Creating character arcs with Joyce’s epiphany

The year is 1905, and the scene is a Dublin bazaar, just after nightfall.

The large hall is cast in shadows. Most of the vendors are closed — the silence broken only by murmured voices, the clatter and scrape of coins being counted on a tray, and the footsteps of a boy, walking through the bazaar.

The boy approaches an open stall selling porcelain vases and tea sets. A woman greets him brusquely, asking if he wants to buy anything. The boy mutters no, but lingers. He’s come so far, and he hopes to find a gift for the girl he loves. To win her affection.

But the bazaar isn’t the extravagant market he expected. Half the vendors are closed, the woman clearly sees him as a nuisance, and he knows in his heart these gifts won’t impress anyone. The boy feels foolish. He walks away, just as the bazaar’s remaining lights are extinguished.

He stares up into the darkness, sees himself “as a creature driven and derided by vanity,” and his eyes burn “with anguish and anger.”

Thus concludes James Joyce’s short story “Araby” — in a final moment of clarity, where the narrator realizes how blinded he’s been by his romantic views of the girl and the marketplace. That moment of clarity, of a sudden realization, is called an epiphany.

Over a hundred years later, the device still works — and works well. Here’s how you can use the epiphany in your own stories to drive home character growth.

The role of epiphany in character arcs

When writing character arcs that culminate in an epiphany, your character will often pass through three key phases:

  • Naivety: The character has a view of themselves or the world that’s overly simple or outright false.
  • Uncertainty: The plot challenges the character’s worldview, putting their beliefs in flux.
  • Maturity: Driven by their new experiences, the character is forced to arrive at a new worldview.

Your character’s epiphany is the bridge between “uncertainty” and “maturity.” It’s the eureka! moment, where the character accrues enough experiences to create a flash of insight — ushering them into a new way of seeing themselves and/or the world.

In “Araby,” the narrator is madly in love with a girl he hardly knows, and he believes she’ll return his affection if he goes on this “romantic” (in his mind) quest to get her a gift from the fabled bazaar. But when he concludes his journey at the market, it’s far from romantic — everything is cast in shadows, half the stalls are closed, and the owner of the shop considers him a nuisance.

This experience drives him to not only realize the false glamour of the bazaar, but to also realize his own vanity and naivety in thinking a gift could win him the love of the girl back home.

This is his eureka! moment, and while it’s a sad realization, he’s learned something about himself and the world.

How to write a satisfying epiphany

The key to writing a satisfying epiphany is to hit 4 important beats (SURPRISE: this involves the character phases I mentioned above):

  1. Clearly establish the narrator’s original worldview toward the beginning of the story. (Naivety)
  2. Write plot points that challenge this worldview, and show the character’s beliefs in flux. (Uncertainty)
  3. Create a trigger that inspires a realization in your character. This could be an emotional crisis, an event, something they see, or an interaction — anything that helps them finally connect the dots. (Epiphany)
  4. Demonstrate your character’s new worldview with an action they never would have taken before the epiphany. (Maturity)

Following these steps will help you clearly convey an epiphany, but #4 is particularly helpful for keeping the epiphany subtle.

Joyce, see, is really adept at conveying epiphanies through shifts in his character’s perceptions and emotions, and it never really feels heavy-handed. But I have to tell you, guys, that’s tough to pull off without a little help.

Demonstrating the change through a physical action can make it easier to convey the epiphany without having to spell everything out for your reader.

Consider it a “show don’t tell” kind of situation. A little can go a long way.

Go give the epiphany a shot!

Now that you have a clear understanding of the epiphany, give it a go next time you’re writing a character arc!

It’s not the only way to show character growth (for example, I’ve written about a similar model on my Tumblr that’s focused more on overcoming emotional struggles than growing past naivety), but it’s still an effective one.

Good luck, and good writing, everyone! As always, feel free to reach out with questions below.

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