Writing Characters with the Enneagram, Part Four: The Individualist
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 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?
Fours are a popular choice for villains, because they can be dramatic, masochistic, and manipulative. For example, Kylo Ren from the Star Wars sequel trilogy tries to live up to the legacy of Darth Vader, reflecting Fours’ sense of inadequacy. Kylo has a lot of anger that he lets out on other people. He blames his parents. He blames Luke. He blames everyone for the way his life has turned out but himself. He turns to the power of the Sith in order to prove himself. It’s not until Rey, who is also a Four, enters his life and demonstrates his passion can be channeled to protect the people he loves and that people genuinely do care about him, that Kylo changes.
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 Four 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 Fours, this is envy), defines your subtype. I go into more detail about the three subtypes for Individualists below, and include fictional examples for each.
Is Your Character an Individualist?
Enneagram Fours are driven by envy, feeling like they lack something that others have. They may feel abandoned, lost, or separated from others because they think they are fundamentally different. They are often jealous of other people’s happiness.
Strengths: Creative, artistic, self-aware, sensitive, intuitive, gentle, tactful, compassionate, emotionally honest, vulnerable
Flaws: Self-absorbed, moody, hypersensitive, self-conscious, withdrawn, disdainful, self-pitying, envious
Emotional issue: Envy. Fours feel like something is missing from their lives and envy the contentment of others. They overdo their emotions (especially grief/melancholy) as a defense mechanism.
Story obstacles: Spark Fours’ emotions and fears by making them question their identity. This could take the form of a secret from their past, such as unknown parentage, or another uncertainty. If Fours don’t feel loved and valued, they will question their self-worth. Decide what your Four envies about others and put obstacles in the way so they have trouble achieving it for themselves.
Unhealthy Fours: They either blame others for their problems, become filled with self-hate, or both. They maintain an unrealistic image of themselves and reject those who don’t confirm that image. They can be self-sabotaging, manipulative people who play the victim in order to get others to stay in their lives and feel sorry for them.
Average Fours: Imaginative people who are emotionally expressive. They play hard to get because they are afraid others don’t appreciate them and want proof of their loyalty. These Fours will dwell on self-pity and take everything personally, but they also have capacity for compassion.
Mature Fours: Creative individuals who appreciate beauty. They are content with who they are, gentle, and compassionate. They have a better understanding of their emotions and don’t act out on every fleeting feeling. Instead, they express themselves through honesty, and they genuinely care about others.
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 Individualists
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.
The Dauntless (Self-Preservation Subtype)
All Fours experience suffering related to envy, feeling deficient when comparing themselves to others. But unlike other Fours, Dauntless suffer in silence, hoping—perhaps without even realizing it—that others will notice them. This makes them the countertype, because they endure their pain without showing it, while other Fours are more dramatic about their suffering.
Dauntless are afraid people won’t accept them if they’re vulnerable. They envy what others have, working hard to achieve love and acceptance. They strive to get what they lack, but wear themselves out by taking on challenges they know they will fail and devolving into a masochistic cycle of trying, failing, and punishing themselves. They are empathetic, nurturing, masochistic, fun, and playful. They seldom slow down, throwing themselves at challenges and standing up for others.
Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly)
Viktor Hargreeves (Umbrella Academy)
Caleb Widogast (Critical Role)
Blake Belladonna (RWBY)
Nebula (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
Eleven (Stranger Things)
Dean Winchester (Supernatural)
The Romantic (Social Subtype)
Romantics are oversensitive, dramatic, and want their pain seen. They respond to their suffering by displaying it for all to see, playing, the victim, feeling misunderstood and abandoned. They want what others have, but instead of trying to get it, they wallow in their emotions. They may be unsure how to express their wants and needs except through displays of suffering. Unhealthy Romantics avoid responsibility for their actions and blame others for their problems.
Even if they are smart and attractive, these Fours still feel deficient when comparing themselves to others. They want to be and feel special. They have a difficult time finding their place in a group. Healthy Romantics are generous and use their empathy to better understand people.
Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Kilgrave (Jessica Jones)
Loki (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
Arwen (The Lord of the Rings)
Howl (Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones)
Kuzco (The Emperor’s New Groove)
The Master (Doctor Who)
The Competitor (Sexual Subtype)
Direct, honest, and outspoken, Competitors want to feel superior. They compete with others to prove that they are the best, and they respond to their suffering by making others suffer. They act arrogant, despite feeling inferior, and punish others because of their own pain. This is the type of person who will scoff at someone else’s achievement because it doesn’t compare to their own accomplishments.
Competitors get angry when others don’t meet their needs. They crave emotional intensity and feel misunderstood, but they also don’t like being vulnerable. Like Romantics, they blame others for their own suffering, but they are more angry and aggressive about it. They’re not afraid to go after what they want or take revenge on those who’ve harmed them.
Eowyn (The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien)
Starbuck (Battlestar Galactica)
Kylo Ren (Star Wars)
Walternate Bishop (Fringe)
Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones)
Nina Zenik (Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo)
The Riddler (DC)
Check out the rest of the “Writing Characters with the Enneagram” blog series (I’ll update these links when the posts go live):
Part Four: The Individualist
If you would like to dig even deeper into the Enneagram, here are some more helpful resources:
The Enneagram Institute website, Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson
The Complete Enneagram: 27 Paths to Greater Self-Knowledge by Beatrice Chestnut, PhD
The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile
“How to Use the Enneagram to Create Compelling Characters with H. Claire Taylor” — Plottr, YouTube
“5 Ways to Use the Enneagram to Write Better Characters” — K.M. Weiland, Helping Writers Become Authors