Understanding Dramatica Theory

by Seth
(Simi Valley, CA)


I'm having a difficult time wrapping my head around the concept of an impact character, and am wondering how interpretive it is.

For example, I just read your excellent analysis of how Voldemort should be considered Harry's impact character, and why Dumbledore really isn't. But then you referenced Star Wars, and said that Obi-Wan was Luke's impact character. However, in my mind, Vader is Luke's impact character: he literally represents the opposite choice of behavior and morality than Luke's, directly solicits him to think about the world from that perspective ("Join me, and together we'll rule the Universe as Father and Son..." or "You don't understand the power of the Dark Side.") Further, Luke remains the steadfast character, and therefore Vader changes (he chucks the Emperor down a chute and saves his son).

Unless you're saying that Obi-Wan is the impact character in "A New Hope" but that perhaps Vader is the impact character across the entire story arc.

Don't misunderstand: I'm not arguing with you! It's that I'm finding this a slippery concept, and if I can't understand it with stories I believe I know well (e.g., Harry Potter, Star Wars), I really won't know how to use it as a framework for my own writing!

So: like my 9th grade English class =) is this up for interpretation? Or is there always a "correct" answer? Is anybody reading my story (ha! myself included!) supposed to be able to identify the impact character clearly, or is it possible to perceive different interpretations for who the impact character might be?

Thank you for your thoughts and clarifications!

Answer: I'm afraid I do write Star Wars sometimes when I should write Star Wars: A New Hope.

However, to answer your question, the key is to keep in mind whether the main character is a "change" or a "steadfast" character.

In A New Hope, Luke is a change character. Luke starts out as someone with ambition, but has never been able to test himself. So he is rather insecure and unable to stand up to his uncle. Throughout the story, Obi wan is the impact character who teaches Luke to have confidence in himself and the Force. Luke's decision to change is seen when he turns off his targeting computer and trusts the force to tell him when to fire on the Death Star.

In Return of the Jedi, on the other hand, Luke is a steadfast character. The big question in this film is whether Luke will hold true to his Jedi training or be seduced by the dark side of the Force, like his father was. Luke's decision to remain steadfast is illustrated by the moment when he throws aside his light sabre and says "You've failed, Your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me."

The reason it gets more confusing with series is that some series, such as Harry Potter and Star Wars can be seen as one story that spans several books or films. This overarching plot revolves around a story goal such as vengeance that is only resolved in the last installment. However, at the same time, each installment (apart from the last one) often has its own story with a separate story goal, thus making each installment satisfying as a standalone work. (Well, we could argue about how satisfying The Empire Strikes Back is.)

You ask if anyone reading your story will be able to identify the impact character. Truth is, good story structure is largely invisible to most readers. It's like a skeleton that remains hidden under the skin. This is why few people recognize the strong similarities between Harry Potter and Star Wars. However, if the structure weren't there, the story would collapse.

The average reader may recognize that there is a special relationship between the main character and the impact character, but until Dramatica came along, there was little understanding of how that relationship worked -- little recognition of how it functions to create inner conflict for the main character.

From a writer's perspective, impact characters are very important because the inner conflict they create adds considerably to the emotional impact of a story. Most writers know that adding inner conflict makes for a more powerful story, but not so many understand the impact character's role in this.

Finally, is there room for interpretation? Yes indeed. Stories are complex, and it often takes some thought to analyze the elements. Some stories are better structured than others, and everyone has their own perspective. At times I disagree with the analyses posted by the Dramatica Users Group (though often I find them very helpful). For instance, my take on the film Frozen (https://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/frozen.html) is different than that of several other Dramatica experts.

Comments for Understanding Dramatica Theory

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Trying to Finally Get It
by: Sparrow

Hi Glen

Your comments to these questions are one of my most useful sources of guidance as I'm learning the art of writing fiction. Although I seldom post, I read all of them and use many of them to enrich my own work. You are possibly my main mentor in writing and thank you so much for it.

So, if I am finally getting the concept, the impact character is the one whose influence, for good or for ill, caused the protagonist the most inner and / or outer conflict concerning the issue or quest whose final outcome is the story's end? Or the impact character is the one whose influence is in line with the protagonist's ultimate decision [for internal conflict] or his / her success or failure [for external conflict]?

And, if the protagonist's deepest relationship in the tale is their personal relationship with God in prayer... And, if his / her deepest conflicts are internal ones... And, if his / her choices and actions, including the one that brings the tale to its conclusion are spiritual ones, worked through both in prayer and in discussions with members of their church or other believers... then the impact character is God and / or the collective group of believers with whom the protagonist works it all out?

Is it okay to be deeply, deeply grateful I don't have another question about all this right now?

To Sparrow
by: Glen

Glad to be of help.

Re: Question 1

The impact character causes the main character to question the approach he/she had in the beginning of the story by arguing for or providing an example of a different approach. Main characters generally begin with some approach to dealing with problems, but it might not be the approach that will achieve the story goal. Their inner conflict concerns what approach is right for the situation at hand -- their approach, or the impact character's. How the main character resolves this dilemma ultimately affects whether the story goal is achieved or not. You can think of it as a conflict over who they are and who they might be. Sometimes they are better off staying steadfast; sometimes changing is better.

Question 2

God can serve as the impact character. What matters is that you find ways for God to exert pressure on the main character to change. Perhaps through scripture, visions, dream conversations, etc. Or you might have a priest/pastor act as a stand-in for God (any deeply religious character will also do). In fact, even a non-religious person could stand in for God. (It all depends on your idea of God.)

The challenge is to make the influence seem tangible and not something easily dismissed (such as imagination). Try to have God advocate one particular approach to the problem at hand that contrasts with the main character's initial approach. One issue is enough. Also, remember that it is often more effective for the main character to see the impact character in action, taking a different approach, than to simply be preached at.

Usually, a single impact character is better than a group (easier to have a personal relationship that way). Also, multiple impact characters would be redundant.

Following Up on Your Comments
by: Sparrow

Thanks, Glen. This is so helpful.

Regarding question 1: Then, if I understand you correctly, a character who advocates repeatedly and heatedly a course of action that the protagonist eventually declines to adopt would be the impact character. So then, if initially *two* persons were pushing my protagonist in opposite directions, and *one* drops out midway through, effectively leaving the field to the other, but my protagonist declines to follow the second course of action too, I think my impact character is the second one as it is when she sees that way is not for her *either* that she finally finds her own way. Is that right?

Regarding question 2: If my protagonist is indeed getting guidance from hymns, the Bible, the bios of Christians now deceased, church members, life as it comes at her etc, it would be wise to have one source [e.g. one person] permeate the tale from beginning to end as impact character and consider the others minor characters? And the story will be more effective, the more I differentiate their degrees of influence? Or I should strongly consider reducing the number of minor characters?

Thanks again, Glen. If I ever become a successful author, it will be in large measure due to you.

To Sparrow
by: Glen

Re: 1
Usually, you only need one impact character who is present throughout the story. Providing two impact characters whose approaches the main character must choose between usually only occurs when your main character is naive or doesn't have his/her own approach in the beginning. However, I've seen cases of what you're proposing too.

Re: 2
One impact character is better. I simply meant that, in cases where the impact character cannot be present for part of the story, they may exert an influence through other means. For instance, if the impact character dies, their influence may be exerted through a will or a final message. In some cases, their role might be passed on to another character who can take their place, such as a student, relative, etc., who can point out what the IC would have said if they were there. Sometimes they can leave behind a memento that reminds the main character what they stood for.

For example, if you were using God as an impact character, you might have the main character ritually flip open the Bible at key moments and let the passages that turn up pressure the main character to change. If a rock star was the impact character, their songs could turn up at key moments, etc.

by: Sparrow

Hi Glen

I finally get it. Thanks a million.

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