IMPROVE YOUR CHARACTER ARCS WITH AN UNDERSTANDING OF PERSONALITY

DEFENSIVENESS

In my life outside Story Grid, I work with companies to help build capabilities in people, particularly leaders. During the nineties, I discovered Chris Argyris, an eminent teacher in how to achieve functional organisations. One of his ideas has stuck with me ever since – the human capacity for defensiveness is normal, and we’re all prone to it. But while many can recognise defensiveness in others, fewer can recognise this in ourselves. Defensiveness resides in the part of our brain called the amygdala, which facilitates our fight, flight, freeze, and appease responses. As writers, we can use this to our advantage.

How? Because if we reflect a real-life understanding of personality type in our stories, our characters will be ‘preloaded’ with anxieties according to their personality type. Put them in conflict situations, and their ready-made anxiety will increase, adding to their anxiety and the conflict you need to create. 

You remember the Story Grid gas tank of needs associated with genre? Our characters come to the page with external goals and needs, driven by our choice of genre. AND they come with an existing personality, the kind that makes you and me react defensively in all sorts of situations. More than physical protection, defensiveness is designed to protect the image we hold of ourselves. That defensiveness makes for great fodder – not only for characters in our stories but the way we show whether our characters develop or degenerate. Or, put in terms that Story Grid nerds know, whether our characters develop in a prescriptive tale or degenerate in a cautionary tale.

We know stories are about change because nothing moves in a story except through conflict.  Robert McKee (Story) says, ‘conflict is to storytelling, what sound is to music – it is the soul of a story. Defensiveness is the other side of the conflict coin.

OBJECTS OF DESIRE

The Story Grid: What good editors know, Shawn Coyne says, three levels of conflict can thwart a character’s plans to get their external and internal objects of desire. 

·   Inner conflict is the voice in our character’s heads that cause us to dither, to worry when faced with difficulty;

·   Personal conflict is provided by a living character we know or perceive is intent from keeping us from reaching a goal; (note the reference to living character – the dead can also pose conflict, but this is inner conflict);

·   Extra-personal conflict is the threat of being ostracized by society at large or one’s tribe. Or, it’s a naturally occurring force or phenomena like weather, earthquakes.

Let’s focus on the inner conflict across a story (the arc) and how character choice drives increased inner conflict, internal defensiveness, and consequences for others (personal conflict).

BASIC DESIRE OR OBJECTS OF DESIRE? 

Are these the same? To a degree. Remember, that when something happens at the beginning of a story that throws a lead character’s life out of balance (inciting incident) that something (causal or coincidental) ‘gives rise to an object of desire in your lead character’s conscious and (often) subconscious mind. A conscious want might be to stop aliens destroying Earth. It may be accompanied with a subconscious need, e.g. to prove to their family that they are worthy of love.’ (The Story Grid: What Good Editors Should Know, p78)

The protagonist’s primary desire is a core element of personality that sits in opposition to their underlying fear. Our lead characters have these before they even encounter an inciting incident. In other words, they come to readers with an already developed personality. But it’s the symbiotic elements of fear and desire that drive a character’s choices – their thoughts and feelings before their action. These are the crucial ingredients that form a character’s pursuit of their object of desire or their response to the frustration and conflict that will ensue.

WHY LOOK AT PERSONALITY?

The most important reason for writers to study personality is the same reason other professionals do. Human beings are inherently interesting in their shades of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. From selfless and altruistic, to venal and homicidal, we are easily changeable. It’s much easier to forecast the weather than predict human behaviour. We have the potential to be more changeable than the weather, which makes us infuriating, pleasurable, and frankly mystifying. For better or worse, we have all sorts of different impacts on others, as they have on us.  

Who hasn’t wondered whether we knew someone as well as we thought we did? Who hasn’t surprised themselves?

HOW TO EXAMINE/UNDERSTAND PERSONALITY?

There are many ‘instruments’ that measure aspects of personality, many of which could potentially provide a great source of information.

The Enneagram (pronounced Any-a-gram) – a powerful tool to choose character personality 

The Enneagram is presented as if the character degenerates through a cautionary tale. But if the model were in reverse, it would operate as character development in a prescriptive tale. If you want to get serious about understanding personality and the preloading effect of fears and desires and how they drive attitudes and behaviours, I recommend you look at the Enneagram, found here. https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/ I’ve completed the online test and found it very insightful.


The Enneagram gives us nine essential personalities, all of which have unique basic fears and desires. As we will see, it is also a tool that helps writers and has seven very important characteristics:

1.    Response to anxiety (basic fear). It turns out that how we respond to anxiety and conflict is not random but in accord with protecting one’s ideal self-image. Our self-image is core to who we are and how we respond to challenges and frustrations;

2.   Level of functioning (or dysfunction) in exercising those responses. There is a logical cause and effect progression in health or pathology which helps us write a character arc. A strong and consistent character arc is essential towards crafting a story as a prescriptive or a cautionary tale; 

3.   Versatility – the Enneagram transcends genre. That is, different personality types are not unique to any genre and demonstrate different behaviours as they set about meeting their needs in the Story Grid gas gauge of needs; 

4.   Enduringly reliable – while people change in many ways through life, their core personality, driven by basic fears and basic desires does not;

5.   Predictable – if any character’s core personality changes from healthy to unhealthy or vice versa, it will change in accord with the way the Enneagram predicts, i.e., point two above;

6.   Equitable – no personality type is inherently better or worse than any other, with each having its strengths and weaknesses (acknowledging some types might be more desirable than others in a specific culture or group);

7.   Self-actualisation – each type must change their thinking before setting off on the route to self-actualisation. More on that later.


WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL BASIC FEARS AND DESIRES FOR OUR CHARACTER PERSONALITY TYPES?

Look at this list of personality types from the Enneagram. The best/worst behaviours are observed when a character overcomes their ego self-image (best) or surrenders to it (worst). The Enneagram sets out nine levels of functionality for the nine types of personality. The Enneagram developers describe three of the levels as ‘healthy’, three at ‘average health’ and three at ‘unhealthy’. It’s probably more helpful for writers to think of these levels as points on a global value spectrum, as we do for genre. The way a character acts out on that spectrum varies according to their type. 

Note: The language used, basic fear/desire, healthy unhealthy and associated descriptive terms is the language of the Enneagram.

TYPE 1: THE REFORMER
Basic Fear: Of being corrupt, evil, defective, imbalanced.
Basic Desire: To be good, have integrity.

At healthy best: Wisdom, conscientiousness, responsibility.
You could portray this character as: the wise realist, the reasonable person, the principled teacher.

At average health: Idealism, rigidity, perfectionism.
You could portray this character as: the idealistic reformer, the orderly person, the judgmental perfectionist.

At unhealthy worst: Intolerance, obsessiveness, punishing.
You could portray this character as: The intolerant misanthrope, the obsessive hypocrite, the punitive avenger.


TYPE TWO: THE HELPER
Basic Fear: Of being unwanted, unworthy of being loved.
Basic Desire: To be loved unconditionally.

At healthy best: Unconditional love, empathetic, selfless, generous.
You could portray this character as: The disinterested altruist (altruism without bias), the caring person, the nurturing helper.

At average health: People pleasing, intrusive, self-sacrificing.
You could portray this character as: The effusive friend, the possessive intimate, the self-important saint.

At unhealthy worst: Manipulative, coercive, feeling victimised.
You could portray this character as: The self-deceptive manipulator, the coercive dominator, the psychosomatic victim.


TYPE THREE: THE ACHIEVER
Basic Fear: Of being worthless.
Basic Desire: To feel valuable, worthwhile.

At healthy best: Inner-directed, adaptable, ambitious.
You could portray this character as: The authentic person, the self-assured person, the personification of excellence.

At average health: Performance oriented, image conscious, competitive.
You could portray this character as: The competitive status seeker, the image conscious pragmatist, the self-promoting narcissist.

At unhealthy worst: Deceptive, Opportunistic, Vindictive.
You could portray this character as: The dishonest opportunist, the malicious deceiver, the vindictive psychopath.


TYPE FOUR: THE INDIVIDUALIST
Basic Fear: Of having no identity or personal significance.
Basic Desire: To find themselves and their significance.

At healthy best: Life-embracing, sensitive, creative.
You could portray this character as: The inspired creator, the self-aware intuitive, the self-revealing individual.

At average health: Romanticizing, temperamental, self-indulgent.
You could portray this character as: The imaginative aesthete, the self-absorbed romantic, the self-indulgent “exception” (to others).

At unhealthy worst: Alienated, hateful, self-rejecting.
You could portray this character as: The alienated depressive, the emotionally tormented person, the self-destructive person.


TYPE FIVE: THE INVESTIGATOR
Basic Fear: Of being helpless, useless and incapable.
Basic Desire: To be capable, competent and have something to contribute.

At healthy best: Understanding, curious, innovative.
You could portray this character as: The pioneering visionary, the perceptive observer, the focused innovator.

At average health: Conceptual, preoccupied, provocative.
You could portray this character as: The studious expert, the intense abstractor, the provocative cynic.

At unhealthy worst: Nihilistic, delirious, annihilating.
You could portray this character as: The isolated nihilist, the terrified ‘alien’, the imploded hermit.


TYPE SIX: THE LOYALIST
Basic Fear: Of being unable to survive on their own.
Basic Desire: To find security and support and to belong.

At healthy best: Self-reliant, engaging, cooperative.
You could portray this character as: The valiant hero, the likeable person, the committed worker.

At average health: Self-doubting, defensive, blaming.
You could portray this character as: The dutiful loyalist, the ambivalent pessimist, the authoritarian rebel.

At unhealthy worst: Paranoid, self-abasing, self-destructive.
You could portray this character as: The over-reacting dependent, the over-suspicious hysteric, the self-defeating masochist.


TYPE SEVEN: THE ENTHUSIAST
Basic Fear: Of pain and deprivation.
Basic Desire: To be satisfied, content, have their needs fulfilled.

At healthy best: Grateful, enthusiastic, productive.
You could portray this character as: The authentic appreciator, the free-spirited enthusiast, the accomplished generalist.

At average health: Acquisitive, impulsive, excessive.
You could portray this character as: The experienced sophisticate, the hyperactive extrovert, the addictive hedonist.

At unhealthy worst: Dissipated, compulsive, hysterical.
You could portray this character as: The impulsive escapist, the manic compulsive, the panic-stricken hysteric.


TYPE EIGHT: THE CHALLENGER
Basic Fear: Of being harmed or controlled by others.
Basic Desire: To protect themselves, be in control of own destiny.

At healthy best: Compassionate, emotional strength, protective.
You could portray this character as: The magnanimous heart, the self-confident activist (doer).

At average health: Pragmatic, forceful, belligerent.
You could portray this character as: The enterprising adventurer, the dominating power broker, the confrontational adversary.

At unhealthy worst: Ruthless, rage, destructive.
You could portray this character as: The treacherous outlaw, the omnipotent megalomaniac, the murderous destroyer.

TYPE NINE: THE PEACEMAKER
Basic Fear: Of loss and separation
Basic Desire: To have inner stability, peace of mind.

At healthy best: Autonomous, unself-conscious, accepting.
You could portray this character as: The self-possessed guide, the receptive person, the supportive peacemaker.

At average health: Self-effacing, passive, fatalistic.
You could portray this character as: The accommodating role-player, the disengaged person, the resigned appeaser.

At unhealthy worst: Neglectful, dissociated, self-abandoned.
You could portray this character as: The denying doormat, the shattered automaton, The ghost-like empty shell.

You might be surprised (as I was) that what is classified as ‘average’ health sometimes looked more like the ‘unhealthy worst’ level. However, with insight and coaching the ‘average’ can move closer to ‘healthy’.

While we may have a dominant type or two, the Enneagram also shows how our dominant type might be modified by others. This isn’t too much of a surprise when we consider how complex human beings are. The Enneagram calls these modifications ‘wings.’

But to keep this simple, we’ll look at one core personality type, i.e without ‘wings’. That’s enough to establish how this type behaves to protect their self-image but it’s useful to know there is significantly more depth to the Enneagram than I’m able to present here.

MORE ON TYPE EIGHT: THE CHALLENGER

From psychological health to unwellness 

We will look at self-actualization below, but for now, let’s focus on the ‘Challenger’s deterioration. The typical ‘Challenger’ starts with an attitude of self-confidence with authoritative, decisive behaviour and leading in social situations. If the ‘Challenger’ remains healthy and responds to challenges before them in the ways described in the Enneagram, they may not yet be self-actualising, but nor are they deteriorating.

However, if the ‘Challenger’ develops a secondary fear of not having enough resources to carry out their role as leader, this sets up a secondary desire to acquire more resources to maintain their social value as leader. While it might be a pragmatic response, the Enneagram suggests movements away from self-actualisation will lead to competitive and shrewd behaviours. The ‘Challenger’ may still be seen by others as hardworking, business like and even street-smart. Yet despite that, the ‘Challenger’ could still develop another level of fear: that others do not respect them or recognise their efforts. In response to this new fear, the ‘Challenger’ derives a new desire: to convince themselves and others of their centrality and importance. 

The full degeneration of a ‘Challenger’ would, according to the Enneagram, look like this.

Basic fear: I might be harmed or controlled by others.
Response (1): Protect myself and be in control of my own destiny.
Likely actions: Assert, direct, utilise resources, be tenacious and provide robust responses to setbacks.

Next fear: I might become weak or vulnerable and lose my position of strength.
Response (2): Need to prove my strength.
Likely actions: Enact my vision, provide for others, be the champion and protector of others.

Next fear: I don’t have enough resources to do what I want to do.
Response (3): Acquire more resources
Likely actions: Work hard, take risks, become more street smart, increase business skills.

Next fear: Others won’t respect me (for what I’m doing)
Response (4) Convince others of my importance/centrality to their life or success.
Likely actions: Tighten control, become explicit in my achievements (boast) make big promises, be blunt.

Next fear: Others won’t back me up, I might lose the control I’ve fought for/deserve.
Response (5): Pressure others (to do more of what I want).
Likely actions: Be combative, aggressive, threaten, undermine.

Next fear: Others will turn against me.
Response (6): Protect myself and stay in control all cost.
Likely actions: Scheme, lie, engage in treachery, emotional and/or physical violence.

Next fear: Others will retaliate.
Response (7): Make myself invincible, invulnerable.
Likely actions: Rage, over-extend, engage in rapacious acts.

Next fear: My resources won’t hold out.
Response (8): Destroy everything rather than be forced to submit or surrender.
Likely actions: Mobster behaviours including murder – Basic Fear is realised.

Each higher numbered response provides a turning point in the degeneration of the character’s personality until finally, the basic fear for each type becomes a reality. The Enneagram personality types offer writers, a comprehensive guide to develop character arcs.  

In a cautionary tale, where our ‘Challenger’ starts out reasonably healthy and well-intentioned, their inner conflict is played out. It doesn’t mean we have to end the story with a ‘Challenger’ character becoming a mobster, murdering others because they refuse to surrender. There’s often enough inner conflict to be played out between the healthy and average levels for all the personality types.

Shawn Coyne says we should ask ourselves a simple question. ‘How difficult would it be for my character to reverse their decision, to go back to their old life without any repercussions?’

We know stories are full of characters who change, for better or worse. Could they reverse the degeneration, go back toward a path of self-actualisation? Absolutely! But not without a change of worldview.


SELF-ACTUALISING 

The Enneagram refers to three fundamental building blocks of personality derived from infancy: attachment, frustration and rejection. We all operate in these three states regardless of our specific personality type, with each type having a propensity to ‘operate out of one of those affects’. 

The ‘Challenger’ type operates out of the rejection-based affect. It subconsciously goes through life expecting to be rejected and developing a need to defend itself against this feeling in various ways, e.g. being so powerful and in control of life’s necessities that others will dare not reject them. Their ‘tough’ stance toward life – in effect, braces themselves for rejection to minimize its impact if it happens.  

Unsurprisingly, attachment, frustration and rejection align with the internal, Story Grid, Worldview Genre.  However, Worldview is not only how our character sees the world, but how they see themselves functioning in that world. To self-actualize, the ‘Challenger’ must let go of their belief that they should always be in control of their environment. Each of the nine types involves giving up what is essentially ‘a lie’ about their subconscious need.

As writers, how and when do we show our ‘Challenger’ on the path to self- actualisation? The all-is-lost-moment is likely to be a great time in the story to provide that opportunity for most personality types. The way you choose to dramatize the character’s insight will answer the question about how. I like to think about the path of metaphoric insanity: keep doing the same (or worse) while expecting different or better outcomes. Something must make a character on the insanity path realise they’ve crossed the threshold of pain from just bearable to unbearable.

But once insight strikes, (the light bulb/ah-ha moment) we might show the ‘Challenger’ in action inspiring and uplifting others, helping others through a crisis, yielding to others without fear of sacrificing their own needs and doing these things in ways that were not possible for them at earlier points in the story. We might show them as understanding the world is not against them, letting in affection, serving a higher purpose than self-interest. So, after insight, we need to dramatize their action.

A STORY EXAMPLE

I assess Rick Blain in Casablanca (played by Humphrey Bogart) as mostly a Type Eight ‘Challenger.’ But he has attributes that the Type Five ‘Investigator’ also has: the two types see themselves as outsiders, both easily feel rejected, are highly independent and are willing to battle anyone who threatens that independence. When he enters the story, Rick is the owner of a night club and gambling den, harbouring the belief that his former lover, Ilsa Lund, jilted him in Paris. Consequently, he shows he feels betrayed, is cynical, and carries a huge chip on his shoulder. He demonstrates his need to protect himself when he states that famous line, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” According to the Enneagram, this puts Rick at the ‘Challenger’ level of over compensation.

But how much of the ‘real’ Rick is revealed in these set up scenes? After all, viewers get some clear hints that Rick is willing to help others and take personal risks to do so. It’s the emotion that engages us: the tearful boozing, his reaction to the song: As time goes by, the nastiness with Ilsa. By the time the ending payoff arrives, if we know anything about Rick, it’s that he’s complex.

 Moving in reverse of the numbered responses above, Rick appears to overcome feeling betrayed and his reclusive approach to life. He no longer has a need for emotional violence, bad temper, cynicism and defiance. He’s using his competitiveness and risk-taking attributes to support Victor and Ilsa helping them to fight the Nazis. As the result of giving up his defence against losing control, he applies his strong will and resourcefulness to help others. He doesn’t just reverse the spiral of decline, he takes on the positive attributes of Type Two, ‘The Helper.’ This is in accord with the Enneagram’s theory of personality type.
Or did he?
Perhaps he was already well on the way to self-actualisation and Ilsa and Victor were the nudge to get him over the line. Or, perhaps it suited him to appear to show the overcompensation attributes while sneakily hiding the fact he was already acting heroically to fight the tyrannical occupier.


SOME USEFUL QUESTIONS FOR THINKING ABOUT BRINGING CHARACTERS TO THE PAGE 


1)      Consider: How might you demonstrate your character pursuing happiness and fulfilment in the wrong place, or with the wrong people? How can you create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which your character brings about the very thing they fear and loses their deepest desire?

2)      How can you show a character failing to acknowledge aspects of themselves and indulging in self-deception which leads them farther from fulfilment and happiness?

3)      Which of these might work for your character in progress?

a.       Searching for love from others, while feeling they are unloved;

b.       Pursuing achievement and recognition, but feeling worthless and empty;

c.       Trying to discover their personal identity, but remaining unaware of who they are;

d.       Accumulating knowledge and skills to build self-confidence, but still feel helpless and incapable;

e.       Toiling to create security for themselves, yet still feeling anxious and fearful about their world;

f.        Searching high and low for happiness, but remaining unhappy and frustrated;

g.       Doing everything possible to protect themselves and their interests, but still feeling vulnerable and threatened;

h.       Making sacrifices for inner peace and security, but still feeling ungrounded and insecure;

i.         Striving to maintain personal integrity but feeling divided and at war with themselves;

All these questions relate to the nine types of personality shown in the Enneagram.

IRONIC ENDINGS

Robert McKee (Story) says, ‘Up/down endings in stories express our sense of the complex, dual nature of existence, a simultaneously charged positive and negative vision; life at its most complete and realistic.’ 

Casablanca could be counted as an ironic ending. Rick returned to the man he was before he met Ilsa, a man of self-respect that would help others, but it cost him the love of his life. The audience sees the possibility of love for him again. Even the smallest changes of personality towards growth and self-actualization involve letting go something of the old self-image and contribute to an ironic ending.

CONCLUSION

Writing an effective character arc comes with clarity of a character’s personality attributes before they appear on the page. There are several well-researched and useful tools available to us that have done some of the heavy lifting in that analysis but check out the Enneagram. Identifying your character’s basic fear will begin that process. Then decide how far away you want your character to be from self-actualisation. The Enneagram gives you some useful ideas for the behaviours you need to show.

https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/type-descriptions

Finally, nothing about any tools available to you as a writer should constrain you. Like all story tools, personality types are there to help, not hinder your story development. We can use the core elements of psychology to guide our characters’ development or degeneration to create character arcs that leave lasting and satisfying impressions on readers. 

I want to acknowledge and thank Rachelle Ramirez for her helpful suggestions and editing of this article.

About the Author

Mark McGinn says, ‘It’s all about the reader/audience reaction. They know when a story/movie works or doesn’t work, and it’s not their job to tell us why. I’m here to help writers write stories that work, to show the difference between those that do and those that don’t – YET! There is no better set of tools and principles to do so, than the Story Grid.’Mark has had a career in New Zealand’s law courts which has driven and enhanced his authenticity as a specialist in crime fiction. He’s written three legal thrillers, one private detective story and a police procedural (he’s yet to publish). www.mcginncrime.com Now, Story Grid tools also inform his business consulting practice. He says, ‘Story is about change and so is personal and professional development. Character is about the choices we make when faced with dilemmas. The plot, or real-world challenge, is simply the vehicle through which we show true character.’When Mark isn’t writing or editing, he’s reading, or walking in the hills of Christchurch, in a vain attempt to counter the effects of red wine and chocolate. And while doing that, if he’s not in his time warp of 80’s and 90’s music, he’s listening to the Story Grid podcast, and the Story Grid Editor Roundtable.

Comments (2)
Author Mark McGinn

2 Comments

Leave a Comment

Story Grid has helped thousands of authors tell better stories.

Now it's Your Turn

I’d like to send you a FREE 5-day video course on how to tell better stories with Story Grid.

The Book

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.

First Time Writer

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.

Resources

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.