As authors, we often write using traditional character archetypes that readers recognise. Archetypes we immediately understand include the hero, villain, mentor, outcast, damsel in distress etc. They have an important role to play in literature, teaching us lessons which can also help us on our own life quests.
When I was in my twenties, a book was very popular in my peer group which categorised people using four personality types. Understanding them could solve all their problems! I am absolutely, solidly against any stereotypical categorisation, human beings are too complex! So I did the research.
I discovered those types were based on the ancient theory of the four humours and outright rejected it. I am not alone: in researching this post, someone was talking about how they bought a book published in 1896, which was based on the four humours in children. The original owner had written inside: “Critique: Psychologists say it’s unscientific – lacks rigor, precision, control of facts. Nevertheless it sure is widespread in use and application, or trials at it! Feb.29.40. R.N.S.”
The four humours are actually based on the balances of four body fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. They were seen to affect temperament, making you either sanguine, melancholic, phlegmatic or choleric. Of course, the in-vogue book presented it as a more advanced theory. My friends didn’t know what they were really reading and they weren’t impressed when they heard what the theory was actually based on. Why would they be impressed, even if body fluids weren’t involved in dictating behaviour? Who would want to be labelled as, say, melancholic? Do you want to be classed as “crestfallen, crummy, dejected, desolate, despondent, destroyed, disconsolate, dispirited, down and out?” It’s not likely to do wonders for your self-esteem. Neither was one theory we learnt in psychology, that typed people based on body shape. If you were tall and thin, or small and fat, you had the same traits as all the other people with your body type. Does this make sense?
Then I came face to face with my kryptonite. The one theory that paralysed my ability to criticise type theories. One of my memoir students asked me to sit through an introduction to the enneagram. I was having a hard time with a co-worker and thought well, why not? It’s always good to hear a new theory. I love psychology. I easily located my dominant personality type and it shocked me. I found myself publicly looking into the private parts of how my mind works, that I never wanted revealed to anyone else. It was all there on paper in tale-telling detail and it was scary… particularly for a psychology buff who does not believe in stereotyping. Oddly enough, it didn’t box me in, it gave me strategies for getting free, which is exactly what the enneagram is supposed to do. It is about growth and healing.
If you are feeling brave, there is a free enneagram personality test here for you to take: http://similarminds.com/test.html
I am not asking you to take all this too seriously. I don’t live by it religiously or refer to it often. I occasionally pull out my Enneagram notes when I am stuck on a people problem and it does help, but I would still never rigidly adhere to it. Whether you want to believe in it or not, for writers building characters, the enneagram is a gold mine! It is similar to a road map for human behaviour which shows your basic motivational needs; strengths, weaknesses, temptations and what you can do to balance out your negatives. To increase it’s usefulness, there is information online on how to get on with other types which clash with your own. That can be used to create dynamic plot conflicts.
Let me give you an example on how this can work. Let me play devil’s advocate and use a creative personality as an example. They are referred to as the Thinker or Observer (the five). They are withdrawn, thought-driven, self-motivated, happy to be alone and have a strong need for independence and privacy. Often they don’t fit in, in social groups. This is a weakness of their personality type. Problems for fives include isolation, pride, power seeking and their intellectual approach can drive people in the other direction, seeking warmer company! Famous fives include William Rhenquist, Stephen Hawking, Francis Crick, Helen Keller, Wittgenstein, and Arthur C. Clarke.
Now, no one has just one type they fit wholly and solely into. We have a little of every type in us, but we have two other less dominant types which are called wings. They balance us out. A five will have the wings of a four: the romantic, withdrawn ideal-seeker who wants authenticity, self expression and who can also be deeply empathetic. Famous 5/4s include Sigmund Freud. Fives also have a six wing, which is the loyalist, an attachment making approval-seeker. Famous 5/6s include Charles Darwin, Frederich Nietzsche, David Lynch, and Isaac Newton. You can see how a five could work themselves into difficult situations as they are a deep thinker, wanting to solve problems; are seeking approval for doing so… but can push people away as they are so independent and socially stilted. The five can become one very frustrated, lonely individual, with answers no one will listen to.
This is where the enneagram displays it’s potential power to transform. To move away from being a dominant five who needs to master things, is prone to pride and is scared of helplessness or being seen as incompetent; you follow the triangle in the diagram to see what you do to balance. So from a five, go up the arrow to the eight: the boss. Taking that path, the five has to come out of their mental world to lead and interact with others. One step further, if you were predominantly an eight, the ideal is to go to two, which means instead of being based in power and control, you take a balancing, helping role.
Of course, it is a lot more complex than that. This is a mystically based theory which has been around for centuries. At it’s simplest level it is an excellent idea generator you will find useful and intriguing. Just do the test by yourself. You could be in for confronting revelations you didn’t see coming!
- http:// www.enneagraminstitute.com/
- http:// www.enneagram.com.au/
This post is an except from my e-book “Creating and Resolving Conflict in Fiction.” The e-book is available from Amazon Kindle.
- A Word of Encouragement for Writers
- The Most Important Thing About Conflict
- How to Fuel Conflicts and Misunderstandings
- What Character Traits Go With What Type of Person?
- Human Behaviour Is All About Patterns
- Using Power Dynamics
- Not Too Easy To Swallow: Avoiding Nauseating Resolutions
- Making or Breaking Character Relationships
- Secrecy and the Death of Trust
- When Do Good Guys Morph Into Foes?
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