Character Types: Using the Enneagram to Create Your Hero

If you’ve ever spent any time in the corporate setting, you’ve probably been asked to participate in a personality typing system. Over the years, I’ve done Myers-Briggs a couple of times (I’m an introvert-intuition-thinking-judging type), the True Colors system (I’m a green introvert–the big-picture type, with a secondary anal-retentive gold); and, most recently, the StrengthsQuest system (I’m an strategic-ideator-achiever).

But until a few days ago, I’d never seen the Enneagram system, or thought about how a typing system might help me flesh out my characters. But I think the Enneagram is going to be a great tool for me–especially with my pesky heroines. (And explain to me, if you can, why I have NO problem developing fully-formed heroes but my heroines always give me fits? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?)

Basically,  Enneagrams are based on the idea that all of us fall into one of nine base personality types. By knowing our (or our characters’) general type and subtype, we can better predict how they will react to a given situation, or what will give them the most conflict. 

How does this help us with fictional characters?

First, if our character (my heroine, for example) is not clearly in one of the nine personality types, I probably need to do some more work on her. Second, by knowing that my hero is a Type 1, for example, I know what my heroine needs to do to push his buttons and also how he is likely to react. I can tell what his biggest issues are to overcome.

In a nutshell, the types are:
1) The Reformer. My WIP hero is a reformer. He’s a perfectionist. He wants to make things better. He takes the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s very hard on himself, and can be hard on others. When he fails, he beats himself up about it.


2) The Helper. This character wants to help and thinks by doing so he’ll be loved and accepted. She needs to be needed. She can also lay on the guilt if she’s not appreciated.


3) The Achiever. Just what you’d expect–this type wants to win, to succeed. He’s very focused on image and what people think of him.


4) The Individualist. A nonconformist who works at her nonconformity and likes the attention it gets her. Drawn to beauty and self-exploration.


5) The Investigator. A private person who likes to think, observe, try to make sense out of life.


6) The Loyalist. Questions everything, and is a worrier. Doesn’t like surprises. Likes to plan things in advance. Prefers the truth, even if it hurts, rather than false optimism. Can be either an introvert, fearful of things, or put on a facade of aggression to cover fear and worry. My WIP heroine is an aggressive 6.


7) The Enthusiast. The positive thinker, ready for risk and adventure without a lot of planning They like to be around people who are happy and spontaneous.


8) The Challenger. Likes to be in charge, and wants to control themselves and others. Can’t stand ambivalence. Likes action and directness.


9) The Peacemaker. Likes to avoid conflict. They appear easygoing but are mostly seeking out comfort, consistency. They don’t take to change well. 


Of course, these are nutshell versions. Entire books have been written on the Enneagram character types–in fact, I just bought one 🙂


Have you ever used a typing system to help form your characters? Do you spot some of your characters in these descriptions? (You can find out a lot online by doing a search for enneagrams.) And me? I’m a 6.  Whether that’s good or bad, I’m not sure. Probably a little of both.

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban and paranormal fantasy and romantic suspense, currently living in Auburn, Alabama. Author of the Sentinels of New Orleans series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, and Belle Chasse (Nov 2016). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the upcoming Wilds of the Bayou series (Book 1, Wild Man's Curse) releases April 2016).

10 thoughts on “Character Types: Using the Enneagram to Create Your Hero

  1. This is great stuff! I have a harder time with heroines, too. I think that’s probably because I just want to make them all like me, except braver and maybe a tiny bit thinner.

    I went to a seminar a couple of weeks ago where the Hermann Whole Brain system was explained. I’m a yellow person…I am abstract, I see the whole picture, but I have trouble focusing on the details. And finishing sentences…this is why the emdash and ellipsis are so iimportant to me!

  2. A few years back, during the peak of the psychometric testing fad I was thinking about looking for a job, so I paid to take some of these tests. My already shaky faith in them was destroyed when one of my results showed my ability in logical reasoning to be “greater than __100%__ of the population.” My reaction was that my logical reasoning ability might not be greater than 100% of the population, but I certainly felt superior to the people who drafted the test.

    I can see the usefulness of the system you describe, but in the end it’s just nine labels somebody dreamed up, probably so they can teach seminars. Why nine? Why not four? Or twenty-nine?

    Any such system misses the true richness of human experience by a long, long way. Furthermore it misses three critical dimensions of identity: context, face and time.

    Let’s take the categories at face value. Real people don’t fit into these categories, they *assume* them as roles. Suppose that at home I am the peacemaker; at work the investigator or achiever; at church the enthusiast or loyalist. Am I a different person in each context, or one person pursuing the opportunities and avoiding the pitfalls in each?

    Then there is the face I show the world versus the face I show myself. To the world I’m a loyalist; a good soldier who can be relied upon. Inside, I am a reformer, a zealot who is barely restraining himself from grabbing a burning and preaching the gospel of fire and revolution. And behind the mask behind the mask is another face, a helper who wants mommy to love me because I did my part.

    Finally, how we behave in a some context changes over time. The Young Turk becomes the Old Guard; the Peacemaker at home later becomes the Challenger.

    If the tool works for you, use it. But don’t trust it, and even better find reasons to subvert it, because the truth is infinitely richer than anything such a simplistic taxonomy can possibly capture. If you *start* by *defining* a character according to some label, he will never surprise you, or your reader. Trust your intuition, an the character will break out of type an do something unexpected, but in retrospect inevitable.

    Really good writing is like sorcery. It’s inexplicably right.

  3. Good points. I don’t think a system like this can ever (or should ever) replace what feels right for a character within the context of your story. What it can do, though, (at least for me) is offer some consistent behaviors for a character with certain traits that I might not have thought about. My character Aidan is such a solid Type One that I can read how Type Ones relate to other people and situations and see if what I have him doing is consistent with that. I just thought it was an interesting character typing system and much more useful for a writer than something like Myers-Briggs.

  4. I can see that point. In any case we often take much *broader* categories almost for granted, like “hero” an “villain”.

    I see no harm in using such a framework as initial scaffolding, but right from the start you should be looking at ways to make the character violate the rules for his type plausibly. A character who fits too perfectly into one category of personality is not imagined fully enough to be credible. He’d have to be the same inside as he shows to the outside, and understand himself perfectly. He’d have to act the same way in every situation — which in real people would indicate mental illness.

    Characters are little automata that do the work we assign them in the story, but we want them to seem real. Every real person is the center of his personal universe and acts accordingly.

  5. I’ve taken many of these tests but I haven’t heard of this one–and I like how simply put these are. Yeah, they are stereotypes and in the real world/real life situations, we might not all fit so cookie cutter, but I think they serve a great purpose in helping to create our characters. Again, like real life, if we think it is appropriate we can have them act off their type but using it as a guide is a great idea. Thanks!

  6. Sharon & Rachel–thanks! I’ve become so enamored of this system that I bought “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Enneagrams.” I’m getting some great character insights from it. It even talks about body language and common phrases a particular type might use. Wish I’d found this system about a year ago 🙂

  7. Hey Suzanne,

    It’s great to see another writer interested in the Enneagram as a character tool! I suggest paying particular attention to wings, instinct stackings, and stress and security points as a means of introducing believable complexity.

    Regards,
    Kylie

  8. I hadn’t seen this breakdown before, very interesting. I just finished a series on my blog about character development, and one of the posts was about archetypes and how identifying more than one for your character can help deepen them (as Matt said, the “masks” issue).

    But I think the important point is not about whether or not this is a perfect tool for defining someone, but rather, the important thing is to ask how your character does AND does not fit with these definitions. The more you know about your character, the better, so it’s the asking questions that’s important. 🙂