How Can We Show a 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:
- Michael Hauge’s analysis of Good Will Hunting
- Janice Hardy’s Guide to Inner Conflict
- Susan Kaye Quinn’s breakdown of Emotional Structure
- and my own post shares how romance stories use this arc too)
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?Pin It
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.
That’s a great point! Our characters can have flaws or personality traits that don’t come from wounds. Weaknesses and flaws aren’t quite the same as emotional armor or masks though.
That said, it might be possible for our characters to come up with coping mechanisms just from efficiency’s sake or other non-wound-related reason. And as you said, people can have fears that are unrelated to wounds as well.
In that case, we could still have a complete story and arc, as you’re right that the Wound isn’t necessary to the story. The character arc isn’t necessarily about “healing” a wound, but about finding the courage to find healthier ways of dealing with the fear or false belief than hiding behind the mask.
Many authors think of a wound so they have a reason for making their characters more broken than “normal,” but we might not need that justification to kick off the fear and mask part of the issue–and those are really the important parts anyway. 🙂
If we think about it, the Backstory Wound is only important for how it affects the character in the story, here and now. That is, it’s only important for the False Belief, Fear, etc. that’s driving their thoughts, behaviors, and choices now. If we can create the thoughts, behaviors, and choices just through the False Belief, Fear, etc. and not involve a Wound, the story remains the same. 🙂
Great insight! Thanks for the comment!
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”.
Very true! And in some ways, that “easy” can make authors fall back on the cliched wounds or flaws. If we’re going to use those cliches, we might want to make sure that the other aspects aren’t cliches as well. 🙂 Thanks for the insight!
About the Backstory Wound being the thing that affects the character in the story, and that it’s about finding healthier ways of dealing with it rather than hiding (not about completely healing the wound), interesting! And nice point about just having the false belief/ fear/ distorted worldview affecting the characters thoughts and behavior WITHOUT involving wounds. 😀 Carradee, yeah that wounds in the past thing often feels so cliche! Oh about the everything has to have a reason, lol I purposefully ignore that advice because I’m a strong believer in that NOT EVERYTHING happens for (at least an apparent) reason. Why is my character especially interested in the romantic intrigues of other people? Because it’s fun? But if it’s so fun, then why is it not so fun to other people in that other people are not as interested as this character is in other people’s love lives? We don’t know! Related to that, why does Emma from Jane Austen’s Emma love to do matchmaking for her neighbors? We have no idea, and we don’t care either! Lol. So the “everything has to happen for a reason” is advice as ignored by me as the “show, don’t tell” advice, because I’ve seen so many successful examples that defy these “rules”. :D. This is not to say that NOTHING in my stories have a reason or that I NEVER show, but that I simply write whatever appears without trying to control it. When the story feels like being told, it will… — Read More »
I think more important than the “everything must have a reason” concept is the idea that we should portray our characters consistently. And really, I think that’s what a lot of this “think deeply about our characters” edict comes down to.
We wouldn’t want them to be interested in something one minute and not interested in something the next minute just because it’s convenient to the plot. Rather, we want to make sure the underlying causes (whether that’s a wound or just a personality trait) are solid so we’re portraying them consistently. (Or if they’re inconsistent, give a reason/motivation for that. 🙂 )
Great topic! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
I’m totally with you on the character consistency issue. Also, I think making characters change interests to be convenient to the plot–that sounds like MAKING THINGS UP to me. I.e. it’s not what the character REALLY did. E.g. this character was absolutely not interested in marital arts and would never be interested, yet the writer MADE UP a tale that the character DID become interested in the martial arts, so that he/she could do this and that. I think we readers are often quite sensitive to those times when writers fabricate things rather than staying true to what the character REALLY did, lol.
You know me–I’m big into listening to the characters and staying true to them. 🙂 So I know just what you mean. LOL! Thanks for the comment!
Oh speaking of staying true to the character, I’m currently reading this literary classic where my favorite character became my LEAST favorite character because he disappointed me so much! ><
Bummer! Yes, I understand. I hate being disappointed in the story. :-/
Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen very often! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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. 🙂
LOL! I understand. I’m such a Pollyanna that it can seem wrong to make characters suffer, but just remind yourself that you’re doing it for the good of their story and they’ll appreciate the happy ending more for their effort. 🙂 Thanks for the comment (and the kind words)!
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. 🙂
Absolutely! I would go to any workshop of his over and over. 🙂 I love his way of explaining concepts. Thanks for the comment!
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, 🙂
You’re welcome! When I sat in Michael Hauge’s workshop, I felt that it was all stuff I knew–on “some” level–but the way he explained it created all kinds of new connections and understandings. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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. 🙂
In my “Lost Your Pants?” class, I have time to go through this step-by-step with an example, but this blog post was already getting long. 🙂 Be sure to check out Michael Hauge’s post, as he goes through Good Will Hunting for an example. Thanks for the comment!
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!
LOL! That is funny about the timing, but I’m glad it’s working out for you. 🙂
Yes, I can’t say enough good things about how awesome Michael Hauge’s teachings are for my learning style. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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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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Eight years after this highly informative post of yours I hope you don’t mind me asking for your opinion on a more specific case:
To what extent should or could this concept be applied to short stories – or more precisely, to really short romance stories (ca. 5,000 words)?
Do you think that both protagonists – hero and heroine – need to have inner conflicts and have a character development in such short stories?
In my experience there’s an audience for short romance stories, featuring the totally-nice-guy-without-emotional-baggage-pursues-love-interest-no-matter-what-until-the-HE trope, not dissimilar to the prince in Perrault’s/Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty.
Readers root for the hero not because of character development but his perseverance to power through every seemingly insurmountable obstacle. So while the heroine’s character may have outer and inner conflicts and and an interesting inner journey, the hero’s character arc falls rather flat: from being happy to even happier.
Thank you so much in advance! 🙂
Hi Gigi, Great question! And you’re absolutely right! In any shorter story (40K or less), we need to make adjustments to the typical story structure. While the post at that link talks mostly about plot beats, it’s safe to assume a similar adjustment is needed for character beats. As you said, most modern romances have some sort of character arc for both protagonists, but even then, one of them often has a bigger arc than the other. So you’re absolutely right that a shorter story could adjust to have the less-arc protagonist go from a minor arc to potentially no arc at all. (We might not even give them any POV scenes.) However, what you described is actually an arc, just a “flat” arc rather than a positive arc. In flat arcs, the character has a belief about the world that they work to get others to believe too. In a romance, the character might believe that they belong together, and thus persevere until the other character joins them in that belief. 😀 So, as you said, they wouldn’t be going through the inner conflict and change of a positive arc. But their arc from happy to happier and getting others to join in their world belief, is a valid flat arc. To sum up… (as this got more long-winded than I planned 🤣) In any shorter story, we’d need to make story structure adjustments to not just the plot but to character arcs. You’d be fine to give one… — Read More »
Thanks so much for your speedy reply – I’m impressed! 🙂 And excited that you may turn your thoughts into a blog post one day.
I think this would be greatly appreciated by many of us, because while I believe that there’ll always be an audience for novels, we have to acknowledge that more and more readers, for a variety of reasons, can’t or simply don’t want to dedicate so much time to reading one single story.
If we want to keep them and attract similarly minded new readers, I’m convinced we need to adapt to these developments – but the question, as so often in life, is how. 🙂
Thanks for the post idea! I actually ended up writing two. 😉
Here’s the one on my blog, and then I also explore the topic in my guest post on Writers Helping Writers too (linked in that post). I hope that helps!