How to build a character with an ancient personality grid.
Trust me, it’s cool.
Here’s a useful definition of story:
“Someone wants something and has a hard time getting it.”
I found it in a book called “How to Write Great Characters: The Key to Your Hero’s Growth and Transformation” by David Wisehart–a book about how to write characters with the help of an ancient personality tool: the Enneagram.
The Enneagram categorizes human personality into nine types, each with its unique idiosyncrasies and relationships to the other types.
Now, if you’re a skeptic like me, you probably don’t give much credence to personality tests. Horoscopes, Myers-Briggs, DISC; they seem like tools designed to squeeze human beings into flat, one-dimensional boxes, bereft of the mystery-juice which makes each of us special, bizarre little snow-flakes.
But over the past year, as I’ve pursued this journey of growing from an aspiring writer into a practicing one, I’ve found personality tests like these to be helpful. They inspire the foundation for characters, the skeleton you can flesh out. I recommend them to anyone who has trouble constructing engaging characters on the page.
Particularly the Enneagram.
For this post, I won’t go into detail about how the Enneagram works (I’m still learning, honestly), but I interviewed author and writing coach Gloria Kempton about how to use it for your writing. If you’re interested, take her class on this topic at writers.com. I highly recommend it.
- When did you discover the Enneagram and why did it capture your interest?
I discovered the Enneagram personality study in 1984 when a therapist/friend introduced it to me. It captured my attention because on first glance, it made so much sense. I like to think that I recognize “truth” when it’s placed in front of me, and it was like that with the Enneagram. It immediately resonated. Upon first glance, it may look formulaic, but it goes so much deeper than any of the other personality studies out there as it speaks to human motivation. We may all act out in similar ways, but we are motivated differently, and when we understand the motivation behind the behavior, we are able to see through to the psyche in ourselves and others, bringing up compassion in us.
2. Did you or do you ever doubt how reliable or true the Enneagram is?
Never. Which is strange because you won’t find a more skeptical person than me. I started to try the Enneagram out right away after learning about it, and I can say that now, all of these 30+ years later. that it’s proved itself true every single time. If something doesn’t feel right, sound right, when I explore and inquire, it’s not the Enneagram that has the problem, it’s the way I’m perceiving the person or situation. Once I correct my perception, the Enneagram proves true once again.
3. How do you use it to write fiction?
This was the big surprise — learning that I could use the Enneagram in my writing and in coaching others in writing their stories. I remember the first time I discovered this. I was writing a novel about a mother with a son on death row. I needed her to be an Enneagram #1 and her husband to be an Enneagram #9, so that there would be plenty of conflict, though in some ways, an understanding of one another’s points of view. She saw everything as either black or white, and he just wanted a peaceful resolution to everything. I was delighted at how the story began to come together once I started using the Enneagram. I now invite writers, as they think through their plots and themes, to decide early on the Enneagram numbers they need for their main characters in order to create as much conflict as possible because that’s what stories are about, you know, tension, suspense, and conflict, and how we all get through that with other personality types who don’t “get” us.
4. At what stage of writing do you use the Enneagram? Outlining, first draft, revision? Or do you use it throughout?
As I mention above, I use the Enneagram when I’m just beginning to plot a story, and as the story begins writing itself, I check, making sure the Enneagram numbers are working for the characters, then, yes, midway, or upon revision, if something isn’t working, it’s often because I’ve assigned the wrong Enneagram numbers to my characters. Easily fixed, and voila!, back on track.
5. Did you or your readers notice a difference in your work after you started using the enneagram?
To be honest, at the same time I was learning about the Enneagram, I started doing less writing of my own, and so more coaching (in 1983, I became a single parent of five, and suddenly needed to make a living, which wasn’t happening from my writing), so I can answer this question better in whether the writers I work with noticed a difference in their own writing, and I can shout an unequivocal yes! (next question)
6. Do you notice a difference in your students’ work after you introduce them to the Enneagram?
Absolutely! The reason is that the Enneagram’s (which has its roots hundreds of years ago with the Sufis in Central Asia and brought to America by G.I. Gurdjieff in the early 1900’s) focus is on human motivation which is a bugaboo for many writers because they simply don’t understand their own motivation, let alone anyone else’s. The reason most writers write the stories they write is often unclear to them — the Enneagram can begin to shed light on even the writer’s own motivation for writing a particular story. Once we know a character’s Enneagram number, we know the character. It quickly becomes clear who the character is at his core and why he wants what he wants, why he’s going on his story quest. All’s left is to figure out how that character will now respond to the story events presented to him.
7. What Enneatype are you? Do you think your type comes through in your writing?
You’ll love this, Noam. I’m an Enneagram #4. I knew the minute I read the description. I didn’t even have to take the test. It’s obvious in the dramatic way I present myself in the world, in the dramatic way I react to real life situations, in the way I need to find meaning in everything and every situation in my life. My number definitely shows up in my writing. No matter what I’m writing, everything’s a big deal. Right now, I write stories, essays and memoirs, and I seek out the deeper meaning in whatever I’m writing. I actually believe that at least one reason I write is because I’m a #4 — writing is how I discover the universal truth of what it means to be a human being. I’ve recently started to meditate, and I hope it doesn’t calm me down too much! I like being a #4, well, most of the time.
8. Selfish question: I’m an Enneatype 4. Do you have any advice for type 4 fiction writers?
Oh wow. Okay, here goes: 1) Don’t take yourself so seriously, meaning learn to laugh at the angst that comes out continuously in your writing, 2) Try not to get hooked into all of the drama and feelings that keep showing up as you write, remembering to appeal to your readers’ practical, rational and psychological sides as well as their emotional needs, 3) Remember that it’s not all about you — that there’s a reader on the other end of your writing. Good luck with this.
You can take a sample Ennagram test here. Thanks for reading.