Thursday, February 19, 2009

Character Creation and the Enneagram

By Beth Terrell

When I was a teenager, I discovered a book called Linda Goodman's Sun Signs. Despite being a rather stereotypical Taurus, I never bought into the idea that everyone born in a certain month would behave a certain way, but I loved the part of each chapter that described the strengths, weaknesses, and characteristics of each sign. I would devise various characters of each type, then put characters of different types in the same situation and explore how each would react.

Looking back, I realize those characterizations worked because they were based on the idea that people who have certain qualities generally have a specific constellation of interrelated qualities. In essence, I was using the Sun Signs descriptions as a rudimentary way of personality typing. There are a number of more scientific ways to classify personality. The Meyers-Briggs method of personality typing divides people into categories based on the following categories: introversion vs. extroversion, intuiting vs. sensing, thinking vs. feeling, and judging vs. perceiving.

My favorite method of typing personality is the Enneagram of Personality. Many writers have found this system helpful in creating complex, multi-dimensional characters. Cindi Brown, who co-teaches an Enneagram class with Mary Beth Ross and authors a blog called the Enneagram Agency (, says, "The Enneagram is good for developing realistic characters for the same reasons it is good for understanding real people -- it's a complex and nuanced model of the human psyche that is amazingly predictive. It can tell you how a certain type of person will likely change, for better or worse, over the course of their 'story arc.'"

According to the Enneagram Institute, the nine types are as follows:

One: The Reformer (principled, purposeful, self-controlled, perfectionistic)

Two: The Helper (demonstrative, generous, people-pleasing, possessive)

Three: The Achiever (adaptive, excelling, driven, image-conscious)

Four: The Individualist (expressive, dramatic, self-absorbed, temperamental)

Five: The Investigator (perceptive, innovative, secretive, isolated)

Six: The Loyalist (engaging, responsible, anxious, suspicious)

Seven: The Enthusiast ((spontaneous, versatile, distractible, scattered)

Eight: The Challenger (self-confident, decisive, willful, confrontational)

Nine: The Peacemaker (receptive, reassuring, agreeable, complacent)

The thing I like best about the Enneagram of Personality is that it doesn't stop at describing a person's basic traits. It also explores how each type thinks and behaves at each of nine levels of mental/emotional/spiritual health. For example, an Eight at the highest level of health might be the noble protector, using his strength to defend the weak. An Eight at the lowest level of health might be a terrorist or mass murderer, striking out viciously at others . Robert Crais's beloved character Joe Pike might be an example of a healthy Eight. At the extreme low end of the Eight continuum, we might find someone like the BTK killer.

Judith Searle, the author of The Literary Enneagram: Characters From the Inside Out, says, "Unlike standard typologies, which provide only static lists of traits, the Enneagram of Personality offers insights into the ways individuals of different temperaments change under stress and when feeling secure."

Susan Reynolds and Paula Munier have written a book called The Enneagram for Writers: Using an Ancient Personality System to Create Unforgettable Characters. The book explains how to use the nine Enneagram types to create characters with depth and realism. Unfortunately, as of this writing, it has yet to be released, but keep your eyes open, since it promises to be a good one.

While you're waiting, though, here are two very useful books on using the Enneagram to create three-dimensional characters. The first is Believable Characters: Creating with Enneagrams by Laurie Schnebly. The second, by Anne Hart, is targeted to writers of mysteries and suspense: Tools for Mystery Writers: Writing Suspense Using Hidden Personality Traits.

Finally, one of the most popular books for anyone with an interest in learning more about the Enneagram is The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Richard Riso.

Whatever your feelings about personality typing, even a cursory study of the enneagram is sure to inspire a host of intriguing characters and plots to put them in.

And my protagonist, Jared McKean? Healthy Eight with a Nine wing.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Fascinating subject, Beth. I was also a fan of Linda Goodman as a teen, but enneagramagency is so much more accurate. Thanks for sharing!

Jean Henry Mead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tess Giles said...

Coincidentally, just happened across this blog and post while surfing following a weekend co-teaching the Enneagram to beginners.
I'm biased, but I agree it's a great system. I've often thought it would be extremely useful to actors as well as writers.

Beth Terrell said...

I agree, Tess. I learned about it through two of co-workers, Cindi and Mary Beth, who also co-teach a series of classes on the Enneagram.

Marybeth said...

This is great, Beth. I used to read a book called the Psychic Sciences that had 16 chapters about various types of divination (tea leaves, rolling dice, astrology, hand shape, etc.) I read it over and over from a very young age to about age 14. In eighth grade we had to give a speech about a book -- any book -- and I chose the Psychic Sciences. I had a crush on a guy in my class and during my speech I showed how his hand shape proved he was a moron.

Beth Terrell said...

Too funny, Mary Beth. How did your your young paramour take your interpretation of his mental abilities?

Mitzimi said...

Fascinating - I've been writing my characters based on the Enneagram for more than a decade. Each time I start a new project or visualize a new character, I begin by reading The Wisdom of the Enneagram cover to cover again. I thought it was just my idiosyncrasy - I should have known better. It works too well for people not to have written books about it!

Mr Bojangles said...

enlightening. thank you.

Anonymous said...

One of my new favorite writers is Richard Hicks, who has written 2
Ennegram mysteries featuring Eddie DeSilva, San Diego’s Portuguese-American ex-chief of police and psychologist, Pauline Graham.

I reviewed MURDER BY THE NUMBERS for DorothyL,and Richard has just published the second, CROSSING BORDERS. The manuscript for CROSSING BORDERS Borders won a First Place in the 2009 San Diego Book Awards in the category of unpublished novels.

The Portuguese-American angle first got my attention, and the book turned out to be very well done, and self-published to boot. Richard is a retired attorney who writes because he wants to and takes his own photos for his very attractive book covers.

All of his books are on Kindle as well as in print.

Pat Browning

Anonymous said...

Sorry. I know it's spelled Enneagram!Fingers can't keep up with brain.

Pat Browning

Beth Terrell said...

Thank you for the recommendation, Pat. I'll have to check out these books.

Mr. Bojangles, welcome to the discussion. :o)