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. 9, which focuses on the Dark Night of the Soul (or the end of Act II).
Characters, like real people, can tolerate internal conflict for only so long. When they reach their breaking point, there is no right solution, but an only solution. In the case of a positive character arc, the protagonist has dealt with all kinds of stress and upheaval while working toward his story goal. And after the Charge, which tugged him back and forth between his false belief and its opposite truth, he’s about to snap. It’s here that he arrives at the darkest hour of his evolution, and realizes he has but one solution for achieving his goal – or else he’ll fail.
Yes, the Dark Night of the Soul is the subject of Character Evolution File No. 9. We’ll cover how the protagonist finally weighs the pros and cons of his false belief and the truth, and how the scene symbolizes the death of the character’s old self. Plus, we’ll visit our example characters once again as they make their most important choice in their respective stories.
Remember that you can use the Story Structure & Character Arc Alignment Chart to follow along with our Journey Through the Character Arc. Download it now at the Worksheets for Writers page.
The Basics of the Dark Night of the Soul
The Dark Night of the Soul signals the end of Act II, around the story’s 75% mark. It’s culmination of the protagonist’s successes and failures, and not in a pretty way. In fact, this third major plot point is often the protagonist’s lowest point emotionally in the story.
Let’s go back to the Charge / Act II, Second Half (Stage 6) for a moment. During that stage, the protagonist began acting in accordance with the opposite truth to his false belief. Yet he never figured out how to act in this manner consistently, and with success. Why? Because he had only acknowledged the truth up to that point. He hadn’t accepted it, or committed to the change that acceptance will bring.
Thus, the Dark Night is where the protagonist must accept the truth that undermines his false belief. This scene is similar to the Point of No Return / End of Act I (Stage 3) and the Revelation / Midpoint (Stage 5) in that it presents the protagonist with a choice. This time, the outcome represents the protagonist’s acceptance of the truth. He realizes it’s time to shed his false belief and change for the better, or else he won’t reach his story goal.
Also, like with the Point of No Return and the Revelation, a prompting event precedes the Dark Night, disturbing the protagonist’s world yet again and leading to his Dark Night choice. This event is often a crisis moment stemming from the protagonist’s earlier reluctance to let go of his lie. Most importantly, the Dark Night’s prompting event threatens the protagonist’s story goal more than any prior event in the story. In other words, things have gone not from bad to worse, but from worse to dire.
So, which scene elements need to be considered in order to illustrate the protagonist’s farewell to his false belief? Here they are:
- True Cost of the False Belief: The prompting event forces the protagonist to see the immediate and long-term ramifications of clinging to his lie.
- Friction Between the Truth & the Lie: The protagonist experiences the ultimate “torn-in-half” scenario. He still wants the safety of his false belief, and might exhibit some of his lie-driven flaws or weaknesses during this scene. However, he’s also aware that his false belief can lead to his failure to achieve his story goal. He sees how the truth can accomplish what the lie cannot – and the thought of changing (embracing the truth) scares him as much as his status quo (continuing on with his false belief) does.
- Third Major Story Decision: The protagonist must decide whether to continue clinging to his false belief, or finally reject it in favor of the truth. In a positive arc, he’ll choose the truth.
- “Death of the Old Self”: Immediately after this choice, the protagonist shows his willingness to change through an action. He might give up or sacrifice something (including himself), or flee his current situation. It’s also possible that death might symbolically creep in elsewhere (e.g., death of a supporting character, life-threatening situation, loss of job / home / beloved possession).
- Foreshadowing the Climax: The Dark Night also conveys information to the protagonist that will be useful for the Moment of Truth / Climax (Stage 9). Usually this information pertains to the antagonistic force(s) and its plans to achieve its goal, which directly opposes the protagonist’s goal.
- Emotional State: As with all arc stages, the protagonist’s thoughts and emotions should be carefully considered. Typically he’ll be frightened, nervous, or anxious, especially in the wake of his decision. However, he’ll also understand that he’s chosen the right path, because it’s also the only path he can take now.
In a way, the Dark Night of the Soul is a second Point of No Return. This scene forces the protagonist to be brutally honest with himself and do what he was too scared of doing before. Giving him such an ultimatum will raise the stakes again and emphasize what he needs over what he wants. And usually, what the protagonist needs – not what he wants – will be his key to reaching his story goal.
How the Dark Night of the Soul Persuades a Character to Shed Their False Belief
Our case-study character (a young female criminal on the run) has emerged from a harrowing Charge. She and her benefactor have left home to avoid police capture (story goal), which means the fugitive has begun to trust her new friend (opposite truth to her false belief). However, the Charge’s events have tested her willingness to trust others so much that she’s ready to stop. This is where her Dark Night of the Soul comes in.
What’s most essential here is that the fugitive must reject her false belief in order to accept the truth. Before she can, she must experience a prompting event that rattles her to the core again. Let’s consider the following Dark Night “basics” and other aspects from the fugitive’s previous arc stages:
- The Dark Night’s prompting event should come as a result of the fugitive’s hesitancy to shed her habit of distrust.
- The Dark Night should threaten the fugitive’s story goal.
- During the Revelation, the benefactor sparked the fugitive’s desire to become more trusting.
- The events of the Charge (including the fugitive learning a potentially damaging secret about her benefactor) have caused the fugitive to question her trust in him.
Based on these four points, here’s a possible prompting event for the Dark Night: After the fugitive learns about her benefactor’s secret, she confronts him in their hideout and calls him out on his lack of trust in her – then pulls out her gun and threatens to kill him. The two characters continue to argue, and the benefactor apologizes and explains his side of the story in an effort to placate the fugitive.
It’s a dramatic turn of events, but it makes sense because of the fugitive’s criminal history (established during the previous arc stages) and the story’s events. And, the dialogue that the fugitive shares with the benefactor should cause her realize (and act according to) the following:
- Threat to the Story Goal: The fugitive realizes that if she kills her benefactor, she could draw the attention of local authorities and ruin her chances of reaching her story goal.
- True Cost of the False Belief: Killing her benefactor would prove that the fugitive still clings to her false belief (“I can’t trust anyone”). She would also be arrested and jailed, have fewer friends, and destroy any hope of being trusted again.
- Friction Between the Truth & the Lie: The fugitive demonstrates her clutch on her false belief by screaming, deflecting blame, and threatening to shoot her benefactor. But the longer they talk, the more she starts to see how her safety depends on trust. She also acknowledges her benefactor’s willingness to protect her – and how she’ll rob herself of a loyal friend if she kills him.
- Third Major Story Decision: The fugitive must decide if it’s worth killing her benefactor over the secret he’s kept from her. She decides that she’s better off with him in her life, thus choosing trust (the truth) over distrust (false belief).
- “Death of the Old Self”: The fugitive’s choice to spare her benefactor’s life might defy the Dark Night’s symbolic death. However, by doing so, she allows her defensive, volatile old self to die. She might also kick away her gun or gives it to her benefactor for his own protection, a gesture in her new belief in trusting and forgiving others.
- Foreshadowing the Climax: The fugitive and her benefactor discuss the police (antagonistic force) during the Dark Night. After all the previous close calls, it makes sense that the Moment of Truth would feature one last brush yet with the authorities.
- Emotional State: After experiencing rage and resentment during the Dark Night, the fugitive will likely feel drained at the end. She might also be horrified that she almost killed a friend and uncertain of his forgiveness, but she’ll also know that letting him live was the right thing to do.
We don’t have to know what words are exchanged between both characters to know how the fugitive’s Dark Night of the Soul should end. In fact, knowing she’ll choose the truth will drive the dialogue in the right direction. The point is, this stage warns her that she can no longer straddle the line between trust and distrust, and it gives her a ultimatum between the two.
See what happens when your protagonist reaches his Dark Night. Force him to make a do-or-die decision – one that could spell disaster if he chooses his false belief, or empower him if he opts for the truth. It won’t be an easy decision, but it should make the truth’s path to the story goal too clear for the protagonist to ignore anymore.
How Does the Dark Night of the Soul Align with the End of Act II?
Here’s what the Dark Night of the Soul and the end of Act II have in common:
- Both occur at or around the story’s 75% mark.
- Both show the protagonist about to give up on his story goal.
- Both shake the protagonist to his core and force him to make a choice that will impact his approach to the story’s climax.
- The outcome propels the protagonist into Act III and closer to his final showdown with the antagonistic force(s).
An Example of a Character’s Dark Night of the Soul 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 Dark Night of the Soul 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.
During his Charge, Aragorn experienced his first taste of success with leadership (truth) by helping Rohan win the Battle of Helm’s Deep. He also continued to struggle with doubts over his abilities as a leader (false belief). Now, after a disappointing marshaling of Rohan’s troops at Dunharrow, Aragorn faces the darkest hour of his evolution.
That night, Aragorn dreams that his beloved Arwen is dying. He then wakes to find that King Theoden has summoned him, though it’s not Theoden who wants to speak with him. Instead, it’s Lord Elrond – and he brings news of how dire Middle-Earth’s fight against Sauron has become. Watch how their conversation plays out (starting at 1:13), and what Aragorn decides at the end.
It’s worth nothing that this scene doesn’t appear in the Return of the King book. However, on Page 36*, Aragorn meets the Grey Company, a group of fellow Dúnedain rangers and Lord Elrond’s two sons, and receives similar advice from Lord Elrond: “‘The days are short. If thou art in haste, remember the Paths of the Dead.'” He then resolves to take the Dimholt Road on Page 41*. Also, instead of Anduril, which Aragorn has carried since the quest began, Aragorn receives a royal standard from Arwen to fly on the battlefield. The gift and the delivery of advice may differ from those in the film, but Aragorn’s decision and the underlying sentiment remain the same.
Let’s break down the elements of Aragorn’s Dark Night of the Soul:
- Timing: Aragorn’s Dark Night occurs during The Return of the King movie, beginning at 1 hour 14 minutes and ending at 1 hour 19 minutes (77% to 78% through the film trilogy). A similar scene appears on Page 41* of the Return of the King book (75% through the book trilogy).
- Prompting Event: Lord Elrond’s arrival at Dunharrow, with news of an ailing Arwen and the impending corsair ambush on Gondor, shakes Aragorn’s confidence and forces him to reconsider his options.
- Threat to the Story Goal: Though Aragorn’s thoughts aren’t available to the audience, he’s clearly worried that Rohan doesn’t have the numbers to help Gondor defeat Sauron’s armies, which could be a huge blow to Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee’s mission to destroy The One Ring.
- True Cost of the False Belief: As a result of Lord Elrond’s news, Aragorn realizes that if he doesn’t come forward as heir to the throne of Gondor, Sauron will seize control of Middle-Earth – and everything Aragorn values and loves will be gone.
- Truth-Lie Friction: Despite helping Theoden win the Battle of Helm’s Deep, Aragorn has not fully stepped up as a leader. He shows his hold on his lie through false bravado (“It will not be our end, but his”) and his inability to think of last-gasp strategies. Yet, he’s aware that Rohan’s weak numbers will hurt Gondor’s chances. If he turns from his responsibilities again, he will hurt not only Gondor, but all of Middle-Earth.
- Third Major Story Decision: Aragorn must decide whether he should reject or embrace his royal heritage for good. By accepting the reforged sword of his ancestors, he chooses the truth instead of the lie.
- “Death of the Old Self”: Aragorn doesn’t lose much in this scene. Instead, he draws the sword Anduril for the first time, cementing his commitment to returning to Gondor. He also accepts that he must leave Dunharrow (and Rohan’s armies) so he can summon the ghosts in Dwimorberg. Thus, Aragorn will have to confront death before re-emerging to Middle-Earth as a king.
- Foreshadowing the Climax: Aragorn’s decision will finally bring him home to Gondor – and it’s bound to lead to a final showdown with Sauron, too.
- Emotional State: Aragorn seems staggered at the end of the scene, as if he still doubts his ability to do what needs to be done. However, his parting words to Lord Elrond indicate that he accepts his duty and understands it might mean his death, should Sauron’s forces win.
A Second Example of a Character’s Dark Night of the Soul Using Tris Prior from Veronica Roth’s Divergent
Tris’s Dark Night of the Soul, which takes place during Chapters 29 and 30 of Divergent (timing = 77 to 81%, lasting for 4%**), marks the end of her initiation into Dauntless. It’s the moment when Tris must shed her false belief (“I am weak” / “I don’t belong anywhere.”) so she can fully embrace its opposite truth (“I am strong” / “I belong with the Dauntless”).
The final evaluation into Dauntless doesn’t surprise Tris, since “fear-confrontation” simulations were part of Stage Two of her initiation (see File No. 8). Yet the knowledge doesn’t assuage her anxiety. As she eats lunch alone that day, she realizes that her meal is plain and healthy – “Abnegation food” (379*), in her words. She then doubts her ability to pass the test and questions whether she’s in the right faction. Yet she quickly returns to her senses and reminds herself that “[i]t’s too late to turn back.” (379**)
Her Dark Night’s prompting event has shaken her as well. During her Charge, Tris and Four / Tobias had discovered Dauntless and Erudite’s war plans against Abnegation, both characters’ birth faction (377**). Now, as Tris prepares for her final evaluation, she wishes that she could “warn my family about the war the Erudite are planning, but I don’t know how.” (379**) She also confesses she can’t worry about them right now, and “[t]oday I have to focus on what awaits me.” (379**) In other words, she’s aware she needs to concentrate on the final evaluation, or else she might fail (threat to story goal).
When Tris’s test begins, six fears “attack” her via symbolic situations:
- Powerlessness (pecked to death by crows, battered by ocean waters against a rocky shore)
- Entrapment (drowning in a tank of water)
- Torment by her peers (burning at the stake)
- Being kidnapped (strangers breaking into her home)
- Intimacy (trying to stop Tobias’s sexual advances)
- Being responsible for the deaths of loved ones (being forced to shoot her family)
Thanks to the mental preparation she had done the night before (384**), Tris confronts each fear with strategies for overcoming each simulation (384**). She shoots the crows with a fake gun (385**) and refuses to sleep with simulation-Tobias (394**). And when she’s faced with shooting her family or sacrificing herself, she remembers Tobias’s advice from her Charge stage (“Selflessness and bravery aren’t that different” [396**]) and chooses to be shot in their place.
By taking control of her fears, Tris successfully completes her final evaluation, though the results don’t come until her next arc stage. For now, let’s see how Tris’s Dark Night covers the remaining basics we discussed earlier:
- True Cost of the False Belief: By admitting it’s too late to question where she belongs, Tris proves she understands what will happen to her if she fails her final evaluation (become factionless) or doesn’t hide her Divergence well enough (be killed by Dauntless leadership).
- Truth-Lie Friction: Tris’s wobbling between her false belief and the truth shows on Page 379, when her lunch reminds her of the food she ate in Abnegation. Her wavering between self-doubt, fear for her family’s safety, and the knowledge of what she needs to do leaves her shaken and exhausted. She knows what her forward path must be, and it scares her as much as the True Cost scenarios do.
- Third Major Story Decision: Tris must decide if she’s weak and unable to find her place in the world, or if she’s strong and able to prove she belongs in Dauntless. She chooses the latter by confronting her fears via simulations.
- “Death of the Old Self”: Tris’s final evaluation shows her old self gradually dying with each simulation. She quickly thinks of ways to combat each fear and acts on each strategy, revealing her willingness to see herself as a strong young woman.
- Foreshadowing the Climax: Tris may have to face one or more fears from her final evaluation during the Moment of Truth, which means she’ll have to confront the fear(s) in person.
- Emotional State: Though Tris is nervous before her final evaluation, she reaches a state of calm and anticipation when it’s her turn. She also experiences a multitude of emotions during her test, both negative (frustration, panic, confusion) and positive (amusement, confidence, satisfaction).
Questions to Ask When Developing Your Protagonist’s Dark Night of the Soul
Here are the questions for your protagonist’s Dark Night of the Soul. These can help you craft a dramatic, heart-rending end of Act II that allows the protagonist to finally reject his false belief in favor of the truth. Feel free to refer to your answers to past Journey Through the Character Arc questionnaires to ensure everything ties together.
- Where does the Dark Night of the Soul occur in terms of the story’s overall page count / word count?
- What event immediately preceding the Dark Night of the Soul shakes up the protagonist’s world? How did the protagonist’s previous refusal(s) to let go of his false belief enable this event to occur?
- How does the prompting event endanger the protagonist’s chances of reaching his story goal?
- As a result of the prompting event, what does the protagonist see as the true cost of his false belief? What are the ramifications (both immediate and long-term) if he fails to change?
- What internal friction does the protagonist experience between his false belief and the truth? Do any of his flaws or weaknesses flare up again? How does he realize the truth will help him reach his story goal and his false belief will fail?
- What is the ultimate choice that the protagonist must make between his false belief and the truth? What does he decide?
- How does the Dark Night of the Soul represent the death of the protagonist’s old self? What immediate action does he take that symbolizes this death? Do other types of “death” emerge at this point?
- How does the Dark Night foreshadow the Moment of Truth? What additional information does the protagonist receive about the antagonistic force(s)?
- What is the protagonist’s emotional state at the end of this stage? How does it reveal his willingness to reject his lie and embrace the truth?
What are some memorable Dark Nights / Act II endings from books you’ve read? If you’re working on a story, how would you describe your character’s Dark Night of the Soul? How does it persuade him/her to accept the truth and let go of his false belief?
Please join me again in June / July for File No. 10, where we’ll cover the Aftermath, or the first half of Act III.
*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