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Do you know the difference between an epiphany and a character arc?

When plotting out or revising your novel, it’s important to understand the difference between an epiphany and a character arc. Both are useful and important, but they serve very different roles in the narrative. Think of them like salt and sugar: They’re both dry, granular materials, both are very important in cooking, but the two are hardly interchangeable.

This is an epiphany. It’s a moment of revelation, when a character comes to understand something he couldn’t grasp before. I’m not talking about realizations that relate to the plot, as when someone comes to understand the key to a puzzle or finally figures out what missing thing they need in order to overcome some challenge. Those are great story moments, but they don’t have much to do with characterization.

I’m talking about moments when a character suddenly realizes something about himself. Those are moments of deep significance in your book because they foreshadow that the character will begin to think and act differently.

A lot of modern fiction trades in making protagonists into their own worst enemies. This has been true for some time in literary novels, which tend to be deeply driven by characters rather than plot. However, it is becoming increasingly true in mainstream and “plot monster” books too, as writers learn the power of characterization and character growth to more deeply involve the reader in the book.

Regardless of genre, many books have a setup in which a character flaw is the one thing that most prevents the protagonist from getting the job done. Only when he recognizes this—like when an alcoholic finally admits that his drinking is in fact a problem—can he begin to get out of his own way.

This is a character arc. Well, ok, that’s not strictly true. But graduation is a nice representation of a character arc: It’s where a character ends up after a series of epiphanies.

In school, students are faced with many challenges—classes, term papers, and exams—to overcome. They must experience many epiphanies—moments when they finally grasp their course material—in order to overcome these challenges. When they do, they finally succeed—they get an emotionally fulfilling moment of celebration, complete with cap, gown, and diploma.

It’s the same in a novel. Your character starts with some flaws. Throughout the plot, he’ll encounter many challenges, some of which he’ll fail at because of those flaws. After enough failures or after a failure with dire consequences, the he’ll have an epiphany and realize how he must change in order to succeed. After additional challenges, some inevitable setbacks, more epiphanies, and a lot of hard work, the character really does grow as a person. Finally, at the novel’s climax he can then tackle a problem that would surely have defeated him before.

The key difference

An epiphany is nothing more than a realization in the thread of your character’s personal growth. It is a plot point along the inner plot of the character’s personal journey. A character arc, then, is the whole journey.

The journey is not the destination

While graduation is a great metaphor for a character arc, don’t confuse the two. Graduation is not school, it is only the destination of a student’s journey through school. It’s an emotional, symbolic moment. Likewise, a character arc is not an emotional moment, but is the process leading up to a moment when the changes a character has undergone are finally recognized.

For the novelist, this means that while your book should work towards a “graduation moment” for your character, to provide an emotional payoff to the difficult journey of personal growth, you can’t skip the growth itself.

Here’s what doesn’t work: I’ve seen manuscripts from clients where they tried to add a character arc by inserting an epiphany scene into the beginning of the book, and a graduation moment at the end, but without touching anything in between. That’s like character sleeping through the entire four years of college but still receiving a diploma anyway. It falls flat.

To be meaningful, a character arc must affect the plot. It must affect the choices a character makes in the novel’s scenes. To be effective, a character arc must convince readers that the plot would have turned out differently without it because the character would have made different (worse) choices.

You need an epiphany moment to kick things off near the beginning, several smaller epiphany moments along the way as the character’s understanding grows, and the graduation moment at the end. This is why it is so difficult to paste a character arc on top of an existing story structure: Because to make it work, you have to go back and re-consider every choice the character makes in light of what the character learns in the epiphany moments.

February 01, 2010 22:38 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, epiphany, growth, challenges, graduation, inner plot

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Posted by Birgitte Necessary on February 02, 2010 16:34 UTC

Thank you for this reminder! I’m in the opening chapters of my next novel and about to write an epiphany scene. If I hadn’t read your post though, I wouldn’t have realized that it WAS an epiphany scene. What a timely find to start off 6 more weeks of winter...

Posted by angela on February 02, 2010 20:06 UTC

Great post, and very timely. I’m working to bring out my character arc better, so this is just the recipe.

Posted by Camille on February 06, 2010 18:49 UTC

I’ve seen this same problem on a smaller scale in scene development. I see a lot of scenes that go like this: Character A needs Character B to help him. “Help me.” “No.” “Please help me.” “No.” “I need you to help me. “No.” “Help me!!!!!” “Oh, okay....”

There is no progression. No battle of wills, no chess match. Even in a smaller scene, a character should display a learning curve. When just asking for help doesn’t work, the character should try something else. If Character A doesn’t change, at least let Character B change (i.e. Character B should make stronger attempts to get A to go away, and when that doesn’t work, decide to help just to make him go away.)

Posted by Elizabeth Kaylene on March 10, 2010 18:48 UTC

This is why outlining is <em>so</em> important, before and after a first draft. I have to be able to see where my character is going and how s/he is going to get there before I can do any real writing.

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