Today is the official end of the Christmas season, characterized appropriately enough by the arrival of the Magi—the three wise men or kings—to visit the infant Christ. It is Twelfth Night, the last night of feasting and celebration before the cold and dark new year really gets going, and also Epiphany, a moment of revelation, signifying for Christians the belief at the heart of the New Testament that God’s relationship with Israel has been expanded to all people (whose representatives those 3 Kings are). Epiphany is a moment of realization, a sudden, life-changing flash of insight.
There are a couple of ways of thinking about this idea as writers. The one I’ll handle today is for our characters. Most stories hinge on a character’s journey and growth which often depend on a late narrative moment of discovery. In classic detective fiction the key realization might be when the hero realizes the truth of the mystery, but often the epiphany is subtler, more personal. It often comes as self-awareness, the recognition of what an astute reader may have already picked up about who the character is or has been, and what needs to change. Joyce’s Dubliners stories (a masterful little collection that showcases epiphany beautifully) each hinge on one of these flashes of insight, though the collective effect is less about how the characters can move forward and more about how terribly stuck they are.
Most of us, because of the genre we’re working in, will want to give our characters epiphanies that allow more constructive solutions to their problems, but that doesn’t mean that the realization needs to be of the whodunit variety. The best for our purposes probably fuse insight into character with plot advancement, and I’m sure we can all come up with familiar examples, particularly from movies where this device plays well: Luke’s turning off the targeting computer in his Death Star approach, is a fairly crude but effective example, since it taps into the movie’s preoccupation with putting aside self reliance and giving yourself over to the Force. (The idea finally doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but it works within the fiction of the film).
In LOTR, think of the moment Bilbo asks to see the ring again in Rivendell, but seeing it makes him turn on Frodo. What follows is a crucial realization that the ring has started to do so much damage to him that he is better off without it. Though he gave it to Frodo at Bag End, it’s not till now that he truly releases it, and the epiphany is, again, one which contains insight into who he is while also furthering the plot. It is no coincidence that this is also effectively Bilbo’s last real presence in the story. His journey is done.
If you think of your story in terms of a three act structure, the protagonist’s epiphany is often at the end of the long second act. It may come at the story’s emotional low point, when all seems lost, but the realization provides the impetus for the final show down and (typically) victory. It’s often the point where goals (conscious) and needs (unconscious) coincide. It’s Dorothy realizing that there’s no place like home (another dubious—and isolationist—sentiment!), or the transformative moment when Hamlet, realizing he has received his death wound, his finally able to complete the revenge which has thus far eluded him. In my own Act of Will, it’s the moment when the title character realizes that for all his self-serving actions to date, he finally can’t leave his friends to face defeat alone.
Working epiphany into your narrative forces not just self-awareness on your characters but—perhaps more importantly—a level of ignorance about themselves before hand. The very fact of the discovery means there was something about them that they didn’t know earlier, something which must be precipitated by an event. In short, it’s a wonderful device for blending plot and character and it requirs the author to plan ahead, or at least to edit so that the journey towards self-knowledge makes sense.
There are other ways to think about epiphanies for writers themselves, but I’ll save that for another post. Happy Twelfth Night, all!