The Karpman Drama Triangle
There are three roles in the Drama: Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor.
You can draw a triangle, and write Victim at one point, Rescuer at the next, and Persecutor at the third. The triangle works like this: people move between these roles, and go around and around and around the points of the triangle in a neverending drama of rescuing, persecution, and victimization.
First, the person who takes on the role of Victim shows signs of distress, or finds themselves in a desperate situation, or otherwise needs help. This can be quite a legitimate need! It doesn't have to be a pretense at all. There are plenty of real life situations in which people need help. But if the Victim is actually looking for something more than help, or something other than help, they may end up in Karpman games.
Next, a Rescuer appears. This is a person who may genuinely feel a desire to help the Victim - or they may have a compulsion to rescue people, or to fix situations. They may enjoy feeling powerful; and few things make a person feel as powerful as rescuing someone else. This can look benign when we are young; it is one of our culture's deepest fairytales - the broken-winged bird, healed by love; Beauty and the Beast; the Prince, rescuing the Damsel in Distress. [And they all lived happily ever after.] So it's easy enough - even approved! to be a Rescuer.
Again, this isn't necessarily a 'game' or a 'drama'. It all depends on what the people involved do with the situation, what their expectations are of one another, and how they behave with one another once the roles are in play.
If the Rescuer is genuinely into helping the Victim, they will give exactly the help that is needed. They won't become enmeshed with the Victim, although they may become friendly - there's a huge difference between friendship and enmeshment.
Most importantly, the Rescuer will have realistic expectations of the Victim. If, for instance, the Victim is a severe alcoholic having DTs, a healthy Rescuer will see to it that the DTs are treated, get the alcoholic some vitamin shots, and provide them access to resources for detox... but the Rescuer won't expect a miraculous turnaround, won't demand it, and won't become enraged when their personal 'script' for the alcoholic isn't followed.
There is no script. The Victim is free to be themselves. The help is given because it is right to give it. The Rescuer will certainly hope for change, even pray for it, but they know they cannot demand it.
By comparison, a Karpman Rescue always has a script, and it is rarely followed, so the Rescuer is disappointed in the outcome of their rescuing.
This is one way for the Persecutor role to come into play. It is usually taken on first by the Rescuer, because of anger at the Victim's not going along with the script the Rescuer has in his or her head.
Suddenly, instead of being supportive and helpful, the Rescuer becomes critical. Judgemental. Cold. Or angry. Furious. Blaming and raging.
Now two things can happen. The Rescuer can remain in the Persecutor role, with the Victim now Victimized by their former Rescuer! Some spousal abuse, and some child abuse, operates this way.
Or, the Victim can rare up on his or her hind legs and strike back [how dare you speak to me like that!!!]; in this case, the Victim usurps the role of Persecutor, and the Rescuer, after Persecuting, now moves into the role of Victim.
This is when it's possible to tell if the participants are hooked into the triangle. At this point, they will not leave. They will not leave. In fact, if leaving is suggested to them, they may become extremely offended at the suggestion!
Victim-Rescuer-Persecutor. It is possible to spend an entire marriage, an entire career, an entire LIFE, rotating around and around among these roles.
But there's another triangle, a healthy triangle, the Quinby triangle, which is the positive version of this, without the gameplaying and persecution.
In the Quinby Triangle, instead of Rescuing, a person Reaches Out. Instead of being a Victim, the person being reached out to is simply Vulnerable. And instead of Persecuting, both parties Persevere - they hang in and work together as long as it takes to get through whatever there is to get through. There may be limitations to what each of them can do - but that is very different from having a 'script'.
Think of Christopher and Dana Reeve, and you know what a Quinby interaction is like. Here's a graphic that shows both Karpman and Quinby Triangles: Karpman and Quinby
Wanting to be rescued isn't necessarily unhealthy. Wanting help when we need it, wanting to be lifted up when we are down? This is part of the good stuff that human interaction is supposed to provide.
But you must be aware - vulnerability, and the willingness to help the helpless, can attract good guys, but it can also attract Karpman gamesters, too. It's often hard to tell them apart, until you suddenly, unaccountably, find that you've become a target of rage.