As Donald Maass points out in Writing the Breakout Novel, the most interesting characters in fiction are often those who do or say something that seems “out-of-character,” something that, as they look in the mirror, they know they would never say or do or think.
This is where The Enneagram comes into it own, particularly if your character’s personality is one with which you don’t have much personal experience.
For example, a primary character in my novel (A Fitting Place) is an attractive woman who makes friends easily. She sees herself as loving and generous. Her desire line is based on being helpful and making a positive difference in other people’s lives. But my story arc requires that her help be rejected. How does she respond?
Being an introverted observer of life, I had no intuitive way of answering that question. The Enneagram, with its spectrum of healthy and unhealthy behaviors, offered priceless assistance.
Enneagram Levels of Development: “Helpers”
- Healthy: Compassionate, Nurturing, Caring
- Average: Appreciative, Encouraging, Generous, Intimate
- Unhealthy: Manipulative, Possessive, Martyr-Victim-Guilt Producer
The Enneagram table above offered so many possibilities for making this character multi-dimensional, for behaving in ways she would just never admit to. Along the way, these actions served to ratchet up the pressure on my protagonist, Lindsey. Would Lindsey recognize the manipulation, the attempt at guilt production? If so, how would she respond? And, if not, how would she respond?
As I’ve noted before, understanding your characters does not replace good writing. But the converse seems equally true … a way with words is not a substitute for understanding your characters, in all their complexities.
I would love, as part of this post, to start a discussion on the challenges you’ve had creating the important characters in your fiction. And—of course—how you dealt with that challenge.