Impact Character

by Kay
(Grand Rapids, MI, USA)

Question: In a story where the main character is the protagonist, does your impact character have to be the antagonist?


Answer: Absolutely not. Traditionally, it has been common in plot-based genre fiction for the impact character to be antagonist, because these stories placed less emphasis on the main character's inner conflict. Combining the protagonist/antagonist relationship with the main character/impact character relationship is a way to simplify things. (Think James Bond vs. Ernst Blofeld in the early bond films, Sherlock Holmes vs. Moriarity, or Batman vs. the Joker.)

However, stories are usually much richer, more emotionally profound when the impact character is someone else and the story of the main character's inner conflict is distinct from (though still connected to) the overall plot. In romances, for example, the impact character is usually the main character's love interest and often these two characters will join forces against the antagonist.

In recent decades, forms of fiction that used to be very simple (for example, comic books) have been putting more emphasis on emotional depth, so it has become common even in these forms for the impact character to not be the antagonist.

For example, in the recent Green Lantern film, the antagonist was Parallax, a rogue villain who fed on fear. The impact character was Sinestro, a character who represented the principles of willpower and courage. He believed one had to reject fear.

Hal Jordan, the main character, tries to follow the same principles as Sinestro, principles he learned earlier from his father. But Hal knows in his heart that his fears cannot be suppressed. Eventually, Hal learns to stop fighting this part of himself, accept his fears, and use them to advantage. So he sticks to his original nature.

This forces Sinestro to change, and we see him at the end giving up his old principles and embracing fear as his new principle.

If you consider the 8 classic archetypal characters, the impact character is often the Guardian (the hero's mentor). For example, Obi wan Kenobi is the impact character to Luke Skywalker. But any of the archetypal characters can be the impact character.

Imagine for instance...
A Contagonist who tempts the main character to change his approach.
An Emotion character who shows the main character how to look at the bigger picture.
A Reason character who shows the main character how to focus on the most important task.
A Skeptic who challenges the main character's illusions.
A Sidekick who is smarter than the hero.

Forgive me for going off-topic a little, but even the protagonist can be the impact character in stories where the main character is someone else. For instance, you could tell the story from the point of view of the sidekick whose hero (the protagonist) shows him a better way to live. This has been the case with several of Dr. Who's companions in recent years. Melanie Anne Phillips often cites the novel To Kill a Mockingbird as a good example of a novel where the protagonist, main character, impact character, and antagonist are all separate characters.

Comments for Impact Character

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Oct 24, 2011
Multiple or deceased Impact Characters?
by: Anonymous

Is it possible to have more than one impact character, people who represent two extremes of and the main characters chooses? Can the impact character be someone who dies before the story begins but their death and their choices effect and change the mindset of the main character as the story unfolds?

Oct 25, 2011
Yes - variations on impact characters are possible.
by: Glen

Yes to both questions.

1. Sometimes you have a main character who doesn't have a firm conviction or an established way of tackling a problem. (For some reason, I have seen a lot of British films with a main character like this who seems rather innocent or naive.)

In these cases, there has to be a reason why the main character doesn't just follow the impact character's example right away. So the writer provides a second impact character and the main character doesn't know who is right. He must wrestle with which of these examples to follow.

2. An impact character doesn't have to be physically present to influence the main character. There are plenty of stories where the impact character is dead, and perhaps exerts influence through a will, diary, dream, memory, etc. Sometimes the impact character can be a ghost or supernatural being.

In other cases, the impact character may be someone the main character doesn't know but studies/watches from afar. For instance, he could be a famous person and the main character tries to follow his example. Or he could be a historical person the main character is studying. For example, in the film Julie & Julia, the famous cooking teacher Julia Child influences the main character, Julie, even though they never meet. Julie simply studies her and follows in her footsteps.

Jul 04, 2013
A 'Good' Antagonist?
by: Amanda

There is a character in my story who is an antagonist, but is fighting his own battle of internal conflict and, eventually, ends up joining the protagonists. He's similar to Zuko from the Avatar: the Last Airbender series. I'm planning on writing a series, and he wouldn't 'change' until somewhere in the second book.
So, could he be an impact character by being a romantic interest? He doesn't become a romantic interest till later on for the main character, but he does help the main character when she's in some tough spots, even though he continues to fight against her.

Jul 04, 2013
Response
by: Glen

Sounds like a rather complex character.

To be classified as the antagonist, the character should have two functions in the drama.

1. He should seek to avoid/prevent the story goal from being achieved.

2. He should encourage people to reconsider their need to achieve the goal.

It is possible to have other characters opposed to the goal, but the antagonist will be the main one.

To be the impact character, the character must offer the main character an example of a different way of doing things, so that the main character becomes torn as to whether changing or staying the same is the best approach to achieving the story goal.

A character can be the love interest and also be the antagonist and/or the impact character, or he might be neither.

If you are writing from this love interest's point of view, and portraying his inner conflict, then he essentially becomes the main character of his own story, even if it's not fully developed. He should probably have an impact character of his own that triggers his inner conflict (your other main character, for instance). When romances are told from both lovers' viewpoints, each is often the impact character to the other.

Hope that helps.

Aug 20, 2013
3-in-1?
by: Anonymous

Can the antagonist be the impact character without losing the effect, as you said can happen in such cases, if he is ALSO the love interest (hiding his antagonistic intentions?)

Basically my Protagonist is taken to a very pleasant alien world but has the task of returning to save Earth from itself. She has a love interest on this new world, but though they are falling for each other, he wants her to abandon the goal and stay on the new planet and forget about Earth. He takes secret measures to try to convince her, including some lies, which she later finds out about. In the end, he redeems himself.

So... love interest, Impact Character, Antagonist.

Aug 21, 2013
Response to Anonymous
by: Glen

If the alien lover redeems himself in the end, he is probably not the antagonist. In the overall scheme of things, it sounds like he may be the contagonist - whose function is to delay or tempt the protagonist away from the story goal.

On the subjective level, he can also be the impact character. In this scenario, the main character remains steadfast (she doesn't give up her initial approach) which forces him to change in the end - to see things her way.

The antagonist would be the leader of the forces on earth that are creating its destruction.

Hope that helps.

Apr 12, 2014
Character Triangle
by: RJ

I have a main/impact character triangle going on and I don't know if I should change it or if it's ok to leave it. I have 3 characters: A, B, and C. A is the protagonist, B is the POV character and A's estranged younger brother, and C is the contagonist and B's best friend. The story has them all together the majority of the time. B is the impact character for A, and C is the impact character for B. C influences B's way of thinking which leads B to change A's way of thinking later on. If I have A and C act as main/impact directly it would leave B as a useless character, but he is the reason behind the entire plot (his happiness and safety is A's motivation) so having him as nothing but a POV character doesn't seem right.
Is there a way I can make this work or should I find a way to make this less complex?

I should also mention character B is the best fit for POV to me because C dies half way through the story and having A as POV would give too much away (a lot of the story's mystery stems from the protagonists identity, motive and goal).

Apr 12, 2014
To RJ
by: Glen

I think you may have slightly misunderstood the theory. The POV character is automatically the main character.

B could only be the impact character to A if the story is being told from A's POV. In other words, you would have to make them both main characters and switch viewpoints at different times. That's the only way the reader gets access to the inner conflict in A's head. Otherwise, we can only infer it from external clues.

I don't think you need to change anything, except to make sure that B makes a crucial decision near the climax--whether to switch and adopt C's approach, or stick with his own--and that decision should determine the outcome (which may result from influencing A). This key decision is the other defining trait of the main character.

Jun 21, 2016
impact character and main character
by: Carly

Mom and I thought that the protagonist and MC were the same people, and I always thought that Watson was the main character as well, since, a lot of times, he goes with Sherlock and helps him solve the mystery, and starts to learn how to be a detective.

Jun 22, 2016
to Carly
by: Glen

Often the protagonist and main character are one and the same, so much so that many people use the terms interchangeably. Dramatica tries to be more precise about this, giving you a way to better describe stories written from one character's point of view, but in which a different character is leading the pursuit of the story goal.

Incidentally, another term you'll see used for the main character is the "primary point of view character." This term is helpful when describing stories written from multiple points of view.

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