I always wanted to do English, but a small voice said it might not lead to a job - it was the voice of the school careers adviser. He told me you had to do a BSc to have any chance of employment. So I took psychology and it did lead to a job – I ended up as a Chartered Psychologist. Since turning my mind to writing stories, I’ve also come to believe that psychology is a great training for a writer.
Over the last twenty years I’ve assessed the abilities and personality of hundreds of business leaders and coached a good few of them including, topically, the chief executive of a bank. That gives you the chance to ask the questions that most people don’t get to ask. I’ve also done “job analysis” studies ranging from foreign exchange dealers to bus drivers. Ostensibly these were to help design selection methods, but as a by-product you get to spend time with them, watch them work and ask all those questions again. It’s all good raw material. I’ve also used frameworks for human behaviour in my fiction - The Grieving Cycle, for example - to show a character reacting to bad news.
In the limited space here, I’d like to mention one structure I’ve found useful: the enneagram. It’s no substitute for the deep curiosity and insight into humanity we all need as writers, but having a guidebook can help too.
According to the enneagram, there are nine personality types. When you are learning all about a character you’ve created – was she popular at school, why does she hate her brother, when did she first do acid – her type is another aspect you can consider. A proper understanding of the enneagram could suggest how your character will react when her husband crashes the car or when a colleague suggests a quick one after work.
The list below is a taster to give you an idea what I’m talking about. The range of adjectives is supposed to show how each type is in either a healthy or unhealthy emotional state.
Type Can be . . .
One: Principled, perfectionist, crusading, critical. Judging of self and others. Fears being wrong.
Two: Loving, the helper, denying their own needs, can become a martyr and complaining. Fears neediness.
Three: Achiever, ambitious, competitive, status-conscious. Fears failure.
Four: Artistic, creative, individual, sensitive, self-obsessed. Fears ordinariness.
Five: Knowledgeable, expert, skilled, detached, deluded. Fears being useless.
Six: Popular, loyalist, conforming, wants to fit in, insecure.Fears isolation.
Seven: Fun, sociable, enthusiast, open to experience, self-indulgent thrill-seeker. Fears pain (just keeps on running).
Eight: Strong, leader, powerful, bullying. Fears weakness.
Nine: Peacemaker, contented, self-contained, lethargic. Fears conflict.
Before using the enneagram as a character development tool I would recommend studying the various books on the subject. This list does no justice to its complexity. For example, each of us has a wing, as well as a main type, and therein lies some of the subtlety and insight. I only hope it might sharpen your appetite to find out more. One place to start is the work of Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson at http://www.enneagraminstitute.com/. They have plenty of resources and a questionnaire to find out your own type. Their website also allows you to look at the compatibility of the different types in relationships.
The enneagram can open a door into the mind of characters that are unlike you, and help avoid the danger that all your characters are really versions of yourself. Knowing how the different types react, when faced with the sort of murder and mayhem authors inflict on our characters, is extremely helpful.
There are lots of other aspects of psychology, beyond personality that I would love to talk about, but Sam gave me a limit of strictly writing not more than 800 words.
Visit Roderic's website, The Whole of Boredom.