Building Characters – Overview of the Inner Journey

I’m continuing the discussion on building believable characters, using Jeff Gerke’s book  Plot vs. Character. In the last post, I stated there are five major phases to a character’s inner journey: the Initial Condition, the Inciting Event, Escalation, the Moment of Truth, and the Final State. Today I’m going to give a basic overview of this journey before digging deeper into each phase.

“The Knot is the thing that is wrong with your character,” Gerke says. It’s her flaw, the habitual sin she struggles with, the unhealthy lifestyle she lives. It’s harmful to her and to those around her. At some point in your story, she must have the opportunity to change. 

Your character may or may not be aware of this knot, this problem, right away, but they must come to awareness of it at some point. But even when she’s aware of it, she wants to continue living with it and keep everything the same. She wants to stay in the abusive relationship she’s in. She wants to ignore her dreams/goals. She can’t/won’t stand up for herself. Despite the pain of the status quo, it beats trying to change her life. But you, being the writer and therefore God, don’t give her that option. You make it harder for her to ignore the foolishness of her choices. You give her examples of what life COULD be like, if only she’d change. Then you squeeze her (that’s step 3, Escalation).

You want her to get to the point where she will chose. She must have a Moment of Truth. She will recognize the harm she’s doing to herself and others and she’ll see how things could be different. She’ll stand at this crossroads and see her alternatives. Then she’ll either chose the better path (happy ending) or continue in the status quo (unhappy ending).

Your entire story should point to that Moment of Truth. It’s the purpose of the story. It’s what the reader really, really wants. “Everything else is just the vehicle to drive her to that penultimate moment,” Gerke says. After the character makes her choice, she moves into the Final State, and the story ends.

The last bit of this chapter is worded so wonderfully, I don’t want to paraphrase. So here’s what Gerke says:

“People don’t like to change. It’s so much easier to stay as we are, even if it’s hurting us… in fiction, as in life, people resist change. Right up until the moment when it hurts too much. People dislike change, but they dislike unacceptable pain and consequences even more… Your job as story god over this pathetic, synthetic human you’ve created is to bring the pain. You have to dislodge her from her comfortable dysfunction like a pebble you have to remove from a block of mud. The crowbar you use is pain. You have to make it more painful to stay the same than it is to contemplate some manner of character revision.”

That’s the Inner Journey in a nutshell. In the next post, I’ll explain the Knot more fully.

-Sonja
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