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, Entrapta from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a Five. She is cheerful and upbeat, prioritizing science and knowledge over all things. She doesn’t even care about being in danger as long as she can continue experimenting. Catra exploits Entrapta’s loneliness and love of science, convincing her to join She-Ra’s enemies. Entrapta eventually realizes that her actions have consequences and people matter more than research.
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 Five 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 Fives, this is greed), defines your subtype. I go into more detail about the three subtypes for Investigators below, and include fictional examples for each.
Is Your Character an Investigator?
Enneagram Fives are private people who get exhausted when they spend too much time being social. They detach from the world and retreat to their homes, where they feel more comfortable. They also love acquiring knowledge and understanding how things work; they are often experts in a niche area of study.
Strengths: Open-minded, observant, perceptive, curious, inventive, independent, whimsical, intellectual
Flaws: Detached, intense, antagonistic, argumentative, cynical, reclusive, isolated, nihilistic
Emotional issue: Greed. Rather than physical things, Fives hoard their time and space. They withdraw in order to feel safe, because they’re afraid they can’t cope with the world.
Story obstacles: Fives may get stuck in “observing” mode, rather than going out and actually doing something, because they are afraid they aren’t as competent as others. Force them to leave the safety of their minds and interact with real-world problems. Confront them with relationships that require them to be vulnerable.
Unhealthy Fives: They isolate themselves from social attachments, rejecting others and retreating into their own minds. They may have psychotic breaks or attempt escaping reality.
Average Fives: They plan before they act, sometimes over-preparing. They prefer observation over participation and study over practical application. They are afraid others will drain their emotional energy and may feel misunderstood or assume others think they are strange. They are fascinated by imaginary worlds and complex ideas.
Mature Fives: They see themselves as part of the world instead of separate from it. They explore new ideas and develop useful skills. Intelligent, curious, and open-minded, they are much more willing to let others into their lives. They also develop compassion for others and understand that relationships require give and take.
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 Investigators
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 Castle (Self-Preservation Subtype)
Isolated and introverted, Castles create social boundaries and hide behind them. They are uncommunicative, have difficulty expressing themselves, act in secret, try to get by on little emotional support, and are afraid of becoming dependent on others. They don’t show anger outright, though may demonstrate it through passive aggression or by retreating.
Though they are warm and humourous, Castles are vulnerable and forge close attachments with only a few trusted individuals. Acquaintances may assume they are making a connection when the Castle is simply observing and reflecting friendly behaviour back to them; they do this to fit in and not stand apart.
- Haymitch Abernathy (The Hunger Games)
- Sylar (Heroes)
- Five Hargreeves (Umbrella Academy)
- Murderbot (All Systems Red by Martha Wells)
- Miranda Lawson (Mass Effect 2 & 3)
- Morrigan (Dragon Age)
- Samantha Carter (Stargate SG-1)
The Scholar (Social Subtype)
Mysterious, fun, and engaging, Scholars are more interested in knowledge than in relationships or emotional attachments. Still, they are the most social of the Fives, because they enjoy discourse with smart, outstanding people who share their interests.
Scholars are curious about how things work, including life and the universe. They can be spiritual or idealistic in searching for meaning in life, often forgetting compassion and empathy. These Fives dislike the mundane and search for the unique and extraordinary, so they may become bored with everyday life and can be arrogant, because they want to feel superior to those around them.
- Yoda (Star Wars)
- Rupert Giles (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
- L Lawliet (Death Note)
- Izuku Midoriya (My Hero Academia)
- Edward Elric (Fullmetal Alchemist)
- Entrapta (She-Ra and the Princesses of Power)
- Data (Star Trek)
The Confidante (Sexual Subtype)
Confidantes look for a special person (or a select few) to connect with and love. This is the countertype of the Fives, because they are more intense, romantic, and emotionally sensitive than other Fives, even though they appear reserved on the outside. They look for intimacy with the people closest to them.
Unhealthy Confidantes love the idea of someone rather than the person themselves; they have trust issues and will “test” the relationship, then are disappointed when the person doesn’t live up to their impossible standards. They may seek to connect with others to avoid feeling empty, but also have difficulty sharing their emotions and a tendency to withdraw, just like other Fives. Healthy Confidantes learn to accept that people are human and make mistakes; they learn to be themselves and to embrace a full range of emotions.
- River Tam (Firefly)
- Bruce Banner (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
- Dustin Henderson (Stranger Things)
- Wylan Van Eck (Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo)
- Martha Jones (Doctor Who)
- Peter Bishop (Fringe)
- Bill (The Last of Us)
Check out the rest of the “Writing Characters with the Enneagram” blog series (I’ll update these links when the posts go live):
- Part One: The Reformer
- Part Two: The Helper
- Part Three: The Achiever
- Part Four: The Individualist
- Part Five: The Investigator
- Part Six: The Loyalist
- Part Seven: The Enthusiast
- Part Eight: The Challenger
- Part Nine: The Peacemaker
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
- Marveling at the Enneagram to Create Dynamic Characters: A Guide for Novelists, Dungeon Masters, and Role-playing Gamers by Allison Alexander
- “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