Today we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany (actually 6 January, but the New Zealand bishops have Sundayised most of the liturgical feasts). Just for fun, I went looking for articles about literary epiphanies. You know. Those moments when the character suddenly realises something that changes their whole life from that point forward; often something that has been obvious to the reader for some time. ‘I love her.’ ‘The man is a villain.’ ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ ‘I’m at the top of the ladder and it is against the wrong wall.’
In Author Magazine, I found a discussion of the difference between epiphanies and character arcs. Epiphanies, the writer says, are:
…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 think and act.
Contrast this to the writer’s definition of a character arc.
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.
So epiphanies are used to move a character to self-awareness, and therefore need to be built into the plot from the beginning.
An article in the Atlantic points out that self-awareness is hard to achieve, and the clarity of an epiphany moment is often followed by backsliding.
In other words, these conversion experiences don’t stick—or they don’t stick for very long. Human beings have to be re-educated over and over and over again as we swim upstream against our own irrationalities.
Fiction Notes talks about where to put the epiphany (near, but before, during, or after the climax), and six ways that writers get the epiphany wrong. Number 4 particularly irritates me in a story.
“I Haven’t Mentioned This Before, But. . . .” An epiphany has to be a natural outgrowth of the story and not tacked on. Instead build in a cause-effect relationship; the stories events cause the epiphany.
And Just about Write explains the difference between epiphany and revelation. The article starts with the reason for having an epiphany.
Fiction yields a transformed character. Let’s face it. If the protagonist hasn’t changed by the end of the story, it will lack the excitement necessary to keep the reader interested. Without that interest, the reader may want to put the book down and walk away, never to take it up again.