Using the Enneagram to Create Authentic Fictional Characters

Using the Enneagram to Create Authentic Fictional Characters

Whether in the workplace or on the internet, most of us have taken at least one personality test. There are many profiling systems, and most do a good job at identifying our strengths and weakness. If you haven’t heard about the Enneagram, though, you’re missing perhaps the greatest tool to understanding people… and to creating life-like, multifaceted, and relevant characters.

Before we get into character interaction, I’d like to introduce you to the Enneagram. There are numerous books written on the Enneagram, some even geared for writers, and I’m confident you’ll find adding a couple volumes to your library will be a worthwhile investment. My favorites, both written by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, are The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality and Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery.

From the Greek words ennea, meaning "nine" and gramma, meaning something "written" or "drawn", the Enneagram is a model of human personality. This orientation of personality reflects the totality of childhood factors that influenced its development and categorizes individuals into one of the nine interconnected personality types.

General Points of the Enneagram:

  • People do not change from one basic personality type to another.
  • The descriptions of the personality types are universal and apply to males and females.
  • Not everything in the description of a type applies all the time because people fluctuate among the healthy, average, and unhealthy traits that make up their personality type.
  • The numerical identification of the types is arbitrary, in that it does not rank the type. A larger number is no better than a smaller number.
  • No type is better or worse than any other. Each type has unique capacities and different limitations.
  • While the Enneagram describes nine basic temperaments, the system’s’ variations allow for a wide spectrum of human characteristics and expression.

With an understanding of Enneagram types, writers can more consistently, accurately, and vividly portray their characters’ inner experience and outer behaviors.

  • One (The Reformer): "I perfect, therefore I am." Ones are principled, orderly, self-doubting, irritable.
  • Two (The Helper): "I love, therefore I am." Twos are nurturing, seductive, emotional, proud.
  • Three (The Achiever): "I succeed, therefore I am." Threes are energetic, competitive, driven, vain.
  • Four (The Individualist): "I suffer, therefore I am." Fours are authentic, passionate, depressed, envious.
  • Five (The Investigator): "I think, therefore I am." Fives are observant, independent, withdrawn, stingy.
  • Six (The Loyalist): "I doubt, therefore I am." Sixes are loyal, authority conscious, suspicious, fearful.
  • Seven (The Enthusiast): "I enjoy, therefore I am." Sevens are optimistic, egalitarian, self—indulgent, dilettantish.
  • Eight (The Challenger): "I dominate, therefore I am." Eights are forceful, impulsive, excessive, vengeful.
  • Nine (The Peacemaker): "I connect, therefore I am." Nines are accepting, generous, distractible, indolent.

The Enneagram diagram divides the nine styles into three groups. Each of these triads is associated with a different human faculty.


In the Instinctive Center, the primary or driving emotion is Anger. In the Feeling Center, the emotion is Shame, and in the Thinking Center, it’s Fear.

The Instinctive (Gut or Will) Centered Types
Located at the top of the diagram, personality types Eight, Nine and One are the Enneagram styles centered in the faculty of will. People with these styles are overly conscious of the boundaries between themselves and others and make efforts to defend their autonomy. Because anger is a major problem for them, Eights, Nines and Ones are sometimes called "anger" styles.

  • Eights (The Challengers) use their anger to impose their will on other people and to dominate situations. Their working hypothesis is: "If I can intimidate and dominate others, then I will be safe."
  • Nines (The Peacemaker) see themselves as easygoing and are often unaware of their anger. Their passive-aggressive behavior, however, betrays their stubborn will. "If I can keep an open mind about all possible strategies, then I will be safe."
  • Ones (The Reformers) turn their anger inward to self-criticism and their will to fierce self-discipline. Their irritability reveals their resentment at what they see as the ethical lapses of others. "If I can make myself and everything around me perfect, then I will be safe."

The Heart or Feeling Centered Types
Enneagram styles Two, Three and Four, clustered on the right-hand side of the diagram, are most aware of emotions and interpersonal connections. People with these styles seek approval from others and are conscious of the image they present to the world. This triad’s focus is on "feelings," especially sad or painful ones:

  • Twos (The Helper) focus so strongly on the feelings of others that they often lack awareness of their own feelings and desires. They seek to present the image of a loving and helpful person. Their working hypothesis is: "If I can make others love me and depend on me, then I will be safe."
  • Threes (The Achiever) are so concerned about presenting the image of a successful person that they are often out of touch with their feelings and the feelings of others. "If I can establish a public image of myself as a successful person, then I will be safe."
  • Fours (The Individualist) grow deeply absorbed with their own feelings and concern themselves with presenting an image that is beautiful, authentic, and original. "If I can make friends with the darkness and become a connoisseur of my own pain, then I will be safe."

The Head or Thinking Centered Types
Fives, Sixes and Sevens, grouped on the left side of the diagram, are most aware of life’s dangers. People with these styles tend to use their minds to cope with their anxieties about being at risk in the world and are sometimes called "fear" styles.

  • Fives (The Investigator) often fear being engulfed by other people. They shore up their boundaries by amassing knowledge, which they use as a buffer to keep others at a distance. "If I can keep my mind focused on grasping the world’s complexities, then I will be safe."
  • Sixes (The Loyalist) are usually preoccupied with worst-case scenarios. Ever on the lookout for danger, they manage their fear by forming relationships with reliable people and having a clear understanding of lines of authority. Some people with this style seek the protection of authority, while others rebel against it. "If I can stay alert to all possible dangers and find trustworthy allies, then I will be safe."
  • Sevens (The Enthusiast) deny their fears and concentrate instead on enjoyable activities, maintaining a positive attitude and staying in motion. "If I can distract myself with pleasure and avoid thinking about dangers, then I will be safe."


Karen Homey, a psychoanalyst trained by Freud, observed from her clinical work that individuals choose one of three neurotic "solutions": "moving away from people," "moving against people," or "moving toward people."

It is interesting to note that in each of the three centers we find one Enneagram point from each of Homey’s three categories: In the Gut/Will triad, the Eight style is aggressive—"moving against people," the Nine withdrawn "moving away from people," and the One compliant/dependent "moving toward people." In the Heart/Feeling triad, Two is compliant/dependent, Three aggressive, and Four withdrawn. In the Head/Thinking triad, Five is withdrawn, Six compliant/dependent, and Seven aggressive.

Stress and Security Points
The Enneagram does not describe fixed types but rather dynamic personalities. These dynamics are evident when an individual feels stressed and shifts into the attitudes and behavior of a different Enneagram style, followed by other times when he or she feels secure, which usually prompts a shift to another style.

Each Enneagram style has characteristic ways of behaving in another type’s temperament when stressed or feeling secure. For instance, Ones under stress can resemble Fours in that they can become self-absorbed, depressed, masochistic, mired in suffering. When feeling secure, the same Ones might act like Sevens: imaginative, confident, fun-loving, appreciative of life’s pleasures.

The arrows in the Enneagram diagram indicate the directions that each style shifts towards. The arrow that points away from the home style leads to what is called the "stress" point. Thus a One under stress often behaves like a Four, while a Four under stress behaves in ways associated with a Two, and so forth. Movement against the direction of the arrows is towards the direction of security. When a One when is feeling secure he or she behaves more like a Seven, while a Seven behaves in ways typical of a Five, and so on.

Knowing these movements provides writers with a realistic range for their characters by identifying the variety of responses they’re capable of, as well as the triggers that are likely to provoke contradictory behaviors. The range of Hamlet, who is a Six, for example, is visible in the moods he exhibits in the soliloquy he delivers after he watches a troupe of actors rehearsing a play. Reacting to the intense emotion he sees in one of the actors, Hamlet suddenly feels guilty over his failure to avenge his father’s murder. Then he realizes that fear is the cause of his inaction, grows angry at the uncle who murdered his father, and shifts into sarcastic self-laceration. Next he hatches a detailed plan of action and justifies his previous failure to act before he becomes resolute.

Using the Enneagram’s insight enables us build arcs that portray authentic evolutions of our characters’ psychology over the course of the story.

At the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, after he learns from his father’s Ghost that the father was murdered, Hamlet feels a responsibility to settle the score with the murderer:

The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right! (I, v, 188—189)

His melancholy and pretended madness alternate with attempts to flog himself into action. The direction of stress for a Six is toward Three, who finds action easy because he is able to ignore his feelings. The Six moving to Three exhibits the negative aspects of the stress point, and Hamlet’s action of killing Polonius is rash and counterproductive:

HAMLET: [Draws] How now? A rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!
[Makes a pass through the arras and] kills Polonius.
POLONIUS. [Behind] O, I am slain!
QUEEN: O me, what has thou done?
HAMLET: Nay, I know not. Is it the King?
QUEEN: O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!
HAMLET: A bloody deed—almost as bad, good Mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
QUEEN: As kill a king?
HAMLET: Ay, lady, it was my word.
[Lifts up the arras and sees Polonius]
Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better…. (III, iv, 23—32)

After Polonius’s murder, Hamlet is forced to leave Denmark and sail to England. On the ship, to save his life, he takes further action, which results in the deaths of his schoolmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Observing a land battle from the deck of the ship, he views it as a call to vengeance on his uncle for the murder of his father:

O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! (IV, iv, 65-66)

By the end of the play, though, Hamlet has changed. The course of events have caused him to act and react, ultimately leading him to adopt an evolved perspective of mortalitye—a calm acceptance of his fate and a spirituality he never showed in the first half of the story. When his villainous uncle invites him to take part in a fencing match with Polonius’s son, Hamlet’s friend Horatio suspects a trick and urges him to refuse the invitation. But Hamlet says:

Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all…. Let be. (V, ii, 23O-235)

Hamlet is no longer ambivalent about life and death when he dies. And his character arc is far from contrived. As a Six under stress, he took on the negative attributes of a Three, becoming so bent on action that he ignores its destructive consequences. Then gaining a sense of security, he moved into the positive aspects of Nine, which enabled him to face the danger and accept his fate.

For some character, the emotional continuum is wide, while for other types it’s narrow. Self-dramatizing Fours have a lesser range than Ones. Blanche DuBois, for example, displays a degree of self-aware clarity and the cogency of a One when she feels secure, as seen in the description of her first meeting with Stanley:

Oh, I guess he’s just not the type that goes for jasmine perfume, but maybe he’s what we need to mix with our blood now that we’ve lost Belle Reve. We thrashed it out. I feel a bit shaky, but I think I handled it nicely, I laughed and treated it all as a joke…. (Scene 2, p. 45)

Under stress, Fours frequently take on negative characteristics of Twos. Late in the play, as Blanche feels more beleaguered, she becomes hysterical and obsessed with pleasing people like an unhealthy Two. Her pride wounded and her position in her sister’s household precarious, she schemes to manipulate Stanley’s friend Mitch into marrying her. After Stanley tells Mitch about her sordid past and he rejects her, she spirals through pathological levels of the Two style into her final madness.

The contrast between Blanche’s behavior at her One security point and her Two stress point is expressed in her ambivalence about people. When secure, she evaluates those around her with a cool and intelligent eye, but when insecure fear has her indiscriminately courting others. Knowing the Enneagram’s patterns allows writers to draw inconsistencies without undermining characterization. The result is what’s heralded as three-dimensional character.

Each Enneagram style has an emotional compass. The struggle to resolve conflict or find a livable compromise is part of what prompts the character’s behaviors.

Stress and security points are a source of conflict and bonding between characters. Because the types, driven by stress or security, shift into other personality zones, people often feel a mixture of attraction and repulsion. One minute they’re drawn to someone, the next minute they can’t find a shred of common ground.

Another source of variation within Enneagram styles is due to what are called wings. Wings are the Enneagram styles located on either side of a person’s primary personality type. The wings of Nine, for example, are Eight and One, while the wings of One are Nine and Two and so on. The wings, to some degree, influence the experience and expression of qualities and defenses inherent to the primary type.

A Three with a "Four wing" has a Three personality that leans towards the Four type. Some individuals experience their dominant wing only slightly, while others are influenced strongly by it, and so we say that a person has a "slight," "moderate" or "strong" wing. Though less common, some people are influenced by both wings.

People and fictional characters with the same Enneagram style can also vary because of their subtype. Each Enneagram style has three subtypes that further modify the style’s focus of attention:

  • Self-preservation subtypes are preoccupied with survival and driven by a need for material security and self-sufficiency.
  • Social subtypes focus on their relationships with the community and are driven by a need to be effective in and accepted by their "tribe."
  • Sexual subtypes are concerned with one-to-one relationships and may be driven by their need to make and preserve a close connection with a partner. People with this subtype are often intense and energetic.

Levels of Health
In his book Personality Types, Don Richard Riso originated the concept of "Levels of Development" for each Enneagram style, a model that describes how individuals manifest the style in relation to their maturity or psychological health. The nine levels Riso describes range from individuals so healthy that they transcend their style, to people afflicted with severe mental illness. Most people fall somewhere between these extremes.

The variations on the nine core styles—in view of stress and security points, wings, and subtypes—present the writer with an unlimited palate from which to draw. When we factor in levels of health, gender, and temperament in context of culture, the mix becomes rich.

So what are the nine personality types and where do we see examples in literature? Let’s take a closer look. Part Two →

The Enneagram Institute.
Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson. The Wisdom of the Enneagram (1999).
Judith Searle. The Literary Enneagram: Characters from the Inside Out (2001).

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist