Friday, October 2, 2009

Using Epiphanies to Develop Characters

An epiphany is a moment when awareness or a sharp insight dawns suddenly on your protagonist as a result of events and interactions that have driven him to this moment. Epiphany is synonymous with change when it comes to character development. Very often epiphanies come with a cost—characters can be very attached to their perceptions of things and people, and it often hurts when they finally gain awareness.

Jordan Rosenfeld, Make A Scene.

Walking this last week has fed some good food to my brain. After reading the excerpt above, I remembered an answer Michael Connelly gave during his interview with The Writer.

Q. Which comes first, the character’s story or the idea for the novel?

A. That changes from book to book. With Harry Bosch, it is usually a character dimension I want to explore, and then I fit that into a cop story I’ve heard…

Jeff Ayers, “In the ‘lab’ with Michael Connelly” (from the October 2009 issue of The Writer)

As I walked, I mentally questioned how authors turn one novel into a series. How do they keep it going? What’s more, why would readers care enough to follow page after page, book after book? For an author like Janet Evanovich, the answer is easy. Struck by the outlandish character of Stephanie Plum, including the additional crazy people in her life, readers continue to turn the pages not only to watch Stephanie solve the crime, but to see how wild things will get. What trouble will she trip into this time?

Even with a character like Stephanie Plum, though, a crime series is more than just pushing your main character through the next case. It is also about exploring issues in their world, opening their eyes. It may also be an opportunity to address one or more character flaws.

Flawed (but likeable!) characters are the ones readers root for, because a character without flaws or fears is a character without conflicts.

Karen S. Wiesner, “Your Novel Blueprint” (from the February 2009 issue of Writer’s Digest)

Whether those flaws are fixed by the end of the book is not the issue. It’s all about the journey. In fact, it is more “human” to have a character try to fix their flaws, yet fail to do so. Take Robert B. Parker’s character Jesse Stone, for an example. In each book, he continues to deal with drinking too much booze and the strained relationship with his ex-wife. What keeps readers going, I think, is not just the hook of each case. It’s the pull of Stone’s flaws, and the lingering question about whether he’ll find some peace.

As the quote from Jordan Rosenfeld implies (above), this act of realizing an issue and making some decision to change, even if you fail at it, is called an epiphany. While the main plot line in any crime story will have its own epiphany—Who did it? Will he/she go to jail?—epiphanies can also be found within the subplots. Will Jesse Stone reconcile with his wife? Will Stephanie Plum finally realize how deeply she loves Joe Morelli? It is these issues that flesh out the character, enrich the total story, and keep the reader begging for more.

With these things in mind, then, I have spent a few days exploring issues for my own protagonist. The last time I posted an entry, I mentioned how I tried to see my character through those around him. Now, I’m trying to see my character through the issues inside of him because those are the intimate areas my character will have to face in the story (or another story hopefully) and by facing them come to conclusions about himself or life in general.

You might ask: Why are you doing that now? Shouldn’t the process of writing bring its own discovery? True. It can. And for some writers it does. But then there’s the answer from Michael Connelly which suggests that some stories are designed around the internal issues (i.e., character dimensions) he wants to explore. Personally, I think it’s a process of both. There are character issues a writer wants to address before the novel begins, and then there are other issues which writers discover along the way.

How about you? Do you spend time thinking about your protagonist before placing your pen to the paper? Or are you totally about a plot device, or a scenario, and letting it all come out during the process?


  1. Great post, Stephen.

    Here's another great paraphrase from Jordan: plot and character are like an old married couple who can't live without one another.

    But you have to start somewhere.

    I almost always start with character, some small quirk or flaw that yearns for me to pick at it like a loose thread on a sweater. And I always start inside, deep inside a character's motivation and deepest fears and desires. From there, their stories eventually reveal themselves if I'm patient enough to wait and listen.

    Keep going on the project. And keep the posts coming. I'm enjoying reading about your process--at least until I can read the real thing!

  2. I usually start with the main characters, then work out the plot details. It's easier to visualize the story when I have a clear picture of the characters in my mind.


  3. I start with the idea for the story, weigh what sort of characters I need, and then they grow from there. Kind of like making soup from leftovers in the refrigerator. Some ingredients go together. Some don't. Others you might throw in just because it would be interesting to see how it might turn out.

    Good post, as always. You're the man. Sorry to be such a stranger.


  4. Thanks for all the positive feedback everyone. I appreciate the insights you bring.