Moment of Truth: A Word on the ‘Epiphany’

Recently, I had an epiphany over my protagonist’s epiphany. In revision, I saw that he had a sudden flash of insight towards the end of the story. Which is fitting, of course, because it often takes a plot-length’s worth of time for conflicts to gather and emerge. The interesting part is that I didn’t plan my main guy’s hasty manifestation. It wasn’t part of my master plan, my pre-story outline, my scenic design, my line-by-line breakdown. In truth, I never saw it coming, and frankly neither did my character. Just…boom. Revelation.Divulgence.Disclosure.Epiphany.

Dictonary.com defines epiphany in four ways. Based on the context of this post, I will share with you numbers three and four, respectively:

3. A sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.

4. A literary work or section of a work presenting, usually symbolically, such a moment of revelation and insight.

zeev manor → in Landscapes

As an undergraduate studying literature, I loved the concept. I reveled in character epiphanies; I wanted to have epiphanies in my own life, and I thought for certain that I would. Anytime I struggled with indecision or contemplated worldly conundrums, I’d look inside myself (or sometimes, up at the sky) and say, ‘Come on, Vision! Bring it on!’ And I’d wait…and wait…and wait. I’d go to bed confused, and I’d wake up confused. Eventually, my so-called issues dissolved,  and I’d somehow know I was wiser. But there was never any instant gratification. No blast of insight. It’s like Emerson once said, “The years teach much which the days never know.”

But in literature? It was fabulous. I’d wait for it. I’d take the characters’ new-found knowledge with me. Add it to my list of personal philosophies. Nothing beat the ending of John Updike’s “A&P,” or the myriad of reflective wonderments in  James Joyce’s Dubliners.  And how great was it when the concept of racism dawned on Scout Finch and Huck Finn?

But these days, as I come across new and exciting forms of literature, I wonder…is the classic epiphany necessary? Do characters need to have epiphanies in order to be fully realized? I might suggest that this is especially true in the case of short stories, but certainly has its place in novel-dom as well.

So I ask you…do all protagonists need to epiphany (Can this word be used as a verb? Epiphanize? Epiphinate?)

Here is where I run into problems with this notion:

1. Unclear definition: I used to get it—or at least I thought I got it. It’s pretty clear cut, right? Just look at the definitions above. Actually, no, it’s not. Does epiphany have to be a grandiose discovery? Instant knowing? A blast of understanding so powerful that one is forever changed? Or could it be…well, slower? An evolution of thought, as opposed to a revolution of thought. Sure, our characters learn, they grow, they transform, but all at once?

2. Unrealistic portrayal: They say art imitates life, but I can’t remember the last time I had an epiphany. With each year that passes I gather strength and wisdom, but it’s done through trial and error. And only when I stop and think about my path do I notice the differences. In fact, I’d argue that epiphanies don’t actually exist in life at all. Anything I’ve ever learned or uncovered about myself, I likely—somewhere, somehow—already knew. In other words, epiphanies are dormant thoughts, emotions, and experiences that haven’t yet erupted, and in certain cases, never will. So to give a character a sudden jolt of understanding? I just don’t think it works. It needs to be set up, so to speak. The character needs to be on the very path that leads to epiphany from the beginning.

Here is what I know for sure:

Your characters should struggle. They should fail. They should try again. They should fail again. They should completely and utterly unravel. They should hurt others. They should hurt themselves. They should forgive. They should redeem. They should regenerate. They should triumph. If somewhere along the way, they just happen to blindly fall victim to the almighty epiphany…well, then that’s awesome for them.

What’s your take on epiphanies? Do your characters have them? Are they always necessary?

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17 Comments

Filed under Breaking the Rules, Inspiration, Writing Process

17 responses to “Moment of Truth: A Word on the ‘Epiphany’

  1. I don’t think they always need to have epiphanies, but they need to learn and have a/some realizations toward the end when the loose ends are being tied up. Now, if I – the writer – have an epiphany or two while I’m plotting, that’d be great. LOL

  2. Yes! I’m still waiting for my own epiphany :)

  3. I had an epiphany – it just was about my story in general and how I was going wrong. Still a a benefit though. I think my character starts out in her own epiphany which is what starts her story but she still goes through lessons learned, hurt, anger, the brigade of emotions. Its a romance though so the story isn’t nearly as enlightening as some.

    • I think romance stories can be as enlightening as the standard “literary” novels. I’ve never considered that…a character STARTING off by having an epiphany. Come to think of it, I’m remembering a romance novel I read once that did start off that way. That’s a interesting concept too.

  4. Great post, raising questions about the purpose and practice of writing epiphanies. As a reader, I’m always looking for stories or novels that have epiphanies, that take the character’s thought and the reader’s to a deeper level. That approaches some new way of thinking about life, that adds an extra level of meaning or relevance to the story. If the characters have no epiphanies about life–no insight or revelation about reality– I wonder why I’m bothering to read this story, why take the time? (Which may be why i’m ofen disappointed in the things I read.)

    Often I find that the epiphanies are like wakening up to a realization that I’ve felt but never articulated to myself, so it’s like discovering something new about myself, as well as life. I don’t think writers can plan epiphanies for their characters, I think they grow out of the story or the character or the writer’s experience when realizing something new about the character. The epiphanies in my own stories are like that, something that happens, that I become aware of as I’m writing, and I’m surprised by it as much as the character.

    In my own life, the epiphanies I’ve had usually come when I’m writing, or meditating, or looking intensely at something. Most often they are fleeting, and if I don’t capture it on paper right there and then, I lose it, it fades away.

    • Hi Deborah, thanks for stopping by. Yes, my epiphanies have been the way you described them as well…like dreams, almost–or at least the ones you’re trying to remember! I agree that epiphanies are simply culminations of thoughts that the person or character already knew…just hasn’t realized or put together yet. As writers we definitely cannot force epiphanies. My character’s revelation came naturally…like I said, I didn’t even realize he’d had one until I went back for revisions. It has to be at the right time, the right place, etc.

  5. Quanie Mitchell

    I don’t think that a character always needs an epiphany. Sometimes when there’s a lesson that the character doesn’t learn it’s the reader who has the “aha!” moment that the character will never change. Great post! BTW, found you on She Writes:)

  6. I don’t think they have to have an “a-hah moment” type of epiphany. In my book SKYE BLUE, her epiphany comes more slowly as she realizes she can exist independently from her brother. I guess this is not exactly an epiphany (the definition of epiphany is something like, “an experience of sudden and striking realization,” Skye’s realization is not sudden, but it definitely changes her life. So maybe everyone just has to have some sort of learning experience.

    • Yes, that was what I struggled with. If an epiphany is a sudden bolt of insight, than what would we call the slow learning process the character goes through. I agree with you though. As long as there is SOME kind of learning involved, it doesn’t need to come in the form of a grandiose epiphany

  7. Perhaps we like to see our characters have epiphanies because we want these moments of sudden clarity so badly in our own lives. Like you, I keep waiting for things to become suddenly clear, but what usually happens is that I figure stuff out slowly–like they say things dawn on us, instead of being hit with a bolt of lightning!
    I do love it when all the story parts come together on their own and create this kind of epiphany for a character, and I think for it to read naturally it can’t be forced, but should instead evolve as part of the story creation process. It’s part of the fun of writing for me (especially in revision!) and have actually had quite a few of my characters have epiphanies over the course of my revision.

    • I will say that I was quite excited to see that my character had an epiphany. I think you’re right. It gave me a lot of satisfaction as a writer. On one level, it helped me learn more about my protagonist and on the other hand, it gave me some reassurance that things were coming together…structurally speaking of course.

      Would LOVE to have more of my own epiphanies!

  8. I recently had an epiphany while going #2. I’m dead serious. :)

  9. An epiphany can be profound, but I’d settle for a lesson learned, for me or for my characters! :)

  10. Oh absolutely. Epiphanies are best when unexpected!

  11. Pingback: Epiphanize me, epiphanize me not, epiphanize me, . . . . | It Should Not Hurt to be a WifeIt Should Not Hurt to be a Wife

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