Friday, June 5, 2009

Enneagram: Creating Characters

By Scott Rhoades

(Note: Because of a very hectic work schedule this week, I'm reprinting a blog post I write in January 2008 on my own blog, edited somewhat for today's post.)

Last time, I wrote about how to make your villains more realistic and likeable. If you read that, you might remember that I wrote about the difference between a hero and villain being largely the point of view, that the hero is the bad guy from the antagonist's point of view. And the antagonist might actually be right.

Today I'm going to continue down that path by showing a way to use personality tests to establish character types for the people in your stories. Different character types naturally conflict, and this creates the tension you need for the clash between a protagonist and antagonist.

I'll start out by revealing that I am not a fan of those quizzes in magazines or on Web sites that claim to be able to fit you into some narrow category that defines who you are. They can be interesting, and sometimes they come frighteningly close to my image of myself, but, in general, anything that takes real people and shoves them into tight little cubbies isn’t to be trusted. People are too complicated for that.

When you try to create fictional characters, however, these things can be a tremendous help. They can help you determine your characters’ desires and how they will act in the various situations they’ll face. This is important because, for a character to seem real, he or she has to react to situations in a way that is, if not predictable, at least can be predicted by his or her personality. A character who reacts to everything emotionally isn’t likely to sit around navel gazing, reasoning out the solutions to the difficulties faced along the arc of the story.

There are many systems that purport to categorize personalities. My favorite for character generation, though, is the Enneagram.

In geometry, an enneagram is a regular, nine-sided star figure. The personality Enneagram categorizes personalities into nine types:

Type 1: The Reformer. The rational, idealistic type.
Type 2: The Helper. The caring, nurturing type.
Type 3: The Motivator. The adaptable, success-oriented type.
Type 4: The Artist. The intuitive, reserved type.
Type 5: The Thinker. The perceptive, cerebral type.
Type 6: The Skeptic. The committed, security-oriented type.
Type 7: The Generalist. The enthusiastic, productive type.
Type 8: The Leader. The powerful, aggressive type.
Type 9: The Peacemaker. The easygoing, accommodating type.

What I like about this system is that it doesn’t say a person is one type and that’s it. It assigns you a number value that shows how firmly you fit into each type. In other words, it acknowledges a leader might be a peacemaker as well as a reformer, with strong generalist tendencies. It also defines which types bring either comfort or stress to each type. So, for example, a two is stressed by an eight, but finds comfort in a four. This tells you that, if your protagonist is a Helper, her sidekick could be an Artist, and the antagonist is most likely a Leader.

You could divide your characters into these types and stop there, but I’d recommend doing an Enneagram quiz for, at least, your main characters. It might seem overly analytical, but the act of taking the quiz forces you to think about your character’s personality in a way you might not be used to. In other words, the quiz itself, regardless of the results, helps you define your character.

I once did one of these online quizzes for a character I was working on. It involves 37 questions, with two possible answers for each. If you take this quiz, I suggest printing the page before you click to calculate the results. Then you can go back and look at how you answered the questions. Make the quiz itself part of your character profile.And, of course, you should spend some time before hand thinking about your character so you're not just making stuff up as you answer the questions.

I got these results for my character:

Type 1Type 2Type 3Type 4Type 5Type 6Type 7Type 8Type 9

These results tell me that she is primarily a Helper, with strong Skeptical tendencies. She is not a Reformer or a Thinker. So what could I do with this character? Well, since a Helper is stressed by a Leader, she obviously needs to be pitted against a Leader. And maybe she has to be put into a situation where she needs to be a Thinker. Like, maybe she needs to plot revenge against the Leader. As it turns out, this is a major part of the story I’ve come up with, so the test tells me I’m on the right track.

Why does the test tell me that? Well, if she is clearly not a Thinker, then having to become one means that there will be conflict, not only against her Leader enemy, but also internal conflict with herself as she struggles to act in a way that it unnatural for her. She’ll revert to her natural personality, which will work against what she has to do. She’ll have to struggle constantly to achieve her goal because she’s fighting against her own nature.

By taking this one quiz, I discovered both internal and external adversaries for my character. That’s what stories are made of. So I can stop now and start writing, right? No. As Sol Stein says, each character in a fictional work needs to have his own script. So, if I take the same quiz for each of the major characters in my story, I’ll get a good idea of their own inner and outer conflicts, and how they’ll each react to various situations. By keeping this information in mind, I’ll create characters with their own consistent lives, and I’ll see why conflicts arise, even between my main character and her best friend who is supposed to help her but actually causes additional stress.

The Enneagram is a complicated system, and I don’t pretend to be an expert. If you want to know more, I suggest starting with the Wikipedia article and going from there. For an even deeper examination, I recommend, where you can learn quite a bit about the system and find additional tests. For your first test, answer for yourself so you can get an idea of the questions and how the test and the Enneagram works. Then, think about your characters and take the test for each of them.

Whether you end up following the Enneagram system to build your characters or not, just thinking about them and taking this kind of test is going to help you flesh out realistic characters.

Your story will be better for it.

Scott Rhoades is an Orem-based writer who is scheduled to contribute to this blog on the first and third Friday of each month. For contact information, including his Twitter and Facebook details, see


Tess said...

Great idea, thanks. I'm heavy in the plotting of a new WIP (I know, sympathies accepted) and this might be helpful :)

Cathy Witbeck said...

I've never heard of this before. Thanks for sharing this concept. It sounds like a fun idea to try.

Jaime Theler said...

I love the Enneagram system. I have a couple of books on it that go into even greater detail and that are great resources. I've been stuck a bit on one of my characters. Thanks for reminding me about this, I'd forgotten.

Allison Morgan said...

This was new to me, but a great help! Thanks!