I recently wrote about using the Enneagram to set your own goals as a writer, but you can also use this powerful tool to help develop your fictional characters.
In this post, I’m going to show you three ways that the Enneagram can help you develop complex, relatable characters that the reader cares about.
1. Use the Enneagram’s basic desire and/or basic fear for a personality type to develop your character(s).
As a quick review, there are nine primary personality types in the Enneagram, each of which is assigned a number, one through nine.
Each of these types is motivated by a unique basic desire and a unique basic fear—that’s what distinguishes the types from one another: motivation.
This is important to understand: it’s not that a certain behavior or set of behaviors defines the number someone is, but that the motivation behind the behavior is unique.
An Enneagram One and an Enneagram Nine, for example, could both be a serial killer, U.S. president, or a gentle grandma—but the Enneagram One grandma is going to be motivated differently than the Enneagram Nine grandma.
Starting with these basic desires and fears is a great way to develop characters given that so much of storytelling is about what someone wants or is afraid of.
Here are the basic desires and fears of each Enneagram Type:
1—Basic desire: to be good or perfect | Basic fear: of being bad or defective
2—Basic desire: to feel loved | Basic fear: of being unwanted
3—Basic desire: to feel valuable | Basic fear: of being worthless
4—Basic desire: to find a true identity | Basic fear: of not having significance
5—Basic desire: to be capable and competent | Basic fear: of being helpless
6—Basic desire: to be secure| Basic fear: of being without critical support
7—Basic desire: to feel content | Basic fear: of being trapped or deprived
8—Basic desire: to control their world | Basic fear: of being powerless
9—Basic desire: to have inner peace | Basic fear: of being separated
(Source: Take from or inspired by The Enneagram Institute’s website)
You might be thinking, “But wait—don’t we want all of these things? To be loved and wanted and valuable, etc.? And not to be bad or unwanted or worthless?”
Yes…but we aren’t primarily motivated by all of these things. We’re primarily motivated by one thing. And that’s our number.
If you figure out (or discover, or determine—however your process of creating fictional characters works) a character’s Enneagram number, you’ve unlocked a world to explore around that character’s desire and fear landscapes.
For example, in my most recent novel, Palm Beach, Rebecca, the main character, is an Enneagram One: the Reformer (also sometimes called the Perfectionist). She wants, more than anything, to be a good person. A vegan, an environmentalist, an activist, she holds herself to standards that most people don’t. She is hard on herself…and also others, whom she judges. She’s so afraid of being “bad” that she can come across as, well, annoying.
Stayja, a character in my second novel, Privilege, is an Enneagram Three: she wants, more than anything, to feel valued by the world. She’s from a poor family and wants to break out, so she’s a hustler, working constantly to battle her way through college so she can be somebody. She sees her value as being what’s impressive or admirable in the world’s eyes. More than anything, she doesn’t want to be poor anymore.
Now, an important aspect of the Enneagram is within each type/number, there’s a healthiness scale. Your character will fall somewhere on this scale, and that will dramatically affect how their motivation manifests—whether it’s in healthy or unhealthy ways.
You can read more about the healthiness levels for each type here.
The importance of healthiness levels can’t be overstated—my husband, for example, is an Enneagram Eight. When he found this out, he was appalled, because dictators are Eights. Saddam Hussein? Eight.
But a healthy Eight is very different from an unhealthy Eight, and this is a critical difference.
Here’s the difference between a healthy Eight and an unhealthy Eight, according to the Enneagram Institute (the primary authority):
Healthiest Eights: Become self-restrained and magnanimous, merciful and forbearing, mastering self through their self-surrender to a higher authority. Courageous, willing to put self in serious jeopardy to achieve their vision and have a lasting influence. May achieve true heroism and historical greatness.
Unhealthiest Eights: If they get in danger, they may brutally destroy everything that has not conformed to their will rather than surrender to anyone else. Vengeful, barbaric, murderous. Sociopathic tendencies. Generally corresponds to the Antisocial Personality Disorder.
What does this mean for you in terms of creating fictional characters?
Well, there are 9 levels of healthiness for each type. Your character, I’d recommend, should fall on the lower half of the spectrum of healthiness…simply for storytelling purposes.
We want a character to have room to grow.
Yes, we all have room to grow. But a good story shows serious growth—growth that isn’t optional but is necessary, that feels high-stakes. And that’s more likely to exist for a character who falls on the bottom half of their Enneagram number’s healthiness scale.
You can read about healthiness levels on any Enneagram site, but, again, I like the Enneagram Institute.
2. Use the Enneagram’s stress lines to figure out your character’s go-to stress responses.
As we all (probably) know, in any story, it’s really important to allow your characters to experience tension.
Tension is what stretches them, which leads them to suffer a bit, which leads to a perspective shift…and that makes the story.
A story is a perspective shift.
But how do they suffer? Because we all suffer differently, which is to say, we all respond to stress differently.
For example, I:
- Eat CheezIts
- Get very bossy
- Let laundry pile up
- Decide that a dramatic life decision like moving will fix all my problems
- All of the above
Bingo, it’s (e), all of the above! 😉
But my husband doesn’t do any of these things. To tell you what he does, I want to return to the Enneagram, because it can also help us create our characters’ stress responses!
For each number on the Enneagram, there’s a stress line—a corresponding number that that person is likely to act more like when they get stressed out.
Here are the numbers and what other number we act like when we get stressed out (again, in terms of healthiness, you’re looking at how the average or unhealthy version of that number behaves):
An average to unhealthy stressed out 1 acts like an average 4
An average to unhealthy stressed out 2 acts like an average 8
An average to unhealthy stressed out 3 acts like an average 9
An average to unhealthy stressed out 4 acts like an average 2
An average to unhealthy stressed out 5 acts like an average 7
An average to unhealthy stressed out 6 acts like an average 3
An average to unhealthy stressed out 7 acts like an average 1
An average to unhealthy stressed out 8 acts like an average 5
An average to unhealthy stressed out 9 acts like an average 6
If you’re thinking, “WHAT?! This just turned into calculus!”…don’t worry, it’s not that complicated. You can read about the average numbers here, and it’ll really help you flesh out how your character, whose Enneagram number you’ve already decided, acts when they’re stressed.
So to get back to my husband as an example, who is an Enneagram Eight…Eights, when they are stressed out, sometimes exhibit behaviors of Average Fives.
Here’s how the Enneagram Institute describes an Average Five:
Increasingly detached as they become involved with complicated ideas or imaginary worlds. Become preoccupied with their visions and interpretations rather than reality. Are fascinated by off-beat, esoteric subjects, even those involving dark and disturbing elements. Detached from the practical world, a “disembodied mind,” although high-strung and intense.
One important note before we wrap up stress lines—stress lines are not necessarily a bad thing. These are just how we cope.
Not all characters are going to possess the same degree of self-awareness, just like characters will have different coping mechanisms, different habits and vices, and different baggage they’re carrying around from childhood. A more self-aware character could use their line of stress to navigate to the healthier end of the spectrum.
But, again—generally speaking, the healthier the character, the harder it’s going to be to maintain an internal tension, which is essential to story. I still recommend looking at the average to unhealthy character descriptions in the Enneagram, because we want our characters to have room to grow emotionally, and that gives them the biggest possible range of growth.
3. Use the Enneagram’s passions and virtues to chart your characters’ emotional growth.
The Enneagram, once you get into it, is a complex system, if you haven’t inferred that yet. But there’s one more aspect of it I want to touch on that can be useful to you when creating fictional characters: the passions and virtues.
Each Type has a unique passion and a unique virtue.
The passions are our emotional habits, our kneejerk responses.
The virtues are the states of being that allow us to experience our true essence and transcend those emotional habits.
Here are the passions and virtues for the nine types:
One—Passion: Anger | Virtue: Serenity
Two—Passion: Pride | Virtue: Humility
Three—Passion: Deceit | Virtue: Authenticity
Four—Passion: Envy | Virtue: Equanimity
Five—Passion: Avarice | Virtue: Non-Attachment
Six—Passion: Fear | Virtue: Courage
Seven—Passion: Gluttony | Virtue: Sobriety
Eight—Passion: Lust | Virtue: Innocence
Nine—Passion: Sloth | Virtue: Action
You can read more about the passions and virtues here.
The cool thing about the passion-to-virtue trajectory is that this can make a powerful internal emotional arc for any character—given that these get to the root of what we struggle with, overcoming our past coping mechanisms that no longer serve us, you could consider letting the passion-to-virtue arc for your character’s Enneagram number guide their process of self-discovery through your story.
Of course, it’s up to you to do the writing that leads them to that self-discovery—you must allow them to suffer, and thus struggle, and thus come to a fresh perspective.
There’s more where this came from…
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can use the Enneagram to develop your characters, you can sign up for my email list here. I am putting together a much more robust Enneagram training for writers and can’t wait to share it with you, but you’ll need to be on my email list to find out about it!
Tell us in the comments: What Enneagram type is your character? How is that affecting your storytelling?
Mary Adkins is the author of the novels When You Read This (Indie Next Pick, “Best Book of 2019” by Good Housekeeping and Real Simple), Privilege (Today.com Best Summer Read), and Palm Beach (New York Post “Best Book of 2021,” and “like a sandy beach, equal parts beautiful and uncomfortable” according to the Associated Press). Her books have been published in 13 countries, and her essays and reporting have appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, and more. A graduate of Yale Law School and Duke University, she teaches storytelling for The Moth worldwide and runs The Book Incubator, a program for aspiring authors.