Writing teachers, story coaches, and screenwriting gurus often say:
“Story comes from character.”
“Story is character.”
And that’s true.
Unfortunately, these writing teachers rarely go into detail about what that actually means.
Or how it works.
Well, I’m about to show you exactly how it works.
Master the Pattern, and You Master the Game
In a story, when a character is confronted with a major stress, they react.
How do they react?
Characters react to major stresses in ways that are both unique and predictable.
There are patterns.
I call them character reaction patterns.
If you know a character’s type, then you can know how they will tend to react to major stresses.
Knowing these patterns can help you to write or re-write your story.
If you’re outlining a plot, you can use these patterns to come up with new scenes. This can be a huge help in plotting your screenplay or novel.
If you’re re-writing a story, and you sense that something isn’t working—or if you’re struggling with rewrite notes from someone else—you can check your character’s reactions against these patterns to see if there is a better way to write a scene, or maybe even change the plot.
But what exactly are these character reaction patterns?
They are part of the Enneagram, which I introduced in previous articles.
Character reaction patterns are an advanced writing technique, so you may want to review these earlier posts before moving ahead:
- 9 Fundamental Fears That Motivate Your Characters
- 9 Character Types That Will Improve Your Story
- 9 Stages of a Compelling Character Arc
Okay, now let’s take another look at the Enneagram:
What the hell are those? Do they mean something?
They sure do.
Tension Lines and Relaxation Lines
I call those the Tension Lines and Relaxation Lines.
Psychologists call them the “lines of integration and disintegration,” but I like to think in terms of story.
And stories are driven by tension.
This tension is felt inside a character, but resolved through character actions in the outside world. Thus it is the character’s inner tension, their anxiety, that drives the story.
In other words: “Story comes from character.”
This inner tension is what ultimately will cause the character to change into a better or worse version of themselves, in what is known as a character arc.
On the Enneagram, you’ll notice that the lines inside the circle connect one character type to another character type.
These aren’t just lines.
Which means that they each have a direction:
The lines are Relaxation Lines when a character goes in the direction opposite to the arrows.
Of course, most characters would prefer to relax.
But the damn story won’t let them.
After all, that’s what the story is for.
To test the character.
Minor Stress vs. Major Stress
Now, we need to make a distinction between a minor stresses and a major stresses.
When a character is confronted with minor stresses—their day-to-day problems—they can use their normal tactics.
There’s no need for them to change their approach in order to handle minor stresses, because whatever the character is already doing is working for them. They have mastered a set of tools and tactics to deal with their life in the ordinary world.
These tools and tactics work most of the time.
In the character’s status quo, at the beginning of a story, these tools and tactics work just fine.
But in a story, the main character faces a major stress.
Or better yet, a series of major stresses.
In story theory, these major stresses are sometimes called plot points, midpoints, turning points, plot twists, reversals, etc.
Whatever you call them, they are all major stresses on a character.
These major stresses force the character to react in new ways.
Eventually, the main character is forced by these major stresses to change in some deep, fundamental way, for better or worse, to complete their character arc.
Character Reaction Patterns
So what happens when a character, living in their ordinary world, is suddenly faced with a major stress?
They try to relieve that stress.
First, they’ll use their normal tools and tactics.
But those standard tricks don’t work.
To relieve the tension caused by the first major stress in the story, the character acts out.
What do I mean by that?
I mean that they act outside their normal character type.
They act like a completely different character type.
There is a pattern to how each character type reacts, or “acts out,” when faced with a major stress.
The key is that they seek a defense outpost, and they find that outpost by following their Tension Line.
And Type 2 to Type 8.
This means that when a Type 8 character, a Leader, is faced with a major stress, they will seek a defense outpost at Type 5.
Here they will act out as a Type 5 character, an Observer.
However, when a Type 8 character is at peace, they may act out along their Relaxation Line, as a Type 2 character, the Helper.
In a story, we’re much less concerned about characters at peace, because stories are designed to put characters in tension.
So, a character will be given a series of major stresses, which will repeatedly test their mettle, knocking them back again and again.
Each time a major stress knocks them back, they reach a new defense outpost where they temporarily act out as a new character type.
Most importantly, each defense outpost is an opportunity for character growth.
It is at these defense outposts that a character learns something new about themselves.
For example, when a Type 8 Leader character is stressed and acts out as a Type 5 Observer, he first exhibits the negative aspects of that new character type:
But then, being a hero, the character picks himself back up and begins to integrate into his persona the positive aspects of the Observer type:
To show the character’s arc, it is important to show some small character changes in each of these defense outposts.
Okay, so what good is all this character type theory?
What’s it for?
Remember: “Story comes from character.”
Can we use these character reaction patterns to create a story?
We sure can!
Meet the Crime Boss
Imagine, if you will, a Crime Boss.
He’s a Type 8 character.
He runs the family business. He’s the big man in charge.
What is his ordinary world?
It’s the crime world, and of course it’s full of stress, but our Crime Boss knows this world, and he’s pretty comfortable in this world.
This is his domain.
When minor stresses arise, he deals with them like a Type 8.
He’s aggressive and instinctual.
But always in control.
So if this were a movie, we might first establish our Crime Boss in his ordinary world, facing some ordinary problems, and solving them quite easily by using his ordinary tools and tactics.
But then, early in the story, he’s faced with a major stress.
Some kind of threat.
Either from outside his world or a betrayal from the inside.
Now suddenly this is a crisis situation.
Our Crime Boss tries to solve this new problem with his normal tools and tactics. He’s reluctant to change his methods of operation, because they’ve always worked for him before.
But this time, it’s different.
The stress won’t go away.
And now his back is to the wall.
He’s already run through his usual bag of tricks.
What does he do now?
He reacts along his Tension Line.
And finds a defense outpost at Type 5.
In other words, he acts out as an Observer character.
Well, what do we know about Observer characters?
They are, among other things:
As storytellers, that gives us something to work with.
Let’s say our Crime Boss becomes reclusive.
He runs to the safe house. The hideout.
Yes, it’s a bit beneath his dignity, but that can’t be helped right now. This is a major stress, after all, and that’s what the safe house is for.
Time to use it.
So our Crime Boss is hiding in his safe house, acting like an Observer to relieve the tension caused by this major stress.
What is he going to do in his safe house?
- lick his wounds
- figure things out
- investigate the problem
- come up with a new plan
This is the ordinary world for an Observer.
But for our Crime Boss, a Type 8 Leader, this is a defense outpost. He only goes here in a deep existential crisis.
He’s not very comfortable acting like a Type 5 character, but now suddenly he’s been pushed here by circumstances beyond his control.
Our Crime Boss is not completely out of his element, but he is out of his comfort zone.
Anxiety is running pretty high.
So as he investigates, and plans, and figures things out, and grows as a character, what happens?
His stress is reduced.
Well, that’s good news for our Crime Boss.
His change of tactics is starting to work. His anxiety is beginning to ease. He’s feeling a lot better about things now, and he has a new plan that just might work.
As his inner tension is reduced, and he starts to relax more, he will tend to move back along his Relaxation Line.
If the problem is truly solved, then our Crime Boss can go back to being his normal Type 8 Leader self.
Maybe he leaves the safe house with his new plan, thinking he can return his ordinary world.
If he can, the story is over.
Well now, hold on a minute. That’s not very satisfying, is it?
Our story needs something more.
What can we do now to improve our story?
Well, what if, inside the safe house—just as our Crime Boss has formulated his brilliant new plan to deal with the first major stress—he’s hit by a second major stress?
What would happen then?
Well, right now our Type 8 Crime Boss is still acting out as a Type 5 Observer.
When an Observer is under stress, where do they go?
So now our Crime Boss, faced with a second major crisis in a row, acts out as an Adventurer.
What do we know about Adventurers?
Well, that’s some great story material right there.
Let’s use that.
So our Crime Boss is definitely not going to stay reclusive.
And he’s going to have to take some risks.
Our character is now forced out—or lured out—of his safe house.
And he starts taking some previously uncharacteristic risks.
Now, you might be thinking that our Crime Boss, living in the underworld, would be used to taking risks.
But he’s not.
Yes, he’s aggressive, impulsive, and bossy.
That’s what makes him comfortable in his ordinary world.
But he doesn’t believe in taking unnecessary risks.
And why should he?
He’s the boss.
If anyone is going to take a risk, it’s going to be his henchmen.
For the Crime Boss personally to take a risk would be bad for business.
However, at this point in the story, his business isn’t going so well.
So now he’s reacting to this second major stress. In Adventurer mode he can reduce his inner tension, his anxiety, his fear, by taking some big risks and rolling the dice.
If that solves his tension, then he can relax back to Type 5, and eventually right back to Type 8, where he started.
And he won’t ever have to complete his character arc.
But what if there is a third major stress?
Well, right now our Crime Boss is acting like a Type 7, an Adventurer, taking risks, throwing caution to the winds.
When an Adventurer is under a major stress, where do they go?
What are Reformers like?
So maybe as a result of this third major stress, our Crime Boss becomes judgmental and starts to point the finger at those around him.
He thinks these major stresses are all the fault of his underlings.
Or his partners in crime.
Time to get rid of the bad apples.
There are going to be some changes around here, and our Crime Boss is just the man to do it.
So maybe he starts to “restructure” his business, and “implement reforms.”
What does that mean in the criminal underworld? He can’t just fire his employees and business partners. He has to fire at them.
So he bumps them off.
But what if putting the hit on his former associates doesn’t solve his problems?
What if it backfires?
That sounds good—for our story, anyway.
Maybe not so good for our hero.
Let’s give him a fourth major stress.
Well, right now our Crime Boss is acting like a Type 1, a Reformer, fixing what needs to be fixed.
When a Reformer is under a major stress, where do they go?
Master of Disguise
What are Artists like?
Okay, so now he has to get creative.
His clever tactic of killing is closest friends has turned everyone else into an enemy. Our Crime Boss is on the run, with nowhere left to go. No one he can turn to.
Is there a creative solution?
He becomes an actor.
Plays a role.
If it’s a comedy, he might put on a dress.
Let’s say it’s not a comedy, and he goes for plastic surgery.
A fifth major stress, of course.
Someone put a price on his head, and when our Crime Boss is on the operating table, the plastic surgeon tries to kill him!
Our hero can’t catch a break.
He thinks, “Please, God, why is this happening to me?”
Because you’re in a movie, pal.
Deal with it.
How does he deal with it?
Well, right now our Crime Boss is acting like a Type 4, an Artist, being creative.
When an Artist is under a major stress, where do they go?
What are Helpers like?
Now our Crime Boss is way out of his comfort zone.
He’s a natural-born Leader, not a Helper.
But after escaping certain death at the hands of his plastic surgeon, he ends up on the streets, homeless.
Maybe in a shelter.
At the shelter he is fed and clothed and given a Bible. His botched surgery has left him mutilated and unrecognizable, so a pretty female doctor who volunteers at the shelter patches him up.
He likes her, and he likes the safety of this place, but after his face is healed he can only stay at the shelter if he volunteers in the soup kitchen.
So he does.
He begins to help others and maybe, for the first time in his life, he gets love in return.
The man who was once emotionally independent is now, for a short while at least, emotionally interdependent.
He’s been on a whirlwind tour of his own psyche, exploring the best and worst aspects of his inner self, and what has it earned him?
Will this be a lasting change?
Too soon to tell.
If our Crime Boss has no more major stresses, then eventually he will relax back into his old self.
But he has one final challenge.
And it’s a big one.
Because this last major stress will push him along the Tension Line of Type 2.
But this isn’t exactly where he started.
He can’t go home again.
His world has changed forever.
If he continues to move along the Tension Line, this last major stress is going to change him in a moral direction.
Into a better or worse version of his former self.
But will this change be good or bad?
The Moral Choice
In the real world, and in the Enneagram system of personality, a person moving in the direction of disintegration, along the Tension Lines, will tend to take on the negative characteristics of the new type.
When a person in the real world faces a series of major life stresses, these events will tend to lead the person to increasingly unhealthy states, perhaps even to desperate, abhorrent, and criminal behaviors.
In the real world, severe and prolonged stress robs us of our inner resources and wears us down, physically and spiritually.
In a fictional story, however, we’re rooting for the hero to change in a positive direction.
We want him to rise above his challenges.
That’s how he proves himself a hero.
He needs to go through hell.
So in the final confrontation, he must overcome his dark side, his shadow self, and make a moral choice for good.
To face this final challenge, he must use everything he has learned on his journey to become a better version of himself.
If not, then he will self-destruct, becoming a tragic hero or a villain.
So in the final battle of our story, when the army of bad guys comes gunning for our Crime Boss at the homeless shelter, our hero will make a moral choice.
If he makes the choice for good, then he will defeat the bad guys, win the love of the pretty doctor, and complete his character arc.
So that’s an example of how to use a character reaction pattern to create a story.
Following the Tension Lines, we used this sequence:
8, 5, 7, 1, 4, 2, 8
Clearly, this particular crime story isn’t fully developed. I didn’t work out most of the details.
But I hope you can see how you can begin to use character reaction patterns to develop your own story from character types and tensions.
Of course you can start with any character type and follow the Tension Lines to map out a different story.
So the natural sequence for, say, a Type 9 Housewife would be:
9, 6, 3, 9
This may all seem a bit formulaic, but in the hands of a good writer, a character reaction pattern is a tool that leaves plenty of room for creativity.
The pattern is a guide. You supply the details.
In our crime story, at each defense outpost, we saw a different aspect of our Crime Boss, thus rounding out his character.
If we’ve done our jobs right, the hero will seem to the audience—and to an actor reading the script—like a fully fleshed-out person.
Of course, I’m sure you could come up with a much better story than the one I improvised here.
And I hope you do.
I look forward to seeing it on the big screen.
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