Epiphany is Not a
by Jason Black
An epiphany is not 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. They are salt
and sugar: both dry, white, granular materials, both similarly
important in cooking, but not remotely interchangeable.
What is an epiphany?
An epiphany is a moment of revelation,
when a character comes to understand something she couldn’t
grasp before. I’m not talking about realizations that relate to
the plot, as when a character suddenly understands the key to a
mystery. 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 herself. Those are
moments of deep significance in your book because they
foreshadow changes in how the character will to think and act.
What is a character arc?
Modern fiction often trades in making
protagonists into their own worst enemies. Literary novels,
being more deeply driven by characters than plot, have done this
for decades. However, it is becoming increasingly true in
mainstream and “plot monster” books too. This is not
surprising—as writers learn the power of character growth to
more deeply involve the reader in the book, of course they would
begin incorporating character arcs into their bag of tricks.
Regardless of genre, many books make
character flaws into the one thing that most prevents the
protagonist from getting the job done. Only when the character
recognizes the flaw—like when an anorexic character finally
admits she has an eating disorder—can she begin to get out of
her own way.
But that sounds like an epiphany, and
indeed it is. It's the one that starts the character arc. But
it's not the only one. A character arc is the cumulative effect
of a series of epiphanies. It’s where the character ends
up after multiple experiences of increased self-awareness and
How epiphanies build arcs
Think of it like school. Like
protagonists, students are faced with many challenges they must
overcome: classes, term papers, and exams. Like protagonists,
they must experience many epiphanies in order to overcome these
challenges: moments when they finally grasp their course
material. When they do this they can finally succeed in the
larger goal of graduation, where they are rewarded with 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, she’ll
encounter many challenges, some of which she’ll fail at because
of those flaws. She’ll bomb the quizzes and midterm exams. But
after enough failures or after a failure with dire
consequences—get an A on the final or repeat the class—she’ll
have an epiphany and realize how she 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, she
can tackle a problem that would surely have defeated her before.
If you’re wondering how to build a
character arc into your plot, just send the character to school.
Flesh out the metaphor. Ask yourself “what does my character need
to learn in order to graduate?” What does graduation equate to in
your storyline? What are the pop quizzes, midterms, and
senior-project moments in your storyline where the character can
either fail or succeed?
Bear in mind that failures correspond
better with epiphany moments while successes act as confirmation for
the character that a previous epiphany has indeed put her on the
right track. And while we love it when our kids bring home
straight-As from school, in a novel it’s the failures and their
corresponding epiphanies that are dramatic. Use success sparingly.
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 culmination of a student’s journey through
school. Graduation is a symbolic moment; it is not the process of
school. Likewise, a character arc is not a single emotional moment;
it is the process leading up to a final moment of recognition for
all that a character has accomplished.
In your novel, you need both. You
can’t have the graduation moment without first showing the process
of growth. It’s not believable. And once you have the process of
growth in place, you can’t skip the graduation moment either.
Without it, your ending lacks emotional satisfaction.
The journey must be a full journey,
too. What doesn’t work is to pretend you can create a character arc
by inserting an epiphany scene into the beginning of the book, 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
To be meaningful, a character arc must
thread through and affect the entire plot. It must affect the
choices a character makes in the novel’s scenes. Readers must
believe that the plot would have turned out differently without the
character’s personal growth, because the character would have made
different choices. Presumably, worse ones.
You need an epiphany moment to kick
things off near the beginning, several other epiphany moments along
the way to show the continuing growth, and the graduation moment at
the end. This is why it is so difficult to graft 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 the flaws the character is struggling to overcome, and what
she has learned along the way.
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Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who helps novelists sort
out the thorny issues in their novels. He is a regular
presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference, and is writing a
handbook on character development techniques. To learn more about
Jason or read his blog, visit his website at