In Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy, the narrator’s father Dennis Lynch shows what might be Helper patterns — at best unconditionally loving, at worst compelled to help in order to feel needed. But McDermott provides only enough of the father’s history and inner dialogue to let us make an educated guess.
The narrator describes her father standing beside Billy’s widow Maeve after the family dinner following Billy’s funeral:
[He] would pay the bill and distribute the tips and take Maeve’s arm when she walked out to the limousine. . . He would promise to stop in to see her later in the evening, just to make sure she was all right. He would shake hands with everyone, thanking them for coming, agreeing it was unbelievable. . .
Although Dennis was Billy’s lifelong friend who helped Maeve deal with Billy’s fatal drinking, his motivation for doing all this isn’t clear. His behavior seems to reflect the Helper’s instinctive responsiveness to others’ needs. He was always cleaning up after Billy, whose excuse for drinking was the death of his Irish love, Eve.
Only Dennis knew Eve had not died. She’d jilted Billy and married her boyfriend in Ireland. Instead of this harsh truth, Dennis believed lying to Billy would “preserve his innocence”:
The rest of the family would have to hear about it, and Billy would have to endure for some months, maybe years, both their sympathy and their studied silence whenever the subject of love and marriage arose . . . better he be brokenhearted than trailed all the rest of his life by a sense of his own foolishness.
Dennis’ unilateral decision to protect Billy is a clue to the down side of the Helper personality, a form of manipulation that fosters dependency in others.
At the extreme end of this aggressive style of helping is Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery. The book’s other main character, novelist Paul Sheldon, awakens from a drug-induced sleep to realize his legs are mangled but he’s not in a hospital. Instead he’s immobilized, a prisoner of Annie, a former nurse and — she repeatedly assures him — his number one fan. Already ominous, the plot takes a darker turn when Annie finishes reading Paul’s most recent novel and learns he’s killed off a character she loves. Who can forget Kathy Bates as Annie in the movie version?
In her memoir Sleeping with Cats, Marge Piercy describes taking care of others much of her life. She even financially supported her second husband and two others in a ménage à quatre, and bemoans how people have abandoned her when she’s needed them. Notice her emotional responsiveness in this passage about adopting two cats after her Siamese died:
[She and her third husband, Ira Wood] found heaps of Burmese . . . in piles of rich dark brown fur cuddling one another, except for two exiles: two big sable cats. . . . Woody named the male Jim Beam, and I named the female Colette. . . . Jim Beam was immediately interested and friendly, but Colette hid under a chair. . . . I captured her, held her and licked her like a mother cat. She was astonished and began to purr. From then on, except when she was angry with me, she was my cat. She fell in love that night. It was hardly sanitary, but it conveyed affection and trust in a language she understood.
Licking a kitten, the way a mother cat would, is a fascinating Helper metaphor. Piercy’s examples of her motives and behavior also show how character can be deepened in memoir as well as fiction.
When Helpers become overly flattering and people-pleasing, they lose sight of their own needs. We see this quality in Judith Searle’s (The Literary Enneagram) description of Mrs. Ramsey, in To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf:
In Scotland for the summer with her family and assorted house guests . . . feeding them, making them feel valued, and using her superb social skills to encourage appropriate romantic matches . . . Mrs. Ramsay’s empathy is evident . . . she pushes aside her own feelings, especially her impatience with her husband.We’re certain of Annie Wilkes as an exemplar of the Helper style, because its most unhealthy aspects are so clear. Marge Piercy’s memoir suggests she shares this personality but is much more self-aware. In Mrs. Ramsey we find the Helper’s strengths and blind spots in balance.
In Charming Billy, however, though we see Dennis Lynch as the big brother everyone can depend on, we aren’t shown enough inner dialogue or signs of motivation to be certain. We only have a hint of this style’s inner conflict. If Dennis were more central and/or the author had wanted to divulge more about his psychological nature, why would that matter? Because readers connect with a character when they recognize some common ground, and this is made possible only when writers share their own dark emotions. The best-drawn characters are compelling. They create emotional resonance, a sock in the gut. We like or dislike, love or hate them.
By comparing Mrs. Ramsey to Marge Piercy and to Annie Wilkes, you can see how a novel or memoir could even include more than one character with the same personality, each played out in a vastly different way. These personality tips will be most useful after your characters emerge in your mind and on the printed page. It’s our goal as writers to create recognizable personalities — known to the reader without allowing them to become stereotypical – distinguishable from one another by unique history, behavior, and voice.
(Another good example of this personality is Leo King in Pat Conroy's South of Broad.)