When we think of necessary characters, we tend to come up with obvious choices such as the protagonist, the antagonist, and maybe the mentor, love interest, and sidekick. “Impact character” probably isn’t at the top of your list. But it should be. Because you can’t create a character arc without one.
“Impact character” is the term coined by Dramatica authors Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley to describe what is just as accurately termed by editor Roz Morris the “catalyst character.” This is the character who slams into your protagonist, catalyzes him into change, and has a major impact on his life.
The impact character is the one who enables, empowers, or sometimes just plain forces another character(s) to change. Basically, this is a flat arc character. If you’ve read my recent series on positive change and flat arcs, then you already know that in a change arc, the protagonist himself changes, while, in a flat arc, the protagonist changes the world around him. In essence, a flat arc character is the impact character in his story, enabling the change arcs of the supporting characters who surround him.
All right, but riddle me this? Who is the impact character in change arcs? That is, of course, the whole question.
What Is the Impact Character?
The impact character may be a friend, or he may be a foe. More on that in a minute, but, for now, suffice it that his actual role in the story isn’t what qualifies him as the pivotal character in your protagonist’s change. So what does?
Think of it this way: If the antagonist represents the story’s outer conflict, then the impact character represents the inner conflict.
Just like the antagonist, the impact character is a conflict-causer. Just like the antagonist, he’s at odds with the protagonist. But unlike the antagonist, the conflict isn’t necessarily the result of opposing goals. Rather, its core is the opposing worldviews of the protagonist and the impact character. The protagonist believes the Lie; the impact character (lucky dog!) already knows the Truth.
Throughout the story, the protagonist and his blind faith in his Lie are going to keep running smack into the impact character’s Truth. The protagonist may want to be left in peace with his Lie, but the impact character’s persistent presence keeps churning up the protagonist’s awareness of the Truth—and creating internal conflict.
Rochester keeps inspiring Jane Eyre (eventually to his temporary detriment) to view herself as his equal. The Ghosts of Christmas keep prodding Scrooge out of his inveterate miserliness. Mattie Ross keeps dragging compromising lawman Rooster Cogburn onto the road to justice.
The impact character may or may not be actively trying to get the protagonist to see that Truth, but he’s going to be there at crucial moments in the story to help the protagonist see the error of his ways. He has the answers the protagonist is looking for (even though the protagonist won’t know that at the beginning of the story), and those answers are going to end up being pivotal in the protagonist’s ability to conquer the antagonist and the external conflict in his quest for his story goal.
Who Is the Impact Character?
As Morris explains in her book Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated, the impact character can take just about any form within your story:
They might be mentor characters. These are figures who guide the protagonist into a new world, awakening the qualities they need to meet the challenges they must face. Typically they’re a coach or a father figure. They sometimes perish when they have fulfilled their role, or in a betraying twist they might turn out to be a formidable antagonist….
Note that just because the impact character understands the specific Truth needed by the protagonist, this does not mean he has all Truths figured out. In some instances, he may be a generally benighted character who actually has way less figured out than the protagonist does–except when it comes to this one Truth.
Consider a few options. Your story’s impact character might be:
- The antagonist. (Long John Silver in Treasure Island)
- The love interest. (Mr. Knightley in Emma)
- Present for most of the story. (Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man)
- Present only intermittently, but looming large in the protagonist’s mind. (Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars)
- A collective of several characters. (The Radiator Springs townsfolk in Cars)
The impact character is the pivot around which your changing character’s arc turns. A character can’t change without something that impacts him by consistently and convincingly conflicting with his belief in the Lie. When planning your character’s arc, put the impact character at the top of your to-do list—and watch that arc happen practically on its own!
Tell me your opinion: Who is the impact character in your story?
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