In my last two newsletters, I explored the protagonist and antagonist characters as they relate to fiction writing. This month, I wanted to talk about a third character, the impact (or influence) character.
What is the impact character? There are many definitions and theories, but the one that I like to use is that the impact character is the character that is in direct opposition to the protagonist’s world view. So in a story, this character forces the protagonist to confront their attitudes or preconceptions. The impact character challenges the protagonist to consider a different way of looking at things, or to take a different path to the goal. A lot of writing resources define the impact character as the one that forces the protagonist to change, but I disagree. Your protagonist doesn’t always have to change in order to write an effective and entertaining story.
This is different from the antagonist, who is the primary obstacle that opposes the protagonist. The impact character is often on the same side as the protagonist.
A great example of an impact character is Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars. George Lucas used the traditional mythical Hero’s Journey in his storytelling. Luke, the hero, refuses the call to action. It is the mentor character of Obi-Wan who challenges him to learn about the Force and go with him on the mission to Alderaan. But Luke is resistant; he needs to get back to Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru on the farm. Of course, it’s only when he’s discovered his homestead destroyed and Aunt and Uncle murdered that he answers the call.
Throughout their adventure, Obi-Wan teaches him a new way to look at the universe, feeling the Force and being able to tap into its boundless energy. This culminates in Luke being able to destroy the Death Star only after abandoning the technology of the targeting computer and stretching out with his feelings to use the Force to guide his torpedoes to their two-meter target.
Another great example of an impact character is in the classic Frank Capra movie It’s A Wonderful Life. George Bailey spends the majority of the movie with big dreams and aspirations, but is constantly thwarted from being able to achieve them. As a result, though he remains compassionate toward the other folks in Bedford Falls, he develops a kind of jaded attitude about his circumstances. When he’s at his lowest point, considering committing suicide, he’s introduced to the guardian angel Clarence, who has been following him all along. Clarence gets George to confront his world view by giving him the chance to see what the world would be like had he never been born. This changes George’s outlook, leading to the happy ending we’re all familiar with.
I’ve also seen it argued that old man Potter was the impact character in the movie, but I disagree. I consider Potter to be an antagonist of the B-story. While the main story is about George vs. Himself, discovering his own self-worth and value to the community, the B-story is George vs, Potter in who’s vision of Bedford Falls becomes reality. Potter seeks to control and own everything, his greed robbing everyone of opportunity while his coffers get filled, whereas George, though he despises the Building & Loan his father founded, constantly fights to keep his father’s vision alive, giving everyone in the town the ability to build their own wealth by owning their own houses, etc. So to me, this is the external story whereas George Bailey’s conflicted feelings are the main inner story that we need an impact character like Clarence to give George a nice character arc.
In CYBER FIGHTER, there are two impact characters that challenge the protagonist Brian Baldwin. The first is Kate Rand, a neurologist by trade who forces Brian to confront his newfound overconfidence (once he’s been programmed with the expert fighting skills), and the second character is Joe Wallace. Without spoiling any of the plot twists in the story, Joe forces Brian to face the reality of combat, challenging his preconceptions of what fighting is really all about.
The impact character doesn’t necessarily need to be on the same side as the protagonist — sometimes they can be on the opposing side, depending on your story. Whether you’re crafting a classical myth, spy thriller, or romance, an impact character can help you add more dimensions to your story.