Character Revelation: The Black Moment vs. the Moment of Truth in Fiction

It occurred to me while I was writing, last night (as things like this most often do), that one thing I’ve never seen discussed in any depth is the difference between the Moment of Truth, and the Black Moment, in a story. Perhaps that’s where some of the confusion starts (and maybe even ends), with some authors.

I’ve discussed Emotional Black Moments (EBMs) before, and how these are character driven. Emotional Black Moments are all about a character coming face-to-face with death, disaster and fear. A plain Black Moment, however, is far less about the character, and much more about the events he or she might find him/herself caught up in. Black Moments are points in the plot when things seem the most bleak, problems the most insurmountable. Black Moments encompass more than a single character.

The defining characteristic of a Black Moment is in how a group of characters comes together to resolve the issue at hand. Whether that group is a large one, or comprised solely of a hero and heroine, they must work together to resolve the Black Moment. These Black Moments can involve one or more EBM, as well, as Black Moments are often catalysts for extreme emotional moments and upheavals that cause considerable character growth and development.

In contrast to a Black Moment, a Moment of Truth is always about an individual. Like an Emotional Black Moment, these Moments of Truth are about character change, growth, and development. However, unlike an EBM, a Moment of Truth is about how a character acts or reacts when placed in a situation that necessitates some kind of self-sacrifice (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or a combination thereof).

The best example I can give of a Moment of Truth is when a loved one is being held at the point of a weapon.  How would your character act/react to this situation? Is he or she frozen in panic? Do they move to try to disarm the assailant? Do they try to talk everyone out of the situation safely? Do they fall apart and start crying?

Defining how a character acts/reacts in a Moment of Truth is tricky, if you haven’t taken the time to really get to know your character. A lot of what I call “pantsers” (ie, people who just sit down and write a book without really doing any kind of plotting or character creation) have difficulty with Moment of Truth moments. They tend to rely on the stock reactions (ie, “Oh, it’s my hero, so he’s going to act tough and say a lot of tough things, and then either the bad guy’s going to give up, or my hero’s going to shoot him”), and this reveals giant flaws in the character(s) involved.

Let me give you an example of how knowing your character(s) leads to a more realistic Moment of Truth.  In my novel HOPE OF HEAVEN, my hero, Peter Talladay, is a very protective person – particularly of family and women, including Hope (my heroine). However, he’s also a man dedicated to his job fighting terrorists, has a stubborn streak a mile wide, and is obsessed with avenging his family’s (mother, father, brother) murder.

When Peter’s Moment of  Truth comes, at the hands of Gordon McGuire, he has to decide between calling Gordon’s bluff and refusing to do what’s demanded (and thus potentially getting Hope killed), or doing what Gordon wants, which might spare Hope, but would mean giving a terrorist what he wants, and most likely letting the murderer of Peter’s family go free.

Now, the stock response to this situation (if working with a stock tough-guy, which Peter isn’t, but we’ll just assume for the purposes of this part of the argument) would be for Peter to try to disarm Gordon, followed by a fight of some kind, during which Peter (being the big, strong hero) would subdue and incapacitate Gordon, leaving him unable to perpetuate any kind of harm.  Totally predictable.

But because Peter isn’t a stock character, his reaction to the situation is quite a bit different. First of all, when he first realizes Hope is injured, his reaction is one of fear. He actually freezes for a moment, until she assures him her injury is only minor. Then, faced with the threat of what Gordon could do, Peter does the only thing his heart will let him do – he cooperates, aware that as long as Hope is in danger, there’s nothing he can do to take out the threat of Gordon McGuire. In the end, he lets McGuire have what he wants, to spare the life of someone he loves. No theatrics involves. In his Moment of Truth, Peter faces the difference between revenge and self-sacrifice, and sacrifices his desire for revenge and even his sworn duty, for the life of the woman he loves.  I am, of course, simplifying this scene quite a bit in an effort to not give away any pertinent spoiler details about the book. Let’s just leave it at this: Peter runs an emotional gauntlet in this scene, requiring him to deal with a LOT of issues all at once, and in a very limited window of just a few brief moments.

A Moment of Truth places your character in the unenviable position of having to, in a split second, make a judgment call based entirely on his or her personal morals and beliefs. If you haven’t yet answered the question of just who your character is, you can’t possibly hope to answer the question of what he or she would do when put in a life-or-death situation (theirs or someone else’s). Is your character going to step up and do the right thing? And just what constitutes “the right thing” to him or her, anyway? Do you know?

Amateur writers often make the mistake of not really investing in their characters (and I don’t mean they should be emotionally attaching to the characters on the deep “this is my baby” kind of way… that can get anywhere from frustrating to an editor, to just downright creepy). By investing, I mean time. Sit down, get to know your character(s).  No, you don’t have to use the 50-page bio package I fill out for every character. Nor do you have to invest in any fancy character generation program. But what is essential is that you get inside your character’s head.  Sit down and at least write a brief introductory bio for (or from) him or her. Find out what makes the character(s) tick.  Not just their physical attributes, but also their emotional and mental traumas, triumphs, etc. If you want readers to invest their time and emotions into your character and stories, you have to make the effort to get to know your characters.

If you’ve taken the time to really get to know your character(s), when the EBMs, Black Moments, and Moments of Truth arrive, your character(s) will literally leap off the pages with their unique and fascinating reactions.

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