Find your character’s moral problem with the Enneagram

Lyons Fin 018Today’s article is a guest post by story and Enneagram expert Jeff Lyons of StoryGeeks.com. His article touches on a often overlooked aspect of story development that many writers miss and their story structure suffers as a result: their main character’s “moral problem”.

Jeff will be teaching us more about how to identify a character’s moral problem in his upcoming workshop here in Berkeley, California (I’m co-hosting) on October 26 and 27 on his method of Rapid Story Development. We’d love to have you join us if you’d like to learn more.

Now here’s Jeff’s article:

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The problem is moral

Hands down, the most important and most overlooked story structure element all writers either miss altogether or bungle is the moral problem. This pesky problem is not just a nice perk — it is a make-it-or-break-it story structure component of any good story.

The moral problem is the hole in the heart of your protagonist. He or she starts off the story in some pickle, some predicament of their own making, ideally brought about by the very moral problem to which they are oblivious. This problem is making them act badly in the world. They are hurting people emotionally, mentally, and maybe even physically due to this lack. It’s the hurting of others that make it a moral issue, and not just a psychological one (the distinction is about hurting others versus hurting oneself). The character needs to learn some lesson about how to live in the world so that they no longer hurt others; some lesson that elevates them (hopefully, but not always) to be a better person. They learn that life lesson that makes them moral again.

Good stories have protagonists with this hole in their heart. And the best stories rip out the protagonist’s heart and then somehow heal it again, before the heart gets put back inside (I’m speaking metaphorically, of course — unless this is a Clive Barker horror story).

How to find the moral problem

So, the question becomes: how does a writer figure out how to find one of these heart-holes? How do you assure that your protagonist has a meaningful moral problem and an equally meaningful growth-moment at the end of the story where they see the error of their evil ways? Some writers have a natural gift for this and flawed and tortured protagonists come to them as gracefully as flight to an eagle. For others (i.e., most of us) the process of finding a good moral problem is more like trying to find a taxi on a rainy night.

The good news, however, is that there is a tool that any writer can use to help them crack this problem, regardless of their natural gifts. That tool is called the Enneagram. The Enneagram is a powerful archetypal system that describes the nine core personality drives underlying all human behavior. Each of the nine drives is rooted in thoughts, feelings and actions that largely determine how we interact with the world, for good or ill. Everyone has an Enneagram type — including fictional characters and stories themselves. Writers have used this tool for many decades to develop multi-dimensional characters, but it can also be used as a story development too, when coupled with story structure principles. It is this relationship between the Enneagram and story structure that gives writers a doorway to finding the most dramatically powerful moral problem for their protagonist.

What’s your character’s poison?

Let’s take an example and walk through the problem as a point of illustration:

You just wrote the movie The Verdict. Frank, the protagonist, is a ambulance-chasing, alcoholic lawyer who is constantly looking for the next sucker to scam into hiring him. You know he’s a drunk. You know he’s in pain. But what’s his moral problem? Is his alcoholism the moral problem? Alcohol hurts lots of people. Is his pain the moral problem? If so, what’s the pain? How do you figure out which it is? Writers spend lots of time caught up in this maze of questions and confusion.

Enneagram to the rescue. Each of the nine Enneagram personality styles has something called a “poison”. This poison is the hole in the heart. It is the thing that poisons everything they do, everything they feel, everything they think. So, what’s poisoning Frank? Certainly alcohol is, but that’s mostly just hurting him. It’s not hurting other people. What he’s doing that’s hurting others is that he is using them. He sees people as targets, not people. So, we have the answer, right? He’s using people. That’s the moral problem, right? No, not quite. That’s what he’s doing; that’s not why he’s doing it. The moral problem is the motivation, the thing causing the using.

The Enneagram poison can help you quickly answer this question and find the real moral problem. Of the nine personality styles, the 3rd style (“The Achiever”) is the one who has the poison of secretly feeling that they have no personal worth or value. This fits Frank’s actions to a tee. For him, people have no value; they’re things to be used. He ultimately feels this because deep down he believes he has no value or worth himself and therefore no one else has value either. Over the course of the movie he learns that, indeed, not only do people matter, but that he himself matters and he can make a difference in the world.

And so not only does the Enneagram technique of looking for the poison explain the motivation behind the protagonist’s immoral behavior, it also points to the final self-revelation at the end of the story, where the hero or heroine realizes how to heal the hole in their heart. In this case, Frank realizes he has value and so do other people. He is able to make a new choice as a result.

Moral problem and story structure

As a writer, having this key piece of information — a clear moral problem — is critical for you to not only address your main character’s development and arc, but also to guide you on how best to structure your story so that key story beats, like the inciting incident, low point, and final climax, are all driven by the engine of the protagonist’s moral problem.

This is a deep subject, but a critical one for any writer. The moral problem can make or break your story, and the Enneagram can help you rapidly navigate the difficult questions that might otherwise hang you up and drag out the development process.

If you’d like to learn more, join us in Berkeley on October 26 & 27. Early registration ends TOMORROW, Thursday, October 10. Find more and register here: http://RapidStoryDevelopment.com

Your turn

As always, we love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Warmly,

 Jenna

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Thanks for reading.

 

Using the Enneagram to move from character to story

Lyons Fin 018In the third and final session of my interview series with Enneagram and story development expert Jeff Lyons (recordings no longer available), we talked about “Bridging the Gap from Motivation to Structure With the Enneagram.” Today’s post is a recap of what we discussed.

His process for “bridging the gap” from premise line to character to story is quite fascinating, and he illustrated it using a breakdown of The Great Gatsby according to the Enneagram.

Bridging the gap

Here’s an overview of the process:

  • Step 1. Write out your premise line and log line.
    (See the last post for more on premise line development.)
  • Step 2. Define the moral problem that best illustrates the story’s premise line.
    (In Gatsby, Nick focuses on trying to fit in and be liked, he isn’t being his truest self, which is a form of lying.)
  • Step 3. Look for the Enneagram type that best represents the motivations (not behaviors) of someone with that moral shortfall.
    (Nick most aligns with the Enneagram type 9.)
  • Step 4. Study the integration and disintegration points for that type to identify what the character is capable of and what they’re greatest opponent might be.
    (Points 3 and 6, respectively.)
  • Step 5. Explore the entertaining moral argument possibilities between those two types.
    (Can you succeed and achieve without giving up your soul?)
  • Step 6. Brainstorm about the communication styles, “pinches”, and blind spots of each of those two types.
    (Nick has various challenges that Gatsby can poke at and wreak havoc with.)
  • Step 7. Map your story using these Enneagram components and correlate them with the visible structure components we discussed last time.
    (This includes the protagonist, moral problem, chain of desire, focal relationship, opposition, plot & momentum (midpoint complication, low point, and final conflict), and evolution/de-evolution and is the more complex step where the story is broken down into a greater level of detail).

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Your turn

Have you considered using the Enneagram in your story development? Will you consider using it in the future? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Warmly,

 Jenna

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Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

The Power of the Enneagram

I’ve been a follower of the Enneagram since 1998. The Enneagram is a powerful system that is highly useful for understanding your personality and inner motivations.

My work colleague told me about it one day, and mentioned that she was pretty sure I was a “Six” just like she was. Horrified to be lumped into a category with someone I often struggled to get along with, I quickly set out to prove that I WASN’T A SIX! I didn’t care what it actually was, I just didn’t want to be THAT.

I took a few tests online and found that the results were mixed. In some I WAS a Six. The horror! In others, it came back as a Four. Hmm. (The tests can be a great place to start if you’re curious about this.)

My colleague suggested that the best way to “get” the Enneagram was to attend a panel discussion, where I could watch and hear from groups of particular types. I think over the years I’ve now attended two different Enneagram panel series and one other Enneagram class here in the local San Francisco Bay Area.

But what I vividly remember is watching the panel of Fours in the first series I attended. I was already suspecting I was a Four — the Individualist, the Dreamer, the Romantic, the Tragic Romantic, the Artist — and I was determined to find out once and for all. (The names vary depending on whose book you’re reading, and some people don’t even like to use the names at all because of the projections people make onto them.)

Fours are known for wanting to be different and special. Unique. It’s both a source of pain and pride for them.

At that first panel series, I watched the entire row of Fours talk about their experiences being a Four. We got all the way down to the very end of the line (there must have been 12 to 14 people easily), and the last woman said, “I don’t know, I just don’t really identify with everyone else here. I mean, I know I’m a Four, and I know you all are too, but I just feel different.”

Right then, I knew in my core, as she expressed EXACTLY WHAT I WAS THINKING, that I was, in fact, a Four.

It wasn’t exactly a thrilling revelation, though it certainly did alleviate my other drama about my colleague (Fours seem to, ahem, like, create, and attract drama). Mostly it hit me: “Oh man, you mean all that stuff that Fours are? I’m that too??”

personality-typesMost of the Enneagram books out there tend to look at each of the nine types from a fairly negative perspective, and a lot of people can be overwhelmed by that. I quickly learned that most of Helen Palmer’s books were too dark for me, and found Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery* by Don Richard Riso with Russ Hudson. I loved the levels of integration and disintegration they described because it gave me a sense that there was hope for improvement and it helped me learn a ton about myself and my suddenly transparent behavior and fixations.

So fast-forward a few years.

Over time, the Enneagram has been a great tool for me for both understanding and getting along with my Nine husband (a Peacemaker) and helping my clients understand themselves better (of course many of them tend to be Fours :) ). One of my colleagues has written a series of books for empaths based around the core Enneagram principles* that I highly recommend. I’ve written a few articles related to the Enneagram myself, and have a page on my old website about the Enneagram and how it relates to high sensitivity.

And once I started writing fiction, I turned to the Enneagram to use it to develop my characters. But I thought of it as simply that, a tool to help me develop each character individually.

I never really thought of it as anything more, or how the characters might be related to each other through the Enneagram.

Then last October, I was following one of my fellow ScriptMag columnists online, Jeff Lyons, who tweeted something about a class he was offering and I discovered that he also offered writing-related, “rapid story development” Enneagram classes and I was enthralled! I wanted to know more right away. It didn’t take long for us to talk about him coming here to Berkeley to teach his method.

What amazes me most about it is that he uses a combination of story premise and the archetypal Enneagram system to do story structure work. Not just character, not just motivation, not even just how characters are related. He works with his own proprietary story premise model with the Enneagram to tackle character, plot, and structure in a holistic, integrated fashion.

Who knew!?

I can’t wait to see how he does it, and I hope you’ll consider coming to join us too. He’s going to be teaching the Enneagram in a very hands-on fashion — it sounds like perfect hybrid of observation, teaching, taking action, and getting a chance to put it into practice. He’s even going to do some 1:1 “magic time” with a few lucky participants on their own story structure and premise. It’s going to be amazing.

If you can’t come and be there live, or if you want more information, we’d love to have you join us over the next three weeks for a three-part interview series with Jeff so you can get a sense of this ground-breaking tool. You can find out more about the teleclass series and register here.

Your turn

Are you familiar with the Enneagram? What has it helped you shift or change in your own life? If you’re a writer, do you use it in your writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Warmly,

 Jenna

 

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