Creating Believable Characters – With the Enneagram

Posted by: Melissa Crytzer Fry  :  Category: Characters

I’ll be the first to admit that I had never even heard the term “Enneagram” when I started writing my novel. And I admit that when I queried a bookstore clerk about it, I stupidly asked if they had any books on anagrams (You know, words or phrases that can be created by rearranging the same group of letters. I knew that! Really, I didn’t mean to say anagram!).

The Enneagram Personality System is essentially a model for understanding the human personality. I learned about it when writing coach, Gloria Kempton, mentioned in one of her writing workshops that I attended. 

Gloria indicated that it could be a good tool for creating believable characters.

And she was right!

The Enneagram Personality System is centuries old and is a study of the nine basic types of people. Don’t worry – it’s really not as stereotypical as it sounds, and characters will not be clichés if you use this tool. In fact, your characters will be more dimensional since you’ll be assigning them believable traits, actions and qualities, based on real behavioral tendencies.

The Enneagram is a compass that explains why people act the way they do, their motivations, their hopes and their fears. The Enneagram is also used as a tool for personal growth. I believe some psychologists use it, and I know if you Google “Enneagram,” you’ll find lots of online personality tests that will tell you your type – or, more importantly – your character’s type.

The main personality types* include:
1.    The Perfectionist – Productive, organized, wise, ethical and reliable, this type of personality is concerned with doing things right, living right and improving themselves and things around them. They can be judgmental, critical, controlling and anxious as well.
2.    The Helper – Generous, insightful and caring, Helpers must be loved to feel their value and react positively to others. They can also be martyr like and possessive, and sometimes overly accommodating.
3.    The Achiever – A pretty self-explanatory personality, the achiever is driven by success and hates failure. At their worst, Achievers can be vindictive, narcissistic and pretentious.
4.    The Romantic – A key character in almost every plot line, the Romantic is addicted to emotion and must experience her feelings. She doesn’t wish to be ordinary and can sometimes be self-conscious, moody or self-absorbed.
5.    The Observer – At their best, they are analytical and consumed with knowing and understanding the world around them. At their worst, they can come off as critical of others, intellectually arrogant and negative.
6.    The Questioner – “Do I fit in?” is a common thought for the Questioner, a personality driven by the need for security. While they can be compassionate and warm, they can also be paranoid, defensive and rigid.
7.    The Adventurer – True adrenaline junkies, No. 7’s thrive on activities, want to contribute to the world and don’t enjoy suffering. Their confidence and spontaneity can sometimes be interpreted as narcissism and lack of discipline.
8.    The Asserter – The Asserter doesn’t want to take “no” for an answer and wants to be self-reliant. Authoritative, energetic and loyal, No. 8’s can also be rebellious, self-centered and aggressive to avoid feeling inferior or dependent.
9.    The Peacemaker – Nines hate conflict and want to smooth things over, but their emotional responses to various situations can vary from genteel and polite to obsessive and forceful.

*You’ll find slight variations in the names used, based on what book/resource you consult. The above personality names come from The Enneagram Made Easy (Baron, Wagele) You can also find a huge amount of information online at The Enneagram Institute.

Gloria Kempton teaches a class specifically geared to using the Enneagram Personality System for creating characters.

I found this class and her explanation of the Enneagram extremely helpful with my first novel, which included more than 10 characters. I needed to be sure that they were believable and that their motivations weren’t coming from left field.

Rewind to the helpful bookstore employee who didn’t laugh at my mispronunciation. The book she recommended was The Enneagram Made Easy (referenced above), by Renee Baron and Elizabeth Wagele.

It has fun cartoon illustrations that kept me engaged and lots of graphs (I’m visual, so this was helpful). And it also has loads of information to help you create believable characters, including personality inventories and sections under each “personality type,” such as:

•    How to Get Along with Me
•    Relationships
•    What I Like About Being [Insert personality Type]
•    What’s Hard About Being a [Insert Personality Type]
•    [Personality Type] as Children
•    [Personality Type as Parents
•    Careers
•    Free Time

This was a treasure trove of information for me as I fleshed out my characters; the tips actually confirmed that my manic pastry- and dessert-eating character had a reason for her overeating obsession that was right in line with her personality type (i.e. she was believable from a psychological perspective. She was, no doubt, a true “Questioner”).

My protagonist also had reasons for getting herself into precarious situations due to her “Helper” personality. The Enneagram helped me pinpoint mannerisms for all my characters, create realistic actions, and it informed the direction of many scenes.

But I confess that the mythical qualities of the Enneagram confused me a bit: the Personality System is represented visually, using a nine-sided star polygram with “wings,” “centers,” and “types.”

And, depending on which direction you move around the circular Enneagram, a person’s behaviors and personality may change.

By the way, this is where it becomes evident that I am not an expert on the Enneagram and why you should read the book, seek additional information, or sign up for a workshop about how to use it in your writing.

However, even with my bare-roots understanding of the system, I found the existing explanations/checklists in Gloria’s class and the book to be quite helpful.

The bottom line is that the Enneagram can help you create believable characters with believable motivations, actions and emotions. And that’s really what it’s all about, especially when writing a character-driven novel: getting your reader to relate to and believe your characters – whether they’re Questioners, Observers or Adventurers!

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19 Responses to “Creating Believable Characters – With the Enneagram”

  1. Birgitte Says:

    Twitter: necessarywriter
    I love this article, Melissa. Thanks so much for reminding me about the system! I’m struggling with one of my main characters right now and it really helped to go back to the 9 personality types and discover that she was a #4 (Drama Queen) LOL Great article!!

  2. Lia Says:

    Twitter: liakeyes
    What a fab post, Melissa! Well-written, clear and packed with helpful advice.

    I think most characters have all personality types in them to a lesser or greater degree. By combining traits within one character you’ll end up with multi-dimensional characters that feel totally REAL.

    I’m going to be retweeting this far and wide!
    .-= Lia´s last blog ..Starting a Second Novel: the Benefit of Hindsight =-.

  3. The Crazy Baby Mama Says:

    wow, thank you for this interesting, concise, and helpful article!

  4. LM Preston Says:

    This is a great way to sum up characters. What a cheatsheet of knowledge.

  5. Melissa Says:

    Twitter: CrytzerFry
    Birgitte, Lia, Crazy Baby Mama and LM Preston,
    I’m so happy to share what I’ve learned. I’m a stickler for authentic “everything” in my fiction writing- including characters. And this tool, to me, is a great authenticator. I agree, Lia, that most characters have combos of each personality type and that it leads to complete depth of character! Thanks for the retweet.

  6. claudine Says:

    Interesting post, Melissa! I heard about this recently (thanks, Birgitte) so it was great to get this summation. Good job.

  7. Melissa Says:

    Twitter: CrytzerFry
    Sure thing, Claudine! Hope it’s helpful in your work.

  8. Vic Cherikoff Says:

    Hi Melissa,

    The Enneagram is a great tool for sure. My wife, Clare went one step further and wrote a novel based on the Enneagram. Her characters are magi who have bird spirits and she pulled elements of The Matrix, NLP, self awareness and a great adventure to help people learn about these things. They are really good tools to understand how we operate as humans sharing many traits yet feeling individual and different. It is surprising how similar we really are and as a writer, how useful this understanding can be. Cheers, Vic.

  9. Melissa Says:

    Twitter: CrytzerFry
    Hi Vic,
    What an innovative and great use of the Enneagram! Agreed – when I read through the personality types for the first time, I remarked at how “spot on” they seem to be with human actions/motivations. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Joy Says:

    This is helpful for anyone seeking relationship insight. Relationships are so important: in business, among colleagues, and casual friendships as well as the more important significant others and extended family. As one who isn’t terribly astute when it comes to intuiting this kind of thing, I await my reserved copy from the library with eager anticipation. Thanks for the information, which is always power.
    .-= Joy´s last blog ..JUST BECAUSE IT’S FUN =-.

  11. Melissa Says:

    Twitter: CrytzerFry
    I hope you find the book as informative and helpful as I did – especially using it in real life, OUTSIDE of the realm of fiction. It really does provide invaluable insight about people’s behaviors. A little understanding can go a long way!

  12. Mary Says:

    Interesting article. I have worked with the Enneagram for years and found it very helpful in understanding myself, my motivations and most of all, my husband. LOL. I never thought of using is to develop characters.

  13. Melissa Says:

    Twitter: CrytzerFry
    Great idea on using the Enneagram to understand your spouse! :-) I may have to try it.

  14. Birgitte Says:

    Twitter: necessarywriter
    It really works to understand not only your spouse, but your kids. I had my two teenage boys take the test. Of course, at that age, they’re looking for ways to “cheat” it. Surprisingly though, even doing that, it was accurate. LOL

  15. Creating Believable Characters - The Enneagram Personality System? Says:

    […] […]

  16. Kim Says:

    Very interesting…I just completed this test on myself and found I am 88% an 8 (The Asserter), 83% a 7 (The Adventurer) and 78% a 3 (The Achiever)…

    Great idea to use these personality types to create believeable characters..

    Thanks for sharing this.

  17. Melissa Says:

    Twitter: CrytzerFry
    Thanks for your comments. Kind of fun to know what type you are, isn’t it?
    .-= Melissa´s last blog ..Going to the Birds =-.

  18. Ronaldo Says:

    could you tell me where you found the last illustration of this post? I need to do a job of ennegram.


  19. Birgitte Necessary Says:

    Twitter: necessarywriter
    Hi Ronaldo,

    Sure, I just Googled enneagram images. :)

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