James Hull: A Good Impact Character Makes Things Uncomfortable

James Hull is an animator by trade, avid storyteller by night. He also taught classes on Story at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). You can find more articles like this on his site dedicated to all things story at...

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A Good Impact Character Makes Things Uncomfortable

Main Characters generally start out a story with everything worked out. Although they may have some deep-seated problems, as far as they’re concerned, everything is hunky-dory. Until of course, that pain-in-the-ass Impact Character comes along and ruins everything!

In my first case study of Breakfast at Tiffany’s I made an argument for why the Audrey Hepburn character Holly Golightly was not the Main Character. Instead, I offered some reasons for why the George Peppard character, Paul Varjak was a better match for Main Character.

Why does Holly work so well as an Impact Character?

When we first meet Paul everything seems to be OK with him. While we soon discover that his method of earning a living is a bit socially unacceptable, he seems to be fine with it; he justifies being a male gigolo with the idea that it provides him the resources and the time to write.

Only he hasn’t written anything in over six years.

And who is it that finally brings that to his attention? Who is it that shines that light of awareness upon his dark and hidden justifications and makes his life uncomfortable?

It’s Holly.

Even though they are falling in love, Holly wastes no time in calling Paul out on the life has created for himself. If he is a writer, why hasn’t he written anything in six years? And why is there no ribbon in his typewriter? Seems to Holly that if Paul really was what he says he is, he’d at least be able to type something. 

Holly has become an irritant to Paul. She’s the one that clues him in to the fact that the only thing keeping him from writing is himself. In doing so, Holly has become Paul’s Impact Character - a constant reminder of all the things he has hidden away from himself.

And while this 1967 Romantic Comedy could not be more different than the dark and brooding 1992 Clint Eastwood Western Unforgiven, this idea of the irritating Impact Character exists there as well.

We Ain’t Bad Men

Eastwood’s Munny thinks it will be relatively “easy” to kill a couple of cowboys responsible for abusing a prostitute. His friend and longtime riding partner, Ned Logan (played by Morgan Freeman) thinks otherwise.

Munny, although not completely sold on the idea, was still ready to go without too much trouble. Ned, not as eager to put his life in danger, asks Munny how long it’s been since he’s fired a gun. Munny reluctantly answers, a bit annoyed that Ned would bring that up.

When Ned tells him that if these guys had done something bad to him he would understand, Munny answers back that they’ve done jobs for money before. He goes on to tell Ned exactly what it is these guys did - exaggerating the event as to make it justifiable in his own head as well.

But it’s only once Ned brings up the memory of Munny’s dearly departed that things start to get really uncomfortable. She would not be happy with his decision to return to his old ways. The conversation comes to a dead stop and Munny gets up to leave.

Keep It To Yourself

Both Peppard’s Paul and Eastwood’s Munny wish that they’re respective Impact Characters would just mind their own business. Deep down inside, they both know that what they’re doing is wrong, but it’s not until that external view of themselves comes along that they really start to see what it is they’re doing, or not doing.

All Main Characters should be so lucky.


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