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Monday, July 20, 2020

Writing the Influence Character

Much has been written about the protagonist, but few talk about what's called the "influence character." This is a character whose power comes from his or her influence/impact on the protagonist. The influence character has a different worldview than the protagonist, which helps explore the story's theme. This is often who the protagonist is in an important relationship with, in the B story, or perhaps, viewed as a lead role in the B story. It might be a love interest, mentor, friend, sibling, rival, ally, parent, classmate--almost anything. It's someone who has power based on impact. They will challenge the protagonist's perspective, directly or indirectly, either testing the protagonist's resolve or getting them to change. Typically the influence character and protagonist are linked together, usually by a similar goal.

Here are some examples.

In Moana, Moana is the protagonist, and Maui is the influence character.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss is the protagonist, and Peeta is the influence character.

In The Greatest Showman, P. T. Barnum is the protagonist, and Charity is the influence character.

In Hamilton, Hamilton is the protagonist, and Eliza is the influence character.

In Songbirds and Snakes, Coriolanus is the protagonist, and Sejanus is the influence character.

In Legally Blonde, Elle is the protagonist, and Paulette is the influence character.

This doesn't mean the protagonist isn't influenced by other characters, of course, but these are the (or rather, "primary") influence characters--their relationship with the protagonist influences the outcome of the story in significant ways, and for at least part of the story (if not the whole thing), these two people are usually bound together on a similar course or by a similar end goal. This creates a "we" perspective within the audience. We are trying to do X. We are stuck in the same situation. We need to work together. We need each other.

But this relationship is about more than . . . well . . . just being in a relationship. The protagonist and influence character mirror and foil each other in key ways. Often by the time a writer finishes a professional-level story, he or she will have done this (to some extent), even if he or she isn't aware of it.

Let's talk about the key components of this relationship (concepts courtesy of Dramatica).

Change vs. Steadfast

A character who "changes" (arcs drastically) will grow significantly--often doing a 180--by the end of the story. Most of us are familiar with this concept.

A character who holds "steadfast" will stay more or less the same--he or she may grow by degree, but not by a drastic 180.

A "changing" character often starts with a flaw, misbelief, or inaccurate worldview that he or she must overcome in order to succeed in the story.

A "steadfast" character will start with a strength or an accurate worldview that will then be tested through the story. The rising action and tension comes from the cost of the steadfast character trying to hold true to that. The steadfast character will likely still experience doubts, temptations, pain, and suffering--as the world, environment, and other characters challenge that view.

Think of the story of the Little Red Hen. The Little Red Hen understands that you must work for desired results. Others challenge this worldview, which means she has to ultimately work all alone. It still costs her effort and resolve to make the bread, which ultimately proves her worldview is correct while the others' are wrong.

For the steadfast character, he or she is proven true through the experiences of the story. The experiences must happen, in order to turn his or her faith/belief into knowledge/wisdom. It's one thing to believe something. It's another thing to have it tested and proven true.

In this sense, the steadfast character still grows, but it's by degree.

The steadfast character will often change others and the environment when he or she succeeds, more than herself (generally speaking). (In the future I want to do a post specifically about steadfast characters, but for now, this will suffice.)

If the protagonist is a character who "changes," usually the influence character will be a character who is "steadfast."

P.T. Barnum changes--he comes to realize he only needs to be accepted by his loved ones, not win over the world.
Charity is steadfast--she knows what matters from the beginning, and her relationship with Barnum helps him eventually come to his senses. Despite what Barnum costs her, she holds on to what she believes is true.

Hamilton changes--Hamilton does a complete 180 by the end of the story.
Eliza is steadfast--she starts loyal and true to Hamilton and supportive of his goals, and ends loyal, true to, and supportive of him and his work. She is largely an influence and impacts him.

- Remember, just because a character is steadfast doesn't mean she doesn't experience doubts, or even act on those doubts for a time. Steadfast characters may still struggle with their beliefs.

- At first glance, you may want to put Burr as the influence character, but he doesn't actually influence or impact Hamilton until more than halfway through the story.

Coriolanus changes--he loses his innocence and his worldview shifts negatively.
Sejanus is steadfast--despite even voicing his need to change, ultimately, Sejanus is steadfast in who he is, and his worldviews.

If the protagonist is steadfast, the influence character changes.

Moana is steadfast--at first glance, it may seem Moana is a changing character (she's even referred to that way in other contexts, including a guest post on my blog, for simplicity sake), but ultimately, she grows by degree. She's always felt drawn to the water and something more--but it's the people in her environment, who try to convince her she's wrong. She may experience doubt, but ultimately, she believes there is something more out in the ocean and more for her, and that's what she acts on. Through difficulties, she proves to herself and others that she was right.

Maui changes--Maui does a 180 in the story. He believes his identity and self-worth are based on others loving him, but realizes it's within. Since he's the demigod who stole the heart, he impacts and influences Moana's journey.

Elle is steadfast--Elle believes she has what it takes to go to law school. Again, this doesn't mean she doesn't grow at all, but by degree. It also doesn't mean she doesn't experience difficulties or moments of doubt, she does. Through the course of the story, her beliefs are tested and ultimately proven true.

Paulette changes--Paulette doesn't feel capable of addressing the problems with men in her life. But by the end, she's able to get her dog from her ex and strike up a relationship with the delivery guy. She learns to believe in herself.

Worth noting is that it's not technically necessary that the steadfastness in one leads to the change in the other, or that the change in one leads the other to remain steadfast. The point is one is steadfast and one is changing.

According to Dramatica, the reason this is the case, is because it offers two different perspectives on the central idea (in a sense, the theme) of the story. A story needs both to help it feel "complete" or "whole."

It's also worth mentioning that it's not impossible for an enemy to be an influence character. A rival or even the antagonist can sometimes fit this role. 

Similar Paths/Goals, Different Approaches

Since the protagonist and influence character are somehow linked, they will be on the same course and/or have similar goals.

What's often different is the way they address the path or goal. This may lead to arguments, a power struggle, or complications, which can be a great way to feed into the story's theme. Essentially, they are thematic opponents, if not plot opponents. 

Both Katniss and Peeta are doomed to compete in the Games as tributes of District 12, but they each have very different views about how to approach that. And frankly, they both want to make Katniss win. So Peeta says he has a crush on her, which makes her look desirable, but to Katniss, it makes her look weak. Peeta believes he needs to be with the Careers to accomplish the goal. Katniss believes she needs to work alone (primarily). Katniss wants to be a survivor at all costs, while Peeta doesn't want to completely lose himself. 

P.T. and Charity both want love and acceptance. P.T. believes he does this by getting the world to love and accept him. Charity believes how to do this is to surround yourself with who you love most.

Hamilton and Eliza have opposite views of what the Hamilton narrative should contain and look like. Ultimately, they both contribute to what it becomes.

Coriolanus and Sejanus have different views of how they fit within their society and how society itself should exist, in relation to the theme topic of control.

Moana and Maui have different opinions on how to deal with Te Fiti and where your real identity comes from. 

Elle and Paulette both want their dogs and love in their lives, but they naturally approach those things in different ways (which stems on whether or not they believe in themselves).

One Influence at a Time

Sometimes the influence character may not always be available in the story, because of the plot. He or she may be absent--on a trip or maybe even dead. Or maybe the protagonist hasn't yet met him or her. But the role of influence still needs to be in the story.

In cases like this, there will often be a secondary influence character.

Before Moana meets Maui and after Maui leaves, Moana's grandmother acts as the influence--even if she's not the influence character. Maui's influence carries much more weight and is vital to the story. But her grandma lends impact when Maui is unavailable. Interestingly, Moana overall has the steadfast role with Maui, but in her moments of doubt and wavering, her grandma has the steadfast role by comparison, while Maui who usually wavers, is out of the picture. This creates a sort of influential triangle (which is also present in some of my other story examples).

Likewise, in pretty much all the Hunger Games books, there are secondary influence characters. Peeta is the overall influence character in the first one--he carries the most impact on Katniss's plotline. But when Peeta is unavailable, Rue takes on the role of influence character. She's in a key relationship with Katniss that ultimately impacts Katniss's view of the Games and Panem. After Rue dies, Katniss soon reunites with Peeta.

Similarly, both Lucy Gray and Sejanus influence Coriolanus. One could argue that Lucy Gray is in fact the influence character, but I've zeroed in on Sejanus because I see Lucy Gray as more part of Coriolanus's own journey and Sejanus as more of the relational plotline that adds dimension. But what's key to point out, is that only one of them plays that role with Coriolanus at a time. When Lucy Gray acts as an influence character, Sejanus is distant. When Sejanus acts as influence character, Lucy Gray is distant. Even when Collins set them all up in the same scene, she finds a way to remove one or the other.

And in Mockingjay, Gale, Peeta, and Katniss are only really brought together when one of the influence characters, Peeta, has been hijacked, and no longer has the capacity to consistently act as the influence character. (Another influential triangle is made between Gale, Peeta, and Katniss, with Gale and Peeta being opposites and Katniss in the middle.)

George Washington also acts as an influence character in Hamilton, but he's never in the same scene as Eliza. (Okay, they were once both present in a scene . . . in a song that got deleted). One could argue that Washington is the greater influence character, but I've chosen Eliza as the primary, based on story structure and story dimension. In either case, they are both steadfast and tag-team influencing Hamilton. Both Eliza and Washington are on the same page, which Hamilton is not on.

Typically, there can only be one person taking on the role of influence character at a time--unless it's a group or whole societal entity. For example, say the relationship is between the protagonist and his soccer team--the soccer team as a whole could be the influence character. But in order for that to work, they must believe and act as a whole.

If no influential characters are available, but are needed, the protagonist or someone present may recall what the influence character would think, say, or do in a given situation. Or there may be a letter, email, or notebook found of the influential character.

In Deathly Hallows, Dumbledore is the primary influence character, even though he is not present. The trio often talk about what he would say and do, or what he means by certain things. Harry even carries around Dumbledore's biography. In a sense, he influences Harry greatly, even when he's totally absent.

Overall, the influence character is often key, because he or she adds dimension to the story--fitting on a plotline that sits between the protagonist's greatest external journey and greatest internal journey. The audience isn't as close to the influence character as the protagonist, but not as opposed to them as the antagonist. The influence character isn't directly against the protagonist, but isn't directly in line with the protagonist. They have similar paths, but different methods. This unique position can also add more meat to the theme.


  1. Very insightful, and perfect timing as I work my way through yet another editing pass.

    1. I love perfect timing! Thanks for reading and commenting :)

  2. Thanks for another great post. Would it be accurate to say that whatever the protagonist is, the influence character could likely be the opposite in terms of change or steadfast? If it's true then it sounds like they have to be opposed in this way and I can see why. Even though they're aligned in accomplishing something their change vs steadfast opposition would provide the protagonist with a sounding board or a sanity check as they head toward their common goal. What do you think?

    1. Yes, I would say that that is the general idea--they are opposites. But you know, like all writing rules, I'm sure there are exceptions! Though I don't think you can go wrong making them opposite in that way.

      "Even though they're aligned in accomplishing something their change vs steadfast opposition would provide the protagonist with a sounding board or a sanity check as they head toward their common goal."--Yes, and if they aren't opposed, you are more likely to miss out on making the story more dynamic (and I would imagine it would also flatten the depth of the theme). Added bonus is that relationships are more powerful and meaningful in stories if the participants are opposites in some way. This allows them to react to and build off one another.

  3. Hi, September. Thank you so much for this article.

    I have two questions. I am writing a contemporary Christian novel with a dual POV. My MMC is a hopeless Christian romantic guy who has a saviour-complex. He wants love and a family and wants people to have a relationship with God. My FMC doesn't want anything to do with love or God. She just wants to be successful and rich. Basically, they do not have the same goals.

    My first question is, how I can get an influence character for both of them, seeing that it is a dual POV book and they do not have the same goals? Is this where secondary characters come to play?

    Second question is, can my influence characters form the subplot of my novel? And how do I achieve this when I already have dual POV? Thanks.

    1. Hello! And you're welcome! Though I dare say, some of my ideas on this topic have evolved since I wrote this . . . ;) In any case . . .

      It certainly sounds like these characters have different life goals, and specifically, different abstract wants. I don't know the story, but often these characters will still somehow be linked together, like in another external (concrete) goal ("We both want to save this cafe from going bankrupt," but for different reasons, such as the MMC wants to do it out of love for the family who owns it, and the FMC wants to do it in order to make money, for example). Or sometimes they are just linked by a special relationship, or an external force pushes them together. In this sense, they could be influence characters for each other.

      Or, they could each have their own influence character. Or, in some stories, the influence character is more of a role that side characters will step in and out of.

      Yes, influence characters can come from a subplot. Often the influence character is on the page a lot, but he or she doesn't have to be. Some don't show up on the page at all, but the protagonist may recall what that person would say or do in that situation, and feel influenced by the memory of them. It's basically the concept that another person is trying to influence the protagonist--trying to get the protagonist to change and perhaps testing the protagonist's resolve.


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