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Writing Craft

Using Enneagrams for Character arcs

Enneagrams are a great tool for creating character arcs

Author P.J. Friel clued me into a great tool for developing character arcs: Enneagrams

The Enneagram is a personality test similar to the Myres-Brigg’s. While I personally have issues with summarizing the complexity of an entire being in a few letters/numbers, these personality evaluations are a boon to writers in their quest to create realistically flawed characters.

Why Enneagrams?

What is special about the Enneagram test is the breakdown of each of the nine personality types into various manifestations of healthy, normal, and unhealthy. The Enneagram reinforces the concept that people do not change their basic personality type, but they can move through the different manifestations of healthy, normal and unhealthy. This is the basis of every dynamic character arc. Whether it’s overcoming a flaw, learning to embrace it and turn it into an advantage, or the average person’s descent into darkness, the Enneagram maps this transformation for you.

How to use Enneagrams

While there is a test, there is no need to pay the fee. There is plenty of information on the website (https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/) for you to browse. Or you could download P.J. Friel’s Enneagram Character Bible (Please do not post this file elsewhere but feel free to share the link to this article.)

  1. Start by reading through the 9 personality types and decide which one represents your character
  2. Use the three levels to identify where your character begins their journey: healthy, normal, or unhealthy
  3. Choose where you want your character to end the journey
  4. Use the descriptions as a map to plot the events that will take the character to their destination

Lets do the “Peacemaker” personality type 9: “The Easygoing, Self-Effacing Type:Receptive, Reassuring Agreeable, and Complacent”

At the beginning of the story, the character is at unhealthy level 7:

Can be highly repressed, undeveloped, and ineffectual. Feel incapable of facing problems: become obstinate, dissociating self from all conflicts. Neglectful and dangerous to others.

There are multiple was this personality can manifest, but lets have an example of a teen girl with nagging, overachieving parents and now she displays these symptoms by being withdrawn from family and peers (ineffectual), obsessed with fairytales (dissociating self from conflicts), and forgets about baby brother (neglectful and dangerous to others.)

Toward the middle of the novel she can become more level 5:

Active, but disengaged, unreflective, and inattentive. Do not want to be affected, so become unresponsive and complacent, walking away from problems, and “sweeping them under the rug.” Thinking becomes hazy and ruminative, mostly comforting fantasies, as they begin to “tune out” reality, becoming oblivious. Emotionally indolent, unwillingness to exert self or to focus on problems: indifference.

Perhaps our teen has gone through the looking glass and been forced into an adventure. Now away from the negative forces that shaped her, she must start to take responsibility for the situation she caused, but when truly tested, she resorts to complaining that everything is unfair and resorting back to imagination and fantasy

At the end of her journey she moved to level 3:

Optimistic, reassuring, supportive: have a healing and calming influence—harmonizing groups, bringing people together: a good mediator, synthesizer, and communicator.

After learning to form true relationships based on trust, our heroine is ready to take on her adversary and use her innate abilities as a communicator to convince the Goblin King to give her back her baby brother.

Now that you have your main character plotted, lets add tension with some side characters.The Enneagram chart also displays prospective conflicts with other personality types. This can be a great way to balance your villain and your hero, or create tension in a love/hate relationship.

Choose secondary characters that will drive your main character insane.
For example, your enthusiastic visionary (type 7) main character will clash with her active controller father (type 8), and constantly disappoint her strict perfectionist (type 1) mother.
Enneagram can help you map out these relationships.

  1. Scroll down to the “compatibility with other types” section
  2. If you are still in the planning stages, read through these and find the personality types that will create the tension you are looking for
  3. If you already have your characters developed, find your secondary characters’ numbers and read those pages. Pay special attention to the “potential trouble spots and issues” section. This will help you add more conflict as the personality types cause friction.
  4. Plan you characters’ interactions to match up with these potential trouble spots, or check the scenes you have already written to see if the conflicts are in sync with their personality types. This will keep your characters consistent.

Using Enneagrams to map out your character arcs will help you create realistically flawed characters, keep their transformations logical, and make their interactions with other characters feel real.

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M.L. Keller is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog "The Manuscript Shredder" is focused on helping emerging writers hone their craft.

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