Writing Characters with the Enneagram, Part Three: The Achiever
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?
For example, Vala Mal Doran from Stargate: SG-1 is an Enneagram Three. When we first meet her, she is a deeply unhealthy representation of her number—lying, cheating, and manipulating others to have her needs met. She avoids difficult emotions that might hurt, like grief or love, and puts on an arrogant facade. She’s also obsessed with wealth and treasure. Her world is turned upside down when she encounters someone who shows her what genuine love, not just passion or desire, looks like. This is a problem for her, because looking out for herself is what has kept her alive; thinking about other people and being vulnerable is what gets you killed.
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 Three 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 Threes, this is vanity), defines your subtype. I go into more detail about the three subtypes for Achievers below and include fictional examples for each.
Is Your Character an Achiever?
Enneagram Threes are afraid of being worthless, and they believe that being (or appearing) successful is the only way to prove their value. They love impressing others with what they can do. They struggle with deceit—which sometimes manifests as deceiving others, but more often, it’s about deceiving themselves.
Strengths: Self-accepting, modest, gentle, benevolent, self-assured, charming, gracious, adaptable, ambitious, hard-working
Flaws: Image-conscious, vain, arrogant, phoney, narcissistic, jealous, deceptive, vindictive
Emotional issue: Vanity. Threes care too much about what other people think of them.
Fear: Failure and worthlessness
Story Obstacles: Take away a Three’s ability to be “successful”—which could mean wealth, fame, or distinguishment, and they can enter into a crisis of identity. Another option is to force them to choose between success and something else, like a relationship. Threes hate losing their autonomy or control. Being vulnerable, being honest, and facing difficult emotions are also challenges.
Unhealthy Threes: Image-conscious people who feel (or want to feel) superior to those around them. They hide their mistakes through deception and manipulation, seeking vengeance on those they think have rejected them. They often suffer from depression while maintaining a facade of dominance in an attempt to impress others.
Average Threes: Overachievers who strive to be the best at something. They are afraid of failure and think that love is something they must earn by performing well. They typically have intimacy problems because they want to be admired but are unwilling to be vulnerable. Most of their thoughts are devoted to what others think of them.
Mature Threes: They want to be loved for who they are instead of what they have accomplished. They are better at balancing work and rest, and they are competent role models in their professions. These Threes are much more charming, likeable, and gracious because they have learned humility. They also understand that healthy relationships require honesty and vulnerability.
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 Achievers
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 Saint (Self-Preservation Subtype)
Calm, organized, productive, and anxious underneath it all, Saints are self-sufficient and get things done. They are the countertype of the Threes, because they try to fight their vanity, sometimes not even realizing that their image matters to them. They don’t just want to look good, they want to be good. They act humbly, because “good” people aren’t supposed to be vain. They strive to be the best at everything they do. They’re less interested in being the center of attention and more concerned with working hard to achieve their goals.
These Threes are the type of people you go to for advice, because they radiate safety and humility. They also take on too much because they like control and can become workaholics. Their relationships can suffer because all their energy goes into doing things and avoiding uncomfortable emotions.
Olivia Moore (iZombie)
Inara Serra (Firefly)
Sabriel (Sabriel by Garth Nix)
Raven Reyes (The 100)
Fjord (Critical Role)
Tiana (The Princess and the Frog)
Olivia Dunham (Fringe)
The Chameleon (Social Subtype)
Chameleons become what they think others want them to be. They love being in the spotlight; when Threes are referred to as performers, this is the subtype most people think of. They can be cold, competitive, and aggressive, choosing fame or wealth over doing the right thing, but they can also be humourous and charismatic.
These Threes want to be seen and have influence over others. They enjoy climbing the social ladder and competing to win. Success matters to them, though the definition of success depends on the individual (wealth and fame are common desires). They excel at creating a specific image of themselves and hiding their flaws.
Stephen Strange (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
Vala Mal Doran (Stargate: SG-1)
Kaz Brekker (Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo)
Azula (Avatar: The Last Airbender)
Allison Hargreeves (Umbrella Academy)
Tahani Al-Jamil (The Good Place)
Cordelia Chase (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
The Influencer (Sexual Subtype)
Influencers are more concerned with being attractive than with wealth or fame. They prefer to achieve things by influencing others rather than being in the spotlight themselves, and they are excellent cheerleaders. They are competitive and charismatic, focusing on making others look good to earn love. They present only what they consider to be beautiful about themselves and hide anything that might be considered ugly. They are often afraid of letting others down.
These Threes may think they need to be good and perfect to be loved and are afraid of feeling emotional pain. They often lack a clear sense of self and wrestle with feelings of emptiness.
Gamora (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
Effie Trinket (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)
Margaery Tyrell (Game of Thrones)
Jin-Soo Kwon (Lost)
Steve Harrington (Stranger Things)
Lando Calrission (Star Wars)
Check out the rest of the “Writing Characters with the Enneagram” blog series (I’ll update these links when the posts go live):
Part Three: The Achiever
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