This is my father, reading my novel-in-progress, IRREVOCABLE TRUST.
The Duke of Mantua, himself an inconstant man, sings the famous aria, La donna è mobile: woman is fickle, in Verdi’s opera Rigoletto. It’s an ironic aria, given the Duke’s own changeability, and I was reminded of it last month, when I attended a two-day seminar given by my honored friend, the poet Judith Searle. Judith is also a well-known expert on the Enneagram, a personality system that breaks down one’s character according to nine prototypes, with “wings,” or supporting types, that enlarge the definition of who we are.
Her topic was the Enneagram in films and books. Judith invited me because she thought her illustrations of Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and other characters in the canon as Fours or Nines or Twos would open up a new world for me as a creator of characters. I knew very little about the Enneagram, but as a teacher of novelists, I used to have my writing students give their own characters other psychological tests–the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) and the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, both of which take off from Jung. They are similar, though focusing on different aspects of the personality. The Myers Briggs defines cognitive function–how each person chooses to react–according to 16 ways of viewing the world and oneself, while the Keirsey explains human character according to four temperament types: the Artisan, the Guardian, the Idealist, and the Rational.
With my students, I went further. I wrote 100 questions, asking each creator to answer off the cuff as one of his/her book’s characters. The writers learned a great deal about how their people thought, why they did so, and how these discoveries could affect the plot and the interaction among all the participants of their story.
My friend Katherine attended Judith’s seminar with me, and became frustrated. “I don’t see myself as a single one of these nine prototypes,” she said. As for me, I had taken the test twice, and came out with two different results: the first told me I was a Two, the Lover, with a Three wing, the Achiever. But the second told me I was a Four, the Aesthete, with a Three wing. Twos and Fours are quite unlike each other. The Two is much more involved with others, the Four keeping his/her distance and watching. I thought, But I’m both. I’m gregarious, social, extraverted, but I also need to withdraw and be by myself, and as a writer, it’s true I’m an observer.
After the seminar, I tried to test myself for the third time. The result classified me as a One, the Reformer, a perfectionist, with a Two (Lover) wing. This too made sense. Those of you who know me know how greatly I’ve always taxed myself to be perfect, and how critical I am of my own imperfections.
Then I gave Robert, the protagonist of IRREVOCABLE TRUST, the test. Once more, I came up confused. Was he an Eight (the Challenger), or a Five (the Analyst)?
Maybe he was just himself. Maybe we all are just ourselves. The fact is, man–the human being–is an evolving creature. Five years ago, I thought nothing of placing everyone else in the world above myself, wishing to take care of all the wounded friends who came to me. I gave and gave and gave until there was literally nothing left in my reserves. But now, I’ve learned that I too have rights, and that it’s okay, even desirable, to say no. Not, No, I can’t, because…, but No, it’s not possible. Period. The “New Monique” is a Monique I like. Is she hard to maintain? Of course. I still find myself sliding into caregiving mode, but I’m fighting it. Because I prefer the life of the New Monique to that of the old one.
So why can’t our book characters change? The answer is, not only can they, but they must. An ethical man may find himself committing an unethical act, and this will transform him. Of course, as my father points out, our essential self doesn’t change. I’m never going to stop wanting my shoes to match my purse; I’m never going to not try to help my friends. But in my case, almost three years of sacrificing my very essence to keep my husband alive and happy has transformed me. I’m not going to do this again. It cost too much. In the process of saving him, I lost myself. And it’s taken a lot of searching for me to find myself again.
We change because Life is mobile, as the Duke of Mantua might say. We bump into the unexpected and have to react. Our reactions cause us to change. The great anthropologist Ruth Benedict, my author friend Kathryn Berck reminded me, wrote, “The trouble with life isn’t that there is no answer, it’s that there are so many answers.” So Robert, and Jessica, and Delphine, and Kathy, my characters, are allowed to refuse containment according to any psychological test. Just as I’m allowed, and you’re allowed. A writer’s characters should be granted the same dignity as that of flesh-and-blood human beings. If they aren’t, the book falls flat.