We tend to think of a story’s most important characters as being the protagonist, antagonist, sidekick, or even love interest.
However, an equally integral character, though a little lesser known, is the ‘impact character’ – a term first used by authors Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley in their book Dramatica: New Theory of Story.
Let’s take a look at what exactly an impact character is and how to write one into your novel.
What is an impact character?
The impact character – also known as the ‘influence character’ or ‘catalyst character’ – is something I never even heard about in high school English, and it may be news to you too.
But despite its relative obscurity, the impact character can be crucial to the arc of your novel. Without them, nothing would happen!
An impact character can come in many different forms, but their purpose is simple. They inspire, enable, or just make another character change.
This sets the plot in motion, sweeping the protagonist along until they rise to action.
This character can easily be confused with the antagonist (and I don’t want to befuddle you too early, but occasionally they are the same character). However, their function is slightly different.
While an antagonist causes external conflict for the protagonist, an impact character causes internal conflict for them.
The external conflict is created by the opposing goals of the protagonist and the antagonist. The internal conflict arises from the opposing worldviews of the impact character and your protagonist.
We meet the protagonist when they already have an understanding of the world that they live in. But, guess what: this belief is a Lie.
Enter the impact character, who exposes the Lie, and then introduces the protagonist to the Truth.
A perfect example of this is Morpheus revealing to Neo that his world, which felt so real to him, is actually the Matrix. And then the story begins!
Usually, the protagonist doesn’t want to hear the Truth just yet. They may continue on their journey, happily believing the Lie, but they will continually run into the impact character.
Each time they do, it stirs up internal conflict within them as they are reminded of the Truth.
It is up to your discretion whether the impact character actively wants to change the protagonist’s worldview or not, and how much the protagonist resists this new information.
However, the Truth is what the protagonist needs to defeat the antagonist and any other external forces.
Over the course of the story, the protagonist must come to terms with this new reality if they are to achieve their goals, and have only completed their journey when they no longer believe the Lie.
So the impact character not only helps the protagonist to complete their mission, but fundamentally changes them along the way. Once you know this, they’re hard to miss – and hard to leave out of your story!
So, what might this impact character look like? Let’s look at some well-known examples, and ways to create impact characters for your own stories.
Examples of impact characters
You may already have identified some impact characters from previous stories you’ve read. Here are some of the many ways an impact character may show up, illustrated with popular examples.
The most classic example of a mentor impact character is Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.
He introduces Luke to the Force, and his advice to use the Force for good guides Luke through all two million films. (I’ve lost count with that franchise.)
The beloved Donkey from Shrek is a sidekick that really shakes up the protagonist’s world.
Throughout all the films, Donkey teaches Shrek patience and love for others, which allows him to fall in love with Fiona and defeat multiple villains.
Donkey destroys Shrek’s belief that he’s happier alone in his swamp, changing his life forever.
The love interest
This is your Mr Darcy character. He eventually shows Elizabeth that she has had the wrong idea about him all along, and that he in fact suits her as a romantic partner.
He also helps her realise that she has been wrongly believing in the goodness of nasty Wickham, who had been lying to her all along.
Sometimes, most noticeably in action books and films, the protagonist and love interest unite to defeat the antagonist together.
Antagonists that also serve as impact characters not only obstruct the protagonist from reaching their goals, but also show them they have been believing in the wrong things all along.
Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory stirs up inner turmoil for Charlie Bucket when he sees her selfish and demanding attitude.
It is her behaviour (and that of the other spoilt, self-centred children) that interrupts his wondrous day at the Chocolate Factory.
The contagonist is often mistaken as the antagonist, as they resemble a different kind of external conflict for the protagonist.
Whenever the protagonist is around the contagonist, they are obstructed or led away from their goal, or generally just experience some conflict.
The difference between this character and an antagonist is that the contagonist is not necessarily opposed to the protagonist, but they do disrupt their journey. An example of this is Snape in Harry Potter.
Harry and Snape are on the same side, and Voldemort is Harry’s true antagonist. Nevertheless, Snape stirs up trouble for Harry throughout all seven books, and often deflects him from his main goals simply by being a nuisance.
This shows how an impact character may not be aware of the internal conflict they are stirring up in the protagonist, or even want to pass the Truth on to them at all.
Sometimes the protagonist continually comes into contact with the contagonist because they represent a deep desire that the protagonist has. The Lie the protagonist believes may even be that they need the contagonist to reach their goal.
Once they inevitably realise this is false, the Truth is revealed, which is that the contagonist is only serving to distract them from fulfilling their ultimate potential.
The protagonist can cut them loose, enabling them to reach their final goal.
A collection of smaller characters
We see this all the time in children’s books and films! Often, the hero is led astray by a contagonist or their own hubris. The smaller characters then come together to help them see the truth of their actions.
Think of the three orphan girls adopted by Gru in Despicable Me, who teach him to love and care about other people.
How often do we see impact characters?
This varies completely between stories. Some impact characters may be there the entire time, and others may be present intermittently.
Even if they aren’t there too often, they are usually at the forefront of the protagonist’s mind for the duration of the story. Basically, it’s up to what suits your story best!
The presence of the impact character is really down to what other roles they serve in the story, how they initially come into contact with your character, what kind of message they bring, and how easily influenced your protagonist is.
Perhaps your protagonist is stodgy and stubborn in their worldview (the Lie), and they’re happy just as they are. In that case, maybe they’ll need quite a few interactions with the impact character.
Or maybe they were already unhappy and waiting for their life to change, and it doesn’t take much to have their world shaken up. Here, the impact character could be just as effective by only appearing once or twice.
It’s more than okay to spend some time planning the impact character’s entrance(s) so that they have the best narrative effect. The more you think about this and play around, the more effort you’ll be putting into your plot as a consequence.
Plus, it gives you the opportunity to really think about who your characters are and what they need, meaning that you really get to know them. Even better!
What inner turmoil might impact characters stir up?
Ahh, the nitty-gritty. Figuring out the opposing worldview of the impact character requires you to really delve into the psyche of your protagonist.
Ever considered yourself something of an armchair psychologist? Now’s the time to use those insights.
Think about what has happened in your protagonist’s life that would inspire them to react to external challenges in a certain way.
Identify the ways in which this initial reaction will not be enough to defeat the antagonist. This is necessary, as it will be a very predictable plot otherwise!
Often, a protagonist falls short in completing their goals due to a character flaw, a misguided belief, or a failure to see the bigger picture. That’s where the gold is.
Once you’ve identified why the protagonist alone won’t be enough to defeat the external challenges, you have the need for the impact character.
From there you can distill what it is about the protagonist’s worldview that must be changed in order for them to come out on top.
Let’s look at some quick examples of how the worldview of the impact character could really shake your protagonist around. Your impact character could:
- Encourage the protagonist to look at the bigger picture.
- Shows the protagonist how to focus on the most important task.
- Challenge the main character’s illusions about the world around them.
- Be smarter or wiser than the hero.
Why do we need impact characters?
There are so many ways that the impact character is majorly beneficial to your story.
First of all, the protagonist is never going to have the impetus to change their own life, or have it changed, if they are consistently believing in the Lie. They won’t go anywhere!
Introducing the impact character makes it much easier to kick off a story arc.
Once you introduce the antagonist and the impact character, your protagonist will have at least two characters who will guide them on their carefully plotted way.
This is actually integral to your protagonist’s character arc. You will be writing in a definite change for your character over the course of your story.
Including an impact character also makes your story richer.
Rather than conflating the antagonist and the inner conflict (this can be done, but it is wise to split the two), having an external impact character allows for the inner conflict to operate as a sub-story outside of the external conflict.
This will also force you to think about the deeper emotional reality of the characters, ensuring that you’re creating multi-dimensional, life-like characters that your audience can really root for.
The best thing about writing in an impact character is that it’s like building your own sundae. You have a variety of different options, as listed above, and it’s up to you to create the right combination.
Take the internal conflict as the base, add a topping of their introduction into the character’s life, and sprinkle over the ways that they appear throughout the story. Delicious.
Think through the ways that your impact character will best serve the story. Play around with it, writing in moments and taking them out when necessary, to make sure you have the right balance.
You don’t want the impact character to be too heavy-handed and on the nose, but you also don’t want the audience thinking, ‘Who the heck was that guy?’
One thing I can promise is that writing in an impact character will help to enrich and structure your narrative. Happy writing!