Monday, October 31, 2016

Deepening Character Descriptions in Fiction and Memoir

In Iris Murdoch’s novel The Green Knight, Clement considers the qualities of Louise Anderson, whom he’s loved from afar:

“. . . she instinctively made all things better, speaking no evil, disarming hostility, turning ill away, making peace: her gentleness, which made her seem, sometimes, to some people, weak, insipid, dull. ‘She’s not exactly a strong drink!’ someone said.”

What a beautifully condensed metaphor: “She’s not exactly a strong drink.” Murdoch’s deep insight extends far beyond the usual guidelines for deepening character descriptions. In contrast, you’ve perhaps been asked to critique a beginning writer’s work, where characters seem flat and their voices similar, making it hard to distinguish among them.

A system called the Enneagram — long a favorite guide for transformation among therapists, coaches, and spiritual directors — is now being used by writers and screenwriters as a powerful tool to develop original and dimensional characters. Gloria Kempton, for example, offers a ten-week online workshop, Create Story Characters Using the Enneagram.

According to Judith Searle, author of The Literary Enneagram: Characters from the Inside Out, knowledge of this model can help writers create “credible character arcs and character-driven plot twists that seem both inevitable and surprising.” Familiarity with the nine Enneagram personality patterns “can help us sharpen conflicts between characters to make dramatic situations more compelling.”

As a writer and Enneagram coach, I’ll share some ideas to stimulate your thinking about character development. Whether writing about people you know in memoir or using family members, friends, and acquaintances as models for fiction, you’ll benefit from deeper understanding of characteristic motivations, personality patterns, and growth potential.

First, a quick overview, then in future posts I’ll delve into each of the nine with examples from published work.

Here in a nutshell are the Enneagram personality styles when stuck in their habitual behaviors. As in personal growth, a character arc would show an increase in self-awareness, but we’re first drawn to imperfect, flawed goodness:

Personality Style One (“Reformer”): Their gift is the ability to see and work toward perfection. They often see only what’s wrong, what needs fixing; their perfectionism is driven by a fix-it kind of anger, a rejection of something less than the ideal of what should be (Isabelle Goodrow in Elizabeth Strout's Amy & Isabelle; Ralph Nader, An Unreasonable Man).

Personality Style Two (“Helper”): Their gift is the ability to anticipate and tend to someone else’s needs; they may lose themselves because they’re so intent on taking care of others. It’s difficult for them to admit their own needs and they can be manipulative (Dennis Lynch in Alice McDermott's Charming Billy, Annie Wilkes in Stephen King's Misery, Marge Piercy's memoir Sleeping with Cats).

Personality Style Three (“Achiever”): Their gift is the drive to succeed in attaining a goal. This can become competitive striving that robs them of their souls. Success is measured in the eyes of others, and they may be ruthless in search of it (Lennox Lewis in his memoir Lennox, Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley).

Personality Style Four (“Individualist”): Their gift is a passion for creativity, emotional depth, and a profound desire for authenticity, accompanied by a fear of being ordinary. They may be stuck in melancholy, feeling different or flawed (Diane Arbus in Arthur Lebow's biography Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, Sarah Woodruff in John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman).

Personality Style Five (“Investigator”): Their gift is the ability to conceptualize/master knowledge and they tend to value intellect more than the physical side of life. They may be emotionally remote or socially awkward (Robert Hendricks in Sebastian Faulks' Where My Heart Used to Beat, Jane Goodall in Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey and Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man).

Personality Style Six (“Loyalist”): Their gift is loyalty, which causes them to question their own inner power and to anxiously anticipate anything that could go wrong. They look to the group for security, rules, and norms, yet paradoxically are often the ones to challenge authority (Isabel Moore in Mary Gordon’s Final Payments, Rudy Baylor in John Grisham’s The Rainmaker).

Personality Style Seven (“Enthusiast”): Their gift is positive, energetic, upbeat energy, which can cause frustration when things slow down. They’re gluttons for pleasure, variety, and novelty to the point of having little tolerance for boredom or discomfort of any kind (Randle Patrick McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

Personality Style Eight (“Challenger”): Their gift is a natural confidence and ability to take charge, and they’ll claim power whether others like it or not. They’re driven to excess — more is better. The thrill is in the hunt, so they tend to stir things up to add spice to a situation (V. I. Warshawski in Sara Paretsky’s Blood Shot, Don Vito Corleone in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather).

Personality Style Nine (“Peacemaker”): Their gift is in being calm, easy-going, and capable of understanding divergent opinions. They may avoid anything that could upset their sense of inner peace. They may be passive or passive-aggressive. (Bob Slocum in Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, Louise Anderson in Iris Murdoch’s The Green Knight).

This last description of Enneagram personality style Nine brings us back to the beginning quote describing Murdoch’s character Louise Anderson. Her calmness, gentleness, avoidance of conflict, speaking no evil, and disarming all hostility made her seem “weak, insipid, dull” to some people. But how interesting she is as a character.