This year, we’ve been talking about how to craft your novel from start to finish. In January, we talked about How to construct a 3D main character, and last month, we looked at How to create a compelling character arc. Let’s go even deeper this month, and discuss the different stages you can find your main character in and how those affect your character arc.
Change: It’s Human Nature
Your characters have to change for your story to be both believable and satisfying to your readers. The best way to create relatable characters with whom your readers empathize is to understand how human nature can change over time. And one way to do that is by using Enneagram.
So How Does Change Happen?
The Enneagram details 9 internal levels of development where your main character can find him or herself at any point in time. A person’s personality isn’t static, meaning that it fluctuates depending on whether they are under duress or some good fortune happens. Each of these 9 levels of development represents a major paradigm shift in awareness, meaning your main character changes—for better or worse.
Have a look at the different levels below and see if you can place your main character(s) at the beginning of your story and where you want them to be at the end.
The key is to make your main character use his or her personality traits to climb from their initial “developmental level” to a higher one (in the case of a successful denouement) or sink to a lower one (in the case of a tragic ending). The character arc is a moral arc, and your character changes in a moral direction—towards good (liberation) or evil (pathological destructiveness).
Level 1: Liberation (or the pinnacle of human development)
This is the highest level of development a person can reach. Your main character is the perfect expression of who he or she is meant to be. Liberation is the end of the journey of human development.
Level 2: Capable, but fearful
There’s something holding your main character back from reaching liberation. It’s an unmet desire or a fear they’re holding onto. Once they deal with this anxiety, they can move on to Level 1.
Level 3: Functioning Member of Society
Characters at Level 3 are functioning in society, but not yet capable. They have secondary fears and desires in addition to their main fear or desire that are holding them back from moving up to the next level.
These first 3 levels are the more virtuous stages of human development. The stages that come after are starting to slide to the dark side.
Level 4: Imbalanced
While still on the side of morality, an imbalanced main character has given into a temptation that’s unhealthy. They’re not quite as self-aware as they should be about their flaws because they’ve violated their own self-interests.
Level 5: Manipulative
This level of development has your character manipulating or controlling their world and others to try to get their basic desires met. They’ve created some hefty defense mechanisms that come in conflict with others around them.
Level 6: Over-compensating
There’s just something off-kilter about this character. They’re fairly self-centered and exhibit some extreme behavior in an attempt to get their needs met. Anxieties and aggressions are acted out in unhealthy ways at this level.
The last three levels to come are when your character has turned completely to the dark side. Think villainous.
Level 7: Violation
This level marks a major shift. Your character is suffering from a major life crisis or perhaps grew up in an abusive home. They must protect themselves at any cost, which results in serious, unhealthy conflict with others. They’re not quite pathological yet, though.
Level 8: Obsessive/compulsive
Your character is trying to escape reality at this point rather than surrender to deep anxiety. They’re frankly delusional. Think of the DSM’s description of personality disorders. That type of character falls into this level of development.
Level 9: Pathological
This is the bottom rung. This character is violent, destructive, and completely out of touch with reality. The willful destruction they cause is an effort to create distance from their enormous pain and anxiety.
Make Your Characters Move Up or Down Levels
It’s difficult for characters to move up to a higher development level. And characters can’t skip levels if you want them to be believable. No one jumps from violence to enlightenment without doing the emotional and intellectual work to get there. Just as no one falls from a happy joyous life to a murderous rampage without something major happening.
If your main character is a tragic hero like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, we want to see how he devolves from level to level. We want to experience that fall with him, so you should clearly show each stage of his descent.
Your reader needs to understand how your main character has had that “paradigm shift” in his or her awareness in order to believe it.
Let’s use Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. I place Scout on a Level 3 or 4 in development. She clearly violates her own self-interests at times, especially in dealing with other kids her age. I see her gradually work her way up to Level 2 as she learns how to deal with people. At the culmination of the book, Scout takes a great leap to Level 1, Liberation. She understands her true, essential nature. She is who she is, and she has a great handle on who the people around her are, too. Quite a successful character change from Scout—and we’re left satisfied with the end.
Jay Gatsby is another main character who sinks a few levels during the course of The Great Gatsby. In the course of trying to satisfy his ultimate desire of being with Daisy, Gatsby does some shady things and creates a magical world that he thinks will draw Daisy in. I see Gatsby sliding from Imbalanced to Manipulative and finally to Over-Compensating by the end of the novel.
You can have the most amazing storyline with adventure and action and shocking twists and turns, but if your reader doesn’t fall for your main character, your novel won’t take off. Create the best possible character you can and have him or her move up or down the developmental levels.
Readers want to see characters rise above or fall. If you can weave that all together with your narrative arc, you’ll write an incredibly compelling and engaging story that readers won’t want to put down.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy these articles from our archive:
- How to Construct a 3D Main Character
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Story Arc?
- How to Create Your Story’s World
- How to Create a Compelling Character Arc
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Plot?
- The four drafts your novel needs (and why you will probably not use a single word of your first draft!)