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.

***

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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. /Great/ post. Wowzers. I’m gonna be thinking about this one for a while!

  2. Eric Troyer says

    Fascinating! I hadn’t heard of this theory before. It seems to me that you can create very interesting — even dangerous — characters by having them believe they are somewhere in the Empowerment Dynamic while really being in the Drama Triangle.

  3. Nice! You should take a look a Attribution Theory too. Its about how people tend to attribute events or situations that happen in different ways, and that reveals their beliefs about why things happen. For example, is it just externally caused or internally? Is it global and stable or specific and changeable? Lastly, is it controllable or uncontrollable? It occurs to me that protagonists might misattribute reasons for the plot happening and gradually learn to attribute correctly, allowing them to solve the issue.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think I’ve run across that before, but haven’t studied it in depth yet. Thanks for the suggestion!

  4. Darn it Katie!

    Where is that time machine when you need it! I wish I’d read this article a year ago when I was revising my outline for draft 2, because I can see how this could have helped with my character arc “kneading”. Oh well, there are always the revision cycles.

    Thinking about these, I think that Start Wars actually started with the Empowerment Arc (Obi-wan and Yoda were more coach than heroes, Darth Vader was revealed as a layered villain and Luke was the victim coached into power), so you do see this. Frankly, you see a ton of it in story based self-help books.

    Without really thinking about it, one thing I’m trying to show with my MC is that she’s really all three, and I think that is a common situation in real life. I can definitely see how these frameworks can mesh with character arc to yield a richer, more thoughtful, story.

    I am fascinated by all your articles on psychological concepts and tool, and I respect the time and effort that has to go into them. Frankly, I don’t know how you do it with everything else you’ve got going on.

    I think I’ve enjoyed all of your columns I’ve read, but postings like this that point toward adding depth to my storylines are the most valuable to me for where I am as a writer today. Of course,

    if you happen to have a formula for an author’s time machine, that would be one amazing column.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great point about Star Wars! And I do think this is key to good Mentor characters (something I’ll be discussing later in my archetypal character arcs series)–they can’t solve the problem for the protagonist.

      • “…they can’t solve the problem for the protagonist.” This reminds me of the mother of a very good friend. I never knew her, but he’s talked about her. People would often come to their home and tell her about their problems. She would listen, and then say, “Well, what’re you gonna do?” And my friend has similar qualities: He asks such good questions, deep ones, that not only show he cares, but get you thinking about things that maybe you either a) hadn’t taken the time to think about or b) maybe were actively avoiding thinking about. He is a wonderful friend.

  5. Muralidhar Vijayabhaskar says

    very good

  6. So, in a sense, the Antagonist and Protagonist see themselves as a mentor to their opposite. Both can see themselves as doing something positive while convinced their lie is the truth. Interesting idea. It’s a pleasure to watch your understanding of the craft grow.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, this is a good way to look at it, since it ties in with the thematic “mirroring” that occurs between protagonist and antagonist.

  7. This is such an interesting post. I’ve never heard of either triangle before. I guess it turns out that I don’t actually have a hero in my new paranormal romance series. My protagonists’ arcs fall into Victim to Creator and Villain to Challenger. That’s very clear in the third book I’m currently writing, where the former Villain, who has been working on himself in the past two books, Challenges the Victim to accept his strength.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Fun! 🙂 We’ve so conflated the word “Hero” with “Protagonist” that it can sometimes we confusing when the protagonist isn’t “heroic.”

  8. I like this way of looking at where the character is psychologically and how it ties in with the lie the character believes. Thanks for the post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, concepts of self-development and psychology complement nicely (and not surprisingly) with character development and story theory. 🙂

  9. Thanks for pointing that out.
    I am just qualifying as a Transactional Analysis Counsellor and just starting out on my writing journey, so needing to learn about Arc’s and just about everything.

    There is so much in TA that tells us about human nature and how we get caught up in difficulties. Often linked to the Drama Triangle is the OK Corral, which has four life positions, and one follows the other.

    I am not OK – you are OK.
    I am OK – you are not OK.
    I am not OK – you are not OK.
    I am OK – you are OK.

    Glyn

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah, yes, I’ve read about this too but hadn’t consciously made the connection to the Drama Triangle. Thankou for pointing this out!

    • Glyn, how interesting. I have come across this in attachment theory (I am a therapeutic foster parent and hopefully an adoptive parent later this year), and I have found it to be really useful when thinking about the journeys we all go on. It has been a good tool for thinking about what my protagonists have to overcome to get closer to the I’m okay- You are okay scenario.

      • Great, I am a fostering social worker, and part of my interest has been trauma because of the impact it has on the life cycle.

        In the four Life Positions, I also use a grey area. How can I be ok when I am not ok. For example, I am ok, you are ok (not ok etc) is too prescriptive, and by understanding there is a grey area, I can introduce the concept of how can I be ok when I am not ok.

        From a writing perspective, and to help develop foster carers’ strategies, it helps us imagine lots of in-between states and life skills to deal with strong emotions.

        Learning to lean into the grey area is an emotional skill and can help us become our own rescuer when we are not ok.

  10. Busy Izzie says

    Wow, this Karpman drama triangle is really interesting. As I was reading this article, I could identify which of my characters played these roles. The protagonist has actually experienced all three arcs on different levels. It’s really fascinating. I’m definitely going to use this kind of drama model in the future! Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally! I mentioned in the article that people can cycle through all three roles, but of course this applies to characters too. A character exhibiting drama-triangle tendencies is likely to play all three roles at some point.

  11. Dennis M. Montgomery says

    This certainly is a new (for me) way at looking at characters an their arcs. Again thanks for sharing.

    Speaking of sharing, I want to share a habit of mine with your readers, although it’s not original.

    On your computer created a folder, call it writing tips or K. M. Weiland, then go to your browser and the article or essay, copy and paste it to a word document and be sure to title it, and then save it to your new folder.

    This way, the reader will have scores of writing tips to refer to when she/he when working on a writing project. These files in the long run will be a source of refresher or reminders and inspiration.

  12. Brian Gulka says

    Man, I love reading your posts. I’m always learning something.

  13. SE Blackman says

    I’ve worked with the Drama Triangle in managing my relationships but never thought of using it in fiction. This is another one of your posts that I probably want to print out and mull over at length. Thanks!

  14. While I will need to study this more closely, I can immediately see my “villan” as a victim of the compulsion that causes him to assault women and as a victim of the retaliation visited on him by one of those he assaulted. The antagonist may also see the protagonist as playing the role of the villain in narrative of the antagonist. That’s cool, if it makes any sense!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, it’s also interesting to notice if certain characters are “casting” other characters, wrongly or rightly, in these roles.

  15. Matteo Masiello says

    This is an interesting article. However, I am personally challenged by the notion of character arcs when it comes to stories I write, or want to develop. I think about the movies of John Carpenter or John Ford, in which most of the time there is no character arc in the main protagonist. These characters are a “type” which endure in the face of adversity more that change. I think about Carpenter’s The Thing, Ghosts of Mars, Assault on Precinct 13. I think about Star Wars: A New Hope, too. Luke doesn’t change. Leia doesn’t change. Han is the only character which (arguably) does as he is committed to being noncommittal but then saves the day. One can argue that Darth Vader does change. He is ruthless and arrogant and seems confounded and sent into a spiral (literally) at the end of the story for not losing. His “faith” in the dark side of the Force has taken a blow.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Many of these characters are exhibiting Flat Arcs–in which they do not personally change, but rather their understanding of a thematic Truth changes other characters around them. (I don’t see Luke in this category, as I think he exhibits a strong Positive Change Arc, via the Hero’s Journey, from farm kid to Jedi.)

      I talk more about the Flat Arc here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/flat-character-arc-1/

  16. I think maybe the hero to coach and the victim to creator character arcs are in my story. The hero to coach because my character Isaiah is being supportive, but stepping back and allowing his middle daughter Chandra to prove she means to change and get sober for herself rather than forcing her in rehab, and the victim to creator because Chandra is working on rebuilding a better life for herself without depending on someone else or continuing to pity herself for her poor lifestyle. I don’t think I heard of this drama triangle before. (At first, I kind of thought it had to do with a ouija board or something…lol :p Just saying. I don’t do stuff like that.)

  17. Thank you Katie for all the wonderful info you provide. This one is fantastic, not just for writers, but for life lessons.

  18. Your comments about the flaws in a hero’s thinking remind me of this wise advice from one of the letters of C.S.Lewis, which I happened to read and copy into my notebook today, and which in fact in still in front of me:

    “It is not your business to succeed (non one can be sure of that) but to do what is right: when you have done so, the rest lies with God.”

  19. invalidname says

    This has me thinking in a very different way about my own story, which is a series of fanfic novels set in an anime/game franchise. This points me towards some thematic truths I want to draw out in the last book and a half.

    Looking at the Karpman triangle, my persecutor/villain is the idea of nationalism, which manifests itself in different persons and groups through the series. My protagonist is an ordinary college kid with a comfortable life who unintentionally becomes a giant robot pilot, and the heroine is a refugee from a country destroyed by the aliens. The thing is, HE doesn’t rescue HER; she’s already an ace pilot in her own right. Instead, I’m thinking the thematic truth is that SHE rescues HIM, by pushing him out of his comfort zone and imploring him to stand up against the villain (nationalism), giving him something to live for. It’s not a literal rescue, it’s a thematic one.

    (Or, if you’re a Rolling Stones fan, an “Emotional Rescue”… hoo hoo, hoo hoo hooooo)

  20. What a great way to look at relationships within a story, both between characters and inside a specific person’s character arc. I especially liked your observation about how people can (and do) frequently change roles.

    I think I need to do some more research on the Karpman Triangle though. It presents things in a very straightforward, seemingly simple manner. I suspect there are many layers and complications brought on by events, relationship dynamics, time, etc.

    For example, I would like your opinion on how the KT affects different archetypes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      To me, the most straightforward dynamic exchange between healthy archetypes (for example of a healthy Hero in a Hero’s Journey) and the Drama-Triangle versions (of Rescuer in this instance) is that the Drama-Triangle version is often a shadow manifestation of the healthy archetype. I’ll be talking about shadow archetypes in future posts (although not specifically in context of the Drama Triangle).

  21. And just like that I began to understand my character a lot better! I have been struggling with my main characters Lie/Truth for quite a while and as I was reading I of course had cast her as a ‘hero’…and then realize she is a Villian to Challenger.

    As soon as I read “starts off controlled by her guilt” it all began to click. So thank you once again for helping me figure out my character.

  22. Scott Moses says

    First time I’ve commented here, but I read all your posts. This one touched on something I’ve used in all my novels. Most of my main characters (Protagonist, Antagonist, Victim) and many of my secondary characters go though profound changes throughout the story. Many are based on the Joseph Campbell as well as the Robert Bly models for the male archetypes and the Clarissa Estes model for the female. Many of my characters are complex where one archetype is battling with another (such as being a recovering addict) while they themselves are battling the outside world as the hero, victim, or villain. By the end, many of them segue into the Empowerment Structure taking responsibility for their decisions while others continue down their path of destruction. My first two novels are stand alone socio/political science fiction. My recent novel I have decided to change direction and write a detective/mystery series using the same techniques but spreading them out over series.

    Thank you for you invaluable insight.

  23. Thank you so much for this! I’ve been struggling with figuring out character arcs, since so many of my characters are flat. This seems like a good model for how to show change.

  24. The triangles work for non-fiction narrative. I am reflecting on how they apply to our 2nd book set in a refugee camp in the 1990s. The story is real, already written. There are many such triangles, on many levels.

  25. Jeff Partridge says

    Fun fact — The triangle was originally a quadrangle

    “The Triangle emerged from my doodling 30 pages of basketball and football fakes. There
    was once a fourth corner, the Trickster, which eventually was incorporated into the
    switch lines.” ~ Stephen Karmen from a 2007 Lecture at USATAA/ITAA conference

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  1. […] reader. Janice Hardy has guides for using internal conflict that make sense, K.M. Weiland explores 3 character arcs in the Karpman drama triangle, Stavros Halvatzis describes the essentials of supporting characters, Becca Puglisi talks about […]

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