Image: Matthew Loffhagen
The enneagram is hot right now, and for good reason. The personality assessment tool takes a deep dive into the patterns of behavior, driving needs, and core worldviews underlying nine personality types. Enneagram support tools discuss unhealthy and healthy expressions of each personality type, growth trajectories, and how the nine different types interact with one another.
Whether you think the enneagram is good psychology or just a well-presented observation of human nature, it’s a fantastic tool for considering consistency of character. In short, authors can get to know their characters better than they ever hoped.
The nine-pointed enneagram symbol describes intersecting outlooks on life often represented as personality ‘types’. You can check out the Enneagram Institute (or one of the many books on the topic) to learn the types in depth, but here is a handy summary of the types they describe:
- The Reformer: A rational, idealistic type sometimes over-concerned with perfection.
- The Helper: A caring, generous person who can be possessive of others.
- The Achiever: A pragmatic, driven type concerned with how they are seen.
- The Individualist: A sensitive, withdrawn type able to express themselves well but prone to drama.
- The Investigator: An intense, innovative type likely to be perceptive but also prone to secrecy and isolation.
- The Loyalist: A responsible but anxious type prone to caution that can cross over into suspicion.
- The Enthusiast: A spontaneous, versatile type who is always busy but is also prone to distraction.
- The Challenger: A decisive, willful type whose self-confidence can lead to confrontation.
- The Peacemaker: An easygoing, agreeable type able to reassure others in the moment but sometimes complacent about larger issues.
After some research into each type, you can go two ways: 1) pre-assign character traits based on enneagram types; or 2) assess your existing characters’ enneagram types to learn more about them and how they interact with each other.The enneagram is an effective way to consider what makes your characters tick.Click To Tweet
1. Starting from scratch
If your characters are still blobs of clay, the enneagram offers ready-made character molds. Draw up a biography for each character based on the primary personality types, and consider what interactions you’d like to see or might organically emerge between types.
How do you know what types work well together? Well, This Is The Blueprint For A Perfect Cast Of Characters will help.
2. Assessing existing characters
If you have already-developed characters, the enneagram is useful for learning more about them – understanding how they are likely to react to things and how they’ll express unhealthy and healthy states. Use the enneagram for character consistency, to add dimension/depth, build authenticity or internal conflict, and analyze relationships.
Whichever approach you take, the enneagram offers insight into key areas of character development.
On a basic level, the enneagram provides insight into the perspective and motivations of each type. Using these insights will add believable layers of complexity to your characters’ needs and wants.
Sure, your protagonist wants to destroy the Pendant of Evil or get asked the prom, but when they’re not busy doing that, what do they want? To be loved? Appreciated? Successful? Admired? Their lifelong motivations will shape both their specific goals and the choices they make in trying to attain them.
A lot of behaviors, choices, reactions, assets, and liabilities are already assigned by the enneagram. Once you figure out which type your character is, you’ll have ready-made ideas for their personalities and how the plot unfolds as a result of their type-driven decisions.
Your research will show that while everyone has a primary type, there are many different ways those types express themselves. Each type can be influenced by the type next to it on the chart, so that an enthusiast with a strong dose of loyalist will be more of a partier than the enthusiast who leans challenger. When healthy, certain types express themselves as other types, and likewise when unhealthy they may deflect to a third type. For example, a peacemaker under stress will start to exhibit the unhealthy behaviors of a loyalist. For a peacemaker, this is often the bottle-effect: they deny or suppress their anger/stress until they eventually crack and look more like the reactive and volatile loyalist. When experiencing growth, on the other hand, peacemakers take on the characteristics of an average achiever: more self-assured and content.Enneagram types are interrelated, so insight into one informs insight into the others.Click To Tweet
There are also several levels of expression dependent on a person’s psychological wellness at any given time, and social expectations may affect how people perceive themselves versus how they really are. Who their friends and enemies are will impact how people perceive themselves and project themselves. In other words, there are approximately 89 billion characters waiting to be born of these conditions. Have fun!
A lot of people don’t know themselves very well. Un-self-aware, or confused by social norms and personal goals, they may be repressing, disguising, or in denial about certain traits or behaviors.
For instance, a lot of women misidentify as helpers (generous, people-pleasing, possessive), because they have felt so deeply and for so long that society expects them to be givers that they try to conform to that expectation without even noticing it. Others will misidentify as a type that they admire, because they aspire to certain traits that don’t come naturally. Understanding how people make the choices they do and why they believe what they do can be hugely informative in character development.
On a related note, a character’s growth arc is built right into the enneagram system. Each of the nine types is broken into nine levels of healthy (or unhealthy) expression. On the low end of the spectrum, you have pathology, obsession, and violation. On the average, people manifest their personalities through overcompensation, control, or minor imbalance. Healthy expressions bring people to a place of social value, capacity, and – ultimately – liberation. The beauty of the enneagram levels is that they show what that arc will look like for each type.Enneagram types suggest potential character arcs, both positive and negative.Click To Tweet
For example, an investigator (perceptive and secretive) is unlikely to deteriorate by becoming confrontational, nor grow into her true self by becoming outrageously spontaneous. The dividing lines may seem obvious when you identify with the type you are writing, but if you’re writing a challenger (whose unhealthy expression is that he’s confrontational) and you’re a peacemaker (much more complacent), you may need to become better acquainted with your character’s psychological profile.
Character interactions can be predicted by type, to an extent. Some types are fundamentally at odds with each other. For instance, peacemakers don’t always click with reformers because of reformers’ penchant for perfectionism – but that doesn’t mean they won’t get along, be friends or lovers, or can be blindly cast as enemies. It’s more about how a peacemaker would respond to a reformer in a given situation. When they have conflict, what is the source? The reformer thinks the peacemaker is lazy? The peacemaker thinks the reformer is obsessive? The fundamental value for each type is different. These interactions are not only informative for real-life relationships (imagine if a peacemaker and a reformer got married and never figured out why they were driving each other nuts); it also makes for fantastically realistic character interplay in fiction.Write realistic interplay by considering your characters as enneagram types.Click To Tweet
As your characters interact, look for conflicts the characters themselves don’t recognize and consider how these impact their relationships. Consider, too, why certain people ‘get’ each other even though they may not be able to pinpoint why their personalities are so compatible.
Peacemakers and investigators might get along great because of their mutual introversion, but their expressions will be quite different. The peacemaker might seem more outgoing, but feel synergy with the investigator because of his subtle inclination toward peace and quiet. Many depictions of Holmes and Watson take advantage of this type combo.
Now that you’ve built a solid base, you don’t want to have to leave your brain in overdrive just to keep up with your characters. You’ve done the research, written detailed profiles, studied and memorized them like Freud on Anna O. – now let the characters take on a life of their own. Refer back to your notes if something isn’t working. Achievers are adaptable and high-energy, but they’re not overtly cheerful or spontaneous. They’re more productive and self-aware, which lends a seriousness to their energy. If you try to put a little too much pep in the step of an achiever and it’s just not working, you’ve either misidentified him (he’s really an enthusiast), or you need to learn him more deeply.
Putting the enneagram into practice
If you’re not already an enneagram nerd and want to explore without burning yourself out on your current writing project, you might try some writing exercises to get acquainted with the types. When it’s more familiar territory, it’ll be easier to integrate into more ‘serious’ projects. You might also come up with something fun during this experimentation phase. First, spend at least two hours here, learning the basics of the system. Now, try these flash fiction exercises.
- An elevator cable breaks and the elevator plummets into the basement of a high-rise. No one’s hurt, but one person throws up and everyone is stuck in the elevator with sketchy cell reception. The people in the elevator are two individualists, an investigator, a challenger, and a peacemaker.
- An investigator and a peacemaker are on a second date.
- An achiever has two children – a peacemaker and a reformer.
- A loyalist and an enthusiast are lifelong best friends and decide to room together in college.
- A helper, two enthusiasts, and a challenger are sailing when a storm rolls in.
- Roll a die or two a few times (a nine-sided die would be super, but how many of us have one of those lying around our writing studio?) Write down the numbers and throw the corresponding types into a scenario of your choosing.
- Add another set of dice to determine the level of each character’s health.
Characters aren’t a fling. They aren’t a one-night stand. Getting to know them takes time and hard work.
– Margaret Foley, ‘Characters Aren’t a Fling’
Realistic characters are a lot of work, but that work can be fun. I hope the enneagram will inject life into the process for you. Enneagram psychology is dense. Add your questions and insights in the comments below and if you do any of the flash fiction prompts, I’d love to see the results. You can also check out Are Your Characters Talking At Cross-Purposes? Why Not? and This Is The Blueprint For A Perfect Cast Of Characters.