Reposted: 3 Character Arcs in the Karpman Drama Triangle

Take a look at this intriguing article by K.M. Weiland:

3 Character Arcs in the Karpman Drama Triangle

Drama presents something of an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, drama is the essence of story. Without it and its inherent dissonance, conflict, and stakes, there really isn’t much to a story. As writers and readers, we love drama.

The irony is that, in real life, we recognize drama is often inherently destructive. “Drama queen,” “spare me the drama,” “addicted to drama”—these are all decidedly derogatory references.

Indeed, part of the reason we love drama in fiction is because of its catharsis. Clearing drama in real life is an often herculean task, so it’s a relief to watch characters tackle much bigger problems than ours and work through them (often in ways we would never dare attempt ourselves). Plus, sometimes we just love to watch a train wreck.

The Karpman Drama Triangle is a social model (created by Dr. Stephen Karpman, who not so coincidentally happened to be a member of the Screen Actors Guild) that shows the destructive cycle in which people unconsciously cast themselves as one of three players—Victim, Rescuer, or Persecutor. (Note: Karpman specifically distinguished the reference to the Victim as applying to someone who is “playing” the Victim, not someone who has literally been wounded by another.) Decades later, leadership coach David Emerald proposed The Empowerment Triangle as a “positive alternative to the Drama Triangle,” in which he offered the more proactive roles of Creator, Coach, and Challenger.

(From Wikimedia Commons.)

For a while now, I have been pondering the Drama Triangle and its inherent link to fiction. In real life, Drama-Triangle dynamics lend themselves to destructive cycles of disempowered passive-aggression. When we consciously or unconsciously identify with any of the three players—Victim, Rescuer, or Persecutor—we often adopt patterns of behavior that allow us to ultimately fob off responsibility for our own motives and actions.

Those who identify (or allow themselves to be identified as)  Persecutors or Villains are often consumed and controlled by ineffective and crippling guilt. Those who identify as Victims wait around to be rescued from their own lives and/or try to control others with guilt. Those who identify as the Rescuer or Hero (which most of us prefer to) feel obligated and/or gain self-esteem in codependent ways by rescuing others from their own mistakes and responsibilities.

So much of fiction features this dynamic literally—with a Hero saving a Victim (even if it is just society at large) from a big bad Villain. This gives me pause. We all love a good adventure story in which the Hero swoops in to do good and save the day and destroy the icky Villain. But in repeating this archetypal story over and over, are we perhaps subconsciously perpetuating a destructive and immature cycle?


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