Understanding The Drama Triangle In Personal Relationships & Fictional Characters

Posted at 11:54am on 25th August 2010

The theory of transactional analysis is a subject of never-ending fascination - both to those who find themselves participating in the Drama Triangle, and to aspiring authors involved in writing and publishing a book! Last week I met up with the friend of a friend and, during the course of the afternoon, she began to talk about one of her relations - someone I knew well. "He was so generous," she said, admiringly, of him, knowing full well that he was also a serial adulterer and had caused his ex-wife and children decades of heartache and pain. It struck me - not for the first time - how very, very easy it is for people on the Victim Persecutor Rescuer Triangle to portray an image which is totally at odds with the truth!


The games that people play, and the relationships in which they act them out, usually follow a pattern. The theory of transactional analysis makes this plain, and it is particularly clear in the Drama Triangle. However, those with whom they are involved may often be the last people on earth to see it. Yet understanding the roles taken up by different participants can - if you are one of them - be a truly liberating experience, as shown in my article, Transactional Analysis: Getting Off The Drama Triangle Part One.


For aspiring authors, this also provides a wonderful opportunity for creating fictional characters that are entirely credible; and for building tension and conflict resolution into your plot. I've written about this on previous occasions: Conflict Resolution, Relationship Psychology & Creating Fictional Characters, and The Drama Triangle & The Games People Play.

The thing to remember is that although you - or your characters - may not normally be game players, it's easy to be caught up in someone else's drama, as the following story illustrates.


Philip was a second son, a birth order which, although challenged by researchers is, according to popular belief, thought to have a profound and lasting effect on psychological development. Added to this, his elder brother was academically brilliant - and Philip was not! Early in his childhood he began writing his life script: his brother was OK; he was not OK.

By the time Rachel met Philip, he had become a Victim on the Drama Triangle. Rachel, however, was blissfully unaware of this. Phil covered his self-perception of being 'one down' by being a Rescuer par excellence. He was the life and soul of the party. Every party! He was everyone's favourite guest. He bought the drinks in the pub. "My round," he'd shout. And he organised frequent events for his friends: extravagant picnics; block bookings to the theatre; boat trips round the coast and up the river. Everyone loved Phil. Everyone, that is, but Phil!

Rachel adored Phil. She laughed at his jokes. She told everyone how kind he was; how thoughtful; how caring. She loved the 'little boy lost' that she, alone, glimpsed from time to time: whenever his mother phoned or visited, or his boss passed him over for promotion. His stutter, barely noticeable day-to-day, would become quite pronounced on such occasions. But that speech impediment made him vulnerable in Rachel eyes, and that meant that she could mother Phil. In a reciprocal game - to which she was oblivious - she became his Rescuer.

Phil and Rachel married. The extravagant lifestyle continued - to the detriment of the marriage. There was never quite enough money to pay the bills: the butcher's account was worryingly high, as was the petrol account. Somehow, Phil always managed to convince the butcher and the garage owner that he was good for more credit; that he had a wealthy family behind him; that if they met him for a drink in the pub next week, he'd settle the bill then.

Rachel came from a family who thought debt was a disgrace. Secretly, she felt ashamed; but she couldn't let Phil down. He wouldn't let her take a job. Working? Not his wife! So to help out, to Rescue him from his plight, Rachel began dressmaking, and discovered that she enjoyed the creativity. To begin with, Phil seemed quite pleased. It meant that he could afford to organise lavish family holidays with friends, where the women looked after the children, and he would have some drinking buddies on hand.

Back home, a pattern began to emerge. Phil spent more and more time at work, followed by 'unwinding' time in the pub. He needed to relax. Rachel understood that. But it meant that he spent less and less time with her and the kids. She tried to talk to him. He brushed her off. She became plaintive. Phil described it as whining. He switched from Rescuer to Persecutor, Victim, and back again to Persecutor.

"I don't know what you expect of me," said Phil. "I work hard. You reap the benefit. I deserve have some switch-off time, surely?"

It was difficult to argue with that! Rachel felt bad about it, but it seemed to her that Phil didn't want to be with her anymore.

"If it's so bad, you know what you can do about it - leave!" he said.

Phil never shouted. Rachel did - but only when pushed. And inevitably, she felt 'one down' when she did, because Phil was so calm; so 'reasonable'.

"Look at you!" Phil said. "You let me down all the time. Every stitch of clothing you and the children have on your backs is something you've made. How do you think that makes me look? People will think I can't provide for you. That I don't earn enough to keep my own family."

You couldn't call the exchange a row, because Phil was so calm, so rational. But it made Rachel see red! She threw a plastic bottle at him. It hit him on the shoulder, but instead of reacting - as she'd thought he would - he'd looked her straight in the eye, then turned away and gone up to the pub.

Rachel felt terrible. She couldn't sleep. Next day, to make herself feel better she went to the shops and spent more on herself and the children than she had ever done in her life before. The trouble was it didn't make her feel better. Because she knew, she just knew, that whatever she did, she was letting Phil down. Well she must be, mustn't she? He was right. He worked hard, he deserved time off. She made his life a misery. No wonder he didn't want to be with her!


In this scenario, Rachel appears to have begun her relationship with Phil in a perfectly normal and balanced manner. But dig a little deeper and you have to ask why she was attracted to Phil in the first place? Did she have a life script, written when she was a child, that led her to believe that she was 'one-down'? That she needed a Rescuer? Or did she see that vulnerable side of Phil's early in the relationship and perceive herself as his Rescuer?

Whatever the conclusions, what's clear is that both partners were oblivious to the games they were playing on the drama triangle, and they were quite unable to see the pattern they'd established. The cycle that emerged was that Phil, seeing himself as a Victim and therefore 'one-down', portrayed himself as a Rescuer to make himself feel 'one-up'. When Rachel then became a Victim and felt neglected, she switched to the role of Persecutor and began to complain. Immediately, Phil, too, switched to Persecutor mode to achieve his status of 'one-up'.

If you have recognised yourself, or your personal relationships, as following this pattern, help is at hand in the two-part article I have written titled: Transactional Analysis: Getting Off The Drama Triangle Part Two


For a fiction author involved in writing and publishing a book, asking the questions above may help to drive the plot. There may be wildly different conclusions - which is what makes writing and reading a novel so exciting! For further reading on this aspect of creating fictional characters see the links below to all articles on Creative Writing. This particular article, like others in themed on Transactional Analysis and Drama Triangle, will also be included in a new category: Personal Growth & Relationships.

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  • PERSONAL GROWTH & RELATIONSHIPS (inc. Personality Test & Drama Triangle)

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Author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV. Book her here for your event.

Your Comments:

26th August 2010
at 6:13pm

I really enjoyed your insights into character development Mel. I
would also offer an alternative triangle and perspective to
characters - the empowerment dynamic. These are the characters
driven not by drama, but rather an eye on potential outcomes.

David Emerald's book, The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment
Dynamic) outlines the roles of Creator, Challenger and Coach. Take
a look at the TED* Tools on his website, there you will find
outlines of each role and their potential responses to life's

Just as exciting as roles trapped in drama are characters
empowered to go after what they want.

31st August 2010
at 11:48am

Thank you Kathy. You are right to point out that being on the
Drama Triangle is not a desirable place to be. I have written a
couple of articles titled Transactional Analysis: Getting Off The
Drama Triangle Parts 1 and 2 "http://www.melmenzies.co.uk/blog/2010/01/transactional_analysis_getting_off_the_drama_triangle_part_1.">

I shall certainly take a look at the book you have suggested, and
am very grateful to you for bringing it to my attention.

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