My last two posts have included excerpts from an article in this month’s Writer’s Digest by David Corbett called “The Science of Character Change.” I’ve always been interested in the inner journey, or character arc, or character change, whatever you want to call it. It’s the meat of every story, the element that creates a powerful emotional experience for the reader and makes the story memorable. Great plots, word choice, grammar, and voice are important, but without character change, the story doesn’t have enough impact to be truly great.
Corbett says, “Even in stories where the outer goal is totally justified–find the murderer, save the child, cure the disease–that goal is usually pursued on relatively superficial terms. In these cases, as the conflict intensifies and failure, disaster or destruction looms, the character has to ask: Why am I doing this? Why continue? Why not give up? The answer to this question reveals the true longing at the heart of the character’s quest. That longing defines the stakes and points the way toward fulfillment of her state of lack–if she has the courage to decide to act on this insight.”
I’ve written several mysteries where “catch the bad guy” was the main goal of the story. There’s plenty of opportunity for conflict and suspense in this plot device, but to have a truly great mystery, the protagonist must face his fears, his demons, his conflicted psyche before he can outwit the bad guy and provide justice. Throughout the story, the protagonist has tried things “the old way,” using his tried-and-true methods and procedures, all those things that have, in the past, helped him pursue justice. But in THIS story, there’s something more. That something more is what the reader needs.
“The character has exhausted his original idea of how to proceed (and perhaps several others); his skills and insights have proved wanting; he’s despondent, destitute, out of options and out of luck. This is where the character recognizes he must ‘change or die’–and death can take the form of losing the loved one, failing to rescue the hostage, defeat at the hands of the enemy, disgrace before his peers.” This leads to the Point of Crisis, or the Crisis of Insight, or the Breaking Point (whatever you want to call it), when the character recognizes what has gone wrong and what must be done. It’s an attitude adjustment, a facing of major fears, maybe even an entire personality shift.
When that moment comes, it’s not enough for the protagonist to admit what he’s done wrong and what he needs to do to make everything right. His behavior must be modified. He will act on his new insight with a deeper understanding and sense of purpose.
Corbett finishes with this: “To craft a great Change-or-Die Moment, you have to understand the competing forces vying for the character’s soul–safety versus wholeness–and push the character down a path of ‘success through failure,’ where by acting in accordance with his original ignorance, cowardice or deceit, and by harming those who care most about him, no matter how harmless or gentile that lifestyle may seem on the outside, he’s on a collision course with a failure so devastating, so shocking, that he’s forced to reevaluate the course of his life. That insight will prompt a decision.” And then the book ends.
In Casablanca, Rick realizes that his reaction to heartache has pulled him too far out of the world, too far into apathy and cynicism, and he’s no longer an honorable man. He must sacrifice his love for Ilsa and get her AND her husband to safety for the greater good.
For a handy checklist to craft a Crisis of Insight moment, visit writersdigest.com.