Many writers use tools like astrology and mythology to explore and develop character and personality. For those not familiar with it, I would like to introduce the Enneagram, a rich source of material to understand and develop character. The enneagram is an ancient framework that delves into the structure of character in real life, and in fiction. It has the unique ability to surface unresolved issues and conflicts within a personality, and the ways in which people express and manage them, for better or worse.
To delve into this resource, I would like to introduce Dale Rhodes, founder of Enneagram Portland. Dale shared the Enneagram model with me several years ago, and it continues to be a source of revelation, and a lens through which I come to understand behaviour and motivation on a much deeper level.
Dale, What is Enneagram Portland?
Enneagram Portland was founded in 2002 as the city’s primary resource for people to explore and experience the Enneagram. I work with people individually as a mentor and spiritual director; generally, with folks who are interested in finding out who they really are and what is really going on beneath the surface.
When I discovered the Enneagram in my spiritual director’s formation program, I knew I had found the tool and the framework that would help me journey with others who are interested in personal and spiritual growth as well as personality and character development— in life, on the page or on the screen, or all three.
Would you provide a brief overview of the Enneagram?
The system has its recorded roots with early Christian contemplatives in Alexandria who were trying to have a direct experience of Presence, and they noted that there seemed to be 9 Ways that people blocked themselves from Being and Presence.
As Pythagoreans, they believed there was meaning in systems of numbers; and they were also influenced by the Jewish Kabbalah and pre-historical wisdom from the Egyptians, along with their own self-observations as contemplatives.
This material was later declared heretical by Roman Church leadership (still is) but was kept alive by spiritual directors in various traditions, matching with Dante’s Seven Vices/Virtues. It is a rich topic that requires more explanation elsewhere.
I just know this: The Enneagram is a useful key to understanding how we really are made and how the world is really working. It is the best tool I have found yet; and it gives directional paths for growth and development that are often expressed in the content of good literature and film.
The Enneagram describes Nine Personality Styles, each bringing their attention habitually and preferentially to one of nine arenas. We use all these placements of attention, but we often over rely on one of them, which brings both gifts and challenges:
The Idealist: error, perfection, standards and order
The Connector: needs, connecting and relationships
The Performer: tasks and success
The Romantic: what is missing and what is beauty
The Observer: conserving energy, experiencing omniscience
The Loyal Skeptic: worst cases, safety and finding allies
The Epicure: options, freedom, joy and potential
The Protector: force, injustice, strength and power
The Mediator: comfort, harmony, union and consensus
If you’re curious about the 9 Types, meet them here:
What made you decide to explore the Enneagram in literature and film?
I have always been an avid reader and my partner is wild about cinema. We have always had fun discussions about which personality styles do book or film characters seem to be emanating. It became clear that this is a viable way to expand the community of people who talk type when author Judith Searle presented to Enneagram Portland her workshop on “9 Personalities in Literature and Film.”
Portland is filled with writers and readers, and I assembled curricula for folks to read a book or watch a film each month, along with personality type descriptions, and the groups filled overnight. Currently, I have three groups of ten running and will offer four more next year. Writers tell me that they really benefit from exploring the arcs of character development (and disintegration) that these universal types and storylines present.
Tell us more about how the Enneagram helps us understand and develop character, personality and conflicts.
Everyone has had the experience of examining a character in a film or book and said, “I know this person.” The Enneagram shows you that there is a map to character content tha you already know. It is not the territory, but it is a very helpful map to guiding you, (as a human, a writer or both!), through the land of understanding character motivations: What is the person’s primary value? What is the person capable of? What would be the arc of character tensions under stress and in ease and fullness? As a writer and as a human who must interact well with others, this is invaluable.
In my course called “Understanding the 9 Types in Literature, Film and Community” and in it, we have the delightful experience of reading great novels and dissecting and digesting them through the lens of personality. We all find ourselves in all of these types and characters! We might prefer one personality style’s orientation, but we have them all. Writers find this universal information enables their ability to develop multi-dimensional characters.
For example, think of the personality type I call The Idealist/Perfectionist. There is something universal in the portrayal of Dr. Jekyll as an upstanding and good man probably run by his super-ego/inner-critic, so of course we must meet his avoided opposite motivations: his shadow, the id/pleasure-drive of Mr. Hyde.
A quiet, insightful, male screenwriter, (a Protector) took my class because his girlfriend paid for it. He weathered some literature that he might not have picked up on his own, but his understanding of the system came alive because of reading an old classic. My choice for the personality style called The Performer was Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, a novel that exemplifies what psychologist Erich Fromm would call “The Marketing Personality,” the quintessential American salesman.
This type is interested in tasks, success, marketing success, inspiring others (whether through truth or just using what works) and avoiding failure. For example Oprah, Bill Clinton, Sean Spicer, Tony Robbins, Sarah Palin and Jerry McGuire are folks who are oriented towards success, away from failure, and in the mix just might just believe their own press releases.
You already know these characters, and if you are a writer you can know them from the inside out through easily understandable models about motivation that the Enneagram explains in everyday language. That is why the system is so attractive to me— it’s universal, easily understood by all kinds of folks, it’s not vague psychobabble from a therapist or a guru, and it’s verifiably true.
Could you give some more examples of characters in books and their enneagram type?
My own personality style, the Romantic, is concerned with what is missing and how one is a creator of beauty. This theme can be found in a disintegrated form through Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, who has found herself increasingly limited in her own personal ability to create a beautiful life, so she begins meddling in others’ lives with disastrous consequences. Like Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, these women are two of my favorite train wrecks; probably because I know that this could be me if I ever go off my morning coffee.
The positively developed Romantic with an orientation to beauty is found in Thea Kronberg from Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark, the story of a girl who has the natural resources as to accept her own identity as an artist, and to literally find her own voice as an opera singer.
In My Ántonia, Willa Cather addresses another style of character, The Protector. So much in that book and the main character attends to what Protectors care about–the vulnerabilities of immigrants, women and the land, abuses of power, responses to injustice, strength itself. I read it every year and I’m usually crying with its vivid descriptions of landscapes— harsh and beautiful Nebraska and harsh and beautiful inner character.
In Norma Rae you’ll see a Loyal Skeptic character, one who is concerned with divided loyalties: to what or two whom should I be loyal? to myself? to my parents/spouse? to the powers that be? to the oppositions? and at what cost? You’ll find the same issues alive and well in the teen novel about choosing a personality style and tribe: Divergent by Veronica Roth. Do these latter themes also sound like themes in Hamlet? You’d be correct in saying so, as he lived in a mad world where he didn’t know who to trust.
The Connector’s shadow themes of manipulation, flattery, tyranny and misaligned service for the greater good can be found in King Lear and Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. Watch the mother in The Manchurian Candidate (very timely) and you’ll see the same. Yet main character Flora Post in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm uses her Connector’s abilities to make loving helpful connections and to support a delightful kind world that no one would ever want to end.
Thank you, Dale for sharing this knowledge with us, and with the Portland community. Here are some opportunities for people to learn more:
Upcoming classes on literary and movie character analysis
Understanding the 9 Points of View in Literature, Film and Community: Monthly Session September 2018-June 2019
The Enneagram in Love and Work by Helen Palmer
The Literary Enneagram-Characters from the Inside Out by Judith Seattle
The Essential Enneagram by Virginia Price and David Daniels, M.D.
Find Dale Rhodes and all programs at EnneagramPortland.com