If you’re wanting to write an awesome character arc for your protagonist, the “impact character” is going to be a central catalyst in making that happen.
The impact character isn’t someone you hear discussed often (the term originates with the Dramatica storyform). However, this supporting character can single-handedly make or break your protagonist’s change arc.
Usually, the impact character is someone who understands and embraces the positive Truth that your protagonist will have to spend the entire story learning. But as I realized during a recent viewing of one of my favorite movies–P.J. Hogan’s 2003 adaptation of Peter Pan–sometimes the impact character can affect the story just as powerfully if he’s the one embracing the Lie.
I’ll get to that in a sec, but first, a quick refresher on the basics of the impact character…
How the Impact Character Creates Your Protagonist’s Arc
I’ve written about the impact character here, but for the purposes of today’s post, here are the basics of the impact character’s role in your protagonist’s character arc:
Every change arc is founded upon the protagonist’s inner conflict between a Lie He Believes, which is preventing him from embracing an empowering Truth and gaining the Thing He Needs. On his journey to discovering and believing in that Truth, the protagonist will often be impacted by a character(s) who already understands the Truth. The protagonist will learn about the Truth from this character. He will see the Truth at work in this supporting character’s life, and it will teach him how to begin changing himself.
- Often, the impact character is a mentor, who outright teaches the protagonist about the Truth (such as Obi-Wan Kenobi).
- Other times, the impact character will lead only be example (such as does the little girl Boo in Monsters, Inc., who shows Sully and Mike the Truth that children are not to be feared).
- Sometimes the impact character can even be a total loser in all areas other than his embrace of the story’s primary Truth (such as Tyler Durden in Fight Club).
(Another interesting thing to point out is that in a flat arc–in which the protagonist doesn’t change, but instead changes the world around him–the protagonist himself functions as the impact character).
In short, according to this view of the impact character, this is a character whose central purpose is to represent the Truth.
Except, it turns out, when it isn’t.
How a Lie-Believing Impact Character Can Still Lead Your Protagonist to the Truth
Peter Pan–especially as portrayed in P.J. Hogan’s beautiful adaptation–is decidedly a story of two characters: Peter Pan and Wendy Darling. Wendy is the main character, but Peter is the protagonist. Wendy follows a positive change arc; Peter follows a flat arc. Wendy learns to embrace the Truth that “all children must grow up.” You’d think Peter, as the obvious impact character, would be the one teaching her that Truth.
In point of fact, he does teach her that Truth. But, unlike most impact characters, he doesn’t teach her via his own devotion and understanding of the Truth. Rather, he teaches her via his bad example–his devotion to the Lie that “you can’t catch me and make me a man.”
When he tells Wendy, “I want always to be a boy and to have fun,” she sees through the beguiling deception of his Lie and tells him: “You say so, but I think it is your biggest pretend.”
It is not his Truth that impacts and changes her. Indeed, her parents and aunt, who are already in possession of that Truth, tried to positively impact her at the beginning of the story. Instead, it required the example of Peter’s Lie to finally inspire Wendy that “there is so much more” to life than just childhood.
Is a Negative Impact Character Right for Your Story?
As you’re planning your protagonist’s character arc, consider which of your supporting characters is best positioned to open your protagonist’s eyes to the Lie. You may choose to use a classic mentor-type character, who obviously knows and is blessed by the Truth. Or you may choose to demonstrate to your protagonist the darkness of his current path by using a Lie-believing impact character to show him where his Lie will eventually lead.
Or… why not use both?
The most powerful explorations of theme are those that offer as many different viewpoints as possible. It’s wonderful when you can include personifications of the various fates your protagonist might end up embracing, depending on his story choices. Including a Lie-believing impact character is but one of many options open to you in creating a complex, powerful story.