What’s your sign, baby?
There are as many ways to talk about characters as there are types of characters. Some people like an archetype approach, some like zodiac, some like exhaustive questionnaires. We’ve already talked about the important stuff. What does the character want? What do they fear? When you’ve figured that out, you’ve got the hard part down.
That’s building the creamy center. Because let’s be real. The cream is the best part of the Oreo. The peanut butter is the best part of the Reese’s Cup. The caramel is the best part of a Rolo. Once you get the delicious center cooked up, you simply need to dunk it in melted chocolate and enjoy. (Curse you, sweet tooth.)
Please note that I did not say you need to analyze every molecule of the chocolate and account for every bit of sugar and fat and preservatives that go into your character treat. You do not need to know everything that has ever happened to your character, nor their favorite everything, nor what every inch of their body looks like. In fact, I think trying to come up with everything early on can be crippling.
I’m currently reading Wired for Story, and Lisa Cron mentions something which I’ve seen referenced in other books on writing. Basically, if you write an exhaustive biography of your character, you’re going to feel like you need to include every detail you’ve created. (Sort of like the common curse of fantasy world-building.) That kind of stuff bogs down the story. If you write an excruciatingly detailed account of your character’s junior prom, then you’ll feel like it’s important. And unless that somehow actually relates to the plot of your story, it will be totally irrelevant.
Broad strokes, folks.
Besides, think about your circle of friends. Fast! What’s your best friend’s favorite ice cream? What is their exact coffee order at Starbucks? What is their favorite brand of shoe? What song would they play at their own funeral if they could?
I can barely answer those questions about most of my friends, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know them. Those just aren’t the important details about people. You can add some of those in; just remember that the rule of background info is that you do not need to include about 90% of what you create.
Anyway, I go for broad strokes. My favorite way to start developing a character is the Enneagram. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the Enneagram is a personality typing system with nine different personality types. It’s similar to the zodiac, but not based on your birth date. The personality types are connected around a geometric figure.
Whether you believe Enneagram is legit or just another bit of New Age fluff, it has some really fantastic elements for writers. First, each personality type has a basic fear and a basic need. Also, each personality type behaves a certain way in times of stress (disintegration) and times of health (integration).
I’ll give you an example. I’m a blend of a Four (The Individualist) and a Five (The Investigator). I’ve taken the tests multiple times over the years, and I am usually right at 50% on each. Both of them are accurate as far as I’m concerned. I’ll go with Four – The Individualist – because I think it’s closer with regards to my emotional personality.
Fours are self-aware, sensitive, and reserved. They are emotionally honest, creative, and personal, but can also be moody and self-conscious. Withholding themselves from others due to feeling vulnerable and defective, they can also feel disdainful and exempt from ordinary ways of living. They typically have problems with melancholy, self-indulgence, and self-pity. At their Best: inspired and highly creative, they are able to renew themselves and transform their experiences.
- Basic Fear: That they have no identity or personal significance
- Basic Desire: To find themselves and their significance (to create an
Key Motivations: Want to express themselves and their individuality, to create and surround themselves with beauty, to maintain certain moods and feelings, to withdraw to protect their self-image, to take care of emotional needs before attending to anything else, to attract a “rescuer.”
Fours feel that they are unlike other human beings, and consequently, that no one can understand them or love them adequately. They often see themselves as uniquely talented, possessing special, one-of-a-kind gifts, but also as uniquely disadvantaged or flawed. More than any other type, Fours are acutely aware of and focused on their personal differences and deficiencies.
That’s great stuff! Just reading the types gives me ideas for how to make life uniquely difficult for that character. In addition to the basic descriptions, you’re given information about how that type acts on a spectrum of overall wellbeing – from their most healthy to their most unhealthy.
This chart comes from Wikipedia and shows some of the major elements of each type. The “Stress” and “Security” columns tell you what other type they will act like under those conditions. Isn’t this awesome?
So now that you know what Enneagram is, how can you use it?
If I’m in this stage, I don’t know a character well yet. But I do have an idea of the big problems in my story and my character’s creamy center. The first thing I look at is the Basic Fear and Basic Desire for each type and try to match my character with one. As we’ve talked about, set your character up for conflict. For instance: Eights (The Challenger) fear being controlled or harmed by others. If you’re going to plunge someone into a thriller where they are at the mercy of a terrorist…hello! Twos (The Helper) fear being unworthy of love or acceptance. Reluctant romantic partner much?
Now, don’t take that to mean that everyone in a romance needs to be a Two. An Eight could be a perfect romance heroine. Just try to pick a type that will create the most potential for delicious conflict and tension in your story, or find a way to hammer their fear in whatever type of story you write.
Another great feature of the Enneagram is that it will give you information on how each type interacts with the others. We love conflict. Have you figured that out yet? We hate it in real life, but on the page, conflict = good. Pick out types that will complement and clash with one another.
Finally, I try to use the Enneagram on all the characters, even minor ones. In TV talk, if you’d feature them as “guest cast” in the credits, then get their type. This is especially important for your villain. Take a look at the unhealthy end of each spectrum when digging into your antagonist. If you can give your antagonist a good reason for acting like a total psycho, it becomes so much richer to read.
So if you’ve never checked it out, go take the test and see what your type is. Is it accurate? Now try applying it to a character and see what happens!
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