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. 10, which focuses on the Aftermath (or the first half of Act III).
After writing a story’s Dark Night of the Soul, we might be tempted to rush straight to the climax. That, however, doesn’t give the protagonist time to adjust to her paradigm shift. She needs time to reconcile herself with her rejection of her false belief and to form a plan for confronting the antagonistic force(s) and reaching her story goal. Her past arc stages proved that she can’t simply charge forward and get positive results. She needs to have an idea of what she’s doing – and it begins by exhibiting her growth in small ways.
This often overlooked stage of character evolution is called the Aftermath, and is the subject of Character Evolution File No. 10. We’ll study how, during a positive character arc, the protagonist deals with the consequences of her Dark Night decision and prepares for the finale. And, we’ll see what happens when our two example characters move further away from their growth-inhibiting lies and closer to their empowering truths.
Need help visualizing what has happened so far in our Journey Through the Character Arc, or what’s coming next? Download a copy of the Story Structure & Character Arc Alignment Chart now from the Worksheets for Writers page.
The Basics of the Aftermath
Act III comprises the final 25% percent of a story, starting at its 75% mark. The Aftermath lasts for roughly half of this act, from 75% to between 85 and 90%. This allows sufficient page-time for the protagonist to recover from her Dark Night of the Soul / End of Act II (Stage 7) and figure out her plan of action. This is also the stage where any subplots are wrapped up and the major playing pieces (important secondary characters, objects, etc.) assemble for the Moment of Truth / Climax (Stage 9).
The Aftermath will seem like a messy stage for the protagonist, especially from her perspective. Not only must she come to terms with her Dark Night choice, but she must also deal with its immediate results or consequences. Her final showdown with the antagonist may be around the corner, but first she has to recover from rejecting her false belief during her Dark Night.
Here’s the subtle reality, though: The Aftermath is the ideal time to show how far the protagonist has come since her Trigger / Inciting Incident (Stage 1). She might not feel courageous when this stage begins, but as it goes on she’ll start to show her acceptance of her false belief’s opposite truth in small ways. And as she does, she’ll regain her confidence and get a clearer idea of what precisely she must do in order to attain her story goal.
So, how can we show the Aftermath in all its turmoil? Let’s break it down:
- Post-Dark Night Mindset: Consider this a holdover of the Emotional State from the Dark Night of the Soul. The protagonist should still feel the emotions she felt at the end of her Dark Night, but only for a short while.
- Consequences of Accepting the Truth: The protagonist must confront the immediate results or fallout of her Dark Night decision. These act as temporary obstacles to her story goal and raise the stakes even higher.
- Questioning Attitude: It’s normal for the protagonist to still ask herself whether she made the right choice. Some of her dialogue and actions will reflect these doubts or echo back to her false belief. This, however, won’t show as often as…
- The Strength to Continue: Despite the internal and external chaos she has created, the protagonist finds the emotional strength to continue her story-goal pursuit. Like with her Questioning Attitude, her courage emerges through dialogue, thoughts, and actions; and it often follows on the heels of her doubts – a sign that her new truth is sinking in.
- Small Changes: The protagonist demonstrates her growth since the Trigger in small ways. This comes in the form of behaviors that her false belief prevented her from showing when the story began.
- Reminders of Assistance: Supporting characters who helped the protagonist in earlier stages (and who are instrumental to the conclusion) will reaffirm their commitment to her and/or her story goal. The protagonist will also recognize the importance of any knowledge, skills, or objects she acquired earlier in the story.
- Final Temptation: Before the Aftermath ends, an event threatens the protagonist’s story-goal pursuit and allows the old, false belief to attempt a comeback. This isn’t the Moment of Truth, but it reminds the protagonist to reject the lie’s temptation and focus on the upcoming “final battle.”
- Plan of Action: In response to the Final Temptation, the protagonist uses what she’s learned from past arc stages to plan how she should confront the antagonistic force(s) and reach her story goal. She doesn’t have to reveal that plan to readers, but her actions should indicate she has a better idea of what she’s doing now than she did before.
- Emotional State: As always, consider the protagonist’s mindset at the end of this stage. Has it changed? Does she feel more confident, determined, etc.? Or is she experiencing a storm of positive and negative emotions?
It’s possible that the protagonist won’t think of everything she’ll need for the upcoming “final battle.” In fact, it’s normal for a Moment of Truth to throw surprises at a character. However, by the end of the Aftermath, the protagonist now has an idea of how to bring her story-long ordeal to an end. She may be forced to adapt later on; but now that she has accepted her false belief’s opposite truth, she starts to feel more sure about herself and her chances of succeeding.
How the Aftermath Shows the First Signs of a Character’s Acceptance of the Truth
Last time, our case-study character (a young female criminal on the run) faced her Dark Night of the Soul and almost killed the benefactor who has helped her since her Point of No Return / End of Act I (Stage 3). This forced the fugitive to choose between false belief (“I can’t trust anyone”) and its opposite truth (“I can trust others”). Since she realized she has a better chance of reaching her story goal (avoiding police capture) by trusting other people – and that she still sees her benefactor as a friend – she decided to spare his life, therefore rejecting her false belief in favor of the truth.
Now, during her Aftermath, the fugitive must respond to her Dark Night choice and its consequences. This means the following factors should drive our plans for this stage:
- The fugitive’sMoment of Truth will combine her final escape from law enforcement with her most convincing demonstration of her trust in other people.
- The Aftermath will show the fugitive showing signs of her increasingly stronger belief in trusting other people.
- The Aftermath’s Final Temptation should threaten the fugitive’s safety and tempt her to fall back on distrust again. However, the fugitive will reject the lie and form her Plan of Action in response.
In a way, the Final Temptation sets up the Moment of Truth while acting as the strongest hint for the next stage’s events. So, if the fugitive’s final showdown with the police will show her full embrace of trust, this Final Temptation could work: Before the fugitive and her benefactor can flee town, the police capture her benefactor and take him to the local jail. This event could push the fugitive to either flee without her friend (and reclaim her false belief), or confront the police so she can rescue him – a risk that, after her Dark Night decision, reflects the truth she’s trying to embrace.
With that in mind, here’s how the rest of the Aftermath could play out:
- Post-Dark Night Mindset: When the Aftermath begins, the fugitive is still exhausted from the events of her Dark Night. Her horror over her actions and her uncertainty of her benefactor’s forgiveness also linger, but they dissipate before this stage ends.
- Consequences of Accepting the Truth: The protagonist and her benefactor get little sleep in their hiding place that night. Their tension directly feeds the fugitive’s Questioning Attitude (see below), but it also prompts both characters to talk. In particular, the fugitive asks her benefactor about the secret he had hidden from her, and he agrees to share it and explain why he hid it from her.
- Questioning Attitude: The fugitive voices her concerns over how the benefactor views her in light of her Dark Night actions. She even goes so far as to ask, “Why do you still trust me?”
- The Strength to Continue: Clearing the air allows the benefactor and the fugitive to move on from their altercation. The fugitive also convinces her friend that (after their recent close calls with police) they should leave town, and actively helps him in making their new travel plans.
- Small Changes: The fugitive believes her benefactor when he assures her that he still trusts her despite her Dark Night actions. She also becomes more apologetic for her past mistakes, and shows an increasing desire to listen to others and accept their help.
- Reminders of Assistance: In addition to her benefactor, the fugitive remembers which secondary characters she can trust. Locals who had previously proven their dependability help her and the benefactor arrange their escape from town. The fugitive also calls a relative who has previously given her advice, and receives validation for her change in attitude from said relative.
- Final Temptation: See previous paragraphs for details.
- Plan of Action: After her benefactor is captured, the fugitive decides to rescue him from the police so they can still leave town together. Since her truth involves trust, she also calls upon any locals whom she believes will help her (see Reminders of Assistance) to help her orchestrate her plan.
- Emotional State: The fugitive will be terrified, especially for her benefactor. (Notice how she’s putting his needs before her own.) However, she’s determined to save him regardless of what it might cost her in the end.
This doesn’t sound like the defensive, suspicious young woman we met in File No. 4, does it? Thanks to all the work we’ve done since then, the fugitive is now moving away from who she was, and toward who she needs to be in order to attain her story goal. This can happen to your characters, too – which is why it’s crucial to include and Aftermath after the Dark Night of the Soul. Give your protagonist a couple chapters to recover from her rejection of her false belief. You don’t need to play your winning cards yet – just a crucial few that show subtle hints of her finally changing for the better.
How Does the Aftermath Align with the First Half of Act III?
Here’s what the Aftermath and the first half of Act III have in common:
- The Aftermath starts immediately after the Dark Night of the Soul and ends before the Moment of Truth / Climax (roughly the first half of Act III).
- Both show the protagonist regaining the courage to resume her story-goal pursuit.
- Both end with the protagonist creating a plan for reaching said goal and for tackling her final conflict with the antagonistic force(s).
- The protagonist (either consciously or subconsciously) gathers all of the playing pieces (supporting characters, important objects, etc.) that she needs for the Moment of Truth.
An Example of a Character’s Aftermath 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 Aftermath 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 finally accepted the truth he’s been running from all his life: He chose to embrace his royal heritage and declare himself as the King of Gondor, thus shedding his false belief about not being a leader. With war now on Gondor’s doorstep, Aragorn must act on his decision from his Dark Night of the Soul – and quickly.
Aragorn doesn’t linger long in Dunharrow after his Dark Night ends. He packs and leaves for the Dwimorberg, but not without interruptions. He rejects Eowyn’s pleas to stay (and her affections), and tells Gimli and Legolas to remain behind with Rohan’s army. Of course, as you can see in the following clip from The Return of the King, his friends don’t let him get off so easily.
Aragorn’s next stop is the Dwimorberg, home of the Paths of the Dead and the oathbreaker ghosts he must summon before heading for Gondor. Despite the ominous appearance and threats, Aragorn boldly marches onward (“I do not fear death”) and summons the undead to fight for him. Watch what happens next, in this scene from the Extended Edition of The Return of the King. Here, Aragorn begins to use the tools and advice he’s acquired over the course of the trilogy – but will that be enough?
As you’ll see, the extended scene also shows Aragorn’s defeated reaction before receiving the King of the Dead’s true answer, and his exploitation of Gandalf’s and Lord Elrond’s advice (from his Charge and Dark Night stages, respectively) to ambush the corsairs. It’s no surprise to us later that he shocks Sauron’s army when he arrives in Gondor with his army of the Dead.
Once Gondor wins the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Aragorn and his companions turn their attention to their ultimate goal: the destruction of the One Ring. In this clip of the the “Last Debate” scene, Gandalf and the others aren’t sure how to proceed – that is, everyone except Aragorn. He’s beginning to look and act more like a king, isn’t he?
In case you’re wondering, the film version of Aragorn’s Aftermath doesn’t diverge too much from the book version. The tone is different (book-Aragorn had always intended to reclaim the throne of Gondor), but the sequence of events in both mirror each other closely. The book also includes Aragorn’s mastering of the palantír of Orthanc (43*), where he discovers Sauron’s plans with the corsair fleet; and his visit to Minas Tirith’s Houses of Healing (140 – 151*), where he reveals himself to the people of Gondor as their king. The summoning of the Dead (151 – 154*) also plays out differently, with the ghosts following Aragorn to the Stone of Erech and Aragorn unfurling Arwen’s standard instead of unsheating the reforged sword Anduril, but the Dead still keep to their oath in the end.
Let’s now dissect Aragorn’s Aftermath using the stage’s basics:
- Timing: Aragorn’s Aftermath occurs during The Return of the King, starting at 1 hour 19 minutes and ending at 2 hours 29 minutes (78 to 91%, or 13% of the film trilogy). A similar scene appears on Pages 41 through 164* of the Return of the King book (75 to 85%, or 10% of the book trilogy).
- Post-Dark Night Mindset: Aragorn shows no resistance to his path forward. He doesn’t delay leaving Dunharrow, and shows impatience when Eowyn tries to persuade him to stay. These are small yet telltale signs that Aragorn doesn’t question his Dark Night decision and wants to use his time well in order to save Gondor.
- Consequences of Accepting the Truth: In a way, Aragorn avoids the immediate consequences. The first clip above ends with King Theoden answering his soldiers’ questions about losing their other leader. However, Aragorn’s choice to enter the Paths of the Dead could also make things difficult for him, Legolas, and Gimli – because they might not survive.
- Questioning Attitude: The only time Aragorn seems to doubts his Dark Night decision is when he summons the Dead. Notice his eyes and facial expression at 0:58 of the Paths of the Dead clip. Does he look afraid there?
- The Strength to Continue: Aragorn demonstrates courage throughout his Aftermath. After that glimmer of fear at the Paths of the Dead, he calmly orders the ghosts to fulfill their final oath and brandishes Anduril, the sword of his ancestors.
- Small Changes: Most of the previous basics show hints of Aragorn’s growth. However, the most obvious changes come during the Paths of the Dead, when Aragorn proclaims himself as heir to the throne of Gondor for the first time; and during the Last Debate, when Aragorn suggests a plan to defeat Sauron for good.
- Reminders of Assistance: Gimli and Legolas continue to stick by Aragorn’s side, as they have since the Comfort Zone / Act I (Stage 2). Aragorn also uses Anduril as proof of his heritage, and recalls Gandalf’s and Lord Elrond’s advice regarding the corsair ships. Aragorn might also be drawing strength from the encouragement he received during his Struggle / Act II, First Half (Stage 4) and Charge / Act II, Second Half (Stage 6).
- Final Temptation: If Aragorn wanted to, he could have rejected the throne of Gondor at the last moment and walk away from the Battle of the Pelennor Fields- but he chooses not to.
- Plan of Action: Aragorn takes initiative during the Last Debate and prooposes a diversion tactic to allow Frodo and Sam time to destroy the One Ring.
- Emotional “End State”: By this point, Aragorn seems more poised and confident than he has in past arc stages. This mindset will be crucial if Aragorn wants to succeed during his Moment of Truth.
A Second Example of a Character’s Aftermath Using Tris Prior from Veronica Roth’s Divergent
Tris’s Aftermath is short, comprising only of Chapters 31 and 32 in Divergent (timing = 81 to 85%, lasting for 4%**). Now that she’s chosen to reject her false belief (“I am weak” / “I don’t belong anywhere”) in favor of its opposite truth (“I am strong” / “I belong with the Dauntless”), she must come to terms with her decision and its results and consequences – and she won’t have a lot of time to do so.
As soon as Tris’s final evaluation ends, we get a glimpse of her post-Dark Night mindset. She’s shaken yet relieved, hugging herself against a sudden chill (397**). Her anxiety returns, though, when Dauntless’s leaders congratulate her for successfully completing her simulation test. Eric (previously established as an antagonistic force) injects Tris with a tracking serum created by Erudite, and explains that other Dauntless members have been given this injection throughout the day. The thought of being injected again worries Tris, but she resigns to accept it because she knows “I can’t refuse or [Eric] will doubt my loyalty again.” (398**)
To soothe her nerves, Tris visits Tobias for a couple hours. She soon reveals that she saw him during her simulation, and that she’s afraid of physical intimacy. Tobias then proves why he’s still Tris’s most reliable source of assistance. He shares his own apprehension about relationships (402**); and as he shows Tris his tattoos of all five faction symbols, he admits he wants to strive for all five faction values, not just Dauntless’s courage (405**). Thus, Tobias demonstrates his respect for and trust in Tris, and implies there’s nothing wrong with her being a Divergent, since he too doesn’t want to be defined by his faction.
Finally, it’s time for the end-of-initiation banquet. Tris reunites with her friends Christina and Will, and they discuss their futures in Dauntless and poke fun at each other’s fears. The initiate’s rankings are revealed shortly after, and Tris realizes she’s done more than gain full entry into Dauntless – she’s ranked first. (Christina, Will, some of Tris’s Dauntless-born friends, and antagonist Peter also make the cut.)
Tris’s elation, however, is cut short. She quickly pieces together the information she and Tobias obtained over the past few chapters: Dauntless and Erudite will attack Abnegation, her birth faction and the home of her parents, by activating the newly injected tracking serum in each Dauntless member and controlling their minds. She promises to tell Tobias later – but as we’ll see in File No. 11, she never gets that chance.
While Tris doesn’t quite know her “plan of attack” yet, she understands what she might have to do to help Abnegation and save her parents. Now let’s see how her Aftermath uses the basics we haven’t covered yet:
- Consequences of Accepting the Truth: On the upside, Tris is at the top of her “class” and will have first choice for her faction career. But on the downside, she knows she must be careful around Eric and other Dauntless leaders (e.g., the tracking serum scene). Making the final cut doesn’t mean the Dauntless will keep her if she causes trouble again.
- Questioning Attitude: Tris doesn’t question her Dark Night decision, but she shows nervousness when confessing her fear of intimacy and lack of relationship experience to Tobias. She also lies to Christina and Will again (about her fear landscape) so she can keep her Divergence a secret.
- The Strength to Continue: Despite her trepidations, Tris accepts the tracking serum injection from Eric and tells Tobias the truth about her fears. She also reminds Tobias that “[n]o one’s perfect” in their pursuit of becoming who they want to be (405**) – advice that she, too, believes because of her Divergence.
- Small Changes: Tris, who has often lied to protect herself, takes a huge step forward in proving she’s strong by being open with Tobias about her fears.
- Reminders of Assistance: Besides Tobias, Christina and Will assist Tris by offering reassurance and comic relief during the banquet. Tris also draws conclusions about the upcoming Erudite-Dauntless attack on Abnegation based on the information she learned earlier in her Aftermath and during her Charge and Dark Night stages.
- Final Temptation: Tris realizes how Erudite and Dauntless plan to overtake Abnegation. Instead of deeming herself weak and doing nothing about her suspicions, she resolves to be strong and inform a higher-ranking Dauntless (Tobias) so she can help her former faction.
- Plan of Action: While Tris doesn’t form a plan in response to her Final Temptation, she decides to tell Tobias what she knows as soon as she can.
- Emotional “End State”: Tris is stunned and terrified by the conclusions she’s drawn about the upcoming attack on Abnegation. She’s also determined to act on her instincts, which shows in her intention to meet with Tobias.
Questions to Ask When Developing Your Protagonist’s Aftermath
Below is a list of questions to help you craft your protagonist’s Aftermath. Use these, along with your answers to the previous Journey Through the Character Arc questionnaires, to ensure your character has some time (however short it may be) to learn and respond to the immediate effects of her Dark Night decision and realize what she might have to do to achieve her story goal in the next stage.
- Where does the Aftermath begin in terms of the story’s overall page count / word count? How long does it last?
- How does the protagonist’s reaction to the Dark Night of the Soul linger into the Aftermath? What thoughts and feelings does she experience as this stage begins?
- What are the immediate consequences (results, fallout, etc.) of the protagonist’s decision to accept the truth? How have things become more difficult for the time being and temporarily hindered her progress toward her story goal?
- How does the protagonist question her acceptance of the truth? What dialogue, thoughts, or actions demonstrate these doubts?
- Despite her doubts, how does her protagonist find the emotional strength to continue working toward her story goal? How does this manifest through her dialogue, thoughts, or actions?
- What other small, positive changes does the protagonist exhibit during this stage? How is she behaving differently than she was at the beginning of the story?
- What reminders of assistance does the protagonist receive at this time? Which supporting characters reaffirm their commitment to help her? Does she realize the importance of any knowledge, skills, or objects she acquired earlier in the story?
- What event shortly before the Aftermath’s end threatens the protagonist’s story-goal pursuit? How does it reflect the false belief she shed during the Dark Night? How does she reject its temptation and form a “plan of attack” in response?
- What is the protagonist’s plan for confronting the antagonistic force(s) and reaching her story goal? How does it draw on what the protagonist has learned from her previous arc stages, including the truth she now believes?
- How does the protagonist feel at the end of the Aftermath? What is her mentality as she prepares for the Climax / Moment of Truth?
What are some memorable Aftermaths / first halves of Act III from books you’ve read? If you’re working on a story, how would you describe your character’s Aftermath? How does it show him/her coming to terms with the outcome of his/her Dark Night of the Soul and preparing for the climax?
Please come back in July / August for File No. 11, where we’ll cover the Moment of Truth, also known as the Climax.
*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