Did you ever know someone who was a real "character?" The term is almost indefinable, yet people often use it to describe someone who possesses the ability to stand out in some way.
Perhaps its his tone of voice or relentless "gift of gab" that is more like a curse than a gift. Or rather than quantity of speech, it's the "Eddie Haskell" way he has of tap-dancing around a subject in order to get the outcome he wants. Maybe it’s the way that person looks or dresses. Whatever the ingredient that inspires the term, characters come in all shapes and sizes...and all families have them. In fact, everyone in a family is, in a sense, a character.
A family is like a play and its members are the cast of characters that play various roles. The roles are defined by the family structure and living circumstances. And more often than not we retain these roles even after we grow up, move away-- or even following the death of some family members. The characters we cultivate through our families become part of who we are, how we view ourselves and our lifestyles. The roles are played and replayed throughout the various contexts of our lives-- work, recreation, and the next generation of the family. Like any good play, once the characters are defined they operate in a variety of situations, some of which produce tension. Families can be a source of extreme stress. The character roles frequently clash. In order to achieve more family tranquility, the characters need to learn to mesh, instead. This requires that a character step "out of character" by adjusting the way in which he or she is affected by another. And this presupposes some control over your reactions. In order to gain that control, it is useful to understand a few of the typical family character-types so you can ad lib.

  • 1) The Scapegoat. In dysfunctional families, this unfortunate member takes the brunt of blame for everyone else's problems-- those situations for which others are not willing to assume responsibility. He is the "dumpee", the "schlimazel" or one who has the soup spilled on him by the clumsy oaf known as the "schlemiel." For example, "We can't afford a vacation this year. John's college tuition has tapped us out." Rather than, "Although we have some burdensome expenses, a major portion of our savings was lost through my husband's chronic gambling problem that we keep from the kids." A Scapegoat comes to accept responsibility for events beyond his or her control. His behavior is often accompanied by anxiety or depression. To step out of character, this person needs to learn to build some self-esteem and assert himself by accessing positive resources and using them where appropriate.
  • 2) The Mediator. This is the "Henry Kissinger" role of the family. Generally, an even-tempered diplomat, (accent is optional) the mediator negotiates disputes among family members. He accomplishes this by interpreting the communications of various members to each other; something the family members should be doing themselves. Why bother? The payoff is a powerful and influential position within the family. However, there is an expensive price tag for this power: burn- out. When people turn to the mediator to solve their problems, they throw in the stress for no additional charge. So what can help the mediator? Allow family members to resolve their own conflicts. Convince yourself that there is more power in abstinence. Tell the warring factions, "I can offer an opinion that will be no more useful than others you might consider. Or I can be even more useful and remain silent." Then resign and take a job teaching mediation at the college level!
  • 3) The General. Usually the parent or grandparent. This person likes to be in charge and makes everything seem like a scene from "The D.I.", starring Lee Marvin. The General likes to walk into a room and see a perfect line of shoes, games, books-- You name it! His kind of orderli- ness is the right kind. Generals are highly competent and want things done right. Other family members live in fear of this person and constantly try to please him...of course, to no avail. Their role of "victims" provides fuel for his power. Therein lays the key to demotion. In order to break a General down to an ordinary family member, modify your script so you are no longer a victim. Understand that you are not dependent upon this person for your survival. Set boudaries-- just say, "No!