Creating Believable Characters – With the Enneagram
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.
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
• 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
• 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.
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.
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!
To keep from missing any great writing articles, please subscribe.