The Psychology of The Black Moment: Short and Long Answers to Three Big Questions

If you’re a writer, then you’ve probably hemmed and hawed over the looming “black moment” your protagonist must face. I find it is the hardest part of a story to write because it usually echoes whatever personal motivations drove me to dream up this character in the first place. Which means the character’s resolution of that moment is the resolution of a problem for which am using my creativity to solve.  I truly believe every writer engages in this process, in some way. How could I not write a blog post about the underlying psychology?

Below are three questions I have heard echoed in various writer’s workshops and critiques, and the long and short answers to them. I hope you’ll comment below on what resonates for you.


1.What is “the black moment?”

The short answer: The climax of a story.

The long answer:  The concept of the black moment–sometimes referred to as the protagonist’s “resurrection”–finds its origins in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” which he framed in the context of Carl Jung’s archetypal theory. Jung’s theory basically says that we all have preconceived notions of what it means to be heroic, and these notions are ingrained in us from birth. Stories of heroism across various cultures will all reflect these same aspects because the archetypes of both the heroic figure and the sequence of his journey is a part of our “collective unconscious.” In other words, culture is born of archetypes, not the other way around. And thus, for us to root for a heroic protagonist (which Jung proposed is a projection of our “true selves”) he must display certain attributes, such as self-sacrifice and faith.

To put it another way, the black moment is a make or break moment in a story where the protagonist has to get the underlying lesson, or make you regret wasting your time and money.

For example, in the movie Terminator Two, the theme for the film is stated on more than one occasion; “There’s no fate but what we make.” After scratching these words into a picnic table, the protagonist’s mother sets off on a mission to kill the man who will be responsible for humanity’s future annihilation. But ultimately, she cannot go through with it, because even though she knows his choices will ruin his life and everyone else’s, to truly have faith in that principle, she must accept that her target can change his fate too.

2. What defines a successful black moment?

The short answer: The character’s want must give way to his need.

The long answer: Typically, a character’s want is an externalized goal or reward (such as social approval and physical manifestations of it) that impedes the character from getting what he needs internally (spiritual and emotional gratification). For example, perhaps a girl felt ostracized as a child, so she wants to achieve celebrity because she thinks it will make people like her. But with celebrity achieved, she realizes that even though she might have millions of fans, they worship her as an object or a symbol of their own projections; in reality, people only like her for her popularity  and she can’t trust anyone enough to engage in intimate relationships. The achievement of her external want prevented the gratification of her internal need to belong.

Generally speaking, a need is a primal desire usually rooted in early childhood that is a reflection of unfulfilled (and thus repressed) yearnings. It’s often buried in the protagonist’s unconscious, causing all kinds of miserable problems the protagonist frequently brushes off with a, “That’s life.” In the black moment, the character must acknowledge his need and the need must win, so life can improve. Improve how, you ask?

Integration of the inner and outer self is the mark of a healthy human being, no matter what culture you are born into. Humanist psychologist Carl Rogers called this the “true self” versus the “false self.” When your outward persona matches the needs and feelings you experience inside, your personality is said to be “congruent.”

It’s important to realize congruency is a non-linear process. Just when we think we’ve figured it all out,  we are confronted with a new contradiction. But fear not because some progress is made each time you take a ride on that carousel, which is more like an upwards spiral. And with every mini “story” we encounter in our lives, we inch a little bit closer to having more fully integrated, congruent personalities. Perhaps it goes without saying, but there will be many black moments in your life.

“That seems like a lot of work,” you say. “Why not have the character simply want what he needs?” Because that rarely happens in life, and it would be a hella boring story. Conflict, baby! Bring it on. Aaaaand cue the Rolling Stones. (Is it any wonder this song was such a big hit?)

3. What does faith have to do with it?

The short answer: In order to succumb to his or her need, the protagonist must choose to be helpless in the face of his or her greatest fear; he or she must take a leap of faith.

The long answer: The choice to succumb to one’s greatest fear is to willingly put aside the ego’s control. The ego is essentially what organizes your thinking about yourself and controls your outward presentation to the world (your persona). It operates under the “reality principle” and is very concerned with pleasing others in order to gain that external want. It’s the little voice inside that tells you what is and is not appropriate to say at a dinner party, or wear to a promotional meeting with your boss.

Your ego is often associated with reason, intellect, rationality, and cognition. It is a bully that fights tooth and nail to hold its position at the top of your psyche’s Peking order. It often controls the way you think, and it is obsessed with remaining in control. But the entire sum of “you” is not solely your ego, just as you are not only your thoughts; you are your awareness of them. The job of The Hero’s Journey is to teach the ego that it must relinquish control in order to grow.

Faith is the only way we can really do this; it is the belief that an invisible net will catch us when we fall. Faith allows us to believe it is all “part of the plan,” and thus we can confront the possibility of negative outcomes, because we are able to attribute positive meanings to them; “It must have happened for some good reason, beyond my comprehension.” Perhaps that seems self-deluding but it’s actually self-sacrificing; we accept that the positive, external outcome need not be our own, and that’s pretty damn heroic.

For example, in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones—a man who doesn’t believe in God but is in search of the Holy Grail (for egotistical reasons)— must take a literal leap of faith and step out into thin air in order to find an invisible bridge that will lead him to his journey’s resolution.

Once he crosses the bridge and finds the Holy Grail, he is confronted with a seductive character foil of his own external wanting and faithless self: the Nazi woman (Jung would love this because she is essentially a representation of his depreciated Anima—but I’ll save that for another post).

When the earth opens up to swallow them, Indiana watches the woman die, still trying to get her hands on the Grail. When he falls into the same position, he is tempted by the same desire, but ultimately lets go of it and is spiritually (and literally) saved. He gives up his external want, for the benefit of the need: a restoration of faith. The achievement of congruency. To live a better life.

Summary: The black moment is the climax of a story, in which the protagonist’s want must give way to his need. In order to succumb to his or her need, the protagonist must choose to be helpless in the face of his or her greatest fear; he or she must take a leap of faith. Thus, even if the heroic act/black moment ends in death or loss (literal or symbolic), the ability to confront one’s fear in the face of it will satisfy the need, which leads to integration (mental and emotional congruency), and results in spiritual ascension (aka, self love and acceptance). And whether or not you believe in God, we all want to be closer to Him/Her.


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