Creating a Scapegoat for your story can help make characters more realistic in the eyes of the reader.
What are Children’s Roles?
Children’s roles are a specific set of coping mechanisms that children tend to develop throughout chaotic situations in their childhood. This could include the loss of a parent, a family struggle with addiction, or even a move to a new place.
The four major roles are Family Hero, Scapegoat, Lost Child, and Mascot. Most children have played these roles at various points throughout their lives, but some kids get “stuck” in one of these roles and it can be problematic for them as they grow older. However, while they are in the midst of the chaos (parent loses a job, being severely bullied at school, parents divorce, etc.), these behaviors are how they cope with the pain.
What’s a Scapegoat Like?
A Scapegoat is often referred to as ‘the bad one,’ ‘Bebe’s kid,’ or ‘the black sheep.’ You may have seen, heard of, been friends with, or even been a Scapegoat yourself. Let’s use the example of a single, alcoholic mother again. She loses her job due to her consistent drunkenness and decides to drown her sorrows in yet more alcohol. As noted in previous posts, this means that bills are not being paid, clothes are not being washed, groceries are not being purchased, and so on. The household containing her and her 4 children is in chaos. While the Family Hero is filling in as a pseudo-parent, the Scapegoat is doing the exact opposite.
The Scapegoat may spend most of the day sleeping, rarely making it to school on time or at all. This kid just wants to get away from the stressful situation that is being part of this family. They may see the Family Hero working their ass off attempting to keep everything together (as a parent and a child) and doesn’t want to put themselves through that kind of stress. They will often do things to get attention that are considered problematic, such as getting pregnant as a teenager, using drugs, joining gangs, committing crimes, or bullying or being generally violent and abusive towards others (including family members). They are likely to struggle with their academics and may even flunk out of school. The Scapegoat will often come home late at night or not at all since they may find more comfort and stability with their pimp, gang leader, etc.
Their destructive and problematic behavior makes it more difficult for the focus to be on the central problem of mom’s alcoholism. People within the family and outside the family might think, “There lives would be so much better if Sheena would just get her act together.” The mother may not realize how much of a burden is lifted off of them when the Scapegoat’s problems overshadow her own.
Scapegoats get the attention that all children crave, but they get it for getting expelled, breaking laws, or getting arrested. The mother might often berate the Scapegoat: “What is wrong with you?” “Why can’t you grow up?” “Your brother’s never acted like this!” “You’re the worst most ungrateful child I’ve ever seen!”
Therefore, even though the Scapegoat does things that a problematic, it begins to feel comfortable as they take on the labels that they are fitted with by schools, law enforcement, family members, friends, and classmates. Their behavior is often an outlet for feelings of rage that they are not having their basic needs met by their family unit and have had to look outside the family for feelings like love, connectedness, and appreciation. Until they are offered a self-help group, non-judgmental companions, or therapist, these feelings may never be directly expressed in a healthy manner.
Scapegoats as Adults
If the single, alcoholic mother of four goes to treatment for her addiction and gets some treatment for her children, they may be able to wrench themselves loose from these roles. However, if this doesn’t happen, it’s very easy for a child’s personality/sense of self and their role in this chaotic situation to become enmeshed.
When this happens, the Scapegoat keeps looking for new ways to be ‘the black sheep’ in different situations. This person is often called a ‘career criminal’ as an adult, but could also be noted as an unmotivated ‘pot head’ or other drug addict. They’ve given in to the feelings of helplessness that have surrounded them in their chaotic family and decided not to fight against it, but just to ignore the core issues that caused it.
Sometimes the idea of getting a job is unattractive to them because it means following rules, having a boss, and having to be somewhere on a consistent basis throughout the week (i.e., too much work). So the Scapegoat may find ways to make money that don’t take a lot of effort or oversight (selling guns or drugs, doing odd jobs when they feel like it, etc.)
Sometimes the idea of having a family isn’t appealing because they don’t want to end up back in a family like the one they grew up in. Therefore, the Scapegoat might intentionally remain single, though they may have many ‘sex buddies’ available to them.
Scapegoats / Career Criminals / Burnouts in Fiction
This character is often the one who attempts to keep potential love interests at bay. They may have sex with them, but that’s as far as it goes. A love interest trying to break down this emotional wall could make a strong romance.
This character may not believe that they can rely on people in the medical community, so health problems as “solved” with drugs or simply ignored. Good for a tragedy.
Due to an inconsistent work history, this person may have accrued some debt that can follow them and cause problems between them and others when bill collectors call, items are repossessed, or the character borrows money that they cannot (or have no intention to) pay back.
This character is apt to see people who are industrious (such as the Family Hero) as “suckers” working for “the man.”
Having a character who is a Scapegoat with a realistic backstory can add depth to your work and maybe even offer you some extra avenues to explore when it comes to how they will behave in the new situations they come across in your story.
Stay gready, Friends!