Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in series of posts by blogger Mary Bast on Deepening Character Descriptions.
Knowing Enneagram personality styles can help deepen character descriptions in two key ways—being aware of (1) the range of characteristic responses and (2) the typical character arc for each of the nine personalities. The range for Enneagram style Three (Achiever) includes responses showing a determined focus on success. Achievers are hard working, productive, ambitious, competitive, charismatic, and always in the limelight. They exemplify a basic human need for encouragement and affirmation that’s so exaggerated they’re alienated from themselves. Instead of allowing “what I want,” their attention goes to “what others expect of me.”
This drive to success is an effort to counter fears of failing, of not meeting others’ expectations. But Achievers dare not show insecurity, so they block off emotions while doing whatever it takes to succeed. Thus, less healthy characters with this personality style will slip from being successful to appearing to be successful, as they cut whatever corners are necessary to keep up appearances.
For Achievers, in life and in fiction, the transformational character arc involves releasing the relentless drive to be the best. They become more authentic, with higher self-awareness, acting on their own values and wishes instead of what will make them look good to others.
Does that mean readers only like novels and memoirs that show such a positive, radical change? Veronica Sicoe makes a useful distinction among Change, Growth, or Fall Arcs:
- Change Arc—protagonist is positively transformed by the end of the story.
- Growth or Shift Arc—protagonist changes but not necessarily for the better, just different, or overcomes an internal block and upgrades somewhat.
- Fall Arc—protagonist declines significantly, dooming self and/or others.
Representing the Change and Shift Arcs are a number of biographies about championship boxers, who—like Olympic gold medal winners—could be a natural fit with the Achiever personality. Certainly this seems true of Lennox Lewis, who won the world amateur junior boxing title, a Summer Olympics boxing gold medal, and world heavyweight championship. What clues suggest he might be an Achiever? In Lennox, when biographer Melissa Mathison asks, “What got you interested in boxing?” Lewis says, “The trophies.” She also describes him as “one great dresser,” which is characteristic in that looking good is both metaphor and reality for this personality style. Lewis’ attention is always turned toward winning. “I use visualization . . . mentally, you have to be very focused.” His lack of self-knowledge is also typical of Achievers. The pressure to keep up the image leads to a tendency to “do” feelings and adopt a role with a script to follow. When asked what he wants people to know about him, Lewis seems at a loss: “That’s a difficult question. What would they want to know about me? What do I feel they ought to know? . . . I represent a certain type of people.” The question was unexpected. He had no script to follow.
But aren’t all championship boxers great dressers? Aren’t they all competitive? How do we distinguish among several aggressive types that might be successful boxers? Here we see the nuance of character in language. George Foreman has said, “Boxing is like jazz. The better it is, the less people appreciate it,” a use of metaphor more characteristic of the Enthusiast than the Achiever. In yet another style, Mike Tyson is all about expecting the worst (“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”), sounding like a Loyalist. And Muhammad Ali speaks from the gut like a Challenger: “It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.” In contrast, Lewis’ description of boxing has an Achiever’s success-oriented competitive focus: “It’s me trying to outdo the other person . . . the highly skilled are the ones that are successful.”
The Achiever’s striving to impress others is an effort to counter feeling worthless. At the far negative end of this drive are ruthless opportunists who will resort to anything that saves them from exposure. Here we have Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. After protagonist Tom Ripley befriends wealthy Dickie Greenleaf, he envies the Greenleaf’s luxurious lifestyle and wants it for his own. He eventually kills Dickie and assumes his identity, later resuming his own name and forging a will that makes him Dickie’s sole heir. Tom admits his greatest talent is “Forging signatures, telling lies . . . impersonating practically anybody.” When another character suggests he must feel tormented, Tom replies, “Don’t you just take the past and put it in a room in the basement, and lock the door and never go in there? That’s what I do.” Ripley’s path is definitely an example of a Fall Arc—a decline into breaking all the rules to foster his desired image—more evidence that a character arc does not have to be heroic to entrance readers and sell books.
To extend this exploration, Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith describes Pat Highsmith’s fictional males, especially Tom Ripley, as versions of herself. Jeanette Winterson’s review of Schenker’s biography summarizes, “Concealment was her game and her way of life.” Highsmith traveled in search of fresh encounters and forged, fabricated, or outright lied. Her diaries indicate she was only six years old when she began to have “evil thoughts” about the “murder of my step-father . . . . And learned to stifle also my more positive emotions. In adolescence, therefore, I was oddly in command of myself.”
Hmmm. So at some point you’ll consider your own Enneagram personality style, to see how you’ve stamped your characters with a bit of yourself, and might have limited your point of view by not considering other styles. If none of the three I’ve written about so far seems familiar, you’re sure to recognize your image among the six more to follow.