Monday, September 12, 2022

The Catalyst for Character Change: The Dark Night of the Soul

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The worst moment for your protagonist is one of the best moments for your reader.

A character who truly earns their victory—whatever that may be—is one readers will root for and remember. That’s often why they read the book in the first place. They want to watch a character struggle and overcome their problems and learn something from the experience.

Even if that something is, “the best weapon to put down zombies.”

Typically, the change is more character-focused and draws from the protagonist’s emotional core, but a Dark Night of the Soul happens in plot-heavy novels, too. It just takes a slightly different form and teaches slightly different lessons.

No matter what path your protagonist takes—emotional or intellectual, internal or external, plot driven or character driven—they have one thing in common.

Characters don’t simply change because “they want to.”

This is a sure sign of an underdeveloped character arc. For most of the story, the protagonist has been acting like a jerk, or making dumb mistakes, or not seeing the truth they’ve firmly refused to believe. Then in the end, they suddenly realize, “Gee, I’ve had it all wrong for 350 pages. I’m not going to do that anymore.” And poof, they change their bad behavior.

Yeah, nobody does that.

They fight that change. They struggle with it. They have to see the error of their ways over and over and have it ruin their life before that lesson sinks in.

The whole purpose of a character arc is to show the character’s growth.

It’s the slow journey from “flawed soul” to “fulfilled person.” The difficult path your character endures in order to become the person they need and want to be. And the Dark Night of the Soul is the moment that grabs them by the shoulders and shoves them over the edge.

This is the moment at the end of Act Two when the protagonist is at their lowest emotional point in the story. They’ve messed up—big time. They think it’s over for them. They can’t see who they are anymore or what they need, and they feel like they’ve been turned inside out and upside down.

Blake Snyder (Save the Cat) describes this as the moment the protagonist knows they’re beaten. It’s your call what “beaten” means in your story.

Often, the Dark Night of the Soul follows a death of some kind, be it literal, metaphorical, or thematic. It might be a true death, an emotional death, a loss of faith or confidence, or even a loss of ideals or beliefs. The character’s world gets shattered and nothing is what they thought it was.

Once the protagonist hits rock bottom, they finally learn their lesson (or at least enough to tip them over into changing their ways) and start acting the way they ought to.
  • The liar starts being honest
  • The confirmed bachelor/bachelorette wants to commit
  • The meek gain confidence
Whatever flaw was holding them back, they find the strength to accept it, overcome it, and carry on.

How to Create Your Protagonist’s Dark Moment of the Soul

This is the worst and lowest moment of the book, so don’t hold back on the torment. But also remember that every genre is different, so “dark” is relevant. Blake Snyder uses the light-hearted holiday movie, Elf, as an example, and it’s a great one.

Buddy the elf has a moment where he stands on a bridge and realizes he doesn’t belong anywhere. The sense that he might jump is strong—despite this being a comedy! It’s a “whiff of death” that shows Buddy’s lowest emotional point, and also shows his facing something that’s true about his life.

He’s a human who was raised as an elf in the North Pole. He doesn’t belong, and he’s struggling to find his place in the world and the family he lost. He goes through his Dark Moment of the Soul and it helps him understand what he wants and where he fits in. This ultimately leads to his growth and happiness.

 So, dial up or down the darkness as it suits your story and genre. The lowest point in a comedy is lighter than the lowest point in a drama.

Let’s look at ways to rip your protagonist’s life apart (bwahaha):

Tell them it’s time to abandon all hope.

Put them in a hopeless situation, usually by their own making, and let them think about what they’ve done. They’ve been beaten and they know it. They’ve made mistakes, refused to listen to others, trusted the wrong people—even if that person was themselves. They might as well throw in the towel and go home.

Let them reflect on the mistakes they’ve made and how dumb they were. Force their bad decisions down their throat and make them see who they truly are and how they got to this point in their life.

In more plot-focused novels, this is where the antagonist has seemingly won, and the protagonist can’t see a way to defeat them. They seriously consider giving up, because they’re not good enough to win.

(Here’s more with How to Find Your Character’s Breaking Point)

Force them to own it.

Push them to their breaking point. Force to reevaluate everything they know and believe and sort through the mess of their life at that moment. They face their demons, and start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and the solution to the problem.

This is a moment for reflection and self-awareness, and they can’t move forward until they fully understand—and accept—the consequences of their actions. They have to acknowledge who they were in order to become who they truly are.

In more plot-focused novels, this is where the protagonist must accept that no one else can do what needs to be done. It’s their responsibility, even if they don’t want it.

(Here’s more with Battered but Not Beaten? Pushing Your Character Past the Breaking Point)

Show them they can’t go back.

Pull the blinders off so they can’t ignore whatever issue they’ve had all book. They know this path leads to failure, and in order to be happy and get what they want, they have to change what’s not working. They might not have fully grown yet, but they’ve changed enough that they can’t keep doing what they’ve been doing. They don’t want to do that or be that person anymore.

There’s no going back anymore, and the only way out of the misery is to go forward. This is where the “whiff of death” comes in—the death of the old self, rebirth of the new self.

In more plot-focused novels, this is where the protagonist might lose an ally or trusted friend, and the risk of losing more people they care about it high. But the cost of not moving forward is even higher.

(Here’s more with The Wheels of (Character) Change)

Tell them to suck it up and accept it already.

They’ve finally figured out what they must do or who they must be to succeed, and even if it’s hard, they’re just going to have to do it. There’s often one last stubborn refusal, and one last attempt to talk their way out of it, but even their best argument fails to get then out of whatever hole they’ve dug for themselves.

They did this. It’s their fault, or they’re responsible, and they just have to deal with it.

The novel’s theme is typically front and center here, driving the character and the change, and lighting the way for the goal that will launch and drive Act Three.

In more plot-focused novels, this is where the protagonist knows what they have to do, but they don’t want to do it, and don’t want to make the required sacrifice. But deep down, they know they have to.

(Here’s more with The Inner Struggle: Guides for Using Internal Conflict That Make Sense)

Help them realize it’s time to make the Big Choice.

The protagonist faces the biggest and most important choice of the novel—do they accept the lie or the truth? They reject the lie or false belief, and finally accept the truth. The truth shall set them free, and this gives them the strength to face Act Three and the climax.

Th protagonist takes the most important emotional step of the novel and embraces their change, allowing them to grow and be who they need to be.

In more plot-focused novels, this moment leads to the protagonist finally accepting what has to be done to win, and the sacrifices they’ll need to make to do it. It’s hard, but it’s worth it to overcome the story’s central conflict.

(Here’s more with Story Structure: How the Act Two Choice Works in a Novel)

Change comes through hardship and sacrifice, and until the protagonist learns their necessary lessons, they won’t change.

Seeing a character grow and become who they’re meant to be is a satisfying end to a novel. Your protagonist might not like you for it, but your readers will love you for this deep, emotional moment that will resonate with them long after the story is over.

Take five minutes and examine your novel’s Dark Moment of the Soul. Does your protagonist face their demons and examine their life? Do they understand that their choices and actions have brought them to this point? What do they have to face or accept to move past it?

What’s the Dark Night of the Soul in your novel?

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. "You know what your problem is? It's (insert platitude)."
    "Thank you! Now I can fix my life!"
    --said nobody, ever.

    That Dark Night is how a story captures why there was ever a problem at all. Human beings have problems because they're the things we just aren't willing to face, not because we lack information. A good story is all about how completely a character has blocked out their need, and the Dark Night is showing how much it takes to push them past it.

    "You know what your problem is?"
    "Of course, but fixing it would be haaaaard..."

    1. Great quotes, lol. Also a great summary of the point of the emotional arc in the story.

  2. I happen to be taking an interesting screenwriting course by the author of the Nutshell Technique. She describes a phenomenon where the "want" the protagonist declares in the First Act is now the opposite at the Dark Night. This is usually an emotional state change and the result of doing it to themselves (not just some random bad situation they find themselves in). Have you ever heard this describes in fiction writing? The examples for film are pretty explicit once you see them (Humphrey Bogart's want of "wanting nothing for anyone else" to "I need to ensure the German's don't win). Flaw to Strength. Have you ever seen this in fiction as well?

    1. Sure. That's the character arc in a nutshell. What the protagonist wants at the start is rarely what they actually need, and it's only by going through the trials of the plot do they learn and realize what they truly need. I discuss that in my "wants vs Needs" post where I analyze Shrek. I don't state it exactly the same way, but the concept is there. (link to post:

      Films are way easier to use as examples since the moment is clear and stated onscreen, but novels with strong character arcs do the same thing. Pretty much every romance novel does this. Each love interest says early on why they can't find love / date / commit / whatever their issue is, and how if they just get X they'll be happy. But then they realize they're wrong and love is what they truly need.

      It's harder to see the want/need mirror in series fiction since the arcs are usually much smaller. Same with plot-heavy fiction. The focus is more on plot than character arc, so that moment isn't as clearly defined.

  3. Thank you for another excellent blog post! The challenge for me is how to bring this to life in a character-driven novel with the main conflict being man vs. self: By default, such reflections require more depth and can't be handled as a brief 'eureka!' moment.

    However, I face two challenges and would be interested if you have any advice (exercises, techniques) how to address them.

    1 - Long inner monologues bore readers to death, myself included. Same goes for long dialogs with a confidante (or a stranger). No matter how concisely summarized, a struggle with oneself isn't overcome in a paragraph or two. These key moments of reflection and acknowledgement are in my view not the time to show but to tell. The challenge is how to set up these deep moments to make them *entertaining*, clear but not too much 'on the nose'.

    2 - Characters often have more than one false belief. Some are related to the same wound, others result from different traumatic experiences. Any advice how to address the different trigger points for character change in the story structure and character arc when they are related to the same antagonist?

    Thank you so much in advance!

    1. You're most welcome. I'll see what advice I can offer :)

      1. I tend to focus on how someone in that moment feels and what they think. I try not to make them self aware, unless the whole point is for them to realize something about themselves they've been avoiding. It can also be spread out over other things happening, so it doesn't have to be them sitting there musing on Life.

      2. Go with whichever one is being triggered or affected at that moment. Characters react to all kinds of stimuli. I'd probably look at what lesson or growth is needed for the story and use those triggers for the big turning points or character arcs moments. The others ones can be used for creating trouble or sending the story where you need it to go. They can have multiple flaws or false beliefs, but odds are good there's one big one that's causing the core problem that needs to be fixed in the story.

    2. Thanks, Janice, much appreciated food for thought!