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 conclude our journey through the stages of the character arc with File No. 12, which focuses on the Emergence (or the Resolution).
Today we reach the end of our journey through a positive character arc. And while some writers prefer to end a story immediately after the Moment of Truth / Climax (Stage 9), doing so doesn’t always give readers the sense of closure they desire. Nor does it allow the protagonist to show final proof that she’s fully committed to the truth that undermined her false belief. That’s where the final stage of character evolution, the Emergence (a.k.a. the Resolution), comes in.
So, let’s give the Emergence its time to shine in Character Evolution File No. 12. We’ll learn how it reflects the protagonist’s changed self compared to the Trigger / Inciting Incident (Stage 1) and the Comfort Zone / Act I (Stage 2), and discover why it’s more abstract in some ways that other arc stages. We’ll also check in with our example characters one last time to see how they’ve begun to live according to their truth.
Don’t forget that you can download the Story Structure & Character Arc Alignment Chart from the Worksheets for Writers page, so you can see how each arc stage corresponds to the three-act story structure.
The Basics of the Emergence
The Emergence begins when the Moment of Truth ends, covering the last 5% of the story. This stage offers a sense of completion while tying up any loose ends and hinting at what lies ahead for the protagonist, either in future stories or in the reader’s imagination. It also gives readers a chance to calm down after the Moment of Truth and say “good-bye” (or, in some cases, “see you soon”) to the characters they’ve bonded with.
Plot-wise, the Emergence shows the immediate results and/or consequences of the Moment of Truth. From a character evolution standpoint, it offers further evidence that the protagonist has changed, as well as a glimpse into her new life now that she has let go of her false belief. In a way, you’re establishing her new comfort zone, one that shows her beginning to live confidently with her truth instead of rejecting it as she did in the Trigger or fighting it as she was during her Comfort Zone.
Keeping these contrasts in mind can help you decide what evolved behaviors to show during the Emergence. What actions would demonstrate the protagonist’s new truth? How are her behavior and beliefs now opposite from those of her old self in the Trigger or Comfort Zone? Don’t feel obligated to cram in as many examples as possible. The previous two stages, the Aftermath / Act III, First Half (Stage 8) and the Moment of Truth, had also shown signs of the character’s growth. Therefore, select the most appropriate and salient actions that fit the Emergence’s tone and the remaining timetable.
Since the Emergence is usually the shortest stage, it also contains the fewest elements. Some are optional, but can be serve your story well if the circumstances are right. Regardless, these basics should be considered along with any evolved behaviors discussed above:
- (OPTIONAL) New View(s) on Old False Belief: The protagonist may share her changed opinion on the false belief she has shed. She may either verbalize it during an appropriate conversation, or internalize it as a thought or observation for the reader’s benefit.
- (OPTIONAL) Return to “Home”: If the protagonist left home or her physical comfort zone during this story, the Emergence may be a good time to send her back. This will depend on the story’s circumstances:
- If the protagonist is able to return “home,” have her feelings about the place changed since the last time she was there? How about her feelings toward other characters or objects / items of significance in that setting? Do any supporting characters comment on the changes they observe in her?
- If a return “home” isn’t feasible, ensure the reasons for not showing it or skipping it altogether make sense. For example, does the physical comfort zone no longer exist? Is the protagonist too far from “home” distance-wise to include her return in the story’s remaining timeline?
- Remnants of the Old Self: Even though the protagonist has changed, some aspects of her old self will remain the same. Which traits or strengths (or weaknesses) does she still possess?
- Parting Image: This marks the protagonist’s final scene in the story. How would you like readers to remember her? What type of scene, behavior, or dialogue would reflect this?
- Emotional State: What thoughts or emotions does the protagonist experience during her Parting Image? This will largely hinge on the type of ending you chose during the Moment of Truth:
- Happy Ending: The protagonist will most likely experience positive emotions (elation, relief, pride, etc.) over the story’s outcome and her growth as a person.
- Change of Heart: Any positive emotions or thoughts might be tempered by the compromised goal that the protagonist has achieved. She might regret or be sad over part of the outcome, but she might also be grateful for the good that also arose from it.
Crafting a positive character arc (or any character arc, for that matter) takes time, patience, and care. But if you do all that and plan the arc properly, you’ll increase the story’s potential to rivet, move, and satisfy your readers (and yourself). So, consider the Emergence as your time to seal the deal. Use this stage to illustrate the point behind your story from both plot and character perspectives. The right choices now and in previous arc stages will give your your audience reason to believe the story was worth their time, and why they should love and remember the protagonist forever.
How the Emergence Shows How Much the Protagonist Has Evolved Since the Trigger (Inciting Incident)
During File No. 11, our case-study character (a female criminal on the run) reached her Moment of Truth when she surrendered willingly to the police in exchange for her (innocent) benefactor’s freedom. Now, during her Emergence, we visit the former fugitive one last time in her new “comfort zone” and see her continued commitment to the truth (“I can trust others”).
Let’s first consider how the Moment of Truth’s outcome will influence the events of the Emergence:
- The Moment of Truth took the Change of Heart route, where the fugitive didn’t reach her original story goal (avoiding police capture / arrest) but switched to another goal (rescuing her benefactor) that mattered more to her at that time
- Because of the Change of Heart route, the protagonist will experience both positive and negative emotions regarding her outcome.
- The fugitive’s Emergence needs to show final proof of the fugitive’s new truth.
Because our case study has focused solely on the fugitive’s arc, let’s save any discussion about remaining plot threads for Aragorn’s and Tris’s upcoming sections and focus on the evolved behaviors that the fugitive might demonstrate. Here are some possibilities:
- The fugitive cooperates with the police and chooses not to fight extradition back to her hometown, thus showing her desire to take responsibility for her crimes.
- The fugitive and her benefactor meet for the last time, under the police’s watch. She thanks him for everything he’s done for her and apologizes for “dragging you into my mess.” These are actions she wouldn’t have taken earlier in the story, and they illustrate how much the fugitive values her friendship with her benefactor.
- During this conversation, the benefactor (who we previously established as the fugitive’s mirror character) accepts her apology. He also promises to visit her while she’s in jail and thanks her for teaching him to be more trusting of others, since he had revealed in past arc stages that he too had trust issues. These aren’t evolved behaviors for the fugitive, but the impact she’s had on her benefactor shows in his behavioral changes and offers further proof of the fugitive’s growth.
- As the story ends, the fugitive experiences conflicting emotions about her upcoming incarceration. She’s frightened of being isolated from the world and the people she now longs to reconnect with. At the same time, she realizes “jail time isn’t permanent” and she’ll have a chance to rebuild her life afterwards with the help of loved ones. For someone who used to refuse assistance or close relationships, she has come a long ways.
Using these evolved behaviors, we can flesh out the rest of the fugitive’s Emergence basics:
- Contrast to the Trigger: The fugitive’s mentality has changed immensely since her Trigger. Back then, she was terrified of being caught by police. Now, she has surrendered to the authorities willingly. She’s afraid of what lies ahead (jail time, isolation from society), but she has accepted the need to face this fear head-on.
- Contrast to the Comfort Zone: During her Comfort Zone, the fugitive was defensive or violent toward people (including loved ones) because of her trust issues. Today, she understands the importance of trust and has demonstrated that understanding in previous arc stages by listening to advice, accepting help, and acting in a calmer, more rational manner. This continues during the Emergence, as shown in her evolved behaviors.
- New “Comfort Zone”: The fugitive’s new life is confined to police custody, with jail as her next destination. It’s not a comfortable “comfort zone,” but it will be her world for the foreseeable future.
- New Views on Old False Belief: The fugitive shares her changed opinion about trust and relationships either with her benefactor via dialogue or with readers via internal thoughts.
- Return to “Home”: Because the fugitive isn’t fighting extradition, she’ll return to the setting where her Trigger occurred (“home”). This may happen during the final chapter or after the story ends. Regardless, the fugitive will likely see her “home” and its inhabitants from a new perspective after everything she’s been through. Other characters who knew her before might also notice how much she’s changed.
- Remnants of the Old Self: The fugitive might still be wary of new people who enter her life, especially once she’s in jail. She might also continue to be a “people-watcher” and to-the-point in her speech and questions. However, she now knows how to determine a person’s trustworthiness, and is more mature and less volatile than she was before.
- Parting Image: One possibility is the fugitive being led down a hallway by the police. She might be handcuffed, but she stands tall and relaxed, and never struggles with her escort. Her eyes are focused on the path ahead, implying that she’s looking toward her future, not behind for her past.
- Emotional State: Evolved Behavior #4 above sheds some insight on the fugitive’s closing thoughts and feelings. She may be scared or nervous as she heads for jail, but she’s still confident that she’s doing the right thing and knows her life isn’t over.
Wow. How much has the fugitive grown since we met her in File No. 4? She’s the same person in some ways, but her experience through the story has taught her the errors of her false belief (“I can’t trust anyone”) and the need to embrace the opposite perspective so she can become a better version of herself. All of this was accomplished through thoughtful, careful planning with the help of each arc stage’s questionnaire, from the Trigger to this one.
It’s possible that we could have achieved the same results without this degree of planning. However, understanding how to structure your protagonist’s arc can help you determine where the story needs to go and amaze you with how comprehensively the Emergence can wrap things up.
How Does the Emergence Align with the Resolution?
Let’s look at how the Emergence aligns with a story’s resolution:
- Both occur after the climax and are comprised of the story’s final scenes.
- Both resolve any remaining subplots or “loose ends.”
- Both hint at what the protagonist might do now that the main conflict has ended.
- Both highlight the major themes / “the point” of the story.
- Both leave the reader with a sense of closure and an appropriate tone or emtion that fits the overall story.
An Example of a Character’s Emergence Using Aragorn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
As we finish Aragorn’s journey through the positive arc, we’ll refer to the Emergence 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.
Aragorn’s Moment of Truth saw him embracing his destiny as as leader in speech, action, and intention. Now, as his arc and The Lord of the Rings come to a close, we see him beginning to live his new truth and be crowned King of Gondor.
The coronation scene from The Return of the King is easily one of the highlights of the film trilogy. For Aragorn personally, this moment shows him fulfilling his destiny and stepping into his new role in life. As you watch the following clip, compare his behavior (and physical appearance) to that of his Ranger persona from his Trigger (see File No. 3). Also, notice how Aragorn’s interactions with friends and allies have changed in some cases and less so in others. Even though he’s a king, he still regards characters such as Legolas, the Hobbits, and Arwen as he had before: with humility and deep respect.
This balance of Aragorn’s old and new selves is what makes him a true example of character evolution. His journey as part of the Fellowship of the Ring has made him more confident, ambitious, and courageous. Yet at his heart, Aragorn is still humble, just, and keenly aware of his responsibilities. He has changed, but still recognizable. In other words, he has evolved into a more well-rounded version of himself, and in a way that makes sense given the story’s external plot.
While Tolkien shows other events as part of Aragorn’s Emergence in the Return of the King book, the end result is the same: Aragorn is crowned King of Gondor and marries Arwen. His friends quickly notice the changes in him, but also the aspects that are still the Aragorn they met in Bree (“… they knew him, changed as he was, so high and glad of face, kingly, lord of Men, dark-haired with eyes of grey” [249*]). His attitude toward his friends hasn’t changed, either. Instead of placing the crown on his head, Aragorn asks Gandalf and Frodo to do so, symbolizing his admiration for the people who helped make his “inheritance” possible (265*).
Before we bid Aragorn farewell, let’s break down his Emergence using the basics we discussed earlier:
- Timing: Aragorn’s Emergence covers the final 28 minutes of The Return of the King (95 to 100%, or 5% of the film trilogy), and the final 97 pages of the Return of the King book* (92 to 100%, or 8% of the book trilogy).
- Remaining Plot Threads: The resolution of The Lord of the Rings lasts beyond Aragorn’s coronation, showing the Hobbits’ return home and Frodo’s ultimate fate. However, several of Aragorn’s plot threads are tied off during his coronation, from his ascent to the throne of Gondor to his reunion with Arwen.
- Evolved Behaviors: Aragorn’s transformation is both psychological and physical. He speaks with eloquence and conviction, wears a chainmail-and-armor suit instead of dark ranger leathers, and appears more comfortable in the public eye and being in charge than he was before. His brief speech from 1:10 to 1:25 also implies that Aragorn is looking ahead and planning for his kingdom’s future.
- Contrast to the Trigger: At the time of his Trigger, Aragorn was content with keeping a low profile and protecting the innocent. His rangerhood was his way of evading his family legacy in Gondor. Now, not only has Aragorn helped destroy Sauron and The One Ring, but he has also willingly ascended to the throne of Gondor, and looks and behaves more like a king than a ranger.
- Contrast to the Comfort Zone: Aragorn’s Comfort Zone showed him as fearful of being a poor leader and making his ancestors’ mistakes. His journey through the trilogy tested that fear, forcing him to realize his potential and deal with his failures. Thus, as The Return of the King closes, Aragorn knows that leadership is more about courage, good intentions, and perseverance – qualities he has always possessed, and now make him feel more sure of himself as he steps into his new role.
- New “Comfort Zone”: Aragorn now resides in Minas Tirith, where he will govern Gondor and live with his soon-to-be wife Arwen.
- New Views on Old False Belief: This isn’t present in Aragorn’s Emergence. Nor is it necessary, because of the other changes we seen in Aragorn that prove his evolution as a character.
- Return to “Home”: Aragorn never returns to the Shire, where he had been a ranger. However, his coronation marks the return of the kingship and Isildur’s royal house to Gondor. Thus, Aragorn’s journey has brought him to his ancestors’ home and a realm he’s always felt connected with.
- Remnants of the Old Self: Aragorn retains a number of his old self’s better qualities, including intelligence, honor, and responsibility. He demonstrates all of these during his Emergence.
- Parting Image: Aragorn’s final act is a bow to his Hobbit companions. We can assume this isn’t typical of a king. Yet Aragorn didn’t inherit his kingdom; he won it back with help, including the bravery of four little Hobbits. Thus, Aragorn’s public acknowledgment of the Hobbits’ efforts shows his appreciation of his friends as well as his belief that the rest of the Middle-Earth should thank them, too.
- Emotional State: Notice the deep, nervous breath that Aragorn takes at 0:56. The list of emotions doesn’t end there, though. He exhibits calm and hope while addressing his subjects, amazement and love when he sees Arwen is alive, and gratitude toward Frodo and the other Hobbits.
A Second Example of a Character’s Emergence Using Tris Prior from Veronica Roth’s Divergent
Tris’s Emergence is her shortest arc stage, occurring during the last 6 pages of Divergent (timing = 98 to 100%, lasting for 2%**). She and Tobias had previously stopped what was left of the Dauntless-Erudite ambush on Abnegation and stolen the technology driving that attack. Now it’s time for Tris to show further proof of her commitment to her truth (“I am strong” / “I am where I belong”) and find the unsteady ground that will become her new comfort zone for the next book, Insurgent.
After Tris and Tobias end the attack, they escape Dauntless’s headquarters with Peter (who was previously established as one of Tris’s antagonistic forces), Tris’s brother Caleb, and Tobias’s father Marcus. As they climb hide away on a train bound for Amity, the only faction outside the city’s limits and their best option for a hiding place, the following moments demonstrate Tris living according to her new truth:
- Tris hugs Caleb and tells him that their father is dead. Interestingly enough, Caleb replies, “Well… he would have wanted it that way.” (482**)
- Tris confronts Marcus about abusing Tobias in the past. Her threat to Marcus is clear: “The only reason I haven’t shot you yet is because he’s the one who should get to do it… Stay away from him or I’ll decide I no longer care.” (483**)
- Tris tells Tobias about her parents’ deaths. The thoughts she reveals to readers show that the loss hasn’t sunk in yet, and the fact that they died for her feels “important.” (485**)
- When Tobias asks Tris why she didn’t shoot him while he was under the experimental serum, Tris answers, “I couldn’t do that… It would have been like shooting myself.” (486**)
While Tris has clearly found a new internal strength, she’s still dealing with negative emotions caused by her Moment of Truth. She wonders whether her Dauntless friends Tori and Christina have survived, and doubts she’ll be able to hide the fact that she killed Will (Christina’s boyfriend) from Christina. (484-485**) She also knows she won’t feel safe as long as she’s with Peter and Marcus (484**), and notices the greedy way that Marcus watches her hold the simulation data drive (487**). Even the information she carries with her isn’t safe from the people around her, which explains why she keeps it close as the scene ends.
The above observations might not seem like much at first. However, they tick off all of the checkboxes for our list of Emergence basics and provide important insights into the end of Tris’s arc:
- Remaining Plot Threads: Most of Divergent‘s subplots are resolved during this stage. The threads left hanging are the fates of Tris, Tobias, and the other fugitives as they flee for Amity; whether Dauntless and Erudite will pursue those characters; and any conflicts that might arise over the simulation data drive. All of these subplots could potentially carry over into and be resolved during Insurgent.
- Evolved Behaviors: Tris is honest with Caleb about their father’s death and then with herself and Tobias about why her parents willingly died for their children. She also stands up for Tobias by warning his father that she knows their family’s secret (Marcus beating Tobias as a boy).
- Contrast to the Trigger: Because of the events of Divergent, Tris has become more confident and courageous. Her Trigger self lacked the assurance to openly confront other characters and be honest about her feelings, as her Emergence self does at the end of the story.
- Contrast to the Comfort Zone: During her Comfort Zone, Tris struggled with deciding whether she belonged in Abnegation or Dauntless, and was forced to suppress parts of her personality because of her family’s disapproval. Now, she has fully embraced her Divergence and understands that she must be herself, not any faction’s defining virtue (487**). Her increased sense of self also makes her feel less inhibited, as shown when she kisses Tobias in front of her brother (486 – 487**).
- New “Comfort Zone”: Tris is a fugitive, traveling to a faction (Amity) she’s never been to before. She’s with people she loves (Tobias, Caleb) and others she mistrusts (Peter, Marcus), and armed with dangerous information (the simulation data drive) that her enemies will want to recover. In other words, her new “comfort zone” is anything but comfortable.
- Return to “Home”: One of Tris’s parting thoughts during her Emergence is “I have no home, no path, and no certainty.” (487**) She had gone home to Abnegation briefly during her Moment of Truth; and now, after the attack on Abnegation and betraying Dauntless, she’s not sure if she’ll find a new place that feels like home.
- Remnants of the Old Self: Tris’s old self resurfaces briefly when she shares her fears about seeing Christina again. She knows Christina well enough to know she’ll discover who killed Will – and Tris doesn’t want to think about how she can be honest with her friend about that.
- Parting Image: Our final image of Tris is her sitting in the train, holding the flashdrive, and leaning her head on Tobias’s shoulder. The train is an appropriate setting, since she first rode into Dauntless that way. Thus, the train symbolizes the transitions Tris makes from one faction – and one phase of her life – to the next. Her closeness to Tobias and distance from the other characters also indicates that, out of all the people on the train, he’s the person she trusts most.
- Emotional State: Tris’s emotions run the gamut once again. She experiences both negative (anger, guilt, fear) and positive emotions (confidence, determination, gratitude, love) during her Emergence. She also thinks extensively about the uncertainty of her future and how she can find safety in a world that wants to eradicate Divergence.
Questions to Ask When Developing Your Protagonist’s Emergence
Now it’s time to let you craft the end of your protagonist’s positive arc. Use these questions to cover the Emergence basics discussed in this post and develop a resolution that confirms how the protagonist has changed and hints at what lies ahead for her. As always, you can refer to previous Journey Through the Character Arc questionnaires to ensure her growth from past stages flows naturally into the finale.
- Where does the Emergence begin in terms of the story’s overall page count / word count? How long does it last?
- What remaining plot threads are tied up or completed during this stage? How are they resolved?
- How does the protagonist demonstrate she has changed for the better and is fully committed to her new truth? What actions, thoughts, and dialogue illustrate this?
- How do the protagonist’s actions here contrast those from her Trigger / Inciting Incident?
- How do the protagonist’s new truth and other changed beliefs contrast those from her Comfort Zone? In other words, what is her new emotional and/or psychological “comfort zone”?
- Does the protagonist share her new view(s) on her old false belief via dialogue or internal thoughts / observations during this time?
- Does the protagonist also return to her physical “comfort zone” (home, location of Act I, etc.)? How has her opinion of it changed? If she doesn’t return to it, why?
- What aspects (positive and negative) of the protagonist’s old self haven’t changed?
- What parting image would you like the protagonist to leave for readers? How would you like her to be remembered after this story? How can you illustrate this through a scene(s), behavior, or dialogue?
- How does the protagonist feel when the story ends? What other thoughts of importance does she have at this time?
What are some memorable Emergences / Resolutions from books you’ve read? If you’re working on a story, how would you describe your character’s Emergence? How does it wrap up the plot while offering final examples of how the protagonist has changed since the story began?
Come back in September / October for File No. 13, where we’ll address any lingering questions regarding the Journey Through the Character Arc.
*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