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May 15, 2014

How Can We Show a Character’s Internal Journey?

Trees growing over road with text: Our Character's Internal Journey

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a big fan of Michael Hauge‘s approach to characters. In fact, I wrote several blog posts about the workshop, “Using Inner Conflict to Create Powerful Love Stories,” he presented at the RWA National Conference two years ago.

His insights helped me figure out how to avoid the “love at first sight” cliché and how to make sure romances featured couples that were the perfect match. Most importantly, his approach helped me figure out how to mesh a character’s internal journey to the external plot.

This last item is often tricky, though, even with the help of my beat sheet based on his teachings. Robyn, one of my readers, asked me to clarify the difference between a character’s Identity and Essence. So let’s take the opportunity to revisit the topic and go deeper into how characters change.

What Is a Character’s Internal Journey?

Stories are about change, and the plot arc is the path of change we can see in external, tangible ways. The external/plot arc might be about catching a murderer or fixing a spaceship.

But in most stories, characters will change on the inside too. A character’s internal journey—their emotional arc—is the path of change we can see in a character’s thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, etc.

Michael Hauge describes a character arc as “a journey from living in fear to living courageously.” Along the way, they’ll transform into who they have the potential to become.

The Starting Point of a Character Arc

At the beginning of a story, characters are broken or stuck in some way. They have deep (often, so deep as to be subconscious) unmet needs or longings.

However, life is usually tolerable on some level, so they’re living life, day-by-day. Their life is a known quantity, so it feels safe. They might have no intention or thoughts of changing because change is hard.

They might think they’re making progress toward some goal, but the choices they make usually hold them back from making real progress. Or maybe their behaviors are self-sabotaging in some way.

Meet Our Character’s Identity

The reason they’re not making progress is because something in their past wounded them—known as their Backstory Wound. That wound or pain colors their view of the world.

They have an untrue—but logical—belief, known as a False Belief, about how the world works because of that pain. Think about the wound creating the opposite of rose-colored glasses. They believe they’re unlovable, a loser, unworthy, or somehow deserving of their pain.

All that pain results in Fear. The fear could be anything. Fear of failure, fear of revealing their secret, fear of losing control, fear of rejection, etc. And subconsciously, they often fear feeling the pain of their wound again.

Change is not just hard—it makes them vulnerable. So they build up emotional armor for protection.

This emotional armor is known as the character’s Identity. A character’s Identity is the “mask” they wear to keep themselves safe.

Maybe they push people away before they can be rejected. Maybe they don’t pursue their business dream so they can’t fail. Maybe they bury their emotions to prevent losing their heart again.

A character’s Identity is who they want everyone else to see: the strong person who can’t be hurt. But this safe life is built on lies and fear.

And then…Something Happens

Our story starts around the time that something happens to our character to make that emotional armor not fit as well. The Inciting Incident might show the first cracks and demonstrate how their coping mechanisms don’t work perfectly.

There’s a gap between how they want their coping mechanisms—that emotional armor—to work and how they actually work. And that gap exposes unhappiness and the pathetic excuse of an unfulfilled life they’ve been living. That gap gives readers the first glimpse of what the character’s internal journey will entail.

As the story proceeds, the character’s emotional armor will get more in the way, causing problems. Plot events act as triggers for their various realizations:

  • Something happens to make them consciously recognize a goal around the 25% mark (the End of the Beginning/First Plot Point on a beat sheet), but they can’t reach this goal while wearing their emotional armor. They’ll stubbornly try to keep their mask on anyway because, again, change is hard.
  • Something happens to make them consciously recognize around the 50% mark (the Midpoint) that they need to change to reach their goal. They start experimenting with taking off their mask.
  • They slowly make progress, but around the 75% mark (the Crisis/Black Moment) something so horrible, so painful, will happen that they’ll retreat completely behind their armor again. They’ll think that allowing themselves to become vulnerable during their minor progress was a huge mistake.

At the Black Moment/Crisis point, all should seem lost. They tried their experiment and it failed, causing them pain all over again. They’ll go back to their Identity, their coping mechanisms, and try to forget any of this ever happened.

Meet Our Character’s Essence

A character’s Essence is who they are behind the emotional armor—or who they have the potential to become. But coming out from behind their mask opens them up to hurt and vulnerability.

They stay behind their armor until something at the beginning of the story forces them to start recognizing how much it’s not working for them. That’s how we know where/when a story should start.

The issues characters deal with internally often could have been solved long before the story starts if they had the guts to face their fear. Characters could have pursued a relationship, a job, a dream years ago.

But because change and vulnerability is hard, they don’t step out from behind the armor until they’re forced to. The plot events that force our character to take that risk are the story.

The Stakes Force the Final Step

So after the Black Moment, our character is ready to give up and they’re back in their Identity-built emotional armor. What then?

If we’ve done our job right, we’ve been raising the stakes—the consequences of failure—throughout the story. Now we’ve left them no choice. They can’t give up because the stakes are too high.

Our characters have to dig deep and find the courage to allow themselves to become even more vulnerable than they were before. They go forward, knowing pain is waiting, and they’re willing to take that risk.

Often the final battle against the story’s obstacles at the Climax will force the characters to face their fear. They refuse to let the pain stop them this time, and they refuse to let their fear hold them back.

That’s what makes our characters heroic. That’s what makes readers cheer for them. That’s what creates our theme.

Our characters push forward with a leap of faith and expose themselves to all the pain, all the vulnerability, all the risk. They are now in their Essence. And now they deserve to win. *smile*

(Other excellent posts about this Identity to Essence transformation:

Do you struggle with the emotional arc for your characters? What aspect gives you the most trouble? Does Michael Hauge’s approach of growing from their Identity to their Essence help? Are you able to tie the character arc to the plot arc? Do you have questions about any of this concept?

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What do you think?

28 Comments on "How Can We Show a Character’s Internal Journey?"

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Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Hmm I do have a question, actually. Why is it that so many people seem to think that character weaknesses/ masks/maladaptive behaviors or quirks are due to some wound in the past? What if some weaknesses are just innate or genetically predisposed? E.g. there are some people who are more highly neurotic than others (one of the Big 5 Personality traits), meaning people who have more negative affect, being more irritable, easily stressed, angry, sad, distressed, bothered, anxious, prone to worry, moody, etc. But this general higher neuroticism, if I remember correctly, seems to be at least partially genetic. Not saying that people can never overcome this, of course, especially as people tend to become less neurotic as they grow older.

Going away from such general negative personality traits, what if a character has a great fear for no particular reason? Like I’m really afraid of spiders but have never had any negative experience with spiders in the past. Like how some people are romance-phobic even though they’ve never been rejected in the past—and it’s not because they are afraid of being rejected, but because romance, being so vulnerable and invested in and deeply involved with someone else, is just scary. And some people are afraid of all the sappy kissing and whatnot that being in a romantic relationship usually entails, lol.

Carradee

I think it’s common because it’s “easy”, like how it’s common to give a character anger issues as a character flaw because it’s easy to show on the page. And literary classes and such teach would-be writers that everything has to happen for a REASON, which would include things like character fears in that “everything”.

Stephanie C

Thank you again for yet another wonderful post, Jami. The character arc is something I struggle with when I can’t be “mean” enough. Sometimes we have to go into a darker thought process to come up with what caused the Wound, or to come up with circumstances that will force the necessary change. Going to that darker place is my struggle, I think. At a time when I am trying to live a more positive life, to be asked to go to THAT place seems counter-productive!

Your insights are greatly appreciated. Also, thanks for the great classes this month. They, too, are a great help. 🙂

angela

Great post Jami! I love Michael Hauge, for real. He’s an amazing man, and I have learned so much from his teachings. I love that you really connected to his way of understanding characters and their motivations too. So eye opening. Would take the same workshop again in a heartbeat, and I know I’d pick up even more knowledge. 🙂

Jacquie Biggar

Hi, Jami, great post. This one really hit home for me. I always knew, probably due to years of reading, the climb to the climax (black moment) but this really clarified the inner growth my characters needs to accomplish to get their HEA. Saving this, 🙂

Christine
Christine

Thanks for this excellent explanation – definitely helped clear things up a bit. But an example from a book/movie to illustrate would have made it all easier to follow. 🙂

Laurie Evans

Thank you! I’ve read Michael’s book and attended one of his workshops. He’s amazing! I really connect with the way he explains things.

And I also connect with the way *you* explain things! I keep meaning to tell you, so many times when I’m struggling with a concept, I see an email post from you that explains it! Very strange, but convenient! Thank you!

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Fam
Fam

Hi, thanks for a fantastic post. I’m just wondering where emotional arcs fit in in fantasy stories/novels? thank you.

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