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Margaret Mizushima asks How Do You Build Characters?

Margaret Mizushima is the author of the Timber Creek K-9 mysteries. You can find out more about her here, see her books here, and read her last post here.

There is more than one way to build a fictional character. Throughout the years, I’ve used many different methods: character interviews, character profiles, discovering my characters while I write. But one method I’ve grown to love when character building is through the application of the Enneagram personality typing system.

The Enneagram is an ancient Sufi method of establishing personality types and it was brought into modern psychology back in the 1980s by authors such as Helen Palmer in The Enneagram: Understanding Yourself and the Others in Your Life and Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson in The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types.

I discovered the Enneagram over thirty years ago when it was used for team building at a company where I worked. Since this method of personality typing is based on how an individual perceives the world, it’s great for developing an understanding of reactions and motivations in others. So when I was beginning to write the Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries, I decided to try using the Enneagram to flesh out my protagonists.

The nine personality types are, in order: The Perfectionist, The Giver, The Performer, The Tragic Romantic, The Observer, The Devil’s Advocate, The Epicure, The Boss, and The Mediator. You’d have to read about these types in one of the books mentioned above for a full definition, but their titles do encapsulate the basic way each interacts with their world and others. No individual is only one type, and the types before and after our main type on the Enneagram diagram influence us. The types we go to when under stress or when we’re comfortable also influence us.

Striking Range by Margaret Mizushima

Before I started writing, I assigned a personality type to each of my two protagonists—Deputy Mattie Cobb became a Type One/The Perfectionist, and veterinarian Cole Walker became a Type Eight/The Boss. I thoroughly researched the chapters describing each type, created a character trait list for each, and then proceeded to get inside these two characters’ heads as I wrote their opening scenes. In this way I learned who they were from the inside out and could predict how they would react in any situation I chose to develop.

By the way, I didn’t assign Mattie’s patrol dog Robo a type. My inspiration for him came from a different source and the dogs in our own pack inspired many of his behavioral traits.

Creating characters with the Enneagram is a lot of fun, but I don’t apply it to every character in the story. I think it’s useful for guiding me when I write from my protagonists’ point of view, but I don’t feel it’s necessary for building secondary or minor characters.

But each to his own! There are many ways to build a character. What’s your favorite way?

Margaret Mizushima

Margaret Mizushima is the author of the award-winning Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries, police procedurals featuring a deputy, her K-9 partner, and a veterinarian who live in the Colorado Rockies. You can find out more about her on her website, www.margaretmizushima.com, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Laurie Buchanan

    Margaret — I love how you build personality types. Brava! By the way, that’s a fantastic photo of you with your animal companions.

    1. Margaret Mizushima
      Margaret Mizushima

      Thanks, Laurie! We took that photo a few years ago and I love it, even though our oldest, the yellow lab, has passed. It took many trials to capture all of them looking at the camera!

  2. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Great information and love the dogs! Dogs probably sit around in their pack and decide who gets what personality type, too. (Smiling)

    1. Margaret Mizushima
      Margaret Mizushima

      Ha! Especially if they work in corporate America! Thanks for your comment, Christine.

  3. Avatar
    marilynlevinson

    An interesting system of typing personality traits. I can already see sparks flying between The Perfectionist and The Boss.:) Love this photo!

    1. Margaret Mizushima
      Margaret Mizushima

      Thanks, Marilyn. Yes, two personality types that think their way is the best. It does make for fun moments.

  4. Jacqueline Vick
    Jacqueline Vick

    I hadn’t thought about assigning my characters personality traits. It’s an intriguing idea. Thanks for the information. (And I, too, LOVE the photo!)

    1. Margaret Mizushima
      Margaret Mizushima

      Thanks so much, Jacqueline! It has helped me, and the idea that this was the start of a series with the hope that I would be spending more time with these characters than just one book made me willing to do the extra work before I started. I’ve not used it with other books or short stories.

  5. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    As a handwriting analyst, I’ve used the Enneagram for about 30 years–so obviously, am a big fan. The personality traits in the E. correlate well with what handwriting shows. Great idea to use it in your books.

    1. Margaret Mizushima
      Margaret Mizushima

      Oh wow, Sheila. Another interesting application! Thanks so much for your comment.

  6. Avatar
    saralynrichard

    I find this fascinating. The school district I worked for the longest used the Briggs-Meyer Personality Test for leadership training workshops, and I have used that for character building in the past. I love your Mattie and Cole so much (Robo, too), so it’s great to learn about their origins.

    1. Margaret Mizushima
      Margaret Mizushima

      Thanks, Saralyn! I’ve enjoyed playing with that personality test as well and once attended a workshop on using it for character building. And thanks so much for reading the Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries! So glad you enjoy them!

  7. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    I’m going to look into your system, Margaret, even though my main characters (the four detectives) were modeled after some of my students, so their personality traits followed from that. But I always add in new main characters with each subsequent adventure. Thanks for sharing this. And you can’t go wrong with dogs in the photo. Love it!

    1. Margaret Mizushima
      Margaret Mizushima

      Thanks, Sherrill. I don’t know how well this would work with child protagonists, but you would know best. I do love that you were inspired by your students to develop you main characters. And believe me, we had many a photo go wrong while trying to take this one. What a bundle of energies we were trying to contain, even though my husband ran them around the field before we took it. Ha!

  8. Avatar
    Laurie's Story

    Thanks, Margaret. I hadn’t heard of the Enneagram method before and found it interesting that you apply it to your characters. I’ll have to check it out more closely. I love seeing all these different methods authors employ to make their characters real. Good job!

    1. Margaret Mizushima
      Margaret Mizushima

      Thanks for your comment, Laurie. Yes, there are so many ways to build characters, and it’s always fun to hear what other authors are doing. Have a good weekend!

  9. Donna Rewolinski
    Donna Rewolinski

    Great article. I love when a character fully develops because they walk beside us and dictate story in action and words. We can find ourselves saying, “Character so and so would or wouldn’t say or do something.”

  10. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    Margaret, I haven’t heard of the Enneagram personality types before. Now I have something to research! I use the (fantastic) books by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, The Positive Trait Thesaurus and the Negative Trait Thesaurus. (there are others in the series) I like to choose 3-5 traits from each book. The books guide you on complimentary behaviors. I find it very useful to know my characters well before I start writing.
    Thanks for your info! Another tool!

    1. Margaret Mizushima
      Margaret Mizushima

      Tracey, thanks for mentioning the tools you use! These two books sound very useful, and I’ll look into them. Many ways to build characters!

  11. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    Great post, Margaret! I tend to focus on plot first and sometimes my characters suffer for it. Character development is very important for me to focus on. I use the DiSC profiling system, partly because I teach a workshop in the types so they are second nature to me. But it is only four types and I love that there are nine types in this method. Thank you so much for the info!

    1. Margaret Mizushima
      Margaret Mizushima

      Thanks for your comment, Sharon. I’ll look into the DiSC profiling system and learn more about it. I really appreciate you mentioning another tool for our writer’s toolbox!

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