Using Karpman’s Drama Triangle To Help Develop Realistic Characters In When Writing Fiction (And When Living Your Life!)

20 Mar

Character development is always problematic when writing. This is because it’s very easy for your characters to slip into unrealistic stereotypes. For example, it’s tempting to make the heroes too perfect, the damsels (whether male or female) too much in distress, and the villains too full of megalomaniacal cackling and evil moustache-twirling.

In reality, for characters to work, they need to be realistic, and to do that they need to have at least a sprinkle of each of these characteristics in them. Heroes need to have their moments of doubt when they need to be reassured by someone else, and they need to be willing to make difficult and unpalatable decisions when they have to. Characters who are otherwise there to be rescued need to stand up for themselves every now and then, and the villains need to appear vulnerable from time to time, or occasionally do the right thing (even if it is for the wrong reason!).

Getting the exact balance right, and switching a character between these three stereotypes at just the right moment can be exceedingly tricky. However, if you can pull it off you’ll have characters that people love, and love to hate (depending on your intentions). And most importantly, you’ll have created characters that people can relate to, and so care about.

Karpman's Drama Triangle

Karpman’s Drama Triangle

So, how can you get this balance right? Well, it might be that you’re one of the lucky few who are naturally brilliant at building realistic characters, but if you’re not (and that’s surely most writers, including myself), you can turn to Karpman’s Drama Triangle for help.

Now at this point, I’m sure you’re asking yourself, what on Earth is Karpman’s Drama Triangle? And I don’t blame you for this, as I was in that position once myself, but bear with me. Karpman’s Drama Triangle is probably the single most important psychological and social model for human interactions, ranging from those between family members to international relations. Don’t get put off by the word model because it’s an exceedingly simple concept, with far-reaching implications.

A drama triangle is formed by three characters: The persecutor, the victim and the rescuer. Each of these characters has a very clearly defined role, which are analogous to the villain, the damsel in distress and the hero. A first this seem really straight-forward, with the rescuer riding in to save the victim from the persecutor, and you would imagine that the role everyone would aspire to would be the rescuer (or, for the more psychopathic amongst us, the persecutor).

This, however, is wrong. In reality, the role everyone wants to play is the victim. This is because this is the role that means they get to blame all their failures on an external persecutor (rather than taking responsibility for them themselves), while relying on a rescuer to meet all their emotional (and possibly physical) needs, all without actually doing anything or even admitting they want or need help from someone else in the first place.

This has an amazing implication: in any social interaction, people will cycle through all three different roles as they each try to manipulate the others around them so that they themselves can occupy the role of the victim. Thus, the persecutor does something bad to the victim, and then turns round them and says ‘look what you made me do?’, neatly turning themselves the victim, despite their actions. As a result, within social interactions, you get a constant rotation between a person being a victim and being a persecutor. That’ll be something many people will have experienced in their daily lives, and so it’s something that’ll make characters realistic when you have them do this in a book.

The role of the rescuer is less obvious, and less intuitive, but once it’s pointed out to you, you’ll start seeing it everywhere, and you’ll start wanting to use it in your characters. You’d have thought that what the rescuer wants to do is save the victim, but this is not the case at all. Remember, everyone wants to be the victim, so what the rescuer is really trying to do is make the victim fail, so they can turn round and say to everyone else ‘well I did my best, and look what happened – poor little me’. From this, they get an ego-boost, increased social status (from apparently being willing to help others), and still get to play the victim, all without actually having to do anything in the first place!

Of course, if the victim’s smart, they’ll then turn the former rescuer into a persecutor by pointing out exactly what has just happened, rather than letting them become the victim. Thus, we get a constant shifting between all three positions, and since this is what happens in real life, that’s what you need to capture for your characters in your book.

If you want to see this type of social interaction in operation, one of the best things you can do is watch the sit-com Everybody Loves Raymond. In almost every episode (and sometimes in a single line of dialogue from the wonderfully monstrous Marie), you can clearly see the characters shifting between the three positions as they all try to end up in the most-prized role: that of the victim. Such is the social manipulations going on there, no one gets to play the victim for long, and is soon usurped by another character, who is then usurped by another, who’s then replaced by the first again, and so on. It’s both fascinating and educational to watch, as well-being very amusing, and can be summed by this quote from the transactional analyst Claude Steiner:

‘… the Victim is not really as helpless as he feels, the Rescuer is not really helping, and the Persecutor does not really have a valid complaint’.

Now, this is where it becomes really interesting: this might be what happens in most social interaction, and how you need to portray characters to make them come alive in your readers’ minds, but this is no way to actually lead your life. This is because being part of a drama triangle, with all its associated social manipulation, is both highly stressful and psychologically damaging to you, and those around you.

Why do we do it then? Because it’s what everyone else does, and we get penalised if we don’t play by the unspoken rules of the game. We learn it as kids from our relatives, refine it in our teenage years, use it in our work and social lives, and then, when the time comes, pass it onto our own kids, and it’s so ingrained in our psyches and social interactions that most of the time we play it without even knowing we’re doing so, even though it might be making us, and our loved one, deeply unhappy.

Yet, there is an alternative, and one that, if we follow it, can result in a much less stressful and happier life. It’s not easy to do, and you may find that people you formerly thought of as friends will turn against simply you because you’re refusing to play the game any more, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try do it. After all, if they were real friends, they’d support what you’re trying to do rather than punish you for it.

The Empowerment Dynamic

The Empowerment Dynamic

So what is this alternative? It’s called The Empowerment Dynamic (yes, it’s a bit hippy-drippy, but strip it back to the basic concepts and it’s an extremely powerful tool for improving your life, and the lives of those around you). It’s still a triangle, and people still move between the different roles, but this time the three characters are the challenger (which takes the position of the persecutor), the creator (who takes the place of the victim) and the coach (who takes the place of the rescuer). In each role, the aim is to take responsibility for your own actions rather than blame them on others, and respond accordingly based on the needs of the others you’re interacting with (instead of, as is the case of the drama triangle, your own).

Of these, the role of coach is probably the hardest to achieve, because it’s the one that is most different from how we usually interact with others in our everyday lives. While the rescuer aims to provide help that they think the victim needs (and in a way that’ll guarantee the victim will fail), the aim of the coach is to provide the help the creator actually needs, in the form they need it, and with absolutely no judgement or expectation that it’ll be followed. This gives the creator the freedom to assess whether it’s really is right for them, and to implement it in the way they want without being limited by a fear of letting the coach (who is often a person in a role of responsibility in their lives) down. In this way, help is only ever offered with the permission of the creator, and never unilaterally by the coach (as would be the case with the rescuer-victim dynamic in a drama triangle). If you can’t see how this could possibly work, give it a go next time you find yourself in the role of a rescuer in a drama triangle, and if you get it right, you’ll most likely be surprised by the results (although I should warn you that while many people will welcome the change, others may react badly to the fact that you’re refusing to play the game they’re expecting you to play!).

Where does all this leave you, the writer? Well, knowing about and using Karpman’s Drama Triangle is a great way to build brilliant characters that will really come alive in you readers’ minds, and it might reflect the reality most of us encounter so frequently that we don’t even notice it’s happening most of the time, but it’s no way to actually lead your life, especially if you want your life to be full of creativity. So write about characters in drama triangles, just don’t live your life that way, or a least try your best not to.

And if those around want to keep playing the game, and try to punish you for stepping away, then follow this simple maxim:

If the people in your life won’t let you change in the way you want to, then change the people in your life!

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

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