The Impact Character Why Every Character Arc Needs One

The Impact Character: Why Every Character Arc Needs One

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.

Creating Character Arcs“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.

A Muppet Christmas Carol

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:

 

Long John Silver in Treasure Island

Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Nadine Groot in Red River John Wayen and Walter Brennan

  • The love interest. (Mr. Knightley in Emma)

Mr Knightley Emma Men of Sense Do Not Want Silly Wives Johnny Lee Miller

  • Present for most of the story. (Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man)

Rain Man Dustin Hoffman Tom Cruise

  • Present only intermittently, but looming large in the protagonist’s mind. (Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars)

Rain Man Dustin Hoffman Tom Cruise

  • A collective of several characters. (The Radiator Springs townsfolk in Cars)

Radiator Springs Lightning McQueen Miss Sally Mater 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?

The Impact Character Why Every Character Arc Needs One

 

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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. Sheryl Dunn says:

    Given how many manuscripts I’ve reviewed where the writer really has no idea how to create interesting and dramatic characters (dramatic in the sense of moving the story forward), I think that studying archetypes can be very useful.

    However, just like many other so-called rules (I prefer to call them tools), being a slave to a rule or archetype isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it’s important to know them before you choose to discard them, in my opinion.

  2. Sheryl Dunn says:

    Thomas, I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. If you’re saying that telling is a way to deviate from archetypes, I can’t agree.

    I think deviating from archetypes may mean mixing it up, i.e., creating characters that have elements of various archetypes, not just one archetype, and who play more than one role in the story dramatically.

    Or, another example might be to give an archetype character an arc that converts the character into a different archetype…not just the main character, but other dramatic characters, too.

    Or, you create an archetype character who simply appears like an archetype, but isn’t really, as the story unfolds.

    What I’m saying is that our characters, like real people, should be changeable and sometimes unpredictable because of their hidden and revealed motivations. We don’t fit a mold (rarely), so neither should our characters, and yet each of us has a core set of values and beliefs that determines our actions and the way we live our lives, even if we don’t fully recognize those values or beliefs, or because we’re afraid to recognize them.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      I’m grateful for that. The effort you’ve made to make your position clear. Thanks.

      Often times, a character being just capable of exhibiting certain behaviours is down to narrative expedience: it’s a convenience for the storyteller, allowing them their pre-decided narrative route, or general trajectory of narrative. Not all the time of course, but I’m sure a lot of the time.

      This is along the lines of what I meant.

      Everything you said was correct.

  3. Sheryl Dunn says:

    Some people think that all narrative is telling, rather than showing, but such is not the case. Sometimes mere word choices in a narrative can show rather than tell. I wish I could remember a good example, but I don’t have time to look up some examples today. Maybe another day!

    • thomas h cullen says:

      Inherently, to want to write a novel, or to create a film means having to some extent having to be insincere; having to ‘tell’ or ‘show’ more than necessary, or having to create an archetype, or to establish a superfluous amount of characters (the size of the new Star Wars Episode 7 cast, for example).

      It’s just over only four thousand words, featuring just a handful of characters, as well as the merest hint of action:

      Yet this is in precise truth what contributes substantially to The Representative’s own special power.

  4. There is some good material here, thank-you, but I don’t believe your explanation of impact (influence, obstacle) character is the same as what Dramatica describes. If you are using their term and their concept of impact character then I’d suggest looking at what Melanie herself has written about it:

    http://dramaticapedia.com/2013/10/17/the-influence-character-in-a-nut-shell/

    The IC doesn’t have to be “flat”. Either the MC or the IC will “change”. The MC can remain steadfast in the approach to the story goal in which case the IC changes. The MC can change in approaching the story goal in which case the IC remains steadfast.

    The purpose of the IC is to make the MC re-evaluate their current position in the story to help them address the story goal. The MC approach will address different aspects as he progresses to the climax. The IC ‘s interaction is always to present the other viewpoint the MC needs to consider — but not necessarily take.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My take on the impact character is a little different from the straight-up Dramatica presentation. I find it less confusing to identify the catalyst character in relation to the Truth/Lie arc than the relationship with the protagonist.

  5. I was curious, can characters represent The Truth even if they don’t speak about it? In my action story, the main Characters Lie is that to survive you can’t trust or rely on others (she is a resourceful coward who has been burned a lot)

    Can her impact characters be a romantic couple, who don’t just rely on each other, but devote themselves to aiding others? One has a flat arc and is a bit of a stereotypical hero and the other has their own lie that Self Worth is determined by Others.

    My other question is what arc is it when the conflict is about Corrupting a character but they are willing to suffer tragic consequences to not be corrupted? My favorite stories have always been heroic characters who keep to their Truths, and have every conflict try to tempt them to loosening their morals but despite eventually losing everything, they stay true to their beliefs. They don’t change anyone else or themselves, but they affirm a Truth by sacrificing themselves for it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      An impact character can definitely “show” the Truth instead of “telling” it. But the effect on the protagonist still needs to be more or less explicit sooner or later, so it’s clear why her own views are changing.

      As for tragic heroes, I think you’ll find that in most of these stories, these are characters who *are* changing at least one other person. Gladiator isn’t anywhere near a perfect example, since Maximus obviously ends up changing all of Rome by his adherence to his Truth unto death. But that scene at the end with Juba is a great example of the Truth being “carried on” even though the protagonist is tragically gone.

      If you can think of any specific titles of stories such as you’re thinking of, I’d be interested in hearing them. As I say, I bet we’ll find that there *are* other character impacted even amidst the tragedy, but I’d definitely be interested in seeing any exceptions.

      • Wow that was such a swift reply I didn’t expect it sorry i took so long..

        Um Cyrano D’ Bergerac, while it could center on his looks, he already learned Roxanne preferred him before Christian died and suspected so beforehand, but refuses to tell her because it would foul his friend’s memory to him. She becomes a nun and he visits her every week. In the very end she finds out he wrote the letters, because he is dying from a assassination attempt and lets the information slip. Despite that, he came to see her, because he promised. He dies in a mock fight with compromise, stupidity, cowardice and prejudice which he swears he will never relent to.

        He died because he had enemies he could not leave alone He lost true love because he would not compromise his feelings toward his friend, and while he could have healed, he could not break his engagement with Roxanne.

        I guess he changed Roxanne? His poetry made her realize looks were not important, but she always valued intelligence and inner beauty over pretty looks. And she was a nun due to losing Christian, but she only realizes who her lover was at the end, years later, and definitely will stay a nun to mourn her lover, just a different one.

        I mean it all starts because she makes him promise to befriend Christian, and how upset she would be if Christian were dumb. Of course he is quite intelligent, but he gets tongue tied around women. To make them both happy, and to show his commitment to both, he forges his letters, which continues to the very end protesting that even if he wrote it, it shouldn’t matter because it was Christian’s blood staining it. It is my favorite play.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I have to admit my familiarity with Cyrano is based entirely on the Wishbone adaptation. :p But I think you’re probably right in identifying Roxanne as the character who was changed–in spirit if not physical circumstances or actions. Doesn’t Christian change some as well?

  6. Cool beans!

    Wow, so the impact character/s play a pivotal role in the our protag’s arc. Correct if I’m wrong but they cause the inner conflict and for the most part see the truth vs the lie. Sounds like this applies most to the positive arc, but would the impact character also be present in negative arcs? I’m also assuming they wouldn’t be in flat arcs since they character isn’t changing at all.

    Great post. I’m slowly digesting the character arc info. This is a good beginning. It’s overwhelming to know where to start though. I do have your book Crafting unforgettable characters. Trying to dissect your posts one by one and break them down into bitesize snacks until I can assimilate them. Impact character is a great eye opener and makes perfect sense.

    Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In the flat arc, the protagonist *is* the impact character, causing change in the world around him. In negative arcs, the impact character will often be one who is, in fact, touting the Lie and impacting the protagonist for the negative.

  7. My two main characters are really each other’s impact characters. Their relationship shifts a lot, from uneasy allies to friends to best friends to enemies to friends again, and finally to “sisters”. They are almost polar opposites, and on most occasions they dislike each other, because they challenge each other’s worldviews. Thank you for writing this! Excellent piece!

  8. In my stories about Amelia, Vance helps her overcome her lack of self-confidence and to trust her instincts, and Samantha often opposes how StarGirl handles things and doesn’t think she’s good enough, but Vance thinks she is. Mary is just a character who helps out whenever needed, and BeamGirl helps out too as well as Sam. I don’t know who my impact character could be. Any ideas?

  9. Vance could be someone who represents someone who is confident and trusts his instincts as well as Mary.

  10. Jocelyn Montpetit says:

    From a semantic point of view, the term impact character does not make much sense, because it does not tell much about its role or its place in history. Protagonist, opponent, ally (sidekick), the opponent allies, sender, recipient, objective (goal), are words that tell what they do. You do not have to explain because everyone understands them.

    All I realize, reading your text, is that you speak of mentor, coach, father figure. These terms make sense, as it means (in our minds) something. For they are the archetypes and most people know the archetypes.

    To create an impact on a character (by the way on the audience), you do not necessarily need a character. The impact can be created by something else like illness, bereavement, death … Death has many faces. It can be physical, psychological, spiritual and serve the character as motivation.

    The impact is then created by the consequences of a situation (or event) that occurs in the life of a character. The impact creates awareness on … The brevity of life, love, injustice, corruption, betrayal, etc.

    The goal is not to create a character that has an impact but to create an impact on the viewer by awakening his conscience on his own life.

  11. My antagonist is in nearly complete control of the events of the whole series, so he is the impact character in for my nerdish protagonist’s change arc (and probably more arcs when I think of them).

    He WANTS the protagonists to change and become honourable men so that they will serve his purposes, mostly so he can exact his revenge more effectively. The main point is that he is insane.

  12. Samiul Lameem Akbor says:

    Can an impact character go through his own change? If not, then can an impact character be more inside the protagonist? In my story, I am thinking that my character will realize the evil he has caused by looking at his own handiwork.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, the impact character can experience a change arc of his own–however, not in regard to the same Lie/Truth that the protagonist is dealing with. The impact character already knows the protagonist’s Truth, so he has no need to evolve into an understanding of it. But he can grow out of a different Lie in a subplot.

  13. Maria Christine Vesterli says:

    How much of an impact on the plot does an impact character need to have? I understand why having an impact character is important, but if the plot itself forces the MC to face their lie, wouldn’t that make the impact character redundant?

  14. Thanks for being so generous with your blog. I’ve been binge reading your posts having only recently discovered them and learning so much. This post is a bit of an eye opener. My MC is trying to save a young girl at risk but her motivation is the external validation she’ll get. The young girl resents this and partly through her the MC learns to do things for the right reasons. The young girl is a major character in plot so I hadn’t thought of her as an impact character with a flat arc but that’s quite likely isn’t it?

  15. I was wondering; would my Impact Character follow a full Flat Arc?

    Like, am I able to use your Flat Arc’s Pt. 1-3 series for an Impact Character, or is that only for the protagonist?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Impact Characters won’t always be Flat-Arc Characters. They only need be in possession of the Truth the protagonist needs; otherwise, they could be following their own Positive or Negative Change Arcs in relation to other related Lies/Truths. However, if you wish your Impact Character to follow a Flat Arc, then, yes, you can totally use the info in my series to achieve that for any character.

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