How to Write Less-is-More Characters
Part 3: Dynamics Between Characters
Welcome back to this series, which is all about how to write understated characters and still make them have an impact on your audience. In the last part we looked at different ways that characters interact with one another. In this section we'll look at the dynamics between characters in groups of two or more. For this, we're going to use the Karpman Drama Triangle.
The Karpman Drama Triangle
An immensely helpful tool for understanding the way people interact. Click here to see it. As before, I'm going to leave you to read the article linked here instead of explaining the theory to you because it's already been explained in other places many times. This article will be about how we can use the Drama Triangle to make sense of the quiet one in your cast of characters.
Colin never goes into the Persecutor position on-screen, and that’s a big part of what makes him so lovable and sweet. He doesn’t have a single line of dialogue in It’s a Sin that shows him being aggressive; not when:
- his boss sexually harasses him,
- when Henry snaps at him during their conversation about Pablo’s illness,
- when he realises his boss has given him extra responsibilities without a pay rise,
- not even when he identifies Ross as the man who infected him with HIV.
Instead, looking at those four events in order, he:
- either goes into Adapted Child mode by giving himself the strip-wash demanded of him (which would show up as Victim on the Drama Triangle) or steps off the Drama Triangle entirely by saying no during the second time he's sexually harrassed on-screen,
- goes into Nurturing Parent mode so that Henry doesn’t have to deal with any retaliation for a moment of weakness in showing his distress (this translates as stepping off the Drama Triangle),
- gives us no indication of how he chose to handle the lack of a pay rise (but it seems likely he would either have planned to ask his boss about it the next day or decided he liked the extra responsibility enough to see it as a reward in itself (both are examples of stepping off the Drama Triangle)),
- and reacts with fear (arguably Victim on the Drama Triangle, but his fear is very much justified in this context: his first reaction is to plead for help to be saved rather than taking a Persecutory approach and accusing Ross. Whether he realised that Ross probably didn’t know about his own infection is not shown, and Colin was too concerned with his own survival to question this in the moment).
Writing your own less-is-more character:
Persecutor behaviours don’t tend to be focused on problem-solving, and are usually an Ulterior way of pretending to try to solve a problem while simultaneously propagating it. Instead, stepping off the Drama Triangle and whole-heartedly seeking a solution from Adult Ego-State (or the most Adult Ego-State a character can manage, in times of extreme stress) is a constructive direction to take.
Example: Lily from Black Swan. While Nina is more unassuming than Lily (at least when she's in 'white swan mode'), Lily has a better relationship with her 'black swan' side so doesn't feel a need to prove anything. As a result her Persecutor side is muted and she demonstrates herself to be nurturative and helpful towards Nina, yet she still has attitude in spades.
Note also that there is a variant of the Drama Triangle called the Winner’s Triangle, which provides a set of options that can add detail to a character’s problem-solving.
It would be completely wrong to describe Colin as a bombastic type. However, his agreement to Jill’s request to visit bookshops in search of information about the HIV virus in New York is a bold one, especially by his standards. He does it despite preferring to coast through most of life in the closet.
However, his agreement to do so is not Rescuer behaviour. He finds time in his schedule to visit the bookshops and only after being asked to: he doesn’t volunteer himself. This is an excellent example of movement on the Winner’s Triangle: he demonstrates Assertiveness to get something he wants (and we do learn later that he wanted to educate himself about HIV and AIDS too, so his acceptance of Jill’s mission was about more than just doing her a favour), and Caring: he knows that helping Jill with her research will help gay men throughout their area of London.
Example: Fluttershy from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. She has a special connection with animals, although this is often abused by Angel. During the show's run, Fluttershy develops a better relationship with her assertiveness, which helps her to connect with others of her own kind - ponies - which in turn means that she no longer feels that the animals are her only option for a friendship network (which is a weak position for her to be in, which goes a long way towards putting her on the Drama Triangle in the first place). When she improves her assertiveness with other ponies, she learns that she has nothing to fear from them, which means that she can afford to build a friendship network with them. This means that she has more of a choice about who to consider a friend, and feels less of a need to fulfil the role of Rescuer to the animals to justify her relationship with them. Angel acts as a barometer: he likes to push Fluttershy around and is one of the animals she's Rescuing, so when Fluttershy moves off the Drama Triangle she behaves more constructively towards Angel's efforts at manipulation.
Note that in a later series she continues to use her skill-set of protecting animals, but in a different way that allows her to shift from Rescuing on the Drama Triangle to Caring on the Winner's Triangle. She organises and opens an animal sanctuary, which allows her to do what she's always done for the animals, but makes it a professional outfit, which allows her not only to put in boundaries to keep herself well-resourced, but facilitates her doing it more effectively and on a bigger scale than when she did it at home.
Writing your own less-is-more character:
The Rescuer position is taken by people as a way to earn a position of benevolent, or apparently benevolent, power, or as a substitute for being liked. Colin is content to stay in the background of life, which means that he doesn’t feel a need to put himself forward any more than is appropriate for the situation. Who does your character want to be liked or loved by? Who demonstrates to your character their like/lovableness or unlike/lovableness, and how? How confident is your character that they are intrinsically loveable? If not, what are they prepared to do to become a loved figure?
Colin is a naturally reserved person, especially when it comes to expression of his own sexuality. When his diagnosis of AIDS makes his sexual history plain – including to his mum – one of the first things he says is, “I’m not dirty.” He’s terrified of being judged badly for having been sexually active (perhaps especially so with other men), and the 80s was a time when the LGBT community faced more intense judgement overall than it does now. Whether he’s more concerned about his mum knowing he’s had sex, that he’s specifically had sex with a man, or that he has the most feared and reviled disease of the time, the violation of his privacy, and his sense of powerlessness, is palpable.
Colin is brought to tears at 4:00 in this Youtube video, which is a heartbreaking sight. He never signed up for the situation he’s found himself in; indeed, he contracted HIV before the virus was widely known about. He just wanted to live a life of quiet fulfilment. But even when he’s afraid, he doesn’t get aggressive or ignore the situation he's in. He pleads for medical help, and he cries in his mother’s arms.
To judge Colin as moving into the Victim position during this situation is accurate enough, but harsh. He’s already demonstrated his capacity as a problem-solver, but there is no solution to be had at the time, and he's already aware by this point that his mind is beginning to fail him. He feels understandably overwhelmed by the problems he’s facing and expresses this with tears, terror, and looking to others to solve the problem for him, as he’s out of answers. This is a fair response from him, and the only reason I call it Victim position is that he could have expressed rage towards other people – Ross, his mother, his flatmates, the police, and/or the doctors and nurses. He has plenty of targets to attack – Persecute – but he doesn’t take this path. Neither does he find a way to act as Rescuer.
We have already seen enough from Colin by this point that we know he either steps off the Drama Triangle or slips into Victim position, so his reaction to an overwhelmingly bad situation is very much in-character.
Writing your own less-is-more character:
A character’s move into Victim position doesn’t have to be dramatic. Colin demonstrates that it can be done quietly and seamlessly, which is why our earlier explorations of Adapted Child and Complimentary Transactions come in so helpful. The Victim position is an interesting one when it comes to writing fictional characters. It is very much the nature of writing that you are likely to give your characters problems to solve, so as such Victimhood beckons. However, a character who gives up and doesn't solve their own problems means that as such, the story is over as they are conceding defeat.
Some of your readers will think about the problems your characters need to solve and decide how they would solve those problems themselves. They will be acutely sensitive to whether the problem is solvable, what the consequences of not solving the problem will have, and whether the problem is too easy to resolve. This is where a lot of reader frustration comes from with plots where the problem that drives the plot could be resolved by one character simply communicating properly with another, but doesn’t. Other readers care less about the problem-solving and will be more interested in other aspects. Romantic side-plots are a common distraction.
Therefore, you may want to use of the Victim position in your characters carefully, depending on the readership you want.
Example: Littlefoot from The Land Before Time. He's an interesting example because he's a child, so it's expected for him to have less power or autonomy, so it was always more likely that he would be portrayed in the Victim position. While he's fairly talkative, he's also quietly bold, and after a reassuring(ish) talk from a strange dinosaur after his mother's death, he does what he can: to join up with other young dinosaurs for protection, which makes sense given the presence of Sharptooth nearby, and does everything he can to get himself, and the others, to the Great Valley. He's a great example of a character who resists Victimhood.
In the next part we're going to look at characters' life positions.
Stephen B. Karpman M.D, 2014, A Game Free Life, San Francisco, Drama Triangle Publications
Choy, A, 'The Winner's Triangle', TAJ, 1990
Title image by unibat and used with their kind permission.