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Writing Characters with the Enneagram, Part One: The Reformer

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 pink sticky note that reads "1 Reformer."

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, Captain America from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an Enneagram One. He wants to promote justice, be fair, and do good. These are the innermost desires that drive him. He’s self-controlled, rational, and wise, but he can also be perfectionistic and self-righteous. When he’s put into situations where he’s unsure what is right and has to make difficult decisions, things get interesting.


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 One 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 Ones, this is anger), defines your subtype. I go into more detail about the three subtypes for Enneagram Ones below and include fictional examples for each.


Is Your Character a Reformer?


Enneagram Ones are obsessed with right and wrong. They have high, sometimes impossible, standards for themselves and others. They want to follow the rules, and they try to keep their emotions under tight control. At their best, they are noble and wise, crusaders for justice. At their worst, they are judgemental and resentful.


Strengths: Self-controlled, purposeful, productive, rational, wise, realistic, inspiring, hopeful, moral, mature, principled


Flaws: Perfectionistic, controlling, critical, judgemental, opinionated, dogmatic, self-righteous, intolerant, inflexible, hypocritical


Emotional issue: Anger. Ones are hostile towards things that are imperfect, though they tend to repress their anger so it comes out as irritation, resentment, or annoyance.


Desire: Goodness


Fear: Corruption


Story obstacles: Put them in moral, grey-area quandaries where they have to make difficult decisions and question their own sense of justice. Ones experience conflict when there is no right answer, but they still have to decide. Tempt them to break the rules, whether these are actual laws or their own standards, because of a relationship or an impossible situation.


Unhealthy Ones: Close-minded and self-righteous, they will stubbornly argue their point even if they are afraid they might be wrong. They are obsessed with finding imperfections in others, perhaps to avoid looking at their own deficiencies. They rationalize their own actions while being cruel and dogmatic.


Average Ones: They may latch onto a cause and become a crusader for it, feeling it is their job to improve humanity. Punctual and organized, they are passionate about convincing others they are right and pointing out what is wrong with the world. They tend to think in black and white while leaving little room for error (especially within themselves).


Mature Ones: Wise, patient, and thoughtful. They are principled champions of truth but understand they can’t force their ideals on others. They have overcome their tendency to be judgemental but still have a strong sense of purpose. They are humble and self-sacrificial, putting aside their own desires for the good of 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 Reformers


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.

Screenshot of Ewan McGregor from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.

The Paladin (Self-Preservation Subtype)


Heroic, gentle, and kind, Paladins are obedient to rules and determined to do the right thing. They respond to their anger by repressing it, and their desire for self-preservation comes out as a need to perfect themselves (e.g. if they do no wrong, they are safe from emotional and physical harm). When Ones are referred to as perfectionists, this is the subtype most people think of.


Paladins keep their anger tightly in check, are unyielding in conflict, self-righteous, reliable, and responsible. They are worriers and like being in control, because they want to feel prepared for anything that might go wrong. Their anger may manifest as irritation or self-righteousness, and they are hard on themselves when they don’t live up to their own standards. Healthy paladins will own up to their failings and are forgiving of others and themselves.


Fictional examples:


Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars)

  • Brienne of Tarth (Game of Thrones)

  • Steve Rogers (Marvel Cinematic Universe)

  • Adora (She-Ra and the Princesses of Power)

  • Jon Snow (Game of Thrones)

  • Jack Shephard (Lost)

  • Sam Winchester (Supernatural)

Screenshot of Cassandra Pentaghast from Dragon Age: Inquisition.

The Paragon (Social Subtype)


Paragons are focused on being perfect examples, showing others the “right” way to conduct themselves. They respond to their anger by channeling it into a drive to control others and are often stubborn about changing their ways. These are the type of people who like to argue and refuse to consider that a perspective other than their own could be valid.


Cold, intellectual, and confident, Paragons have an unconscious need to feel superior and prove others wrong, taking on a teacher role to prove their point. They dislike change and are emotionally detached, often feeling uncomfortable in groups (which is ironic, since they are the “social” subtype). Healthy Paragons learn empathy and value relationships over being “right.”


Fictional examples:

  • Simon Tam (Firefly)

  • Weiss Schnee (RWBY)

  • Spock (Star Trek)

  • Chidi Anagonye (The Good Place)

  • Cassandra Pentaghast (Dragon Age: Inquisition)

  • Tenzin (The Legend of Korra)

  • Jean-Luc Picard (Star Trek)

Screenshot of Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War.

The Zealot (Sexual Subtype)


Entitled, dedicated, and assertive, Zealots strive to perfect or improve others. When Ones are referred to as reformers, this is the subtype most people think of. They are the countertype (they don’t necessary look like a One from the outside), because instead of repressing their anger, they let it motivate them and are passionate about change. They dream about how things could be different if people adjusted their behaviour, and they are often avengers, wanting to make the world a better place.


Zealots let themselves show anger but avoid expressing pain. They embrace confrontation and can be impulsive, but have difficulty acknowledging their own emotions or faults. Healthy Zealots hold themselves accountable as well as others, and they channel their energy for reformation while considering other people’s needs and feelings.


Fictional examples:

  • Galadriel (The Lord of the Rings)

  • Sephiroth (Final Fantasy VII)

  • Bruce Wayne (Batman)

  • Thanos (Marvel Cinematic Universe)

  • Moana (Moana)

  • Gale Hawthorne (The Hunger Games)

  • Lucas Sinclair (Stranger Things)

 

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:

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.

The Worldbuilders Tavern podcast cover, featuring an inn against a purple sky.

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