How to Harness the Dark Side of Your Impact Character

How To Harness The Dark Side of Your Impact CharacterIf 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).

Rain Man Dustin Hoffman Tom Cruise

  • 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).

Book is the impact character in Monster's Inc.

  • 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).

Tyler Durden is the impact character 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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Who is the impact character in your story? Does he represent the Lie or the Truth? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. You make some fair points, and in the BBC series Sherlock, Sherlock and John, are in a way, both main characters, though Sherlock is the protagonist. They do change each other, though, since John ends up opening up to people and gets over his depression and gets a wife and Sherlock leanrs to be less rude and abrasive to others.

  2. Great post. My current book is so very much the protagonist’s journey from believing a lie to seeing the empowering truth to reach what she neeeds, and I had not heard this description of a character arc before, even from professionals.
    Very impressed by your work. Thanks.

  3. directornoah says:

    Hi K.M,
    I’m having trouble understanding my character arc and how to use the impact character efficiently.

    1. In my WIP, the Lie is that my protagonist distrusts people, she overcomes Lie and trusts, then finds out the Truth, which is learning how to recognize those who are trustworthy, and those who are not.
    Is this a positive arc or a disillusionment arc?

    2. In my plot, the protagonist meets two people, Aaron and David. Aaron warns her not to trust David, as he might be hiding a dark past. After David talks with her, she is persuaded to his side, and decides to trust him. Aaron pleads with her not to help him, but she refuses to listen, having been told by David, that Aaron is the one who’s dangerous.
    In the end, it turns out both of them were working against her. Aaron is under the strong influence of David, who is the main antagonist.
    Is Aaron the contagonist or the negative impact character?

    3. Another point is that, if both characters betray her, will she realise the Truth about knowing who to trust and learning the consequences of trusting the wrong people, by herself, or revert back to the distrust Lie even stronger?

    Do you think that perhaps, I should change Aaron into a positive impact character, so she can distinguish the comparison between the good and bad characters, finally at the end?
    Any help will be greatly appreciated.
    Many thanks, Noah ☺

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s a lot of overlap between negative impact characters and contagonists, so likely your character in question fulfills both roles.

      Your story strikes me as perhaps offering its strongest possibilities via a Disillusionment Arc.

      It’s always great when each character has an equal and opposite character in a comparison role. So if you can set up both a positive and a negative impact character, that will only strengthen your thematic argument.

      • directornoah says:

        Thank you! As always, your help is invaluable. ?
        I just have a few questions though.
        Surely, the negative impact character alone, is the one who leads the protagonist towards the Truth by his wrongful ways, so why would you need to have a negative AND a positive impact character?

        Are you saying that in my story, Aaron’s actions as the negative impact character, are not enough to show my protagonist the Truth about trust at the end, without a positive impact character at work too?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Negative impact characters represent the Lie. Positive impact characters represent the Truth. Generally, they align, respectively, with the Contagonist and Mentor archetypes.

          The character needs to not just see through the Lie, but also be given a definitive Truth in contrast. This is also part of the structural evolution of the character arc. Speaking very generally, the first half of the story up until the Moment of Truth at the Midpoint is about the character learning to recognize the fallacy of the Lie. But that, in itself, doesn’t bring him to the Truth or complete his arc. The story’s second half is then about recognizing, accepting, and solidifying the Truth.

  4. directornoah says:

    K.M, I’m wondering whether this is alright for an impact character or not.

    Aaron is a dark, corrupted character, but for the majority of the story, retains some good within his nature.

    (The Truth is about who to trust and who to not)

    Aaron himself doesn’t know the Truth or Lie, but he unwittingly uses the distrust Lie, when trying to help the protagonist. But of all the characters in the story, he is the only one who is trustworthy, and truly on the protagonist’s side.
    Also, he only reflects the trust part of the Truth, and not the complete Truth.
    Therefore, can he just represent a facet of the Truth, as an impact character, and is it acceptable in this context?

    Many thanks once again. ?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, characters don’t have to be completely black and white. And if the character is using the Lie–consciously or unconsciously–then for the purposes of the story, he “knows” the Lie.

      • directornoah says:

        So, if I’ve got this right, a character can use the Lie and still represent an aspect of the Truth, even though the Truth is different to the Lie?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yep.

          • directornoah says:

            Great, thanks! ?
            Although I’ve learned a lot from your blog, I’m still relatively new to these writing concepts, all of which are seperate principles, but must be tightly interwoven and merged together, to form a powerful and cohesive story. It’s a little bit overwhelming and daunting to say the least, with everything seeming so complex and involved when you first discover about it.
            Thank you so much for your good advice and guidance in this new world of storytelling! ?

  5. Leto Kersten says:

    The Peter Pan example gave this already interesting topic an even more interesting layer; the impact character being an example of what not to do while said impact character wants to teach the protagonist the exact opposite of what he is actually teaching and what the protagonist needs to be tought in the first place.
    I’ll never look at Peter Pan the same way ever again.

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