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.
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?