Using the Enneagram to Help Create Fictional Characters

Updated on April 7, 2020
B. Leekley profile image

Brian's avocation is creative writing. His fiction has appeared in little magazines. He posts essays and articles on HubPages and Medium.

While writing a story, a handy tool when choosing a character's attitudes, reactions, and inner motivations is the enneagram of personality. It's an insightful guide to the quirks and the underlying anxiety, fixation, longing, vice, and virtue characteristic of each of the nine personality types. The interactions between the types and the contradictory impulses within each type can add tension to a story.

The Enneagram

Source

Labels of Enneagram Personality Types

Type #
Label (Riso & Hudson)
Label (Palmer)
Label (Beesing)
Label (Maitri)
Type 1
The Reformer
The Perfectionist
Avoids Anger
Ego-Resentment
Type 2
The Helper
The Giver
Avoids Need
Ego-Flattery
Type 3
The Achiever
The Performer
Avoids Failure
Ego-Vanity
Type 4
The Individualist
The Romantic
Avoids Ordinariness
Ego-Melancholy
Type 5
The Investigator
The Observer
Avoids Emptiness
Ego-Stinginess
Type 6
The Loyalist
The Loyal Skeptic
Avoids Deviance
Ego-Cowardice
Type 7
The Enthusiast
The Epicure
Avoids Pain
Ego-Planning
Type 8
The Challenger
The Protector
Avoids Weakness
Ego-Revenge
Type 9
The Peacemaker
The Mediator
Avoids Conflict
Ego-Indolence

An Immense Range of Options

What makes the enneagram of personality an effective, efficient tool for creating fictional characters? One factor is the range of options it offers. Take Type 6 (chosen at random) as an example. In their book on the enneagram, Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery, Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson describe nine levels of development of a 6—Healthy Levels: 1. Self-Affirming, 2. Engaging, 3. Committed Loyalist; Average Levels: 4. Obedient Traditionalist, 5. Ambivalent Person, 6. Overcompensating Tough Guy; Unhealthy Levels: 7. Insecure Person, 8. Overreacting Hysteric, 9. Self-Defeating Masochist. They describe nine such levels of development for each of the nine personality types.

The levels are dynamic, so a person or a fictional character might be at different levels of psychological and emotional health and maturity at different times, depending on whether the fortunes and misfortunes and stresses of life bring character growth or regression. That is the stuff of drama.

Each personality type is influenced by the personality type on either side of it on the enneagram symbol—its "wings."

Then there are the directional arrows of the enneagram. A 6, for instance, when stressed, might act like an unhealthy 3, or the self-development of a healthy 6 might lead to his or her acting at times like a healthy 9. Each type has its directions of integration and disintegration, to use Riso's terms.

And there are yet more aspects to the dynamics of the enneagram. The instinctual subtypes, for instance, pertain to the ways that the dominant passion and the dominant anxiety of each enneagram of personality type express in daily life the three basic instincts of self-preservation, relating socially to others in a community, and relating one-on-one with a significant other person.

Another instance is the tritype of each person. Enneagram of personality theorists divide the nine types into three sets, called the "centers of intelligence." Types 8, 9, and 1—the relating triad—are the "gut" (a.k.a. instinctive, body, belly) personality types, formed to cope with anger. Types 2, 3, and 4—the feeling triad—are the "heart" personality types, formed to cope with shame. Types 5, 6, and 7—the doing triad—are the "head" (a.k.a. thinking) personality types, formed to cope with anxiety. Each person's tritype consists of one enneagram type from each set or "center of intelligence," one of them dominant and the other two used in a consistent manner. A person's tritype is their defense strategy and focus of attention.

The Enneagram and Neuroses

In the following video, the narrator emphasizes the use of the enneagram to categorize types of neurotics. This was the emphasis of psychologist Claudio Naranjo when he related the "fixations" enneagram of Oscar Ichazo to neurotic extremes of personality types described in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association. Understanding such under the surface neurotic impulses can help an author create interesting characters.

Vast Number of Unique Character Personalities Possible

Have a look at the color settings of about any word processing or art software program. In Apache Open Office Writer, for instance, go to Tools-Options-Colors. Three colors—red, green, and blue—can be combined to make any of millions of colors, because each color has multiple adjustable degrees of hue, saturation, and brightness. Just so, choosing a character's primary enneagram type and then choosing his or her level of maturity and sanity, degree of being influenced by one or the other wing, and particular combination of subtypes and tritypes provides a great many possibilities from which to create a unique character, especially after such additional variables as physical traits, individual conditioning, and cultural influences are considered.

The enneagram can be a tool for actors, too. When I googled on Hamlet enneagram, I found a forum comment that said Lawrence Olivier played Hamlet as a 4, Mel Gibson as a 6.

Choosing Attitudes

The bare bones of a plot will determine what a character in a story says and does, up to a point. Then the enneagram can be used. A teacher steps into a classroom and says, "Good morning, class." The enneagram can help a writer or an actor choose the attitude. A 9 would say it placidly while hoping for cooperation and harmony in the classroom. An 8 would say it aggressively, expressing a do not dare doubt that I am in charge here attitude. A 7 would say it enthusiastically, hoping the class will be a pleasant but exciting, not boring, experience. A 6 would say it with the matter-of-factness of a loyal school system employee or the bluster of a devil's advocate in the system. A 5 might say it with a let's get right to business attitude because she wants to give the class a project so that she can get back to daydreaming. A 4 would say it dramatically. A 3 would say it with an attitude of we are going to jump right into action and get things done. A 2 would say it with an I am here to help you, please appreciate me, attitude. A 1 would say it with the attitude I am here to explain things to you; if you challenge that I am right and know best, I will put you in your place; if you listen with attention and appreciation, I will patiently help you understand.

Or in each case, given a different combination of wing, level of development, and other factors, the attitude might be quite different. The more a writer is familiar with the enneagram of personality as understood by different enneagram teachers, the more the options in choosing the attitudes and reactions of a character.

Scientifically Valid?

You may wonder if the enneagram of personality is a scientifically valid hypothesis and if scientific tests support claims made about it. Experts argue about that. To learn more on those questions, Google on: enneagram scientific validity. For the purpose of creating fictional characters, the answers makes no difference. If you end up with a hero who is motivated by envy, seeks self-expression in an art, and needs to frequently feel raw emotion, whether elation, anger, or melancholy, whether the joy of victory or the agony of defeat, whether the ecstasy of love found or the heartbreak of love lost, and if that works in the story, it's your business and secret that that character is an enneagram of personality type 4. For your purpose, it's irrelevant if the enneagram has any more or less scientific validity than astrology or Freud's, Jung's, or Adler's personality types.

Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery
Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery

Since circa 2002 I've used either the original edition or the revised and updated edition of this book as a tool in creating fictional characters. Among books on the enneagram familiar to me to date, it has seemed the richest trove of in depth descriptions of variations of the enneagram personality types. Don Richard Riso's concept of healthy, average, and unhealthy levels within each enneagram personality type is easily transformed by a fiction writer into templates for character development, motivations, and interactions and is the stuff of drama. For example, what happens when you pit a Level 7 'Ruthless Outlaw' unhealthy type 8 Leader who is on his way to degenerating into a Level 8 'Omnipotent Megalomaniac' against a Level 9 'Punitive Avenger' unhealthy type 1 Reformer? Or what sort of romance develops when a Level 5 'Self-Absorbed Romantic' average type 4 Individualist and a Level 6 'Excessive Hedonist' average type 7 Enthusiast are attracted to one another? The possible character permutations and confrontations with dramatic potential in Riso's Personality Types are myriad.

 

Poll

As a tool in creating fictional characters, I have found (or imagine) the Enneagram of Personality to be:

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Conclusion

Be cautious about assuming that a real life person, including yourself, is a certain personality type according to the enneagram of personality as described by this or that expert. Getting it right is not easy. But when you use the enneagram to create and develop a fictional character, you can't go wrong, since you are the creater of the story and the character, and it's all pretense. Have fun. Experiment. Give each character his or her individual, multi-faceted, complex, dynamic personality.

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Brian Leekley

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      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

        Hope you write about the experience if you do, Bill. I'm new to the idea myself. Now when I am first mulling and brainstorming a story and working on the first draft and getting acquainted with and making decisions about the characters, enneagram personality type is a factor I consider, especially as regards motivating anxieties.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        4 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Very interesting, Brian. I admit, I've never heard of this approach, but it's something I'm willing to try. Thank you!

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

        Kathryn, I admire Dickens and his writings very much. I hope you find the enneagram helpful in creating characters. I am in the process of exploring the possibilities in my fiction.

      • Kathryn L Hill profile image

        Kathryn L Hill 

        4 years ago from LA

        Printing this up. I too love creative writing.

        I love C. Dickens.

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        5 years ago from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

        Thanks for commenting, twoseven. I'm glad you love this hub.

        I hope using the enneagram of personality types is helpful when you make up bedtime stories.

        As a student of the enneagram, you might find my hub on the history of the enneagram interesting.

        My "Cat Enneagram" is just for fun.

      • twoseven profile image

        twoseven 

        5 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

        I love this! I've read a lot about the enneagram and I love how you capture each of the types just through how they would say a simple phrase. As a 7 myself, I felt perfectly captured :)

        I don't really write fiction, but I do make up bedtime stories for my sons. I love the idea of using the 9 types to create characters! I am definitely going to do that now.

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        7 years ago from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

        Thanks, DDE.

      • DDE profile image

        Devika Primić 

        7 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

        Incredible ideas here and so well informed on the title.

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        7 years ago from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

        Thanks very much, Martie.

      • MartieCoetser profile image

        Martie Coetser 

        7 years ago from South Africa

        B. Leekley, this - the Enneagram for personalities - is extremely interesting and precious information worth more than gold to writers of fiction. I've seen a lot of interesting hubs on your profile and would like to take the time to read them all.

        Voted up, well-presented, shared and pinned.

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        7 years ago from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

        Thanks much, unknown spy.

      • unknown spy profile image

        Life Under Construction 

        7 years ago from Neverland

        sharing to all. Great info.

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