Who hasn’t checked out the Myers-Briggs personality type charts to see how we, and our significant others, stack up? Today, Laurie Schnebly Campbell takes a similar yet uniquely different approach to building fictional characters.
Anybody who enjoys building characters by using enneagrams (pronounced ANY-uh-grams) already knows about the nine personality types discovered by the Sufis and brought west a century ago.
Those types — the Reformer, Nurturer, Achiever, Romantic, Observer, Guardian, Adventurer, Leader and Peacemaker — are fascinating in their own right. Even more so because, if you take any two characters who share the same type, they’ll STILL have all kinds of differences.
That’s where we get into subtypes, and the subtypes are cool. Each one emphasizes a different choice of three perspectives: Me (Solo), We Two (Duet), and All Of Us (Chorus).
Each one of those perspectives can be a good, healthy approach to life. And anyone who values all three subtypes equally will have a wonderfully balanced outlook and attitude and behavior, every minute of every day.
But what good does THAT do us in a book?
Not much. Instead, we want conflict that comes about — at least in part — because of who these people ARE. And since sticking to just one perspective can create serious difficulties for our characters, let’s take a closer look at each subtype.
The “Me” subtype fits people who work at getting whatever they need to ensure their own health and well-being. When that comes down to finding enough food or water or firewood, everyone agrees self-preservation is a good thing.
However, it also might come down to getting enough solitude to enjoy a good book…or enough money to buy the perfect yacht…or enough recognition to outshine the person who did more work…or something else that leads to trouble from people who don’t grasp the importance of that need.
Characters who value self-preservation will be fabulous at fighting off the invaders, making sure their baby survives the tornado, protecting the horse or the vaccine formula or whatever matters most. In an action-adventure story, this character might jump off the burning ship just in time to elude the pirates and build a desert island hut out of palm leaves.
In a more emotional story, this character might be reluctant to risk heartbreak or disappointment or loneliness or anything else that WE know would actually be a great step forward. Yet until he or she can overcome that preference for self-preservation, such a risk will never happen.
The “We Two” subtype helps ensure survival of the species, because if nobody ever enjoyed intimacy the planet would run out of babies pretty fast. And since babies need people who care about ‘em for a good start in life, what keeps such people together is intimacy.
But intimacy isn’t JUST between lovers. It’s between any two people who are enjoying each other, sharing a bond that doesn’t include the rest of the world. If you’re having lunch with your critique partner, or chatting with your best friend, or interacting wholeheartedly with your cousin or roommate or neighbor or mom, you’re engaged in the intimacy subtype.
Which is a good thing for sustaining strong personal relationships, but which — yep, you guessed it — can also create conflict. Just because one person values intimacy to a certain degree, at a certain time and place, doesn’t mean another person will share that exact same preference.
Intimacy works wonderfully when two people are both into each other at the identical moment, but in real life it can be hard to make that happen. In fiction, it can be even harder!
The “All Of Us” subtype helps humankind, too, because we generally need teamwork to keep society going. A hermit who prefers to avoid company won’t show any social interest, but most of us enjoy — at least once in a while — being part of a group or team.
A social-subtype character will always have the good of the pack in mind. Whether that means making sure everyone gets fed, or everyone gets protected, or everyone gets a good laugh to keep their spirits up, this person works at providing whatever the group needs.
That group could be an online class, a family, a troop of soldiers, a quilting club, or an entire village. What matters isn’t the size of the membership, but the degree to which this person feels invested in keeping it going.
And if another member doesn’t share his or her goals for their society — well, shoot, there’s conflict ahead. For that matter, if any group-minded person wants a moment alone or a one-on-one, there’ll be some SELF-blame there…because that requires putting the group aside.
MIXING IT UP EVEN MORE
Each subtype can create plenty of turmoil for our characters — not to mention real-life people — yet they’re still just the beginning of all the fun we writers can have with enneagrams.
Whether people prefer dealing with life’s demands solo, in a duet, or as part of a chorus, there’ll be discord whenever somebody doesn’t share their exact same approach. And even when somebody DOES!
You can picture that, right? Two self-preservation people disagreeing on how to avoid the traffic jam. Two intimacy people wanting heartfelt conversations at different times. Two social people each determined to get the best for their own group.
The good news is we can escalate the conflict as much as we want, and then use more techniques from the enneagram system to get these characters what they need for a happy ending. (That’s the topic of my September class, which is at oirwa.com/forum/campus — scroll down and click SEP, then down to “9 Types, 3 Tasks & Dozens of Conflicts.”) But meanwhile, here’s…
A QUESTION FOR YOU
Is there some fictional character or real-life person who strikes you as being one of the three subtypes? If so, say who that is and which they sound like — then tonight, somebody who comments will win a free class!
On Monday, we kick off the month of September with a post by HANDSOME HANSEL!
Laurie Schnebly Campbell combines work for a Phoenix ad agency with teaching other novelists about the craft of writing. She’s also published half a dozen romances (including one that won “Best Special Edition of the Year” over Nora Roberts) and a how-to for fiction writers on creating believable characters. Check out her August workshop on blurbs — and more — at www.BookLaurie.com.