Welcome to the Character Evolution Files! This column focuses on character arcs, from the elements that create or enhance a character’s inner journey, to techniques that writers can employ to strengthen character arcs in their own work. Today we continue our journey through the stages of the character arc with File No. 8, which focuses on the Charge (or the second half of Act II).
With the Revelation over, the protagonist resumes her forward march with a sense of enlightenment. She has learned why her earlier behavior impeded her progress toward her story goal, and now has a better idea of how to achieve that goal. But, has she truly changed yet? Will the rest of her path in the story be smooth and free of obstacles, or full of upturned roots that cause her to stumble? Most likely it will be the latter – and it will cause the protagonist to question her beliefs, both old and new. This stage of blind confidence is known as the Charge.
During Character Evolution File No. 8, we’ll discuss how the Charge deepens the internal war between the protagonist’s false belief and its opposite truth. We’ll also revisit our two example characters as they begin to take action in their respective stories, and how the steps they take toward their eventual evolution aren’t always so steady.
As always, you can follow along with our Journey Through the Character Arc using the Story Structure & Character Arc Alignment Chart, which you can download at Worksheets for Writers.
The Basics of the Charge
The Charge covers the second half of Act II, starting after the Revelation / Midpoint (Stage 5) and ending around the story’s 75% mark. This is also the stage when, from a plot perspective, the rest of your story’s “chess pieces” assemble in preparation for Act III.
The Charge marks the protagonist’s shift from a state of reaction to one of initiative. The protagonist had spent the first half of the story behaving according to her false belief and making mistakes that hindered her story-goal progress. Now, she realizes that she needs to change her way of thinking in order to succeed. And during the Charge, she begins to demonstrate that understanding. She might even seem confident about things, and naively so.
Remember that the Revelation represents acknowledgment, the first step to personal growth. The protagonist is aware that she needs to change, but she isn’t ready to change yet. That’s why it’s crucial to consider evidence of the protagonist clinging to her false belief. The protagonist will acknowledge the truth’s existence and start to act in accordance with it during the Charge. However, since she’s not ready to change, she won’t be willing to fully commit to the truth. Her internal dialogue will still reflect her false belief at times and show her in a very uncomfortable position.
Thus, the Charge is like a reverse Struggle / Act II, First Half (Stage 4). The most appropriate events and elements will allow the protagonist’s new internal conflict (clinging to the false belief versus accepting the truth) to manifest outwardly. Since we’re focusing on the positive arc, let’s start with the positive aspects of this stage:
- More Assistance: Which characters or what objects / tools provide additional help to the protagonist at this time? Has she met anyone new or received anything new as a result of the Revelation? Feel free to review your answers from the same question for the Struggle.
- New “Truthful” Behaviors: Because of the lessons she learned earlier, the protagonist begins acting in ways that demonstrate her understanding of her false belief’s opposite truth. These behaviors will fall under one of two categories:
- The Protagonist’s Strengths: Review the protagonist’s positive attributes from your Trigger / Inciting Incident (Stage 1) brainstorming and similar exercises. How do these strengths help her progress toward her story goal at this time? What kinds of scenes would demonstrate these strengths while reflecting the truth?
- Correct Decisions: What minor decision(s) will the protagonist face during this stage? How will her strengths, acknowledgment of the truth, and the assistance she receives sway her in the right direction? How can these choices bring her closer to achieving her story goal?
- Returning Mirror Characters: If any mirror characters were established during the Struggle, what interactions do they have with the protagonist during the Charge? How do they act differently in terms of the false belief and other circumstances or conflicts they share? How do these contrasts impact the protagonist’s way of thinking as this stage continues?
Now, let’s consider the possible setbacks that demonstrate the protagonist’s internal friction:
- Continued Behaviors Reflecting the False Belief: Since the protagonist isn’t ready to commit to the truth yet, she’ll still act in ways that reflect her false belief:
- More Flaw “Flare-Ups ” & Mistakes: What mistakes might the protagonist make that would show her clinging to her false belief? How might her flaws and/or weaknesses manifest as well? How can they hinder her story-goal progress and create additional conflict within herself and with other characters?
- Internal Dialogue: How do the protagonist’s thoughts and self-talk reflect her false belief? Does she verbalize these fears or doubts as well?
- New Reminders of the Antagonistic Force(s): At least one Charge event should warn the protagonist that the antagonistic force(s) could still ruin her story-goal pursuit. This reminder(s) can also foreshadow what might happen during the Moment of Truth / Climax (Stage 9).
All the while, consider the protagonist’s emotions and the reasons for her actions and reactions. Why does she make the choices she makes now? How does each decision and its outcome make her feel? Her attachment to the story goal should influence her behaviors just as her internal war between her false belief and its opposite truth will.
In reality, the Charge isn’t a stage of clarity and self-assurance. It might seem so in the beginning, but as the protagonist continues to falter despite tasting success, any clarity and assurance will waver – and that wavering will hurt, since the protagonist has begun to value the truth that undermines her false belief. That war of emotions is exactly what she needs for the next stage of the Journey Through the Character Arc.
How the Charge Traps the Protagonist Between Her False Belief and Its Opposite Truth
With her Revelation, our case-study character (a young female criminal on the run) had agreed to leave town with her benefactor. This decision helps her work toward her story goal (avoiding capture by law enforcement) but clashes with her false belief (“I can’t trust anyone”). Yet, she also realizes that perhaps she can trust her benefactor, since he’s been loyal to her so far. Now, it’s time to shake her confidence again with the Charge.
Two fundamentals we must remember are the fugitive must move from a state of reaction to a state of action, and experience friction between her false belief and the opposite truth (“I can trust others”). This means that the fugitive’s Charge needs to show her a) starting to place her trust in other characters, and b) wavering between trust and distrust.
We must also keep in mind the fugitive’s story goal and the Revelation’s turn of events (the agreement to leave town). Thus, the fugitive’s Charge should show her and her benefactor on the road, and both characters running into further complications as they flee from authorities.
Using these key points, we can now brainstorm possible Charge events as well as the fugitive’s actions, reactions, and emotions. The table below (similar to the one in File No. 6) shows some examples.
Even though the fugitive has acknowledged that she can trust her benefactor, she soon realizes her reluctance to trust other characters and how easily she slides into suspicion again. Her Charge isn’t a triumphant sprint to the finish. Instead, it’s as turbulent and (for readers) exciting as her Struggle, with the added wrestling between her false belief and its opposite truth. And as we’ll see in File No. 9, all of the mixed results and emotional upheaval she experiences now will cause her to question what she learned earlier – and bring her to her third and most momentous decision in the story.
How Does the Charge Parallel the Second Half of Act II?
How does the Charge align with the second half of Act II? Let’s take a look:
- Both stages occur during the third 25% of the story (50 to 75%).
- Both show the protagonist continuing to work toward her story goal.
- Both reveal more of the story’s external conflict and increase the build-up to the final showdown with the antagonist(s).
- The protagonist adopts new behaviors that further her progress toward her goal.
- Despite her changed behaviors, the protagonist still makes mistakes that hinder her story goal pursuit.
- The protagonist continues to receive help from and run into conflict with other characters.
An Example of a Character’s Charge Using Aragorn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
As we follow Aragorn’s journey through the positive arc, we’ll refer to the Charge basics we discussed earlier to illuminate how they play out in a story. Also, please note that these Aragorn sections will reference both the books and Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. The focus will be on film-Aragorn, who endures a more noticeable internal struggle than book-Aragorn, but the discussion will include appropriate references to the books as needed.
Last time, Aragorn had delivered news of imminent war to Helm’s Deep and disagreed with King Theoden about how to defend Rohan. This moment marked Aragorn’s Revelation, where he acknowledged that he needs to act more like a leader despite those actions undermining his false belief (“I’m not a leader”). Now, let’s see how he continues to act more in accordance with the false belief’s opposite truth (“I am a leader”).
Aragorn’s Charge begins with the Battle of Helm’s Deep, also known as the Battle of the Hornburg. Rohan is heavily outnumbered by Saruman’s Uruk-hai forces (nearly 5 to 1 in the Two Towers book*), but the odds only seem to strengthen Aragorn’s resolve. Watch this clip of the battle’s opening scene from theTwo Towers film. Here, Aragorn is the portrait of confidence, commanding the Silvan Elf regiment and motivating them through a bold speech and unwavering actions.
Despite his swagger at the start of the battle, Aragorn runs into obstacles. He argues with Legolas in the armory about the impending battle, but regains his poise when testing a young boy’s sword and telling him, “There is always hope.” Then there’s the Battle of Helm’s Deep itself, which quickly turns in the Uruk-hai’s favor. Yet Aragorn refuses to give up, both in the films and in the book (specifically the Two Towers book, Pages 149 through 156*).
This next scene from the Two Towers film shows Aragorn at that very moment, when the Uruk-hai attempt to break into the keep at Helm’s Deep. See how he interacts with King Theoden, who we previously established as Aragorn’s “mirror” character. Do you notice a “role reversal” between the two leaders? Which man inspires the turnaround that eventually leads to Rohan’s victory?
After the Battle of Helm’s Deep, Aragorn and their comrades return to Edoras to celebrate. Here, King Theoden acknowledges Aragorn’s strengths as a leader; and Aragorn and the wizard Gandalf experience their own “role reversal,” with Aragorn encouraging his mentor during a rare moment of despair. However, an incident with Saruman’s palantír forces Aragorn to turn his focus to Sauron’s imminent attack on Gondor, the realm where Aragorn is heir to the throne. His dialogue on Page 34 of Return of the King** also demonstrates his shift in priorities.
Aragorn’s road to Gondor isn’t smooth, though. King Theoden initially refuses to march to Gondor’s aid, though he later changes his mind. Gandalf also offers more (albeit cryptic) guidance, this time on the route Aragorn should take to Minas Tirith. Finally, once Rohan’s armies assemble in Dunharrow, fewer soldiers arrive than expected. This scene from the Return of the King film shows Aragorn’s disappointment as well as his sober, pragmatic advice in response. Is our hero suddenly doubting himself and his chances now?
Let’s dissect Aragorn’s Charge through the keys we mentioned in the Basics section:
- Timing: Aragorn’s Charge begins at the 2 hour 1 minute mark of The Two Towers and ends at the 1 hour 14 minute mark of Return of the King (53 to 76%, lasting 23%). Similar events in the books place this stage from Page 148 of The Two Towers* through Page 41 of Return of the King** (51 to 75%, lasting 24%).
- Story Goal Progress: Aragorn focuses on ensuring Rohan’s victory against Saruman’s Uruk-hai army at Helm’s Deep, then turns his attention to the looming battle in Gondor. As hinted in File No. 7, it’s possible that he sees both events as steps he must take to help defeat Sauron and allow Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee to destroy The One Ring.
- “Truthful” Behaviors: Aragorn takes charge of the Elven reinforcements at Helm’s Deep, and remains confident as the battle turns against Rohan. His optimism inspires King Theoden and his surviving forces at Helm’s Deep, and later Gandalf when they return to Edoras.
- Assistance: Gandalf (advice) and King Theoden (troops) provide the most noticeable assistance during this stage. We also can’t forget Legolas and Gimli, who have followed and supported Aragorn ever since their flight from Moria. Legolas in particular praises Aragorn when they make amends after their argument in Helm’s Deep.
- Mirror Characters: King Theoden continues to act as Aragorn’s mirror character. The vice-versa is true as well, since both men embolden each other throughout this stage.
- Lingering False-Belief Behaviors: Aragorn’s morale wavers after his argument with Legolas, and more noticeably after a weak marshalling at Dunharrow.
- Reminder(s) of the Antagonistic Force(s): The Battle of Helm’s Deep and the palantír incident remind Aragorn that Sauron still hasn’t abandoned his plans to seize control of Middle-Earth.
- Reasons & Emotions: All of Aragorn’s actions during his Charge are motivated by his desire to save Middle-Earth and the people he cares about. As a result, he experiences positive (determination, pride, joy) and negative emotions (doubt, frustration, defeat) that are influenced by his successes and failures during this stage.
A Second Example of a Character’s Charge Using Tris Prior from Veronica Roth’s Divergent
Tris’s Charge begins in Chapter 18 of Divergent and ends with Chapter 28 (timing = 46 to 77%, lasting for 31%**). Like with Aragorn’s in Lord of the Rings, hers is a rollercoaster ride of achievements and setbacks that causes friction between the false belief she clings to (“I am weak” / “I don’t belong anywhere.”) and the opposite truth she’s starting to believe (“I am strong” / “I belong with the Dauntless”).
After successfully completing Stage One of her Dauntless initiation, Tris moves onto Stage Two (story goal progress): confronting her fears via simulation tests. This terrifies Tris, since her previous simulation test uncovered her Divergence, the secret she’s trying to hide from everyone. She covers it up the first time, due to her distress afterwards (Page 237***). However, her trainer Four figures it out the second time, and he warns her to hide her Divergence during future simulation tests – or it might cost Tris her life (255***).
Fortunately, Four doesn’t turn Tris in to Dauntless’s leaders. Instead, he becomes her love interest and greatest ally (assistance). He rescues Tris when three of her fellow Dauntless initiates try to throw her off a gated ledge (280***). He also cheers her up when she’s frightened (“You look as tough as nails” [241***]) and acknowledges her inner strength, selflessness, and bravery in various scenes.
Tris receives assistance from other characters, too. Her friends Christina and Will support her at her vulnerable moments, including after the ledge attack (291 – 293***). So does Uriah, who invites Tris to spend more time with him and the Dauntless-born initiates (271***). Tori, who was Tris’s faction test proctor during her Trigger, also gives Tris advice on hiding her Divergence, and shares how her brother was killed by Dauntless leadership for being a Divergent (258***).
The only exception out of Tris’s friends is Al, one of her mirror characters. He accuses Tris of making Stage Two look easy with her top ranking when he’s struggling at the bottom (269***), and later is one of the “ledge attackers” (278***). And when Tris refuses to forgive Al for his involvement, he reacts by jumping off the same ledge and committing suicide (302 – 303***). His actions are the exact opposite of what Tris is trying to achieve, and a reminder of what might happen to her if she fails.
As for Tris herself, she exhibits more “truthful” behaviors during her Charge. She rises to the top of her initiation class by controlling her fears and “defeating” her simulations in the shortest amount of time (266***). She also visits Four’s fear landscape (a simulation where one confronts all of their fears at once) with him, discovering Four’s real name (Tobias) and helping him face each fear through encouragement and physical confrontation with the simulations (322 – 332***). The below example of positive self-talk also shows Tris recognizing that she might have been a Dauntless at heart all along:
“… No, I was wrong; I didn’t jump off the roof because I wanted to be like the Dauntless. I jumped off because I already was like them, and I wanted to show myself to them. I wanted to acknowledge a part of myself that Abnegation demanded that I hide.” (263***)
Other scenes, however, prove that Tris hasn’t fully embraced her truth yet (lingering false-belief behaviors). After her first simulation, she lashes out at Four and says she wants to go home, even though she knows “home is not an option anymore” (237***). She also still feels compelled to lie to hide her vulnerability or anything that could be viewed as a weakness. This makes it difficult for Tris to tell her friends about the ledge attack (291 – 293***), but she pushes herself to be honest.
And what about the antagonistic force(s)? Fellow initiate Peter continues to torment Tris, especially with the ledge attack. There’s also Dauntless leader Eric, who at one point threatens to throw Tris and her friends out of the faction (361 – 363***). A larger-scale danger appears to be emerging, too. Tris catches wind of it when she eavesdrops on Eric’s report to an unknown source about searching for Divergents (276 – 277***). And after a spontaneous visit to Erudite to see her brother Caleb (353***) and Four’s discovery of war plans in Dauntless’s computer files (374 – 377***), she realizes that Erudite and Dauntless may be plotting something against her birth faction Abnegation.
Based on the above, it’s clear that Tris experiences a wide swing of emotions during her Charge. Some are positive (courage, hope, confidence); others are negative (fear, anguish, anger). The reasons for her reactions vary as well, from a desire to prove herself to the Dauntless, to protecting the people she cares about, to learning more about Divergence and the unfolding political conflict. But as we’ll see in File No. 9, Tris needs to focus on her personal trials first before worrying about the bigger picture.
Questions to Ask When Crafting Your Protagonist’s Charge
Here are some questions that cover the essentials to the Charge. These, as well as your answers to past Journey Through the Character Arc questionnaires, can guide you in developing a powerful second half of Act II that illustrates the protagonist’s inner conflict and how she’s moving from acknowledgment of the truth to an acceptance that allows her to finally let go of her false belief.
- Where does the Charge begin in terms of the story’s overall page count / word count? How long does it last?
- What further steps does the protagonist take toward her story goal? How does she switch from a state of reaction to a state of initiative?
- How does the protagonist’s acknowledgment of her false belief’s opposite truth impact her story goal progress? What new behaviors (character strengths, correct decisions, etc.) allow her to demonstrate her understanding of this truth?
- Who or what continues to help the protagonist at this time? Does she receive any new assistance that she didn’t have in previous stages?
- Do any mirror characters from past arc stages return for the Charge? How do they continue to contrast (either positively or negatively) the protagonist’s struggles with her false belief, truth, or inner conflict?
- How does the protagonist’s false belief continue to affect her story goal pursuit? Which flaws or weaknesses flare up again? What mistakes does the protagonist make? How does her internal dialogue reflect this?
- How does the antagonistic force(s) reassert itself? What clues does this reminder(s) provide about the upcoming Moment of Truth?
- For every Charge event, what is the protagonist’s reason(s) for her actions and decisions? What emotions does she experience that demonstrate her investment in the story goal as well as her internal war between her false belief and its opposite truth?
What are some memorable Charges / second halves of Act II from books you’ve read? If you’re working on a story, how would you describe your character’s Charge? How does it mark his/her shift from reacting to acting and his/her acknowledgment of needing to change for the better?
Please join me again in May / June for File No. 9, where we’ll cover the Dark Night of the Soul, or the end of Act II.
*Reference: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, 2001 paperback edition by Del Rey / Ballantine Books
**Reference: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, 2001 paperback edition by Del Rey / Ballantine Books
***Reference: Veronica Roth’s Divergent, 2011 paperback printing by Katherine Tegen Books