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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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