When you talk about the main character in a story, you usually think in terms of protagonist and antagonist -- or Hero and Villain.
The protagonist, in most stories, is that person with a problem, whose attempts to solve that problem make up the story, and whose ultimate success or failure generally reflects how much they learned.
The antagonist opposes the hero, and is chiefly responsible for all the obstacles put in the protagonist's way.
At least that's how it works in simple stories.
However, sometimes villains are boring. Sometimes they are faceless institutions, or unknown quantities. Sometimes the main antagonist of a story is the protagonist himself!
But fear not, there is another kind of character who puts obstacles in the way of the hero. This kind of character may even have a much bigger and more interesting part than any villain. This kind of character is the kind of role that gets actors Academy Awards. What are we talking about?
The "Impact Character"
Some people define the impact character as a mentor or helper who pushes the character along on his journey. I don't really disagree with that, as long as you emphasize the word "pushes." Because if a character just helps, that's a sidekick, not an impact character.
An impact character has to have a stronger effect on the action -- it's someone who forces the situation just like an antagonist does. An impact character has to be in some sort of conflict with the hero, even if it's entirely to the hero's benefit.
Since impact characters tend to be secondary characters, they may slip back and forth -- sometimes having a real impact, sometimes just acting as a sidekick, sometimes being a co-villain, sometimes even being a co-protagonist.
Love stories and buddy stories are sometimes structured as two characters who are in conflict who are both equally protagonists of their own story. Often, though, one character is clearly the main character, and the other is there to challenge him or her from start to end.
Kinds of Impact Characters
Mr. Miyagi, from The Karate Kid, is the ultimate impact character of this sort. Yoda is another. Miyagi, though, is more obviously proactive. In both situations, the main character is headed in the wrong direction. For instance the Karate Kid doesn't know he needs a mentor. He's trying to learn karate on his own.
Mr. Miyagi, like a good impact character, sees him struggling and gives him a nudge. And when the kid finally decides he wants Miyagi to train him, Miyagi suddenly becomes difficult. He gives him a bunch of stupid chores to do -- wax the car, paint the fence, sand the floor. He pushes him until the kid tells him off... and then reveals that he was teaching the kid karate moves with all of those jobs.
A mentor uses conflict and obstacles to get the protagonist on the right path.
The Paragon (or Savior)
A paragon is someone who is miraculously perfect at what they do. We often use it to describe great employees. Jeeves, for instance, is a paragon.
Paragons often seem like the hero of a story. They are the ones who actually resolve the problem. But because they are so smart or powerful or perfect, they really don't have a problem. So there is usually another character who takes up the part of protagonist.
Many people feel that Dr. Watson is the protagonist of the Sherlock Holmes stories, while Holmes himself is a prominent impact character.
A better example might be in old-time woman-in-jeopardy stories; the protagonists in these suspense thrillers (who weren't always women) get themselves into dire trouble. And somewhere in the background, someone else is working to solve the case and save them. A lover, a cop, the cavalry.
Jeeves, of course, is an excellent example: his "master" Bertie is always getting into terrible fixes, and Jeeves thinks up how he can get out of it. It's very clear here that Bertie is the protagonist, though, because even with Jeeves' help, Bertie is the one who has to take action.
Frances and Richard Lockridge wrote a few protag-in-jeopardy stories featuring Lt. Shapiro (which eventually led into a police procedural series with a different flavor). He'd schlep along in the background, tracking down clues, while the hero or heroine got into dire trouble, and then, at then at the last minute, he'd schlep in apologetically to save the day. (He was kind of a depressed Columbo type.)
Marshal Sam Gerard of the movie version of The Fugitive almost fits in this group, though he crosses over into another type.
Pseudo-villains are particularly useful for mystery thrillers or stories with a twist, where you don't know who the real villain is: Stories such as the movie The Fugitive.
U. S. Deputy Marshall Samuel Gerard is a paragon. He is utterly perfect and unstoppable in his job of rounding up fugitives. For Dr. Richard Kimball, on the run for a crime he didn't commit, this makes Gerard the antagonist for the bulk of the movie. And if we are in doubt, there comes that moment in the middle where Kimball tries to appeal to Gerard, and finds out there is no appeal. Gerard doesn't care if he is innocent or guilty. His job is to catch him, and that's what he's going to do.
It's a chilling moment partly because we have seen just how fabulous Gerard is at his job. We know he could be a savior, but if he's going to be the villain, man oh, man, Kimball might as well jump off a cliff.
Gerard is particularly interesting because usually the litmus test to tell if a villain is real or a pseudo-villain is that the pseudo-villain changes his mind. At the end, when he learns the truth of the situation, a pseudo-villain will change sides and help the protagonist deal with the real villain. Gerard never does actually change his mind. He still arrests Kimball in the end (knowing that he will be let off now that the evidene is out). And his motive for tracking down the truth is not to clear Kimball, but to find him. Their goals coincide, so that makes them work together.
The really cool thing about The Fugitive, I think, is when you think of it in terms of impact and opposing forces. Tommy Lee Jones is a freight train. He is this enormous force that is after Kimball, and he impacts everything in the story -- including the real villain. It's a joy to watch that force shift and accelerate. Unlike a real antagonist, though, Gerard never something Kimball can stop, but he's something Kimball can understand and use to achieve his goals.
There are a few other types, which I might get to later, but certainly any kind of secondary character can become an impact character, and most combine the qualities of several types.
Impact characters are my very most favorite type of character. They have freedom of action that the other characters don't -- they aren't tied to being good, or achieving anything. They have choices that the hero never has, since the problem of the story is not their problem, and that gives them an opportunity to be admirable. They also have the choice of being petty and snarky and receiving a pie in the face.
Tomorrow I'll post the introduction page for Test of Freedom -- which is in large part about an impact character. While the story centers around Jackie, and he's certainly a person in a setting with a problem, he is by nature more of an impact character. That's his chosen calling. He foments trouble for others -- trying to enlighten them and show them the right path via conflict -- even when it puts his life at stake.
See you in the funny papers.
Round of Words in 80 Days Update
This Segment's Progress:
Sunday: 210 minutes
Monday: 95 minutes
Tuesday: I came down with a cold. Put off more work until tomorrow.