An Epiphany is Not a Character Arc
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 personal change.
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 flat.
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.
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 www.PlotToPunctuation.com.