In fiction writing, there are essentially three main characters: the protagonist (hero), the bad guy (villain) and the damsel in distress (victim). Story and screenwriting “How To” advice will teach you how to most effectively use these three character tropes, and if you want to get REALLY deep you can learn how the Hero is sometimes a little “villain-y” and a little “victim-y,” how the Villian is a little “hero-y” and a little “victim-y,” and how the Victim is a little “hero-y” and a little “villain-y.” That’s about as sophisticated as most stories get.
And these stories are usually wildly successful as novels, TV shows and movies. I’d love to claim it’s because we use these stories as entertainment, and a part of us just wants to unplug and not have to deal with the usual complexities of life. Now, there IS some truth to that. However, most of why we resonate so strongly with these styles of characters is because that’s how we WANT to see life, and these stories are strong advocates for life being this black-and-white. In fact, the movies that do the best in the box office, the TV shows with the highest Nielsen ratings and the books on the NY Times Best Seller lists oftentimes have the most purest forms of these three characters. The Hero is ONLY a hero, the Villain is ONLY villainous, and the Victim is completely at the mercy of the world around them. When the Hero wins, saves the Victim and vanquishes the Villain we breathe a collective sigh of relief, satisfied that the world has once again righted itself.
For movies, TV shows and books, this is fine. We often DO need the ability to unplug and be entertained, and our brains thank us for giving it a moment to chill and just pretend that the world works like this.
We get ourselves in trouble, however, when we bring these beliefs into the Real World. We start to see life as a reoccurring cycle of these three characters. This is called The Drama Triangle.
The Drama Triangle
The Drama Triangle is a model of human interaction first developed by Stephen Karpman way back in 1968. (The Drama Triangle calls the Hero “the Rescuer,” and the Villain “the Persecutor.” This was a way for psychotherapists and counselors to further understand and coach using Transactional Analysis, a model that recognizes how the strategies we pick up for dealing with the world as children follow us into adulthood and create all sorts of mischief. If you haven’t read up on Transactional Analysis, I recommend doing so.)
When you understand The Drama Triangle and take an honest look at your life, you start to recognize all sorts of patterns pop up. MOST of us (MOST) are in some way affected by this worldview. In fact, oftentimes the only people who aren’t caught up in The Drama Triangle are those already familiar with the concept and have worked (and continue to work!) to remove it from their lives.
A quick litmus test to determine if you’re caught up in this cycle is to simply ask yourself:
Have you ever felt like the Victim?Have you ever felt that you were at the receiving end of someone else’s bad behavior and decided that person was A Bad Person? Have you ever seen yourself as unable to do anything about it, and waited for other people to recognize how badly you’ve been treated? Did you think you couldn’t do anything UNTIL other people saw what you saw, and if only they would someone would stand up for you and make sure that other person got what’s coming to them?
Have you ever placed yourself as the Hero? Have you ever gotten righteously indignant at the mistreatment of another person, believing no one else was doing anything in their behalf and that you HAD to help them out or nothing would ever get done?
Have you ever been the Villain? Can you think of time when you treated someone else really shitty (whether on purpose or inadvertently), or just had someone else believe you treated them badly, and now found yourself the object of gossip and ill feelings from others? Did you feel really bad and determine you must not be a very good person if you could do such a thing?
If you can answer yes to any of those questions, you’ve been in The Drama Triangle. You don’t even need to be able to say ‘yes’ to all of them – if you’ve ever placed yourself as a Victim, Hero or Villain, you’ve been in The Triangle. Your mind unconsciously filled in the other characters, using yourself again to fill the slots or filling them in with other people.
Understanding this dynamic is extremely powerful. The Drama Triangle is a master at keeping us from what we want, and since this series is about Saving the World it’s especially important to keep in mind. People who want to “save the world” are often those that like to see themselves in the Hero role, and while that can work for a while using this self-perception has some really nasty side-effects that prevent us from our missions and, even worse, actively work against our ultimate goals.
Let’s look at the messiness of The Drama Triangle.
What is a Victim? Is it simply someone at the wrong place, at the wrong time? Someone who has ill luck or misfortune and now has to try and navigate this world without the benefits of others?
Sure, we could define a victim as such. But in The Drama Triangle, “Victim” is defined as a mind-set and a world view. A Victim is, by definition, on the receiving end of evil and, as such, does not have the skill or the resources to alter their situation. The rationalization is: if they could change it they wouldn’t still be there, would they? Therefore, a Victim must be powerless and they cannot on their own become anything other than a Victim. That’s why they have to have a Hero.
Ask yourself: is there anything in my life I’m a Victim about? To I believe I’m trapped, without any ability to change my situation OR my perspective about the situation? Do I have to be saved from this by someone else? Am I waiting for a Hero, either consciously or unconsciously?
What role does the Hero fill, and why is it so bad?
A Hero is the good guy, right? He or she comes and saves the day, righting wrongs and making sure someone is looking out for the little guy! That’s a GOOD thing… isn’t it?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help other people, but a Hero doesn’t simply just help. A Hero swoops in and prevents the Victim from doing anything other than being saved. The Victim is then entirely reliant and dependent upon the Hero, and if the Hero doesn’t show up the Victim is screwed. Therefore, the Hero/Victim relationship becomes completely dependent. Co-dependent, really, since the Hero isn’t there for their health. Just like the Victim NEEDS the Hero, the Hero NEEDS the Victim – someone to save, someone to be the catalyst to showcase all the great things the Hero has done, someone to use as a way of feeding a Hero’s fundamental lack of self-worth. You probably guessed it – the most compelling reason to become a Hero is hide from one’s own inadequacies, deep insecurity and a fear that the world is fundamentally unstable and doesn’t really care about anyone. If there’s no Victim, then what does the Hero do to block themselves from these fears? Without someone to be saved, they may as well stay home and anesthetized themselves by watching TV and eating Cheetos. Heroes will often look for Victims to feed their self-image and, in the worst of dynamics, will create Victims by suppressing others and then raising them up to save them from the Hero, itself.
Starts making fuzzy lines between the Hero and the Villain, doesn’t it?
So, considering we’re not exactly talking about movie-style Heroes and Victim, that brings us to the question: what is a Villain?
You guessed it – anything or anyone that gets in the way, oppresses, treats badly or otherwise frustrates the Victim. Much like the Hero is often forced to create a Victim, a Victim is equally forced to create a Villain.
Now, there ARE people who do really nasty things to other people, and so I’m not stating that every perceived act of exploitation or ‘evil’ is entirely made up to keep someone in this dynamic. However, remember that this is a worldview, and in order to maintain Victim status a Villain MUST be found. And, interestingly, as we most often suffer at the hands of the people we love the most, it’s extremely common for Victims to find ‘safer’ Villains – people who have little or nothing to do with our suffering, but who we can safely identify as ‘the bad guy’ in order to protect our true exploiters, the people we love.
Have you ever put yourself in the place of a Hero? How about placing yourself as the Villain? How about the far more common act of placing other people as a Villain? Take time to really parse out your life, your dynamics and the cycles of your life – are you in The Drama Triangle?
Why is it SO important as someone who wants to Save the World to keep yourself out of this dynamic?
Saving the World can very easily become a Hero’s job. In fact, for most people that’s what’s happening – there is a lack inside of ourselves, there is something we’re missing, there is a fear that world is uncaring and fundamentally unstable and we HAVE to save it from itself. We do all the right things for the wrong reasons – trying to nourish something starving inside, panicked and guilty. And we forget the mantra “Healer, heal thyself.”
In part, the phrase “Save the World” is more tongue-in-cheek than anything. When it comes right down to it, the world doesn’t NEED us to save it. It has been going on a trajectory for a very long time, and will continue to do so. However, we can do something far more than be a Hero that Saves the World – we can be a coach that influences the trajectory of the world to be faster, leaner and more effective to get to our and its goals. And THAT is how we “Save the World.”
The Empowerment Dynamic
The antidote to The Drama Triangle is called The Empowerment Dynamic, a fantastic model created in 2005 by David Emerald. It’s the answer to the sickly triangle that keeps people self-serving, not dealing with their own issues, and unable to give value in a meaningful way.
The Empowerment Dynamic trades out all three positions for far more healthy characters. Instead of Hero we have a Coach, an empowering influence that helps guide and direct those needing help but does not solve their problems for them. Instead of a Villain we have a Challenger, a less ‘evil’ or divisive position which 1) recognizes that most people are not trying to hurt us but rather are dealing with their own wounds and inflictions, and 2) reframes this position as a question to be answered instead of a statement that is without opposition. We meet a Challenger head on. We don’t cower, we don’t see ourselves as doomed. We brace ourselves and, more importantly, we prepare ourselves for the challenge. We enter into excellence as we face something that is out of our comfort zone and forces us to be better than we currently are. A Challenger refines us, and does us a great service in the process.
As mentioned, sometimes we see ourselves as the Hero in The Drama Triangle, but much more commonly we are the Victim. Therefore, the most powerful paradigm switch is from Victim to Creator. As a Creator, we have resources and abilities that keep us from being on the receiving end of our circumstances. Creators make something new and sometimes it feels like it was pulled from thin air. It’s a position that empowers us and keeps our locus of control with us, not anyone else. We are truly in control of our lives, not simply waiting around for someone to save us.
“Saving” the World
When your goal is to save the world, it’s easy to see everyone else as a Victim. But what if they weren’t? What if they were Creators, powerful individuals seeking guidance and coaching to get to the next level? What if all you are is a Coach, someone who can provide wisdom, counsel and advice to assist these Creators in getting to the next level? Would that be okay? Would that be better than being a Hero?
Wanting to improve conditions on the planet is an extremely noble goal, but our intentions only get us so far. We have to be equipped for the job, and make sure we ‘leave the camp better than when we got there’. That is, we need to make sure we’re actually improving things, not harming them. By being Coaches we help people help themselves, we teach others to be powerful and not wait on anyone to better their circumstances. And we do this for the RIGHT reasons – because we want to bring value in the world, not simply to feed an insecurity within, but because our ‘cup runs over’ with health and happiness and it would be a shame not to share it with others.
What are you going to do to avoid The Drama Triangle and become a true Creator in the world?