Part 1 is an explanation of how the Enneagram works. Part 2 will explain how to use it in your writing.
Quite simply, the Enneagram is a neat little way of categorising your characters by their psychology.
According to Enneagram theory, everybody falls into one of nine character types and each character type exhibits certain behaviours, based on what drives them. For some it’s the need to put things in order, for others it’s the need to be in control, or be original, or be helpful.
As a writer, I use the Enneagram a lot.
Here are the character types, along with a brief description:
The Reformer or Perfectionist – who likes to see things in order.
The Helper or Giver – who likes to assist others and receive love.
The Achiever or Performer – who likes to win.
The Individualist or Romantic – who dreams and likes to be original.
The Investigator or Observer – who likes to know everything going on.
The Loyalist or Skeptic – who needs to trust and be trusted.
The Enthusiast or Epicure – who loves to indulge in everything life has to offer.
The Challenger or Protector – who craves security and control.
The Peacemaker or Mediator – who brings harmony to situations.
It’s easy to see how having a relatively short list of potential character types immediately creates a range of characters who all have different goals and desires – which opens the door to a wide variety of conflicts, much more subtle than simply good guys versus bad.
More of this in part 2…
Additionally the Enneagram describes some key traits of each type:
HOLY IDEA – what the character truly believes in. Where their moral compass firmly points.
EGO FIXATION – when they’re at their most selfish, they’re here.
BASIC DESIRE – what they really want on a psychological level
BASIC FEAR – what this type of person hates and takes great pains to avoid.
TEMPTATION – what is the characters compulsive behaviour. What they revert to under pressure.
VIRTUE – what redeeming behaviour this character has learnt. What they’re capable of at their best.
VICE – what they’re up to at their worst. What foul habits they have.
Again it can really help to build a character from being mostly driven by one particular aspect of their personality. It comes to define them and drive.
The traits a character displays are all related and form a consistency that makes it easy to build up an image of a particular type that is easily accessible.
Perhaps you’d like to try to work out which type you, or some of your (favourite) characters are!
To summarise the various traits of the types I’ve grabbed this little table. All of this, and descriptions are available in the App.
Loss of Control
Peace of Mind
If you’d like to have a pocket guide to carry around with you, then please check out the App
And, in case I haven’t laboured the point enough already… more on how to use the Enneagram in part 2! (which is coming soon)
Thanks for reading. I always love to hear your comments! – James
So.. how to make the Enneagram work for your writing?
The Enneagram, to my mind, serves two main functions.
It helps avoid some common problems by creating a consistent set of diverse characters.
It helps fuel the imagination about character-specific plot points.
What more could you need from such a simple tool! Let’s look at these in turn.
The first and most obvious way, is to make sure that you’ve got the bases covered – that all your characters are different types.
Designing the Cast
When designing your cast – make sure you have Reformers, Achievers, Helpers, Individualists… Having a diversity of Enneagram types creates a diversity of characters – who all see the world in different ways, want different things and react differently.
Write Distinct Characters
One of the biggest traps writers fall into is to write all the characters the same. By having different types the chance of this happening is greatly reduced.
Don’t Write Yourself
Another problem is writing every character as yourself. And that means characters sound like you, and act like you. They do what you’d do (because, you know, you’re a hero too).
By getting a handle on a particular Enneagram type you can make sure you don’t make this mistake – (be the hero of your own story, not the one you’re writing!)
Fuelling the Imagination
But more importantly, the traits of the Enneagram can really help bring rounded characters to life. How? Let’s have a look.
Acting to Type
Start by giving a particular character a type, then get to know that type
Look at the various traits and drivers that a Reformer has – they’re perfectionists and they like everything to be in order. This means different things are going to bother them (messiness for example) and they’re going to have a distinct reaction to being under pressure (they get angry). With seven different traits for each character there’s plenty of scope for creating well-rounded variations of Reformers.
It can help to build extreme characters (i.e comedy or small characters) around one particular trait – a Reformer who gets REALLY ANGRY about things (Basil Fawlty, anyone???)
Having a range of different characters also creates that all important conflict.
An Individualist (who is dreamy, touchy and obsessed with their output) and an Achiever (who is driven, competitive and sometimes deceptive) are going to create a unique dynamic. There’s a sitcom right there…
You could put them on an oil rig, in space, or in a chip shop. Or in a chip shop on an oil rig in space – but the core conflict is going to be there. And it’s those human conflicts we crave – when two people want different things – and go about getting it in different ways…
We’ve talked about differences here. But there’s also something unifying in recognising your character as a certain type. Examining the traits of a Challenger, for example, it becomes clear that they’re driven by a need for security… They challenge as a way of protecting themselves. They want to know the truth. They risk pushing others away… And this adds a completeness to the character… As an audience member we GET this character. Immediately a back-story begins to emerge… what hurt them? Why do they want to be protected?
Audiences are not particularly forgiving of inconsistent characters either. Would your Challenging protector trust someone they had only just met because it helps your plot? Not for a second. They might appear to trust them but would certainly take steps to hedge their bets, or find more about their new friend. This is rewarding to the audience. of course they’d do that… they say. How do they know? They recognise the type…
Character-specific plot points
As you can see from the above, simply by assigning characters an Enneagram type puts a spin on their interactions with everything – in a justifiable and satisfying way… How each character reacts to the same situation is a very telling route into the character – think about how each of the characters in The Usual Suspects reacts to being interviewed by the police. We know instantly that these are very different individuals.
Themes for Enneagram Types
I will touch on various story themes in another post – but for the time being it’s worth understanding that there are certain themes that suit certain Enneagram characters better.
For example a moral crusade tale suits a Reformer at its helm, a detective tale might suit a driven investigator type – and a lone hero action movie would almost certainly want a Challenger taking the action to the bad guys.
The Enneagram Journey
Relating specifically to storytelling I have also created something called the Enneagram Journey. This particularly applies to the hero, but can apply to any character.
The idea behind the journey is that a character must grow and change throughout the story. And each of the traits that a character displays can be indicative of a certain stage of that journey.
Journey of a Hero
Act One Ego Fixation and Holy Idea
When we first meet a character they are often self-obsessed and unreformed. Here their dominant trait is their Ego Fixation – that dark little part of themselves. For an example, an investigator type, who is Stingy and ungenerous when we first meet them.
But they also hold, or are aware of, a noble concept – their Holy Idea – for the Investigator this is Omniscience – they long to know everything – to uncover the truth. In our detective story this might be to uncover the murderer – and more importantly HOW it happened. Their Holy idea is a chance at redemption.
Act Two Basic Fear and Basic Desire
Pushed into the second act, into new circumstances they have to face their Fears and Desires. They are tested Our detective has a strong desire to appear competent and capable, and face situations where they feel useless – back and forth proving themselves, failing and trying again…
Normally they reach a crisis point towards the end of the second act where they face their Temptation – that behaviour they resort to when they’re under intense pressure. For the Investigator this can be Overthinking – paralysis through analysis – being stopped in their tracks – unable to see the way forward. To proceed, they must overcome that temptation…
Act Three Vice and Virtue
Finally in the showdown finale there are two possible endings – They face their all-consuming and damning Vice to achieve their redeeming Virtue.
For the Investigator, this is a choice between being overcome by greed – being corrupted as the killer revealed tries to bargain them out of it, or having an opportunity to profit immensely by keeping the truth hidden. Or maintaining that cool analysis and delivering the truth while those around around them lose their heads. Either can be the result keeping the audience guessing to the end. A positive ending or a negative ending – just make sure you’ve given the audience enough reasons for them to reach that end (if they fall victim of their vice, we like to see it coming, if they’re rewarded for their great virtue it’s because they’ve earned it)
So I hope you’ve got a sense of how the Enneagram can help keep track of your characters and inspire your imagination.
As always take as much or as little as you like from this – it is not prescriptive merely intended to help fuel your imagination as a writer.
To get a handy pocket guide for the iPhone to keep with you, study and store your own character types head over to the App Store!
Thanks for reading and as always all comments welcome!