Use the Enneagram to Write Better Characters2

5 Ways to Use the Enneagram to Write Better Characters

5 Ways to Use the Enneagram to Write Better CharactersThe Enneagram. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you’ve even used the Enneagram to write better characters.

Like Myers-Briggs, Socionics, and the Four Temperaments, the Enneagram is one of many systems within the study of personality theory. These systems are designed to identify the patterns found in the different ways we approach various aspects of life, so we might better study and understand ourselves and others.

In short, the Enneagram is not only a useful life tool, it’s also the perfect character-creation tool.

I’ve always been interested in personality theory. Let’s face it, I just like theories (come to me, story theory, my love). But I don’t see it as any kind of coincidence that my interest in characters and stories dovetailed so conveniently with the ever-deepening rabbit hole of personality theory.

I’m not alone. In fact, my introduction to the Enneagram, many years ago, was on romance author Laurie Campbell’s site, where she offered a brief description of the system’s nine types as, you guessed it, a character tool. Since then, I’ve pursued Myers-Briggs—another personality-typing system—in some depth, but only this year have I finally dived headlong into the Enneagram.

I’m not exaggerating when I say it has changed my life—and my writing.

What Is the Enneagram?

Unlike Myers-Briggs, which is a “neutral” system focused primarily on the differing ways people take in and use information, the Enneagram is often called an “ego-transcendence tool.” Sounds all lofty and new-agey, but it’s really just code for “this-is-gonna-hit-you-where-it-hurts.”

(Side Note: I read once, in relation to Myers-Briggs, that if you typed yourself and had nothing but excitement about your discoveries, you very likely mistyped. A true typing is going to show you stuff about yourself that maybe you’d rather not look at. In short, you can be pretty sure you’ve found your type when you end up muttering, “Ah, dang.” If that’s true of Myers-Briggs, it’s about ten times truer of the Enneagram. But I digress.)

The Road Back to You Ian Morgan Cron Suzanne StabileIn their book The Road Back to You (which is a great overview of the Enneagram, uncomplicated by denser aspects of the theory), Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile introduce the Enneagram like this:

The Enneagram teaches that there are nine different personality styles in the world, one of which we naturally gravitate toward and adopt in childhood to cope and feel safe. Each type or number has a distinct way of seeing the world and an underlying motivation that powerfully influences how that type thinks, feels, and behaves….

Enneagram Chart for Writers

The Enneagram takes its name from the Greek words for nine (ennea) and for a drawing or figure (gram). It is a nine-pointed geometric figure that illustrates nine different but interconnected personality types. Each numbered point on the circumference is connected to two others by arrows across the circle, indicating their dynamic interaction with each other.

The Enneagram is a vast and deep system, impossible to completely summarize in a post like this, so I won’t even try. However, perhaps the simplest way to sum it up is to say that the Enneagram is designed to call baloney on the defensive lies we have been programmed from childhood to tell ourselves about ourselves and the world.

How I Discovered the Enneagram

My experience with the Enneagram went something like this.

I’d decided long ago, after reading the brief descriptions on Laurie Campbell’s site, that I was a Five: The Investigator. Introverted, studious, quirky. Yeah, totally. Fives are awesome!

Confidently, I started reading Cron and Stabile’s book—until I hit the chapter about the Three: The Achiever. It was like the authors reached out, grabbed their own book, and smacked me between the eyes with it. It was a total oh-dang moment.

Don’t get me wrong. Threes are awesome too. Productive, adept, ambitious. But I immediately knew, without question, I was a Three simply because so much of what I read hurt.

I would have been totally cool (too cool) with the Five’s problems of hyper-independence, trust issues, and sarcasm (because, hello, that’s all my favorite characters ever). I’ve always considered myself a relatively self-aware, self-honest person, but reading about the Three’s motivations made me face things about myself I’d never been willing to admit or face, things I really didn’t like about myself, such as the driving need for the approval of others and a pervasive underlying belief in, essentially, “salvation (and love) by works.”

For me, the revelations that followed were toppling dominoes that unlocked answers to questions I’d been asking about myself and my life for a long time. It was painfully liberating. My awareness of my Three-ness has since allowed me to acknowledge and own aspects of myself I’ve long hidden from, which, of course, now means I have to deal with them. It has been and continues to be incredibly exciting.

And now I get to use these new approaches to life, people, and the self to help me (I hope) write better characters.

Use the Enneagram to Write Better Characters

There is just so much to say about how you can use the Enneagram to write better characters. I’m not even going to get into the wings, triads, integration/disintegration, instinctual variants, or tritypes (the latter of which I have yet to study in any depth but which, I think, bears out I wasn’t totally wrong in my initial association with the Five).

Personality Types Don Richard RisoIt was in reading Don Richard Riso’s Enneagram “bible” Personality Types that I was truly blown away by both the beautiful complexity of the system and its easy applicability to writing characters. After listening to the book on audio, I immediately bought my own copy and added it to my pile of easy-reach writing-resource books. I will be referring to it regularly when I start outlining my next book.

Following are the five primary ways I plan to use the Enneagram to write better characters in the future.

>>Use Nadine Avola’s handy Enneagram Tracking tool to help discover and remember your characters’ Enneagram types.

1. Typing Characters, the Fast and Easy Way

Dreamlander K.M. WeilandLet me start with a slight digression: I’ve been studying Myers-Briggs for years. I love it. In its own way, it too completely changed my life and my writing. But I actually find the system really difficult to use in typing my characters. For whatever reason, I can type other people’s characters with reasonable confidence, but I can’t type my own to save my life. For example, I have progressively typed Chris Redston, the protagonist of Dreamlander as: ISFJ, ESFJ, INFJ, ISFP (with ponderings about ISTJ and INTJ thrown in for good measure).

(Second Side Note: I actually have serious doubts that any author is able to truly write a character with differing cognitive functions from their own. For example, as an INTJ, I might be able to fake an ESFJ character based on ESFJs I personally know, but because I share no functions with that type, can I really write about the mental process of a character who absorbs information via Introverted Sensing and makes judgments via Extroverted Feeling? Maybe, but I kinda doubt it.)

In contrast to Myers-Briggs, the deceptive simplicity of the Enneagram makes it much easier to confidently recognize a character’s likely type/number and use it as a guideline while writing. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it far less complicated to look at a character and recognize, “she’s a One,” rather than running through a litany of criteria to determine her four cognitive functions and their order in her Myers-Briggs stack.

When I do figure out a character’s Enneagram, I instantly see them a little clearer, and I instinctively know just a little bit more about them. (Chris, by the way, is a Six. In case you were wondering.)

(Third Side Note: Although there is some overlap, the Enneagram is an entirely different system from Myers-Briggs, with an entirely different focus. Typing a character according to the Enneagram doesn’t accomplish the same things as will typing that character according to Myers-Briggs. So if you feel qualified—or, like me, literally unable to resist, do both!)

2. Keeping Characters Consistent: Strengths and Weaknesses

One of the Enneagram’s primary focuses is each type’s inherent strengths and weaknesses. This is convenient, since one of a writer’s primary focuses is each character‘s inherent strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, we could argue that the pairing of strength/weakness is one of the most important aspects of character, and thus story, since it drives everything that happens in the plot and theme.

In expanding on the chart at the beginning of the post, a super-simplistic approach to each type’s strength/weakness might look like this:

One, The Reformer: Responsible and idealistic/judgmental and hyper-perfectionistic

Two, The Helper: Kind and generous/intrusive and needy

Three, The Achiever: Productive and adaptable/overly image-conscious and out of touch with emotions

Four, The Individual: Creative and idealistic/self-absorbed and unrealistic

Five, The Investigator: Perceptive and self-reliant/emotionally-detached and cynical

Six, The Loyalist: Loyal and engaging/reactive and fearful

Seven, the Enthusiast: Optimistic and fun/impulsive and undisciplined

Eight, the Challenger: Bold and decisive/domineering and combative

Nine, the Peacemaker: Calm and reliable/passive-aggressive and unmotivated

Once you really start studying the system, you realize there’s so much more to it than just this. But even just these simple starting points give you an intuitive strength/weakness pairing for your character that sets everything up right for a solid character arc.

3. Identifying the Character’s Motivation, Want, Need, and Backstory “Ghost”

Because of the Enneagram’s talent for pointing a finger at painful motivations arising from our pasts (especially our childhoods), it’s perfect for figuring out the backstory Ghost motivating your character’s goals in your main story.

The Ghost (sometimes called the Wound) is a hole in your character’s self. It’s the hole where the Lie the Character Believes first started growing, and it’s the hole she must climb out of if she’s to grow into wholeness by the end of her arc.

Again, not so coincidentally, the Enneagram offers a basic Lie for each type:

One: Mistakes are unacceptable.

Two: I am not lovable.

Three: I am what I do.

Four: No one understands me/there is something wrong with me.

Five: I am not competent to handle the demands of life.

Six: The world is not safe.

Seven: I can’t count on people to be there for me.

Eight: Only the strong survive.

Nine: I don’t matter much.

Starting with some iteration of the above for your character, you can start extrapolating consistent motivations and goals within the specific needs of your plot.

4. Charting Character Arcs

Not only is the Enneagram system helpful in setting up character arcs, it’s also helpful in double-checking that the progression of your character’s arc is consistent and realistic.

One of the main reasons I ended up buying a hardcopy of Riso’s Personality Types was that the book methodically charts nine levels of “health” for each type. It divides these nine levels into three apiece under the headings of Healthy, Average, and Unhealthy. Once you know your character’s specific story Lie and the type of arc you want him to follow, you can reference Riso’s lists to nail down how a healthy, average, or unhealthy person of this type would behave.

For example, if you’re writing a Positive Change Arc for a generally likable character, you’re probably going to to start him out in one of the Average categories and let the story’s events help him progress to Healthy. Or maybe you’re writing a Negative Change Arc, about a descent into unwellness or psychosis, which brings me to…

5. Writing Better Bad Guys

For me, bad guys have always been one of my challenges. A large part of this was a struggle to find suitable motivations for their evil deeds. “Oh, they’re just crazy” is an easy out that doesn’t give due diligence to what should be one of the strongest characters in the story.

Yet another reason I was psyched by Riso’s “health charts” was that they immediately grounded my understanding of what would motivate a deeply unhealthy person to commit deeply unhealthy acts. At the bottom level of psychosis for each type (which is almost never reached without either deep-seated childhood trauma or a physiological catalyst), Riso suggests the “ultimate end” each type is most likely to fall to:

One: Punitive Sadism

Two: Hypochondria and Martyr Complex

Three: Murder (!)

Four: Suicide

Five: Schizophrenia

Six: Masochism

Seven: Addiction and Manic-Compulsive Behavior

Eight: Megalomania

Nine: Dissociative disorders

Personally, I take these with a massive grain of salt (because how likely is it that all, or even the majority of schizophrenia sufferers, are Fives?). But it is a useful guide for following the descent of personal and mental un-health to a consistent ending point. If you read all the sections in Riso’s book, it becomes easy to provide a proper motive to a character who is undergoing  a realistic personal descent.

***

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Enneagram. I’ve been studying it for months now and have barely scratched its surface. If you’re interested in digging deeper, both for yourself and your characters, I recommend starting with the book The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile and following it up with the significantly heavier and more in-depth Personality Types by Don Richard Riso with Russ Hudson.

Brace yourselves, half fun, and get ready to say: Oh, dang. :p

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever used the Enneagram to write better characters? Tell me about it in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Count me in on the Enneagram changing my life. By changing the way I looked at personality of family and friends (can’t say enough about how it blew my mind and made life easier). Hopefully it helped me create better characters for readers.
    More books I love are “The Enneagram Made Easy” by Rener Baron (really fun starting point, with cartoons!) and “Believable Characters: Creating with Enneagrams” by Laurie Schnebly.
    PS: I’m a classic #5 who became a librarian. Perfect typecasting. And then a writer, also a good match for an Observer type.

  2. Haha! What timing for this post. I have just been working my way through “Outlining Your Novel,” again, and literally last night I read the following:

    “In general, I’m not a fan of using personality tests to flesh out characters … However, because of its simplicity, I occasionally utilise the enneagram…”

    I’m going to take this as one of those coincidental moments in life where you get a few points, and maybe just look at my characters through the enneagram, just to see what insights I pull out of it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yeah, I originally wrote in OYN that I disliked MBTI. That’s obviously gone by the wayside as I’ve learned more about it. 😉

  3. I have not heard of the Enneagram. I think I will get a copy of the books you recommended and start studying. Sounds interesting and maybe an easier way to create a character. Thank you for the information. 🙂

  4. I love the Enneagram! I first encountered it as a way to type characters, too. It’s amazingly simple but can also be very complex and in-depth. Studying it has given me huge insights into my own personality as well as the people around me. I totally agree with your article and I may buy the books you mentioned.

  5. Really interesting tool for character development. I particularly like the Enneagram Lies and am keeping the list nearby. Thank you for sharing this information!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Glad it was handy! It’s definitely something I’m going to be referring to regularly in my next outline.

  6. Casandra Merritt says

    I was wondering if you might know what the most common Myers Briggs types are for writers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The INFX types are very common–INFP and INFJ. After that, probably INTJ. But there are lots of ENXPs (consensus seems to be that G.R.R. Martin and Terry Pratchett are ENTPs) as well. Of course, there are writers of all the other types, but from what I’ve seen, those seem to be the most common.

  7. Casandra Merritt says

    Thanks. I’m an infj.

  8. Based on reading about the types, I think I should be a 9 (Peacemaker), but the online test I took put me as a 5 (Investigator), which I can’t argue with. I think i made my last main character a 5, also. This is a really interesting subject – thank you for your detailed introduction to it!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ultimately, the Enneagram deals with fears that motivate us. So the best way to be sure is to look back surface descriptions (unlike what I did when I originally thought I was a Five!) and dig down to the true motivations.

  9. Ruth Jacobi says

    I have always considered Myers-Briggs to have a chauvinistic bent. I subsequently studied the Enneagram and now I am even more convinced of M-B’s inherent bias. But then again, I am an Enneagram 5, so I’m suspicious of those M-B bastards anyway. 🙂

  10. Casandra Merritt says

    Does a flat arc character need a mentor? My protagonist is already on board with the story’s thematic truth, but say, he ain’t perfect, and I think he could use a “guide” in other aspects of his journey…..just wondering. (Sorry to ask so many questions in one day).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Not thematically. Technically, the Flat-Arc protagonist will be a Mentor archetype to other changing characters.

  11. I have never bought in to Meyers-Briggs. I’ve taken it formally (through employers) three times and informally (once with a workbook through church, once online through church, and three times online on my own, because I was so befuddled at there not being One Type for me. I just feel that if I test differently each time I take it, it’s not all that valid. Then, too, none of the types seem completely me.

    In a marriage counseling session 12 years ago, my minister mentioned the Enneagram and it intrigued me enough to buy Personality Types and read it. Paid for the full online test — and fully agree with the results. (I’m a Six. TOTALLY a Six. No question about it, oh dang, really a Six. With a Five-Wing.) Over the years I have made so many notes in the original copy that I had to buy a second one. Spouse is the Eightiest Eight I have ever met. My mother is the Epitome of Two (GUILT!!!); so is one of my sisters-in-law. The other SIL is so (unhealthy) Three that I have difficulty in conversations with her. My kids? A Five with a Six-wing, a Nine with an Eight-wing, and (oh dear Lord help me please) an Eight with a Nine-wing.

    The Lie is always helpful in characterization.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      My family are also all different numbers (and all different MBTI types too, interestingly enough). The variety provides plenty of opportunity for study!

  12. I’m very interested in the Enneagram and the personality traits and fails. My characters rap on the inside of my head and tell me their back stories, life histories and I pick out the lies and half truths and the real reasons they won’t e.g. go into a closet at night, lol. Thank you for a fantastic post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, once you know your characters, I find it’s actually super easy to immediately identify their Enneagram.

  13. Peter Brockwell says

    Hi Katie,

    I’m glad you’ve raised this, and I’ll definitely read those books you mention.

    I’ve been considering the enneagram for a few years and a it seems to me that the Perfectionist/Improver is synonymous with Steve Pressfield’s ‘Pro’, and the Enthusiast type is his ‘Amateur’. Dontcha think?

    But also I think it should be a ‘decagram’ because there’s a tenth type – what I call the ‘Experiencer’. She fears boredom, and desires experiences and novelty, and her vices are avarice, always needing more, amorality, and impracticality. This one is different from the Romantic/Individualist, because that one desires significance, fears mundaneity, and is envious of others’ experiences. And it’s different from the Enthusiast, because she fears disappointment, her vice is excess and dissipating time on trivia, and her desire is simply pleasure/enjoyment.

    It seems to me that the Experiencer has really been missed from this system.

    Grateful for your thoughts…
    Peter

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Interesting. To me, what you’re describing as the Experiencer doesn’t sound incompatible with the Enthusiast type.

  14. Ms. Albina says

    I am writing about Lina or Coralina who is Leilani granddaughter a young goddess who is also a mermaid who does not an arranged marriage but will have one since she is going to marry Dylin a merman a mortal. This story is going to maybe have for three books. Lina is the oldest and two sisters who is some times headstrong.
    The only fear she has if time was stopped or it was frozen or if her grandma was not around.

    I have about eighteen characters for this story. In your books is there a special thing or celebration your character does?

  15. *winces and raises hand* 4w5…
    I so did NOT need another personality thing to study! *runs around in circles clutching her head**glumly puts books on her ‘to read’ list*

    One of the reasons I love MBTI is that it’s a dissection that seeks to find the roots of your actions. Looks like this could be more of a diagnosis that tries to understand your roots /by/ your actions. I like it. They complement each other well.

  16. Julie Jones says

    This is so interesting. Recently, my husband and I had a little fun Myers-Briggs typing ourselves, kids, and family. So many things made sense! I had never heard of the Enneagram, although the chart looks familiar. I love the idea of using it to map, make sense of, and plan my characters’ growth and change, as well as understanding their dynamics with other characters. Thank you for pointing me in this intriguing direction!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The Enneagram coincides nicely with MBTI. They’re not so much competing systems as complementary ones.

  17. Casandra Merritt says

    That should help me stay on track. I like your series about Flat- Arc characters. It’s a good reminder that Impact characters might “change,” but never thematically. Like Frodo Baggins.

  18. I find that enneagram and MBTI are most useful in concert when developing characters. Initially I found the MBTI baffling and was drawn to the enneagram, because its core hopes/fears paradigm is so wonderfully suited to giving each character a “big want”. Now I like to use them together. The enneagram supplies the “what” and the MBTI fleshes out the “how”. MBTI is quite helpful in branching out and diversifying the way I make characters approach challenges and problem-solving.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      For all intents and purposes, I got into MBTI first as well. It informs a lot of my thinking these days, so it would be all but impossible to create characters without referring to it in some measure!

  19. Bettina Cohen says

    Thank you for this useful and informative post, and for the book recommendations to learn more about Enneagrams.

  20. I’m so happy that the enneagram is getting some love within the writing community! It’s a really interesting and accurate personality system. My mom is a certified teacher on the enneagram, and the first time I found out my type, I was devastated and cried literal rivers. But after accepting it, it has transformed my life and been so helpful.

    Another interesting thing is that every personality type also has a specific body language, co-relating with their view of themselves and their core beliefs of the world around them. There is a danish dance-instructor who has specified in research on it and I went on a day-long course with her to learn more. After watching me move across the room for two minutes, she pointed to me and told me she knew exactly what type I was. She was right.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The body-language thing is fascinating. Do you have a link to or know of a book on the subject?

  21. I’m such a nerd for systems like this. Thanks for pointing this one out.

  22. Jeff Partridge says

    I had a similar experience and spent the last 2 years digging into the subject. I eventually abandoned Type theory for a number of reasons not just because Psychologists have abandoned it for Trait theory, or that there is no scientific support for it, (the 5-factor trait model does enjoy some–though not unqualified–support) but because the category of behaviors associated with any given type are largely arbitrary and inconsistent and because type theory fails to explain the reasoning behind the behaviors.

    Lately I’ve had a growing interested in Cognitive Appraisal theory–particularly the various offshoots of Dietrich Dörner’s Psi-theory. I particularly like some of the experimental frameworks like Joscha Bach’s MicroPsi (I have an entire directory his papers.) Throw in French and Raven’s theory of social power (particularly as integrated in the SAPIENT model) And you start to get something like personality types that are not merely descriptive but better grounded in how people think and how thoughts determines behavior.

  23. Emmaline Q. says

    I spent my Friday afternoon reading up on the subject. It is three hours later and the sun’s setting soon. What kind of rabbit hole did you send me down to?? 🙂

  24. Sophia Ellen says

    Wow this sounds interesting. I was introduced to MyersBrigg by a friend a while back, and used it for some of my characters, but I’ve never heard of this. I might look into this!

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