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Writing Characters with the Enneagram, Part Eight: The Challenger

If you’re looking for ideas for a character or want to dig deeper into a character you’ve already developed, the Enneagram—a personality system that divides people into nine types—is a useful tool.

The enneagram symbol in chalk, surrounded by nine sticky notes with each of the numbers. The image is in black and white, except for the red sticky note that reads "8 Challenger."

The Enneagram is all about what fears and emotions drive people. Rather than simply noting what people do, it dives into why they do it. That is powerful information in a writer’s hands. What happens when a character has to face their fear? What if they don’t get what they want? How might they travel from an unhealthy version of their number to a healthy version, or vice versa?


For example, the Darkling from Netflix’s Shadow and Bone is a charismatic Challenger. His powers of seduction are so strong, that Alina is attracted to him until she learns his plans and goals. He craves power and domination over others, and he lets those desires overpower any instincts to protect the citizens of Ravka.


And here lies the genius of the Enneagram—in addition to giving you insights into your characters’ fears and desires, it suggests obstacles you can throw in front of your characters—challenges that emotionally invest them in their journey.


The Enneagram can be a complex system when you dig into it, but I’ve distilled this post into a basic overview of the Enneagram Eight and all the information you need to kickstart your character creation.


Overview of the Three Subtypes


Perhaps you’re already familiar with the nine personality types of the Enneagram: One, the Reformer; Two, the Helper; Three, the Achiever; Four, the Individualist; Five, the Investigator; Six, the Loyalist; Seven, the Enthusiast; Eight, the Challenger; and Nine, the Peacemaker. But there are also three subtypes under each of these. That’s a whopping 27 personality options, with endless variations!


The Enneagram suggests that people have three basic survival instincts that impact how you act, think, and feel: self-preservation, where your survival depends on the physical things you need to live (e.g. health, food, stability, protection); social, where your survival depends on connecting with others and receiving care through relationships; and sexual (also referred to as one-to-one, because sex and romance isn’t always involved), where your survival depends on attracting individuals to meet your needs.


While everyone has each of these instincts, the idea behind the three subtypes is that there is a dominant instinct, and how it interacts with a character’s emotional issue (for Enneagram Eights, this is lust), defines your subtype. I go into more detail about the three subtypes for Challengers below, and include fictional examples for each.


Is Your Character a Challenger?


Enneagram Eights want a sense of control over their lives. They dislike asking others for help and want to prove they are strong. They are most afraid of being controlled by others (whether by psychological, sexual, social, or financial means), which is partly where their domineering, self-reliant tendencies come from.


Strengths: Courageous, confident, strong, passionate, decisive, authoritative, commanding, protective, risk-taking


Flaws: Boastful, proud, egocentric, combative, intimidating, confrontational, threatening, ruthless, dictatorial, hard-hearted


Emotional issue: Lust. Eights want to have intense experiences in excess. They tend to express emotions (particularly anger) loudly because they want control.


Desire: Strength


Fear: Being controlled


Story obstacles: Eights get angry quickly. Rile them up by threatening them or making them feel weak. Bring people with conflicting personalities into their lives. Have someone try to control them. If they are in a place of weakness, they will reach for power. Oppression and injustice are fitting obstacles for Eight protagonists.


Unhealthy Eights: They are ruthless, reckless, and potentially violent in their mission to avoid being controlled. They write their own rulebook, which includes getting revenge on those who have wronged them. They are suspicious individuals who destroy first and don’t ask questions later.


Average Eights: They are aggressive, black and white thinkers. They tend to lead through fear instead of respect, boasting about their accomplishments and manipulating people to follow them. They are also risk-takers who sacrifice their own emotional needs for the sake of being independent.


Mature Eights: They are courageous champions for justice. They let go of their desire to control everything, which makes them great leaders and merciful people. They view the world with confidence, strength, and compassion, though they still tend to be independent people.


Quick Tip: For a hero’s arc, move them from Unhealthy to Average, or Average to Mature. For a villain’s arc, move them from Mature to Average, or Average to Unhealthy (sometimes, Average villains are more interesting than Unhealthy ones, because they are more relatable). Characters may also move between these health levels depending on whether they are stressed or at peace.


The Three Types of Challengers


If the above sounds like your character (or a character you would like to create), you can dig even further into their personality by assigning them one of these three subtypes.

David Harbour as Jim Hopper from Stranger Things.

The Survivalist (Self-Preservation Subtype)


Good bargainers, strong, direct, and aggressive, survivalists have no qualms about opposing authorities, and they will do whatever it takes to meet their needs. They are impatient if they don’t receive immediate gratification, and they tend to focus on their material desires.


Survivalists are less vocal than other eights; they’d rather get things done than talk about them, and they have a quiet strength. They are often socially adept, can survive in difficult situations, and will go after what they want. They may trample over others’ feelings without realizing it, and they don’t care much about rules or social conventions.


Fictional examples:

  • Gimli (The Lord of the Rings)

  • Yang Xiao Long (RWBY)

  • Han Solo (Star Wars)

  • Donna Noble (Doctor Who)

  • Arya Stark (Game of Thrones)

  • Jayne Cobb (Firefly)

  • Jim Hopper (Stranger Things)

Natalie Portman as Padme Amidala from Star Wars.

The Champion (Social Subtype)


Less aggressive than other Eights, this is the countertype. Champions rebel in subtle ways. Friendly and protective, they may have an unconscious fear of abandonment. They are not afraid of conflict, but often lose sight of their own needs and don’t ask for help when they need it. They are intensely loyal, driven to stand up for the oppressed and get things done.


Champions are oriented towards protecting other people rather than themselves. They may feel the pull to control people in their effort to help them as, like other Eights, they like being in a position of power. That drive to dominate can inhibit their ability to develop real relationships, but healthy Champions are ambassadors for good.


Fictional examples:

  • Yasha Nydoorin (Critical Role)

  • T’Challa (Marvel Cinematic Unvierse)

  • Padme Amidala (Star Wars)

  • Leia Organa (Star Wars)

  • Aragorn (The Lord of the Rings)

  • The Doctor (Doctor Who)

  • Teal’c (Stargate: SG-1)

Ben Barnes as the Darkling from Shadow and Bone.

The Rebel (Sexual Subtype)


Antisocial, confident, and controlling, these Eights go against authorities and don’t feel guilty about it. They rebel against whatever they disagree with—social norms, rules, laws, etc.


As the most emotional and passionate of the Eights, Rebels like being in control and the center of attention; people will follow them because they are charismatic. They prefer to have a small inner circle of people they can trust. Unhealthy rebels may demand loyalty while not being faithful in return, and they may act possessive in relationships. Healthy Rebels use their charisma for good and aren’t afraid to be vulnerable.


Fictional examples:

  • Max Mayfield (Stranger Things)

  • Anakin Skywalker (Star Wars)

  • The Darkling (Shadow and Bone)

  • Coriolanus Snow (The Hunger Games)

  • Magneto (X-Men)

  • Toph Beifong (Avatar: The Last Airbender)

  • Carol Danvers (Marvel Cinematic Universe)

 

Learn More


Check out the rest of the “Writing Characters with the Enneagram” blog series (I’ll update these links when the posts go live):

If you would like to dig even deeper into the Enneagram, here are some more helpful resources:

Comments


The book cover of Making Myths and Magic: A Field Guide to Writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels.

ABOUT

Allison Alexander is a writer and editor specializing in sci-fi, fantasy, and nerdy nonfiction. You can find her playing D&D, chasing otter penguins off the Normandy, or co-hosting The World-builder’s Tavern, a podcast for speculative fiction writers.

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