James Hull Articles: Archive 1

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.


The Case of the Missing Heart

A common complaint of many films is that while they are stunning visually, they somehow lack heart. Often it is hard to describe exactly what is missing, let alone come up with the necessary pieces to fill that hole in a story. This is due to the nature of what is missing, i.e. it’s not so much one thing that is missing as it is two.


When you speak of emotions or “heart,” what you are really describing is the relationship between things. You can’t really experience love or sadness without the context of that emotion as it relates to something else. Emotions exist as a result of an inequity between two separate things, whether they be objects or in our case, characters. The nature of emotion requires a relationship.

So when you see a film or read a story that seems cold, or lacking heart, what you are really missing is that heartfelt relationship between two characters.


In the Dramatica theory of story this relationship between two characters is referred to as the Relationship Throughline. In other story theories or screenwriting books this throughline is sometimes called the C story line or the “heartline.” Put simply, this throughline explores the emotional meaning of a story’s message. The relationship in question always revolves around the Main Character and one other Primary Character. This other character (sometimes called the Impact Character or Pivotal Character) stands in direct opposition to the Main Character’s point-of-view and represents the greatest challenge to the MC’s approach towards solving the story’s central problem. This character provides the alternative.

But while the Main Character will have their way of seeing the world and the Impact Character will have theirs, this does not fulfill the needs of the relationship throughline. As Chris Huntley wrote in this Dramatica Tip from May 2004:

Many writers confuse the relationship throughline for the characters in it. Though the characters are party to the relationship, the [Relationship Throughline] is not about the characters as individuals…it is about the relationship.

So while you may have your own personal problems or issues, and your significant other might have his or her own issues, the two of you also have a relationship that carries with it its own separate set of issues. Now these relationship issues might spill over into the personal and may possibly even be informed by them, but it is important to clearly identify them as separate, especially when writing a story. You need to explore what is wrong with this relationship; why it’s growing or why it’s falling apart and how that impacts the two parties in question.

By doing so you will have supplied your audience with an emotional argument, or message, that will coincide with the more plot-oriented logistical argument of the “headline” or A story.

But most importantly, you will have given them something to feel.


As mentioned in a previous article, Tim Burton’s films, while always visually amazing, often seem to be missing something to me in the final analysis. Until my understanding of the above concept, I always chalked it up to his films simply being “dark” or ”quirky.”

But upon further analysis it’s easy to see that what is often missing is the Relationship Throughline. Case-in-point: The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Now, I really like this film and I make sure to watch it every Halloween season. It’s apparent that many others do as well, especially when you consider that 15 years later it still runs in limited engagement every October at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, CA. It is a technical marvel. But even that simple description accurately reveals what many feel is missing from this work — namely, heart.

Every time Jack and Sally (Main Character and Impact Character respectively) are just about to get together and have some meaningful contact, somebody or something interrupts them. One time would be understandable, maybe even two, but these undead lovers don’t connect emotionally until the final scene! Jack doesn’t even really verify her existence until the very end. It’s very frustrating.

Some would argue, “Yes, but what about all those other great romantic films where the two characters don’t finally get together until the very end? It’s a very common device.” It might be, but I’m guessing that in those successful films there is a reasonable amount of emotional development throughout. Although they might not meet each other physically until the end, their relationship grows, ebbing and flowing until that final heartfelt scene. A relationship can’t just “pop” into existence, it needs to develop into fruition.

Nightmare lacks this development and therefore suffers from a lack of heart.


A Story is an Argument

There is a significant difference between stories and tales. A tale is merely a statement; a linear progression from one event to the next culminating in one singular outcome. It can be thrown out immediately and disregarded as a one-time occurrence primarily because it has relatively little to stand on. A story, however, offers much more to an audience member.


This Fall I began teaching Story Development at the California Institute of the Arts in their much-vaunted Character Animation program (from which I am a proud alum). Personally it has been a blast for me as I get the opportunity to talk about my life’s obsession to a relatively captive audience. One of the things I’ve really been trying to communicate to them is this idea of the difference between a story and a tale.


In sharp contrast to a tale, a story is an argument; a course of logical and emotional reasoning aimed at proving that a particular approach is either a good one, or a bad one. Because it is an argument it can be applied to all kinds of similar and not-so-similar situations. Whereas a tale can quickly be disregarded and ultimately forgotten because of the proliferance of exceptions, a well argued-story must be accepted by an audience member as one possible truth.

An argument’s ultimate goal after all is tell some truth, of relaying some meaning to an audience.

This is where the power of stories lies.


You cannot possibly come away from The Shawshank Redemption without the understanding that no matter what your situation, there is always hope. It is what Stephen King and Frank Darabont were trying to communicate to you through the method of storytelling - there was intention behind their creation.

Likewise you can’t watch Fight Club and not believe that sometimes anarchy and self-destruction is the only answer. David Fincher certainly has a point of view about the hopeless reality of life and more often than not executes it brilliantly. Walt Disney’s Pinnochio is less subtle about the meaning behind it all — just do the right thing.

But it is in the The Sixth Sense that we can clearly see how meaningful stories work on all levels.

Malcom had been fooling himself (as many Main Characters do) into believing that what he saw and what he perceived as being reality was in fact, real. It was only by working his way through the story and allowing the influence of Cole into his life that he finally understood what was really going on. The truly great thing about this story was that this understanding was reflected not only in Malcom’s personal throughline but in the larger story as a whole. Many of the characters in the film (Malcom included) perceived Cole’s outlandish actions as symptomatic of a heavily disturbed mental psychosis. Cole must be a victim of some sort of child abuse or he’s acting out because his father is gone…he couldn’t possibly be seeing real ghosts.

As it turns out, they were dead wrong.

Both throughlines of perception were shown to be deception, deliberate or otherwise.

See, when people talk about the importance of story, of creating narrative that matters, what they are looking for is some way of bringing meaning into the piece. It has to be in there from the beginning as the parts necessary to bring about that meaning need to be carefully designed. The Sixth Sense was such a film. And it made a wonderfully powerful argument that maybe we should look beyond what we see to what really is.

SOURCE: This concept of a difference between a story and a tale comes from the Dramatica theory of story. If you are interested in reading more about it, you can visit the original definition of this concept there.

The Second Most Important Character in a Film

Everyone agrees that the Main Character is the most important character in a film. Why? Because through this person, an audience experiences first-hand the emotions and consequences of the narrative surrounding them. However, there is another, less understood character that is primarily responsible for influencing growth in the Main Character. This character is known as the Impact Character.

While working on my own story, I came across an explanation in the Dramatica theory of story that I hadn’t remembered:

When the Impact Character is steadfast, then he will make his arguments to the Main Character in reference to his own drive. He will treat his own drive as if the same things should be driving all others as well.

This part I knew and understood but it was what came after it that made me stop and think, “Why hadn’t I seen that before?” I’ve been working on and off with Dramatica for over 10 years now and probably have read the following line a million times. But for some reason it never really resonated with me until last week.

This often pops up in conventional arguments where the Impact Character says to the Main Character, “you know, we are just like, you and I,” (if the IC is steadfast) or “we are nothing alike,” (if the IC changes).”

Is that true? Is it really that black and white? “We’re alike” if the Main Character changes and “We’re nothing alike” if the Impact Character changes. Is it really that easy?

Overall, I understand that this is a generality and therefore shouldn’t be taken as a strict rule of dramatic narrative, but it started me thinking. How did this generality hold up under further scrutiny? And more importantly, could it help me with my own work?

I took six Impact Characters, three who Change and three who Remain Steadfast, and applied the above axiom.


Score one for Marshall Samuel Gerard. Chasing Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) in and around Chicago I could hear Tommy Lee Jones uttering “We are nothing alike Richard.” Gerard is not the type to suggest that he and a fugitive wanted for murdering his wife are anything alike. It would be quite strange to hear him say so.

Robert the Bruce (Angus MacFayden)…hmmm. “We are nothing alike, William Wallace (Mel Gibson).” Perhaps deep down inside his shameful self might feel that, but I don’t recall him ever saying it aloud. Instead the voice of disparity comes from Robert’s father, the Leper. Robert wishes to join Wallace but his father reminds him that Robert is a noblemen, not some commoner like Wallace. “Uncompromising men are easy to admire…But it is exactly the ability to compromise that makes a man noble.” As his father puts it, Robert and Wallace are nothing alike.

Coal-mining father John Hickam (Chris Cooper) certainly doesn’t feel like he and his son Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) have anything in common. John considers himself more of a practical man while Homer has head (and his rockets) in the clouds. Again I believe he even has a conversation with his wife about how he and his son are nothing alike.


And now we move on to Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and his own “personal hero,” Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). When Ricky’s boss threatens to fire him for not working, Ricky tells him, “Fine, don’t pay me. I quit. Now leave me alone.” Words Lester wishes he could say to his own boss. Ricky doesn’t come out and say “You and I are alike,” but he might as well have.

What about the obviously named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) and his relationship with the troubled child psychologist Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis)? In the classic hospital scene, Cole asks “Tell me why you’re sad.” At first Malcom refuses, but soon realizes that Cole is just as sad as he is; perhaps opening up could help the young boy out. Again, the words aren’t said but the intention is there.

And what about Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins)? Before he tells Red (Morgan Freeman) about Zihuatanejo he talks about the whirlwind tornado that fate dealt him. “I just didn’t expect the storm would last as long as it has.” We cut to Red, his head hung low. And although we can’t read the expression on his face, we know for certain that Red feels the same.1


So does the rule work?

It seems like it does. I mean, you can’t imagine Ricky telling Lester “We’re nothing alike” or John Hickam telling his dreamer son “You and I have so much in common. Let’s sit down and talk about our dreams.” Still, it’s probably not a good idea to rely on it all the time, but I do think there’s a real world reason for why the rule works so well.

The character who has the most to lose (or gain depending on how you look at the Change) is more often than not the one who will resist any notion of similarity between the other.

When someone tells you, “You know, you’re acting just like so-and-so” and you react with disgust or disbelief, chances are that so-and-so is your own personal Impact Character. We hate seeing a part of us that we don’t quite understand or even want to accept.

This resistance is a resistance to Change and depending on which side of the argument you stand, you’re either going to be a proponent for it or you’re going to speak out against it. That’s one of the main reasons why the Impact Character exists: to provide that other side of the argument. So it’s comforting to know that with a few simple words (”We’re both alike” or “We’re nothing alike”) you can easily tell which side of the argument this second most important character stands on.


Personally I like it much better when you can do the “You and I are alike” line without actually having to say it - part of the reason why I chose these examples.


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