Scapegoats—or someone or something that takes the blame off someone else—exist all around us in daily life. (For example, you’re going to be late for work and your roommate’s car is blocking you in, so you blame being late entirely on your roommate, making them your scapegoat, even though it was you who woke up an hour past your alarm after a night on the town.)
In real life, scapegoats are usually just a convenient way to remove some blame from your own shoulders. In literature, scapegoats often hold a more profound purpose, providing deeper meaning to your prose. Here’s everything you need to know.
What is a scapegoat archetype?
The scapegoat archetype is a character takes the blame for something (or everything) going wrong for the other characters in the story. But the scapegoat isn’t the cause of whatever they’re being blamed for. A scapegoat may fill other roles as well, as a secondary character that fulfills multiple archetypes.
Since the archetypal scapegoat is such a specific character that serves a very precise role, the scapegoat role doesn’t come up in every single story. However, this character is an excellent addition to works that carry a deeper purpose beyond just the fun of a good plot (and you’ll see this when we discuss our various scapegoat examples).
Traits of a good scapegoat character
What makes a good scapegoat archetype, and how can you write this character effectively? Here are some of the top traits a good scapegoat generally possesses.
A good scapegoat is innocent
A good scapegoat isn’t the real cause of whatever they’re being blamed for. The definition of “scapegoat” is “a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings of others.” The term comes from the ancient practice of blaming a goat for the sins and mistakes of a whole community and then sending that goat out into the wilderness as a sacrifice, thereby symbolically separating the group from their wrongdoings.
Just like the goat did nothing to deserve being banished, the literary scapegoat also does nothing to deserve whatever blame befalls them over the course of the story or book—but that’s no matter. They’re sacrificed and punished in the same way regardless.
Pro tip: don’t think this means you need to reveal your scapegoat’s innocence to your reader right away; you can leave everybody guessing for a bit and save a big reveal for later. Additionally, this doesn’t mean your scapegoat needs to be perceived as 100% innocent of all wrongdoing ever—they just can’t be truly guilty of whatever they’re being accused of.
A good scapegoat is the perfect person to blame
As you build your scapegoat character, giving them an identity, background, and personality, make sure they’re the perfect person for your other characters to blame. They can’t just be chosen at random.
Because of this, the scapegoat is often an outsider or social outcast. They’re people that communities fear and inevitably like to blame for bad things anyway, such as minority identities.
In a fantasy world, the scapegoat might be that one person in the village who has magical powers. Their abilities make them “other” and therefore easy to blame. Or they may have such beliefs that the community doesn’t agree with.
Sometimes, this character is a powerful force in a position of power. Maybe they’re a royal or leader of some type. They’re held to a higher standard and level of respect than anyone else in the group, so when things go awry, it’s easy to point the finger in the direction of whoever present is supposed to be in charge.
Other times, this character is already a criminal of some type. What a perfect person to blame! They’re clearly “bad” because they have a record—but the scapegoat didn’t commit the crime they’re being accused of, regardless of past crimes.
A good scapegoat is likable
For a scapegoat character within literature to be effective, the archetype should inspire sympathy within your reader. You need to put some effort into giving them some traits that make them likable.
Are they an excellent friend, child, parent, or sibling? Do they have a winsome, positive good nature? Are they exceptionally smart or talented? Or maybe they have a quick wit that endears them to the reader.
Whatever the case may be, make your scapegoat someone that the reader would like to root for—even if the scapegoat doesn’t come out on top.
A good scapegoat carries a deeper meaning
The scapegoat archetype is often used in works that carry a deeper message or critique of some element of society. When the characters in your story or novel make one of their fellows into a scapegoat, it should reflect some true societal ill or issue that will resonate with your readers.
You’ll see how this is done in some of our scapegoat archetype examples below.
A good scapegoat doesn’t always make it to the ending
Lastly, it’s important to note that a good scapegoat doesn’t always make it to the ending of the story. Quite often, the scapegoat is so blamed for their community’s problems that they end up dead—and often at the community’s hands. If there’s not a death, they may still be sacrificed in another way, or banished from the story itself, chased out of town.
Once the scapegoat is gone, however they go, death or fleeing their environment, the accusers will likely still keep on believing the scapegoat is the source of their problems.
Examples of the scapegoat archetype in literature
While you won’t find a scapegoat example in every modern book you pick up, this archetype has been quite popular throughout classic literature that you’re probably familiar with. Here are a few of the most famous scapegoats.
Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hester is a good example of a scapegoat who isn’t 100% innocent, but who certainly is more innocent than her community makes her out to be.
While Hester has committed adultery, she’s not the only party carrying responsibility for her pregnancy and, in fact, one could argue that she doesn’t even carry the majority of the responsibility for her crimes. Still, her affair partner gets off the hook while Hester is deemed entirely responsible and cast out, with her community viewing her as a failure and a source of sin.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work has been interpreted a variety of ways, but one of the big pieces of social commentary here is the acknowledgment of religion’s double standards when it comes to gender.
Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In Lee’s novel, Tom Robinson is a black man accused wrongly of a crime. The book follows the main character’s father as he defends the man in court, and, despite best efforts, Tom is ultimately convicted and killed.
Just like Hawthorne, Lee used her scapegoat archetype and overall story to comment on a societal ill—in this case, racial prejudice.
Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible by Arthur Miller
In The Crucible, Elizabeth Proctor is accused of witchcraft by her maid, Abigail, who wants Elizabeth out of the way so that she can have Elizabeth’s husband all for herself. Though Elizabeth is innocent, the accusation drives their small community into a frenzy and Elizabeth is jailed—the first of many scapegoats that are falsely accused in this tale.
A scapegoat character can be highly impactful in the right stories
Since the scapegoat archetype’s purpose is so specific, they may not be a fit for every single story. However, if you have a specific message or theme that you’d like to convey in your short story or novel, they could be exactly the character you need to kick off your plot and deliver your message.