Saturday, February 09, 2013

The Force of Impact Characters

There's a scene from the original Star Wars movie (the one where Han shoots first, to be very specific), that we all remember.  A single line will point you directly to the scene I'm thinking about.  
"Use the force, Luke."  
You know the scene I'm talking about now, right?  Luke in his X-Wing.  Darth Vader and his two escorts on his tail.  Shooting down the canyon of the Death Start toward the thermal vent.  A classic scene in cinematic history.  
An a moment when the Impact Character in that movie triumphs.  
Last week I mentioned a program that I discovered years ago called Dramatic Pro.  It's a story generation program that has its own story model.  The program asks you a series of questions about the story you want to write and from those answers a model for your story is generated.  
Dramatic Pro has had a huge influence on my idea of storytelling and the elements that go into it.  One thing I mentioned last week was the concept of a character's relationship with their problem solving technique and whether they will remain "steadfast," and continue to pursue their course of action no matter the obstacle, or "change," trying a new course of action to achieve their goals.  I called this the moment where they "keep the faith" or take a "leap of faith."  
While writing last week's blog, there was another concept that Dramatica Pro has given me that I wanted to tell people about.  I had to force myself to edit it from the blog entry because it really didn't have anything to do what what I was writing about.  So I've decided to write about here.  
The Impact Character.  
We all know what a Protagonist is, right?  That's the hero of the story.  The person doing things to overcome the obstacles and challenges preventing them from getting what they want.  
And we all know what an Antagonist is, I'm sure.  It is the person, or force or whatever, standing in the way of the Protagonist, actively trying to see to it that the hero fails in their quest.  
In Star Wars, the Protagonist is Luke Skywalker.  The Antagonist is Governor Tarkin.  If you thought it was Darth Vader, you're wrong.  In the original movie, he would be something Dramatica Pro would call the Contagonist, a force or person assisting the Antagonist in their efforts to stop the Protagonist in their efforts.  It is Governor Tarkin that is trying to crush the Alliance by destroying their base on Yavin 4.  Darth Vader is helping out by shooting down anyone that tries to fire a couple of proton torpedos down that thermal vent.  
It was Dramatica Pro that taught me that there is often another conflict going on, with another character trying to affect the actions of the Protagonist.  That character is the Impact Character.  
Looking at Luke Skywalker's situation, he has two conflicts he is dealing with while trying to set his sights on that thermal vent.  The first one is "real" conflict, stopping the Death Star from annihilating his friends and allies by blowing it up first.  This conflict is the one most clearly presented on the screen.  Luke wants to fire his proton torpedos down the thermal vent, ace-ing it just like he did those womp rats back home.  Darth Vader is intent on preventing Luke from doing that by turning him into a sparkling cloud of vapor and dust.  An intention completely unclouded by the knowledge he is blowing up his long lost son.  The irony.  
The other conflict luck is dealing with is more thematic.  It's not about whether or not the Death Star needs to be destroyed.  It's about How it gets destroyed.  
"Use the Force, Luke."  
Think about this: What would have happened had Luke ignored the voice he heard?  Put it down to that last bottle of Tantooine ale that Han had him drink the night before.  He shakes his head, clearing the vapors of that heady drink out of the way, and uses his innate skill to send those proton torpedos down the thermal vent.  
The Death Star would blow up.  The rebels would win.  Luke and Han and Chewie would get their medals, just like they did in the original movie.  
The future, though, would be different.  When Empire struck back, the rebellion would have been crushed.  Luke would have been eaten by that big ice cave monster.  No force to use to get his light-saber out of the snow, right?  There would be no one to come rescue Han once he's encased in carbonite.  No one to oppose the Emperor and his Death Star II.  There would be no prequels either, so maybe it wouldn't have been all bad.  
This is because, as Obi-Wan Kenobi believed, it wasn't enough to just destroy the Death Star.  He needed to rebuild the Jedi.  He needed a new generation to be raised believing in and using the Force.  And to do that, he needed Luke to take a Leap of Faith and to give something he had never heard of until a few short days earlier a try.  
Luke's external conflict, over whether or not the Death Star was going to be destroyed, was with Governor Tarkin and Darth Vader.  His thematic conflict, over whether he was going to destroy the Death Star by his own abilities, or by giving himself over to a mysterious, all encompassing presence within the universe, was with the story's Impact Character, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  
I like Impact Characters.  After first hearing about them in Dramatica Pro, I saw them everywhere.  I made a point of writing them into my stories.  They complicate things.  They can be both allies and adversaries.  They can make things harder for the Protagonist by trying to help them.  
In life, parents are often Impact Characters.  Mine were.  At this point in my life, my folks have become more like fans, looking on at what I do and cheering me on.  But as a child, they did everything they could, cajoled me, ordered me, rewarded me, spanked and punished me, to get me to do to things the "right way," all the while telling me they were doing what they were doing because they loved me and wanted me to be happy.  
At work, my colleagues, my fellow managers, are my Impact Characters.  They want me to succeed, to get my department to put out as much work as possible.  But they will also argue with me and try to tell me what they think I ought to do when they perceive problems.  
Impact Characters point out the choices you have.  Ann Dulhanty, a member of my online writing group, responded to a message I sent her once, telling her all the things I "had to do" that were getting in the way of my writing, by saying, "those are choices," and going on to say I should do more of what I wanted than what I had to do.  My best friend from college, Richard, responded to a recitation of the problems I was facing in my life by putting the blame on my own perception.  "You need to see yourself as deserving more," or something to that effect, was his response.  
It can be irritating.  Frustrating.  You feel yourself being forced to justify something that appears to be self-evident.  But this is, I think, a good frustration.  Even if you don't change how you do things, remaining steadfast as I tend to do, at least you have the chance of making the choice to be steadfast.  And an informed choice has the advantage of helping you see the consequences of your actions.  And that's what makes Impact Characters valuable, in fiction and in life. 
If I had been Luke, I probably would have ignored Obi-Wan.  I would have destroyed the Death Star and gotten my medal.  But having made that choice, I think I would have changed in other ways as well.  Become a bit more cautious at this example of how little things, like the design of your thermal vent system, can have big consequences.  I would have noticed that big ice monster and shot it before it grabbed me in the snow.  And I wouldn't have been on some swamp planet trying to appease some green little hermit, which would have given me more time to rescue my friends.  
A different sequel entirely.  But those are the options that Impact Characters can give you when you think about them.  


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