origin if his parents didn't get killed. In this version, Batman was a criminal called the Blue Bat, and the costume was worn by someone else. This all changed with an encounter with Bruce Wayne, who defeated the crook, took the costume for himself, and became Batman, noting, "This costume that was once a symbol of crime will now become a symbol of justice!"
    • Detective Harvey Bullock, a member of Batman's supporting cast, was introduced as a corrupt cop, but he saw the error of his ways. Since then, he's been working hard at cleaning up both Gotham City and his reputation.
    • Another Batman-related example: Scientist Kirk Langstrom, alias the supervillain Man-Bat, is often portrayed as trying to make up for the damage his Super-Powered Evil Side has caused.
  • Spawn. Especially since it was revealed that he chose to come back as a monster because that's how he viewed himself in life.
  • The X-Men's archnemesis Magneto seems to go through regular cycles of Big Bad, Well-Intentioned Extremist, and The Atoner. During one of his atonement phases, he even joined the X-Men.
  • Emma Frost is this, leading Generation X.
  • Marvel's new spin on Speedball fits here, even if Speedball was always a hero. Now he's blamed for 612 people he didn't actually murder. But, hey, he can change his name to Penance Bleedball and design a costume with 612 points of constant pain.
    • It turns out that he didn't make the suit for himself - he made it for Nitro, the true murderer. He only wore it because he felt he had to atone somewhat for failing to save all those people.
  • Also on the Thunderbolts team, there was Songbird, who honestly saw the team as a chance to redeem herself. Too bad the Thunderbolts were reorganized to be little more than killers on a leash after Norman Osborne took over.
    • The Thunderbolts could be a subversion. Most of them are little more than super-powered serial killers who joined up so they could kill under the law. Take for example Mac Gargan, a.k.a. Scorpion a.k.a. Venom. Easily the worst person to wear the symbiote. Rather than just being a pair of spider-haters out for revenge, Venom is now a violent, rampaging cannibal. He can't even tell friend from foe on the battlefield. And he's not the worst guy on the team.
  • Deadpool of the Marvel Universe is trying to atone, but the fact that he's so bad at it, combined with his natural psychopathy, means that most people don't even notice.
    • Which actually leads to the occasional legitimate Tearjerker. Especially in the recent X-Men Origins: Deadpool comic which managed to turn freaking Deadpool into a tragic character.
  • Eel O'Brian, aka Plastic Man, right from the 40s to his current incarnation.
  • Back in the Marvel Universe, after several attempts to take over the universe, Thanos of Titan may have become the Atoner. In the Atrocious "Marvel Universe: The End" he destroys himself or seems to to save the universe, and then in a self-titled series started wandering around atoning for his old deeds. No one trusted his motives and the series was canceled before it was truly clear how genuine his motives were.
  • Gambit is another Marvel Universe example of this trope. He joined the X-Men due to the whole unwittingly helping some major baddies commit genocide thing. Admittedly Gambit never intentionally took part in said genocide and continues to be a much loved thief with a heart of gold to fans, but still.
  • At the conclusion of Kingdom Come, Superman's rival Magog becomes one of these.
  • The Phantom Stranger, in (at least) one of his Multiple Choice Pasts.
  • Tony Stark, ever since he was kidnapped in Vietnam Afghanistan Vietghanistan. Thanks to Survivor Guilt and Major Depressive Disorder, along with a ton of other traumatic events since then, he is also a Death Seeker. More so since Civil War, but generally people who like the character pretend it didn't happen.
  • Sistah Spooky (who is not a villain, but can be pretty bitchy) becomes this in Empowered #4.
  • The Spectre is a fallen angel who saw the error of his ways and repented. He now punishes evildoers who escape human justice as penance.


Fan Fic Edit

  • In The Blue Dragon, Malefor feels guilty for the actions he did in the past, and throughout the story, atones for them.
  • Surprisingly, Vash Christian Humber Reloaded sometimes is this. He turns himself in, apparently out of regret, after killing his friend Soku and the rest of her family in revenge for her turning him in. After bursting out of the stomach of a rogue dragon, he undergoes a quest to defeat the demon dragon Le Hung Doe. Unfortunately, those aren't even his worst crimes, and he remains largely unrepentant for actions such as killing six million people at the Super Bowl.
  • In the Mai-HiME fanfic, The Sword of the Lord, Nao and Reito are driven by a desire to atone for their actions in the Hime carnival. Nao despises Shizuru for apparently not doing the same.
  • In many My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic fics, Princess Luna, formally Nightmare Moon, becomes this after turning back to good after being banished to the moon for a thousand years.
  • The Pony POV Series has Fluttershy, after her time as Princess Gaia/Nightmare Whisper, and Fluttercruel, who accidentally turned her into Nightmare Whisper in the first place. They make no effort to make excuses, taking full responsbility for their actions and any punishment they've earned for it. It's made quite clear in their final scene that, although a lot of good did come from their actions, they both still regret their actions and will live with a lot of guilt.
  • Several appear in Travels Through Azeroth and Outland.
  • The Wraith Saga, an X-Men fic, presents an alternate timeline in which Hean Grey survived the events of The Dark Phoenix Saga and spends most of the story trying to atone for the destruction that she caused as the Dark Phoenix. At one point, she even returns to the charred ruins of D'Bari, the planet that she destroyed, to contemplate her past sins.


Film Edit

  • Ulfric in Black Death. As it is likely that he had been at the battle of Crecy, where their opponents had been slaughtered instead of being given a mercy strike. He does give one to the woman accused of being a witch.
  • Captain Mendoza in the film The Mission used to be a cold-blooded officer who ordered the slaughter of many Guaraní natives, until he killed his brother in a fencing duel. He then went as far as climbing up a waterfall with a huge bag filled with Spanish armor tied to his back. Then he joined Father Gabriel and the Jesuits.
  • In Outlander, Kainan reveals that he had helped hunt the Moorwens to the brink of extinction, and that he considers his family's death Karmic Retribution. He doesn't have any qualms about killing the Moorwen that got loose in Norway, but he decides afterward to sever ties with his homeworld and stay with the Vikings.
  • The titular character of Solomon Kane was once a savage and ruthless mercenary. After an encounter with a demon and learning of his potential damnation, he pursued first a path of pacifism to cleanse his soul and then a path of righteous battle to cleanse the world.

Music Edit

  • "The Noose" by A Perfect Circle.

  I'm more than just a little curious/How you're planning on going about making your amends/To the dead

  • "What I've Done" by Linkin Park

  I'll face myself/To cross out what I've become/Erase myself/And let go of what I've done


Mythology Edit


Play By Post Games Edit

  • In The Gamers Alliance, Omaroch becomes this after he breaks free from the dark god Mardük's control. He sees it as his fault that his sons ended up on a dark path, and he was partially responsible for the birth of the Godslayer who shattered the world's continents. He wants to atone for his past actions and hopes to be able to set things right again even if it means sacrificing himself to achieve that goal.
  • Sinestro is this in the World of Heroes roleplay, with interesting consequences.


Tabletop Games Edit

  • A recurring character in Warhammer 40000 is Cypher, a fallen Space Marine who seems to be seeking redemption, and may or may not be the key to the salvation of the Dark Angels chapter and their successors, if not the Imperium as a whole. The setting being what it is, Cypher is fired upon by the Dark Angels at every opportunity and hounded by the Inquisition.
    • The Dark Angels themselves quietly style themselves as this, and refer to themselves the Unforgiven - all because ten thousand years ago, a few of their number turned on their brothers out of pride or confusion. This being 40K, Redemption Equals Other People's Deaths - the Chapter is obsessed with hunting down their traitorous kin, who have been scattered across space and time, and helping them find "redemption," usually after days or weeks of torture.
    • Though it is hinted in the lore that it is in fact the Dark Angels and their Primarch who were the traitors but who turned their cloak AGAIN after hearing Horus had lost, and the Fallen Angels are the remnants of the loyalist force that fought them, who know that truth.
    • Also, inquisitors can have witches that are atoning for their crimes as part of their retinue, but this being Warhammer 40000, they probably had to undergo painful torture beforehand. Also, they are regarded as little more than psychic lightning rods, with game rules letting them take a psychic attack instead of it hitting the Inquisitor.
    • The Sisters Repentia, who fuse this with Death Seeker, Fetish Fuel, and Chainsaw Good.
    • This is also an inherent trope with the gas-masked Death Korps of Krieg, thanks to an attempted rebellion that threw Krieg into 500 years of civil war -- and a self-inflicted atomic cleansing of their entire surface -- before the loyalists retook control. The Death Korps, seeking to atone for this failure, regularly commit their regiments to the biggest stalemates, the bloodiest sieges, and the biggest meat grinders in the galaxy.
  • The Loyalists of Thule in Hunter: The Vigil have a Ancient Conspiracy-wide Guilt Complex, and it rubs off on its members. Why? Oh, nothing, they just helped the Nazis in World War II and they largely believe themselves responsible for the Holocaust as a result. Yeah, they have issues.
  • Some Troll Slayers in Warhammer broke an oath, and have decided to atone for it by killing as many enemies of the Dwarves as possible before they end up with their heads ripped off by something large and angry.
  • Here's a canonical tale from Pathfinder: Some years before the setting's current time, a fourteen-year-old Street Urchin named Seelah stole a paladin's helm, intending to pawn it for food money. Later, the paladin died of a blow to the head. Seelah, consumed with guilt, returned the helm with the intent to commit suicide on the paladin's funeral pyre. Instead, she was taken in by the order and became the iconic paladin.
  • The tale of Gagagigo, one of the very few instances of continuity within the Yugioh Card Game, shows the tale of a lizard warrior who once hungered for power, and, after the Marauding Captain takes an attack for him, becomes this. Unfortunately, he would ultimately lose his morality after becoming a cyborg.
  • This is the background of Magic: The Gathering Legends card Pavel Maliki.
  • In the world of In Nomine (an ongoing War between Heaven and Hell), it is possible for a demon to redeem and join the ranks of the angels, fighting to undo the evil they once supported. Just remember that old habits can be hard to break ...
  • One of the two main paths for Abyssal Exalted is to become this, make up for their dark deeds in the service of the Void and work their asses off to avoid spontaneously combusting from Resonance. If they can pull it off, they become Solars, without the Great Curse that messed up so very much of the First Age. The potential impact of this remains to be seen.

Toys Edit

  • In Bionicle, Brutaka is treated as one: sent to the highest security prison in this verse, sent to a suicide mission as probation, then welcomed back in the Hero Secret Service. The big surprise is that his best friend Axonn, who had to stop him when he betrayed, is another, according to the Atlas.

Western Animation Edit

  • In Batman Beyond, Terry McGinnis is a mild atoner. He was something of a juvenile delinquent before meeting the now-retired Bruce Wayne, and sees being the new Batman as a way to make up for that.
    • Zeta, star of the spinoff The Zeta Project, has elements of this- a former assassin robot who gained free will and doesn't want to kill anymore. When he finds other robots of his type, he tries to stop them.
  • Subverted in an episode of The Simpsons. Mr. Burns, after losing his fortune and learning about ecology from Lisa, is determined to turn his life around and rebuild his fortune doing good works. Unfortunately, Mr. Burn's idea of "doing good" involves raping and pillaging the environment in an even worse way than he had as the CEO of a Pollution-causing Nuclear Power Plant. (Lisa then is forced to admit that Mr. Burns is just naturally evil--and when he tries to be good, his twisted sense of morality makes him even more evil.)
  • Dinobot, in Transformers: Beast Wars. Only a little, but more and more as it gets further into the second season, culminating in his Redemption Equals Death.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender.
    • Zuko
    • Having a career as a Fire Nation general, Iroh counts.
  • Tetrax of Ben 10, as revealed in Secret of the Omnitrix.
  • A would-been third Jungle Book film would have actually turned Shere Khan from a Knight of Cerebus in the second to this.
  • Princess Luna in My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic is definitely one, trying to live down her 1000 year legacy as Big Bad Nightmare Moon. Mind you, her public relations need a lot of coaching from Twilight Sparkle, but she makes a real breakthrough.


Real Life Edit

  • Alfred Nobel set up the Nobel Peace Prize because he felt guilty about making a fortune selling weapons and inventing dynamite. It's believed that after his death was falsely reported by a newspaper and he read his own obituary, which referred to him as "the merchant of death" (but in French), he decided to leave a better legacy.
    • Many developers of nuclear weapons ended up this way, with the most prominent examples being:
      • J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had headed up the Manhattan Project during World War II, devoted his energies as chief scientific adviser to the United States Atomic Energy Commission after the war to advocate against nuclear proliferation.
      • Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet physicist who designed the two-stage thermonuclear hydrogen bomb independently of Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam (the design is known as the Teller-Ulam design in the West and Sakharov's Third Idea in the old Soviet bloc), and was involved in the "Tsar Bomba" project to design the world's biggest nuke (they succeeded, at 50 megatons). Sakharov developed a case of conscience, and became a leading opponent of nuclear proliferation, for which he won the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize. He then moved on to more general human-rights campaigning, calling for freedom and real democracy in the Soviet Union; he died in 1989, having just been elected to the first democratic Soviet legislature since the Red October.
  • D.W. Griffith was apparently too clueless and poorly informed to realize how incredibly racist Birth of a Nation was, and was shocked when people were offended by it. He spent the rest of his career trying to apologize for it with anti-racist movies like Intolerance and Broken Blossoms, the first film to portray an interracial relationship. It's worth noting, though, that neither of these films actually attack racism against black people (the former is split between Babylonian sects, Jewish sects, Catholics and Protestants, and American political factions, the latter focusing on a relationship between a Chinese man and a white woman).
  • Mike Tyson, who's served his time for rape as well as numerous drug charges and biting Evander Holyfield's ear off... has devoted himself wholly to nonviolence and charitable work, going so far as to become vegan.
  • Adolfo Scilingo. A pilot during the Argentine military dictatorship, Scilingo's job was to dump the tranquilised (but still living) victims of the dictatorship out of a plane and into the ocean. Tortured by PTSD and guilt, Scilingo eventually became the first soldier to break silence, leading to the arrests of many low-level participants (the leaders had already been convicted). Believing that nothing he does will ever be enough, Scilingo went so far as to deliberatly go to Spain to testify in the war crimes trials, knowing he would be arrested by the Spanish government, and convinced that he needed to be.
  • Theo Haser, a former Nazi who converted to Judaism, and has devoted his life to teaching others about the holocaust.
  • Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense to JFK and LBJ, spent much of his later career admitting the Vietnam War was terribly wrong and trying to explain how he and his fellow politicians could have seen otherwise, like in the Oscar-winning documentary The Fog Of War. Despite this, and his anti-nuclear weapon and anti-Iraq activism, his obituaries almost uniformly painted him as a warmonger anyway. Overlaps with Modern Major-General - the trope - he wasn't a military man at all but an auto-industry executive whose greatest legacy otherwise would have been the Ford Falcon.
  • Cyber-example: Kevin Mitnick. He started out as a notorious cyber-criminal; today he is a successful IT security consultant. Ironically, in July 2009, his websites were defaced by, guess what, a cyber-criminal.
  • Germany's actions after World War II are a deliberate attempt at this.
  • The United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID) is one of the foremost international development agencies and the UK has one of the world's highest aid budgets, as well as being one of the few countries that gives aid gratis (without tying it to aiding British interests). It has been suggested by some that this is due to Britain's colonial legacy.

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