If you feel you’re seeing the word ‘scapegoat’ all over social media right now, you’re not wrong. In the past couple of years, psychological terms such as ‘gaslight’, ‘narcissist’, ‘toxic families’, ‘family estrangement’, ‘no contact’ – and now, ‘scapegoat’ – are real talking points.
You may have seen these terms ion Facebook memes, talked about them yourself on Twitter, or watched therapists’ TikTok videos. Intergenerational differences on psychology, family and parenting are VERY much part of society’s conversation in the 2020s.
For those who have missed it, sociologists believe Gen Z and Millennials are the first generations to cut off their parents en masse.
There are many theories for this, but the most obvious one is people have discussed, compared and contrasted their upbringings with others via social media … and realised everything they thought was ‘normal’ was actually toxic parental behaviours and sometimes, even full-blown abuse.
Perhaps it’s safer to say why adult children DO NOT cut off their parents!
The reasons for so many people going no-contact with their parents vary (because it can be individual! Duh). But we can safely say it’s not because:
- Parents were mean to them/ lost control once or
- They had reasonable expectations, rules or boundaries for the child/adult child or
- Because parents didn’t buy the adult child what tech or toy they wanted as kids
- Or because the adult child is ‘mentally ill’/an attention-seeker/acting out for LIKEs
- Because it’s supposedly ‘fashionable’ for people to cut off their parents right now
As any sensible person knows, children are hard-wired to love their parents. Literally nobody wakes up in the morning and decides to cut their parents off on a whim.
In fact, the opposite is true. When someone decides to go to no-contact with a parent (or guardian figure), it’s usually after years – sometimes decades – of problems. It is most often a heartbreaking last resort after repeated attempts to repair the relationship have irrevocably broken down.
All About The Scapegoat
The scapegoat is a societal archetype we can all recognise fairly easily. It’s a role that may turn up at work, in court cases, schools or other work settings.
Some of us will have also grown up in a dysfunctional family like the ones I mention at the top of this article. In such toxic families, a family member may be assigned the role of scapegoat. Sometimes this role is fixed; other times it is fluid and depends what’s happening.
Another name for the scapegoat is the phrase, ‘Black Sheep of The Family’. This role is applied to someone who is marginalised and misunderstood. They may be particularly sensitive, emotionally intense, curious, or wired differently. Whatever the case, they don’t ‘fit in’ with the rest and are told this constantly.
When the family has identified a person as the black sheep, all members project unwanted negative traits onto the scapegoat. It doesn’t matter what the black sheep does – negative OR positive – they are framed as The Problem. Toxic families do this because it’s a very effective way of keeping everybody in line.
Why Write A Scapegoat?
When society is very interested in a particular topic, that means it can offer very fruitful ground for a story. This is what agents, publishers, producers and filmmakers mean when they use words and phrases like …
- ‘Ripped from the headlines’
While many characters have clear-cut motives, some find themselves trapped in life circumstances where they are scapegoated due to familial or societal factors.
Readers and audiences love it when they see their own experiences reflected back at them somehow in a story. These experiences don’t even have to be 100% ‘like’ theirs, either!
Readers and audiences are savvier and more media literate than ever … This means they can decode meaning, relating it to themselves quicker than ever.
Put simply, many people in target audiences and readership have found themselves scapegoated by their families. This means writing scapegoat characters can be a very good choice so writers can connect with viewers and readers.
Good Examples of Scapegoat Characters
These characters are blamed, bullied, or shamed since birth due to an inherent human flaw present within them. As in reality, these flaws may be true or false … But whatever it is, it’s used to keep that character in line. Here’s 2 past examples of such characters:
i) Jax in Sons of Anarchy
Jax is born into the motorcycle gang; they’re his literal family. This means he has had no real future other than SOA … If he walks away, he has nobody.
What’s more, Jax’s mother Gemma is a narcissist and control-freak. She has done everything in her power to ensure her baby boy is connected to her forever, including multiple murders.
Make no mistake: Jax is an abhorrent human being himself. He’s a hardcore criminal, dealing drugs and guns, murdering those who get in his way. He even kills his own brothers-in-arms in a variety of power-plays.
Yet just like its source material – Hamlet, no less! – Jax was born into this violent world. When your baseline is dysfunction and toxicity, they become your ‘normal’. He is the supposed ‘best of a VERY bad bunch’ … literally.
ii) Camille in Sharp Objects
Estranged from her mother for years, journalist Camille returns to the town she grew up in when the story of two murdered teenagers takes her there. Whilst ‘home’, she gets to know her family again: her disquieting mother Adora, who has very different views about Camille’s upbringing, plus Camille’s precocious, 13 yo half-sister Amma.
Throughout the story – both a book AND a TV series – Camille faces constant judgment and blame as a result of her troubled upbringing. As she works to uncover the truth about the violent crimes, she finds herself identifying with the young victims.
Yet as she unravels the mystery, Camille realises she must confront her own past to get at the story. It’s a powerful tale of how our own pasts affect us … and how very often, we refuse to see what is in front of her faces when it comes to toxic families.
Writing a scapegoat character can be a rich source of conflict in your novel or screenplay. Most readers, audience members AND writers have some kind of experience with being an ‘outsider’, or have worried about becoming one for some reason. This makes a scapegoat protagonist particularly appealing.
If you want to write something else topical, relatable, or prescient, take a look at what society is talking about right now. You can do this by checking out headline news, and opinion pieces, combing social media, or paying attention to what thought leaders are saying.