Using the Enneagram for Dynamic Character Development
While I'm generally pretty well-behaved in real life, I have a particular vice of my own: I love personality theories, personality tests, classifications, all that jazz. Meyers-Briggs, Strengths Finder, that random Cosmo quiz that tells you what kind of lingerie you are... I'm a sucker for all of it. If that stuff is your jam, come along with me to find out how I use it in my writing. If you think it's annoying af, feel free to skip this one, I honestly do not blame you in the slightest. It is annoying af. It's also really, really fun and interesting to me, and this is my blog, so here we are!
Given my love of these things, it really comes as no surprise that my favorite is the enneagram, which is a nine-type theory of personality that can get so extraordinarily complicated that I'm not even going to try to explain it in depth for this blog post. (If you want a real breakdown of it, the The Enneagram Institute is a good place to start exploring, and I'd like to credit them in advance for the information provided here that I didn't pull out of my head after years of study.)
What differentiates the enneagram from something like Meyers-Briggs is that it is extremely dynamic. The nine personalty types within it are interconnected in ways that allow for a lot of nuance and variation among individuals, while still providing good shorthand, archetypal language to describe the different sorts of people we meet in life. These nine types are grouped into three "triads," which refer to whether a person is most connected to their mind, heart, or instincts.
I know the type I most identify with, but by also studying the other types, I'm able to see some of my own biases in the way I think and approach the world. This allows me to see where me and my characters differ. For instance, I identify with Type 5 in the head triad. My bias is that safety comes first. Charlie and Miles in The Gentleman's Book of Vices were pretty easy to write, because they are both with me in that head center. But when I wrote A Rulebook for Restless Rogues, David and Noah were both coming from a heart-centered place--they put relationships first. By keeping this in mind, I could bypass my own instincts, and allow those characters to make choices and say things that I would never do or say myself.
It's honestly pretty fucking cool. It's not the end-all-be-all of who a person is, nor is it the beginning or end of my characterization process in fiction. But it is one part of that process, and one that I find particularly useful at around the mid-point of characterization. I'll start working with enneagram type once I've gotten to know the character a bit, and am ready to sharpen their motivations and find the places where the character and I may differ in our biases.
Here's an overview of the types & their motivations. These are the names used in most writing on the topic, but the descriptions are based on my own understanding. I've written in a way that helps me best when applying this system to characters. Not real people!
Heart Types--motivated by love
Type 2: The Helper ("Love me for what I did for you")
Type 3: The Achiever ("Love me for what I accomplished)
Type 4: The Individualist ("Love me for me" or "I am unlovable")
Head Types--motivated by safety
Type 5: The Observer ("Knowledge and anonymity keep me safe")
Type 6: The Loyalist ("Authority keeps me safe" and/or "Authority is a threat")
Type 7: The Enthusiast ("Unsafe? No one is unsafe here, this is fine!")
Gut Types--motivated by power
Type 8: The Challenger ("I will master others")
Type 9: The Peacekeeper ("Others can master me")
Type 1: The Reformer ("I will master myself")
If you want the very simplest use of the enneagram in characterization, you could simply give some thought to whether your character approaches life from heart, head, or instincts. Even that much can be very helpful, especially if you know what your own personal bias is. But if you'd like to come along for the next bit, the dynamic bit, here we go...
According to this theory, we all possess all of these very human motivations and tendencies to some extent, but have built up much of our own identity and meaning around one in particular. While a person's core motivation (type) doesn't change, their behavior and self-perception might depending on whether they are feeling stressed or secure. This fancy, slightly occult-looking graphic shows how the types move when they are in stress or security. While there are a lot of really interesting ways to use the enneagram, this is the part that is most useful for dynamic characterization.
If you've read The Gentleman's Book of Vices, you might already be able to spot Charlie Price and Miles Montague up there, with Charlie at Type 7 and Miles at Type 5, both head types who managed to fall in love at least partially through the written word, Charlie before he'd even met Miles at all.
While I use enneagram type to some extent for all my main characters, Charlie particularly came to life with this characterization method, going from a pretty moody and boring character in early drafts to one who downright sparkles. Here's the description of Type 7 from The Enneagram Institute:
"Sevens are extroverted, optimistic, versatile, and spontaneous. Playful, high-spirited, and practical, they can also misapply their many talents, becoming over-extended, scattered, and undisciplined. They constantly seek new and exciting experiences, but can become distracted and exhausted by staying on the go. They typically have problems with impatience and impulsiveness.
I started keeping this in mind as I wrote Charlie, and it helped a lot, particularly when it came time to make decisions about his behavior. I was able to consult the alarming glyphs above to see how his behavior might change in times of stress or security.
When feeling secure, scattered Sevens take on some of the healthy traits of a Type Five, becoming more thoughtful, curious, and calm. With Miles, Charlie is able to sit quietly and enjoy the moment for the first time in his life. This scene in the Curious Fox was specifically a result of thinking through how Charlie might embody this other type when things are going well:
"And yet, there was Charlie, lying back on his favorite chaise all alone, peeking out from behind the alcove's partially drawn curtain to smile at the festivities... He was warm and content, listening in on piano music and gossip. He tried to blow rings without really knowing how, sending smoke drifting up to a ceiling hung with gauzy purple folds."
I don't think I would have considered opening this scene with Charlie laying around daydreaming in the middle of a rowdy sex club otherwise, but it ended up being a lot of fun. I was struggling to decide what to write next, and found an interesting and unexpected answer by looking at his security move to Type 5. It's out of character in a sense, but since it's out of character in a way we recognize, it doesn't feel untrue.
On the flip side, under stress, sevens take on traits of unhealthy Type 1, becoming rigid and critical. This manifests in Charlie through his tendency to smooth, adjust, and otherwise tidy up little objects around him when he is nervous, which is charmingly at-odds with his devil-may-care attitude. More extremely, it results in him making choices toward the end of the book that are driven by correctness and "doing the right thing," leading Miles to this accusation:
"But no. You've gone and traded out my beautiful devil for a knight of the sodding Round Table now, saving your swooning little maiden and telling me that everything is going to be perfect."
As you can see in this scene, though Charlie has made his stress move, he maintains the sort of panicked optimism of his core type.
What I think of as the Charlie Meme. Image by KC Green.
After studying the enneagram and paying attention to how I move through my own stress and security numbers, I've come to agree with the teachers who say that our stress moves keep us from letting our usual motivations and behavior patterns drive us to destruction. Charlie's overly-optimistic, consumption-driven coping mechanisms have already led him to the point of ruin before the book opens. It's for the best that he finally makes this move to a more rigid version of himself, because keeping to his usual habits under such immense stress could spell disaster. But it's still no fun, and makes for a dramatic turn in the narrative that feels both inevitable yet surprising. It's a change we can't help but root for, even though we sense that it also kind of sucks.
And that's what I think the enneagram can really bring to characterization. Surprises and contradictions that somehow feel right or inevitable. They are based in patterns of human behavior that we recognize, because we've seen them before, felt them before ourselves. You can use these "stress" and "security" moves to come up with interesting turns in your story, or little quirks and tics that stand out. You can even use it to make for unexpected dialogue (I changed one of Charlie's lines from "Did you like meeting my friends?" to "My friends: do you think you'd like to see them again?" because sevens are future-focused. I really liked how that little tweak brought the line to life.)
Thank you for humoring this foray into one of my niche interests! I know this is highly specific, but I have been really excited for a long time about how helpful the enneagram was for building this book (this whole series, really) and pretty much just had to gush about it somewhere.
Do you happen to identify with a particular enneagram type? If you've read A Rulebook for Restless Rogues, can you guess David and Noah's types? Do you have another personality system you think I should take a look at, or do you use similar things in your own writing? Let me know in the comments below; I can nerd out about this stuff all day!