My Secret Tool for Writing Complex, Believable Characters

Guest Post by Lisa Betz –

I’m an introverted, non-emotional, unassertive, analytical thinker, while my heroine is nosy, headstrong, extroverted, intuitive, and a little reckless. Because our personalities are so different, I must frequently remind myself that my heroine doesn’t see the world the same way I do and she won’t react to a given scene the same way I would. This makes writing her a challenge.

Before I discovered the enneagram, I wasted hours pondering how my characters should respond when I plunked them into conflict. So many possibilities. How was I to figure out which responses best fit each personality? Then a writer friend introduced me to the enneagram.

In brief, the enneagram teaches that humans tend to fall into one of nine warped narratives—lies we believe about who we are and how we must behave to survive in this world. What makes the enneagram particularly useful for writers is that each of the nine types is defined by one single core issue which drives all their beliefs and behaviors.

Thus, the enneagram provides writers with the core lies that characters believe about themselves, which inform each character’s wounds and story arc. Additionally, the type and core issue provide writers with a basis for knowing how a character will respond in any fictional situation they are forced into. Every action arises out of the core lie and the corresponding warped coping strategy.

Here is a very brief description of the nine types and their core issues:

Here’s an example of how core issues affect behavior:

A Type One’s warped belief is I am corrupt or imperfect; therefore, I must strive to be perfect. A Type Three’s warped belief is I am worthless; therefore, I must prove my worth through achievements.

These two types exhibit similar behaviors, such as being hardworking, organized, competitive, and eager for approval, but these behaviors arise out of different motivations. For example, while both types would want to complete an assignment well and be praised for their work, their core issues will affect how they go about it. A Type One will focus on doing everything the “right” way (however they define right), while a Type Three will opt for the most expedient method. Type Threes don’t mind bending the rules or cutting corners, so long as the end result makes them look successful.

Therefore, if I were writing a scene in which a character was tempted to cut corners, the internal struggle would be quite different between the two types. This fact helps me decide how a particular character should act. Knowing the character’s core issues also helps me select ethical dilemmas that will most challenge that character.

While modern psychologists have adapted and refined the enneagram, the concepts are centuries old. Elements of the enneagram go back to the Desert Fathers of early Christianity, so the nine enneagram types are applicable whether one is writing about World War II or ancient Rome.

A final benefit of using the enneagram is that writers don’t need to become experts. A basic understanding of the nine types and their core issues is sufficient to get started, although the more you learn, the more useful the tool becomes.

A single article cannot provide enough information to enable you to utilize the enneagram types well, so I’ve included a list of resources for further study.

Helpful Resources

The book that I think best explains the enneagram concept for beginners is The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. Both of these authors have additional books you might find useful and both host podcasts.

Ian Cron hosts Typology and Suzanne Stabile hosts The Enneagram Journey.

The Enneagram Institute Website

The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson

Believable Characters: Creating with Enneagrams by Laurie Schnebly

An engineer-turned-mystery-writer, Lisa E. Betz infuses her novels with authentic characters who thrive on solving tricky problems. Her debut novel, Death and a Crocodile, won several awards, including Golden Scroll Novel of the Year (2021). Lisa combines her love of research with her quirky imagination to bring the world of the early church to life. She and her husband reside outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with Scallywag, their rambunctious cat—the inspiration for Nemesis, resident mischief maker in the Livia Aemilia Mysteries. Lisa directs church dramas, eats too much chocolate, and experiments with ancient Roman recipes. Visit www.lisaebetz.com.

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