The Enneagram and Writing Characters

Ah, the Enneagram. Some embrace it wholeheartedly. Some use it as an excuse for their behavior. Some dismiss it as just another personality test. Some, who have no idea what the Enneagram even is, might be cautious. For writers, though, I encourage you to learn about this tool and use it—because I believe it’s powerful for developing characters.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Enneagram, I recommend you stop reading this and go check out The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. This book is an introduction to the Enneagram from a Christian perspective. Several other recent authors write about the Enneagram as well, but most come at it from a New Age philosophy, which I don’t personally find meaningful. As a Christian, I see the Enneagram as a way to understand how God has uniquely created me and to recognize how I need be further sanctified in my Christian walk. Since the Enneagram points out major vices of each type, I find messages of healing most effective for my own growth when they come from a Christian perspective.

To find your type, don’t take a test. Go research. You’ll have to figure out your type on your own. That’s why I recommend starting with The Road Back to You. That book explains the Enneagram better than I ever could.

So, back to the Enneagram’s use for writers.

I find the Enneagram much more useful for character development than any other personality tropes or types because the Enneagram moves past surface traits and tendencies and dives deep into internal motivations. For writers, this is great news. Traits can only carry characters so far. Characters stuffed with odd habits and quirks can still fall flat. But when we understand what makes characters tick, why they do what they do—that’s when true depth emerges.

To explain how the Enneagram is different in that regard, let me provide an example. Two people with the same Enneagram type may do the exact same task or have the exact same trait, but for completely different reasons. Timeliness, a trait, may be important to a One (the Perfectionist) because by being on time, they are meeting an expectation (acting correctly, doing the right thing, etc.) and thus satisfying their need to be perfect. For a Two (the Giver), though, they would want to be on time out of a desire to please those around them. Both look the same on the surface (by being on time), but they have two very different reasons for doing so.

Understanding character motivations can go a long way in writing three-dimensional characters. When we as authors understand not just that a character loves adventure, but why they love adventure, it changes the way we write them. Does a character embrace adventure because she believes it’s the right thing to do? Because she feels a need to please others? To be seen as successful or unique? To seek understanding for herself? To feel secure or out of loyalty? Out of a desire to live life to the fullest? To challenge others and protect their loved ones? Or because everyone else is doing it? Understanding motivations changes the character completely, even if the question revolves around the same plot device.

Another helpful feature of the Enneagram is the stress/security numbers and wings. Different situations can bring out nuances in each character’s type based on these additional types. If you’re unfamiliar with stress/security numbers and wings, again, I encourage you to dig deeper into Enneagram research so you can take advantage of this layer of character development.

Knowing each character’s Enneagram type can also be useful in creating a balanced cast. While you shouldn’t necessarily force a type on a character, you might want to consider trimming your cast of a character or two if all of your allies are Twos. Not all Twos are alike, of course, but it may provide more variety among your characters if you have a challenging voice in the mix (like an Eight or a skeptical Six) or if you have a quieter, more intellectual type (like a Five).

Additionally, understanding the Enneagram can help shape the plot when you feel stuck, particularly if it’s a character problem. For example, if you know your Hero is a Six, it may be interesting to pit them against a Three Antagonist. Sixes tend to be skeptical; they want to be absolutely sure of the outcome before they make a decision and often second-guess themselves. Threes, on the other hand, tend to portray an air of confidence out of their desire to be seen as successful. The two Enneagram types provide a natural clash of themes and may prompt organic character growth in the Hero. It’s worth noting that Three is the number Sixes move towards in times of stress. Generally, I think pairing heroes with mentors, allies, or villains who are the heroes’ Stress (or Security) numbers creates a blend of character dynamics that will challenge and compliment heroes rather nicely.

Enneagram can also be useful for charting character growth. Since the Enneagram largely focuses on flaws (or gifts we’ve corrupted), there is a natural pathway for character arcs built in to each type. As an example, say your Hero is a Seven. One of Sevens’ problems is their need to avoid pain at all costs. Building off of this tendency, a Seven Hero’s character arc might be learning how to cope with pain, sadness, and loss in a healthy way over the course of their journey.

Finally, knowing your character’s Enneagram can help you diagnose and fix character consistency. Say you notice that one of your characters is acting out of character. Framing the character’s problem spot through the lens of the Enneagram may illuminate why they’re not acting like themselves. Why are they saying or doing whatever is out of character for them? What’s their underlying motivation? When you pinpoint that motivation (perhaps through the Enneagram!), it can help you revise that scene to better capture that individual’s characterization. The language of the Enneagram in particular can provide words that help you recognize consistency in your characters. If you know your characters’ types, you know their underlying motivations.

Now, as a caveat to this entire post, I do think it’s worth mentioning that you should avoid writing based on type (i.e. don’t force a type on a character) and let your characters’ personalities and tendencies emerge as naturally as possible. I think that, in writing fiction, the Enneagram works much like archetypes and character tropes. It provides useful starting points to launch into deeper character development, but may open the door for harmful stereotypes if not well executed. It’s a tool, not a crutch.

I hope this helps you in your writing journey! Do you use the Enneagram in your writing? How as it helped you? Let me know!