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?

Does Fiction Perpetuate the Drama Triangle?

At first glance, the answer certainly seems to be “yes.” And I think there are stories in which this is true, if only because some authors (who are themselves perhaps unconsciously enacting the Drama Triangle—as we almost all do at least from time to time) are writing stories with on-the-nose themes that specifically evoke ideas of codependency.

However, I think there is more at play here than meets the eye. It is no coincidence that the three actors in Karpman’s triangle are in fact the only three character types necessary to a working storyform. The Hero is obviously the protagonist or primary actor within the plot. The Villain is obviously the antagonist or primary opposition to the protagonist—and thus the source of conflict. And it’s not too much of a stretch to see the Victim represented in the Relationship Character (often a Love Interest) who creates the catalyst for both action and change in the protagonist.

Millennia of story theory has shown us this is simply how story works. We need these three guys if we’re to keep telling interesting, meaningful, dramatic stories.

More than that, although story is undeniably both a commentary upon and a model for social behavior, it is first and more deeply a representation of a single psyche. Like a dream, a story is the projection of the author’s mind. Every character within it is the author. And insofar as the reader relates to the story, every character becomes a recipient for the reader’s own projections.

This means that on an archetypal level a story in which a Hero saves a Victim from a Villain is most primally a representation of a single person’s psychological adventures. As such it becomes less a model for our relationships with others in the world and more a map to our own inner growth. We often forget that Joseph Campbell’s revolutionary presentation of the Hero’s Journey in The Hero With a Thousand Faces was not created as a guide for writing stories, but rather as a key for using story to interpret life.

Consciously Using the Drama (and Empowerment) Triangle to Create Powerful Character Arcs

Authors cannot avoid or dismiss the Drama Triangle. In fact, it is a deeply important and archetypal presentation of the human experience. However, this is not to say it may not still be used for ill in perpetuating damaging and disempowering dynamics if the author is unconsciously presenting the triangle in a too-literal way.

David Emerald created his Empowerment Triangle as a way for people to step beyond the passive Drama-Triangle roles projected onto them and which they in turn project onto others. His Creator, Coach, Challenger model offers a perspective in which each person is invited to:

  • Change “Victimhood” from a passive state of helplessly receiving whatever someone else decides to give you into a proactive state of “Creating” your own perspectives and choices.
  • Stop acting “Heroically” by taking responsibility for someone else’s life and instead acting as a self-contained but positive Coach who helps but does not solve others’ problems.
  • See potential “Villains” as “Challengers” who may in fact be incidentally providing opportunities for growth.

In examining the upshift from the Drama characters to the Empowerment characters, what I find most interesting is that the Hero essentially becomes the Mentor. This is a shift we recognize within classic stories as the one a successful Hero will inevitably take. As he grows older and becomes the gray-bearded old wizard, he evolves into a Coach for the up and coming young would-be Heroes. And so the cycle repeats.

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

This makes the pairing of these two triangles a fantastic tool for creating archetypally solid character arcs of growth (or if you decide to move from Empowerment Triangle backwards to Drama Triangle—arcs of destruction). Consciously embracing these particular characters can not only give you a map to solid and resonant stories, it can also create positive psychological models—not unlike the Hero’s Journey—which can subconsciously combat the Drama Triangle’s effects in our real world.

Let’s take a quick look as the three positive arcs available through these models.

Character Arc #1: Hero to Coach

A young upstart Hero often starts with what she believes are good intentions. She’s out to save the world (or whomever). She may be determined to save them whether they want to be saved or not. Or she may reluctantly agree to help and then internalize too great a sense of responsibility in which she feels that no one else will be responsible if she fails, just her.

While this belief may be true within the model of story-as-psychological-map, it is patently not true in real life. This is the lesson the Hero must learn if she is to arc into the Coach. She cannot take the burden of the world onto her shoulders. She is not God. She is one human within a vast system of humans. She is responsible for her mistakes, her knowledge. Others are responsible for the same. She must overcome her ego’s need to be heroic for the sake of heroism and be willing, as her wisdom grows, to step back and allow everyone else an equal right to their own journeys and their own personal responsibilities.

Character Arc #2: Victim to Creator

This is perhaps the most dramatic and arguably the most powerful of the three arcs since it demands such a profound transformation. Karpman conceived of the Victim as someone with a codependent or immature mentality that enabled him to “play” the Victim, via an expectation that others are obligated to save him. However, within the symbolic form of story, the Victim often will be a true Victim in some way—someone physically trapped, wounded, or endangered. In these stories, it can still be satisfying for the Victim to actually be rescued by a Hero, since this represents a deeper psychological play. However, there is also the inherent opportunity to allow the Victim to arc out of weakness and dependence into strength and responsibility.

This arc isn’t necessarily indicating that the Victim will arc into the Hero. After all in this context the Hero is an equally problematic characterization and not necessarily a step up. (Indeed, few of us in real life identify solely with just one of the Drama Triangle characters—we cycle through all of them, sometimes within the span of minutes!) Rather, the Victim’s arc will lead him to become a powerful Creator of his own reality and destiny. Rather than allowing himself to be defined by his own weakness or the weakness of others, he rises into personal sovereignty, shaking off codependent habits and stepping into the full and awesome burden of total personal responsibility.

Character Arc #3: Villain to Challenger

Comprehending the essence of this arc starts with understanding that someone who personally identifies as a Villain is not necessarily someone who is currently perpetuating wicked deeds. Those who persist in harming others rarely see themselves as Villains but instead see themselves, notoriously, as “the heroes of their own stories.” This means that in order to create a Positive-Change Arc in which a character moves from identifying as the Villain to identifying as a Challenger, this character will start out controlled by her guilt.

In real life when we see ourselves as Villains it is usually because either we’ve done something we ourselves view as unforgivable or someone else is using our guilt to manipulate us. The arc here is one of shaking off false responsibilities to others while fully claiming our own. Like the previous two arcs, the essence of this one is also about personal responsibility. The character must learn to discern rightly what amends are really hers to make, to make them, and then to refuse to be controlled by any continuing codependence from the would-be Victims or Heroes in her life. In this way, she rises to become a Challenger to these other characters, daring them to likewise rise into their own empowerment.

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Like so many social models and personal-development tools, the Drama Triangle and the Empowerment Triangle can be mined in ways that are meaningful in both your own life and in your stories. Consciously using them to understand the true dynamics between your characters can help you master tricky stories.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you see any of the character arcs in your story represented in either the Drama Triangle or the Empowerment Triangle? Tell me in the comments!

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