Conflict Resolution: Relationship Psychology - And Creating Fictional Characters

Posted at 17:28pm on 6th January 2010

What I’m about to tell you will revolutionise the way you perceive your personal relationships. It will also give you immense insight when it comes to creative writing and publishing a book and, in particular, when you’re creating fictional characters. So, whether you are attempting to make sense of your own relationships, or looking for conflict resolution in your plot, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you ever wonder why you seem to go through the same old damaging routine with a particular member of your family – an exercise which always makes you feel manipulated, but from which there appears to be no escape?
  • How do you think of conflict when you’re writing fiction: as a clash of personalities; a disagreement about how something should be done; difficult circumstances; or an argument as a result of jealousy?


The theory of transactional analysis may be applied to your own relationships as well as to creating fictional characters when writing and publishing a book. In other words, the games that people play are as relevant in real life as they are in a novel. In fact, a novel should always reflect the human condition.

Transactional analysis, when I trained in counselling, was all about the Parent, Adult, Child triangle. In counselling terms this describes what happens – more often than not perfectly harmlessly – in all relationships. To some extent or other, at different times in our day, we take on different roles. We may sometimes play that of the Parent, the Adult or the Child, and all parties may be quite happy with the arrangement.


A man, for instance, may play the Child in never taking responsibility for his own laundry, and his wife may be quite happy to take on the role of Parent in that respect. Every time he asks, “Where’s my clean shirt, honey?” his behaviour is that of a child. And when his wife replies, “Have you looked in the airing cupboard, darling,” hers is that of a mother.

But the roles may be reversed, and she may want to be the Child and have him be the Parent when he brings her a cup of tea in bed every Sunday morning. She enjoys being cared for, or looked after; he takes pleasure in showing her the measure of his love.

Most people switch between roles, daily, hourly, even moment by moment. However, when it comes to disciplining their children, working in the office, or dining out with friends, both – if they are well balanced – will want the equality that comes of being an Adult. No woman wants to be put down or humiliated by being presented to her children or peers in the role of Child. Nor are there many men who would appreciate their inadequacies being aired in public; unless, of course, it’s a form of humour or intimacy with friends – in which case it may be a badge of honour to be ignorant about the whereabouts of the on/off switch on the washing machine.


There is another type of triangle, however, which is less benign: the Drama Triangle. This Victim Persecutor Rescuer triangle was first described by psychiatrist, Stephen Karpman, in 1968, to portray the games that people play in dysfunctional relationships.

In this model of an inverted victim triangle, the Victim is always at the bottom, with the Persecutor and Rescuer looking down on him or her. Inevitably, even when the Victim has chosen to play his part (rather than have it imposed upon him) he will eventually move to the role of Persecutor or Rescuer. Each player, in turn, will then take up a different position.

Lynne Forrest explains this particularly well. She suggests that each of us has a natural ‘starting place’ on the victim triangle. Rescuers, for instance, are ‘people pleasers’ – those who, like I once was, feel compelled by their own need to rush in to defend, support, advise and help others.

I had to learn, painfully, through a broken marriage and the trauma of a daughter addicted to heroin, that in attempting to ‘rescue’ my nearest and dearest – i.e. save them from themselves – I was merely trying to fulfil my own definition of love. Real love, as I later discovered, demands that we ‘let go’ and facilitate self-responsibility in those we love.

Whether you are attempting conflict resolution in your own relationships, or want further insights into creating fictional characters for a novel, an understanding of relationship psychology is essential. It is often easier, however, if presented in a dramatised form, rather than simply as theory.


I wrote, last month, about a woman named Paula who is in a similar situation to my own, and was finding it difficult to deal with her elderly parents. Throughout Paula’s life, both her parents had, at various times, adopted the role of Parent/Child with one another. This was natural in that they had married in an era when a husband was expected to take financial responsibility for his wife, and she was expected to be accountable for all domestic tasks.

But Paula’s mum had, by her own admission, been the spoiled, youngest child in a big family and, by the use of manipulative behaviour – crying, and when that didn’t work, by taking herself off for the day – she made sure that this continued in her adult life. Consequently, throughout Paula’s childhood, her dad had done everything for her mum; but more than that, he had instilled into the entire family a sense of compliance and obligation in respect of mum.

Paula’s mother thus chose the role of Victim as her starting place on the Drama Triangle. She wanted to ensure that Paula’s dad, as well as Paula and her siblings, were her Rescuers. If anyone stepped out of line, she became the Persecutor, first by crying (to make them feel bad) then by going off for the day without anyone knowing where she was.

Paula described her parents’ relationship as ‘explosive’ throughout her childhood, and she used the word ‘tactics’ to portray her mother’s behaviour. Tears and tantrums are classic Victim behaviour, in that they invite the Rescuer to offer sympathy and a shoulder to cry on, which in turn reinforces the Victim’s role.

If the Rescuer temporarily stops playing (usually because he or she gets fed up with being taken for granted) then a row might ensue. The Rescuer switches to being a Persecutor, accusing the Victim of being selfish or self-pitying. The Victim also moves to the role of Persecutor (thus putting the Rescuer in Victim role) intent upon bringing the Rescuer to heel.

In going off for the day unannounced, Paula’s mum – in Persecutor mode – knew that her dad would be frantic with worry about her safety and whereabouts. Even if her Persecuting behaviour failed to bring him to heel she was still quite likely to win. Because, in realising the way in which she was manipulating him, he would lose his temper and become extremely volatile. Paula and her siblings were then made to feel sorry for mum (because she presented to them as the Victim who was being Persecuted) and they, thus, became her Rescuers. Mum was then reinstated as Victim.

The point about this type of Victim is that as long as the Drama Triangle is kept in balance, he or she may not appear to be steeped in self-pity. On the contrary, the Victim may a winner at all times, basking in the dancing attention of her Rescuers; delighting in presenting herself as the feisty, long-suffering survivor if and when her Rescuer turns Persecutor.

The situation was containable as long as Paula’s dad was around to be Rescuer. However, when age and illness prevented him from fulfilling his role, Paula found herself roped in. She did not choose to be her mother's Rescuer; she had the role imposed upon her. You can read what I said to Paula here: How To Love Yourself And Elderly, Difficult, Parents.

If you've been affected by this sort of manipulative behaviour, either leave a comment, or write to me direct. There is a particular way of ensuring that you don’t become ensnared in the first place, which I’ll be writing about later.


We’ll take a look at The Drama Triangle & The Games People Play and, specifically, how it pans out in the dysfunctional relationship of a married couple. And don’t forget, that the relationship psychology portrayed by this model, is great for creating fictional characters in need of conflict resolution.

This article may be reproduced on any non-commercial website or blog on condition that it appears unaltered, in its entirety, and that the following copyright line and bio are prominently displayed beneath it.


Author of a number of books, one a No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV. This article, in its original form, can be found at:

Your Comments:

20th July 2012
at 5:42am
Hello! I could have sworn I've been to this blog before but after reading through some of the post I realized it's new to me. Anyhow, I'm definitely delighted I found it and I'll be bookmarking and checking back frequently!

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