Using the Enneagram for Character Development

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I am straight up obsessed with personality typing, and have become a particularly big fan of the Enneagram in recent years. Used by counselors and companies all over the world, the Enneagram is a comprehensive personality inventory which can be extremely helpful in understanding yourself and getting to better know the people in your life. As a writer, I’ve also found that the Enneagram can be an incredibly effective way to develop fictional characters. It provides a personality framework, and plenty of inspiration—there are tons of people with all personality types who share their type-related experiences online. There truly is a ridiculous amount of information out there, which I find super helpful on crafting characters that feel realistic and unique.

Before I get to the best ways to incorporate Enneagram typing into your story, here’s a quick rundown of the system and how it works—

There are nine core types, set on a circle, and although they’re not quantitative or sequential, most people are influenced by an adjacent type, referred to as a “wing”. Some are equally influenced by the types surrounding theirs (these people are “balanced”, not in any particularly positive way—it just means they’re equal parts both wings). For example, I am a 4 wing 5. This basic system has 27 different types as opposed to MBTI’s 16. The Enneagram also gets even more specific by giving you an “instinctual stacking”—there are three styles of social interaction and approach to dealing with people, and a detailed Enneagram tells you the order in which you tend toward the three. Taking this into account, there are 162 possible types, all as detailed and extensive as the Myers-Briggs sixteen.

So—how to actually make use of the Enneagram as a writer of fiction. There’s such a wealth of information online, if you know where to look it isn’t difficult AT ALL to find everything from detailed descriptions of strengths and weaknesses by type to incredibly detailed anecdotes from people with any of the super specified 162 personality types. These anecdotes are particularly helpful, because they tend to show how the different types present in real life. There are also a lot of lighter type-based categorizations floating around the internet, like forum posts or infographics on what each type would want with them on a desert island, or what each Harry Potter character’s Enneagram would be. Even random information like this can be helpful when you want to go beyond character traits.

The first step in development of a character based on the Enneagram, even if you do have some idea of what your character’s personality type might be, is to take a legitimate, full Enneagram test from the perspective of your character. I usually do this with all main characters in any story I write, even short stories of significant length. Aside from being helpful, it’s just really, really fun. For comprehensive and free results, I recommend Eclectic Energies. This is the site I always use, and it also has a lot of helpful information on each type.

Once you know your character’s personality type (the Eclectic Energies test gives you main type, wing, and instinctual stacking), you can start collecting information to inspire a character. It’s best to use a basic character planning sheet in conjunction with the Enneagram to make everything easier to organize. I often start with a search on Pinterest or Tumblr for type-specific keywords (usually something simple, like “4W5 Enneagram”, or “type 4 aesthetic” for more visual inspiration) then incorporate what I find into various sections of my character sheet, from traits to random quirks, to formative memories.

When looking for more personal, real world accounts of what life is like for each of the types, I love Reddit (and other forums, but Reddit is my go-to). There are literally entire Subreddits dedicated to various Enneagram types. Be a bit careful about copying strangers’ life stories in writing intended for public consumption, but generally it’s fine to take very strong inspiration from things shared on the internet. Art imitates life, and good writing comes from observing people. Enneagram research essentially allows you to research people without having to actually observe or be around them.

I strongly advise taking the test for your character before writing, but as a very brief overview, here’s an introduction to each type—

Type 1:

In a word: idealistic

Their *agenda*: Always striving for perfection, often wants help but finds it difficult to accept. They tend to feel a need to carry the world on their shoulders, to fight injustice with superhuman strength borne out of conviction; ones stick to their values, often to a fault. Sometimes hard on others, even harder on themselves. They live with purpose, and regardless of what that purpose is, they tend to be well-intentioned.

Annoying because: Standards are too high. Self-righteous at times, and often resentful (more of a simmering frustration…they’re not good at processing or acknowledging anger). Many of my favorite people are type ones, so I don’t have too many issues with them.

Type 2:

In a word: giving

Their *agenda*: To care for others and form genuine connections––this is the positive side of this type, and in my experience twos are usually pretty good people. They’re driven in part by a need for acceptance, and fear of rejection.

Annoying because: They’re often overbearing, and at worst manipulate people into relying on them, out of an obsessive need to be needed.

Type 3:

In a word: ambitious

Their *agenda*: Threes thrive on productivity––happiness and fulfillment depend heavily on success, whatever their individual definition of success is. Hard on themselves and high-achieving, they live by words my father (who is actually a type one) has quoted since I was a child; it’s actually an old tagline from a Lexus commercial, but still––“the relentless pursuit of perfection”…that’s the ultimate goal. In some ways threes and ones are similar, but threes are generally more image conscious and more social. They’re adaptable, hard-working, and competitive. Natural leaders, for better or worse.

Annoying because: Can be bossy and high-strung. Authenticity isn’t always a priority, although this can be a defense mechanism, for fear of being judged. For lack of a better description, these people are kind of a lot. They also don’t like being ignored, which is irritating.

Type 4:

In a word: creative

Their *agenda*: Their whole “thing” centers around a desire to be unique. They value authenticity, and are often uncertain about whether they want to be understood by others. Fours tend to be a bundle of contradictions. Emotional and expressive, but at times withdrawn. They’re empathetic but also tend to be self-absorbed. Can be very needy but frequently push people away––greatest fear is abandonment…strangely incongruous with their tendency towards rebellious behavior and anger. Straight up weird, but obviously not that unique given that there are millions of people with a similar personality type.

Annoying because: Jesus Christ. As a four, I don’t know where to start––moody (lots of sulking), melancholy, horrible at taking criticism…although to be fair, these are in large part shortcomings of an unhealthy four. At best, they’re comfortable in their own skin…sometimes to the point of arrogance, on the basis of being “different”.

Type 5:

In a word: mysterious

Their *agenda*: In constant pursuit of knowledge, driven by the need to be competent. Naturally inquisitive. Fives pride themselves on their ability to objectively observe (and make sense of) a situation. Frequently emotional, especially with a four wing, but they are TERRIBLE at sharing their feelings. Bottle that shit right up. They tend to be good listeners, and good at keeping secrets. The fives I know have amazing memories…incredibly observant too. Quietly sarcastic, sometimes judgmental but not vocal about their judgments. They’ll just silently think you’re an idiot. Most likely to become a reclusive mad scientist. Also the type most likely to think think think but never actually act on their ambitions and desires…so maybe they’re most likely to want to become a mad scientist but end up just being reclusive.

Annoying because: They’re very difficult to read and therefore can be nerve wracking to be around. Also, they tend to be natural liars. Might be a little too intense, either in a scary way or an awkward, fumbling way. I don’t have a whole lot to say here, because I find this type to be less annoying than many of the others because they’re least likely to be demanding.

Type 6:

In a word: cautious

Their *agenda*: Sixes crave security, safety, and unconditional support. This type kind of strikes me as inherently unhealthy and annoying, but that may just be my unfair perception of those who crave guidance in the form of authority. These people are naturally suspicious and often have an inferiority complex––they’re looking for someone to show them the way, take care of them, and tell them what to do…in exchange for undying loyalty. This is an anxious type, always prepared for things to go wrong and afraid of trying new things. At their best, sixes are reliable and great planners. There are “counterphobic” sixes, who tend to reject authority figures on the basis of finding them difficult to trust, who fear losing their autonomy and sense of self. The commonality between the two types of sixes is a need for stability.

Annoying because: They’re often neurotic, sometimes a little too people-pleasing, and tend to blame others. Sixes are prone to paranoia…at their worst they’re basically terrified of life, which while sad can get old real fast. And telling these people to calm the fuck down will do nothing but make them worse. I can be intensely neurotic myself and do have a lot of sympathy for this type of person. However, my anxiety is generally steeped in guilt and centered on how people perceive me. Sixes are more likely to exist in a state of constant worry, even if they themselves don’t realize it. 

Type 7:

In a word: enthusiastic

Their *agenda*: Oy. So much enthusiasm. So many feelings—mostly positive ones. Sevens are here for a good time, and probably a long time. Optimistic and up for anything, but not reckless. They tend to suffer from FOMO—biggest fears are being excluded, inferior, or unhappy. They strive for contentment and EXPERIENCES. Usually opinionated, but also open-minded. They’re almost always extroverted. I find them to be enjoyable in small doses, but (who cares what I think) they’re generally quite likable if you enjoy happy people.

Annoying because: Excessive energy. SO many good vibes, and more than enough excitement. At their best, sevens learn to find joy within themselves and become more reflective. But most people are not at their best, and most sevens are about instant gratification and fun fun fun. That said, I guess being around someone upbeat who’s living life to the fullest is preferable to consoling / commiserating with a whiny sad sack.

Type 8:

In a word: aggressive

Their *agenda*: Intensity incarnate. They can either skew angry and obnoxious or protective and principled. Sometimes it just depends on the day. Fear belies their aggression—fear of being weak, controlled, or powerless. They’re often misunderstood. What seems like anger can be fear of betrayal or self-protection. Eights have a lot of wonderful traits too. They’re loyal, assertive, direct, and passionate. They value authenticity, and appreciate self-awareness. I’m doing a poor job of describing this type…they’re not generally scary or dickish. Give them their independence and try not to take their bluntness personally. Really, they’re good friends to have. When they care, they really care—they’re one of the more emotional types, it’s just not obvious at first.

Annoying because: Bad at admitting they’re wrong. Often rude, usually without meaning to be. Whether you get along with these people depends heavily on whether they’re your cup of tea or not—eights can be polarizing. For the most part they don’t care what you think of them, or at least they pretend they don’t. Stubborn. Very stubborn. At their worst, eights aren’t as much annoying as they are dislikable.

Type 9:

In a word: peaceful

Their *agenda*: At all costs, keep the peace. Nines are enlightened and strive for serenity. Everything just so, everyone just peachy—in a very low-key way. They’re easygoing and usually easy to get along with. Naturally deferential and empathetic…again, they can be very singularly minded, always in the interest of harmony. They’re dreamy, imaginative, but are often more likely to think than do. Head in the clouds…but that’s okay, because they’re not hard to like, which is a major source of pride.

Annoying because: Eh. Not too much, partially because they just don’t come on too strong. Of all the types, they’re most likely to be slackers and struggle with procrastination. Might be kind of lazy. Due to fear of conflict, anger usually comes out as passive-aggression.

Honestly, this also pretty much sums it up.

This is, of course, a very limited overview of the nine types intended to give you a place to start. If one of the types seems to correspond well to a loose idea you have for a character, you should absolutely research your chosen type carefully, with regard to specific type subsets. As always, when it comes to character development, more is more. And while personality is far from the only dimension of character building, it’s the most major component, related to and stemming from nearly every other aspect of a person, real or fictional. It can be hard to know where to start without a framework. Personally, before I even start with my character sheet, I make my character take the test. With some creativity and plenty of TLC, the rest comes naturally.