Character Motivation and the Enneagram

When you look up the Enneagram, one of the first things you will find is a list something like this.

  • Ones want to be good
  • Twos want to be loved
  • Threes want to be successful
  • Fours want to be unique
  • Fives want to be smart
  • Sixes want to be secure
  • Sevens want to be happy
  • Eights want to be in control
  • Nines want peace

This is a helpful shorthand for turning those abstract numbers into something more meaningful, but it doesn’t help a writer as much as you would think it would. It often leads to all smart characters being labeled as Fives, every romantic protagonist to be typed as a Two, and Eight designated the Official Villain Type. That’s very much not how any of this works.

Let’s get a few things out of the way. The most important thing is that no type is good or bad. The numbers are just to help everyone remember where they are on the cool Enneagram diagram, because the lines that connect each number to the others are important. They don’t mean anything else: bigger or smaller numbers are not better or worse.

They also have nothing to do with gender, culture, age, career or any external traits like that. They have a little bit to do with how you were brought up with a child, but in recent pop culture that has been oversimplified. Enneagram work is most often used for counseling and therapy, which means unpacking how your childhood wounds affected the way you express your basic personality. But it’s not that your sad childhood actually made you a One, a Four or a Nine: it’s more that your innate personality made you more vulnerable to certain messages or types of bad experiences, and that left you with certain defense mechanisms are common in each type. The ways you can use the childhood wounds of each Enneagram type to create a backstory is it’s own post.

Most important, any type can be placed in any story of any genre, and in any role. Your villain can be a Two, your hero can be a Seven, your mentor can be a Four, and your designated smart teammate can be a Nine. Within each type there is so much variation, both in how healthfully they seek their goals and how they present themselves to the outside world. The Enneagram is not a restrictive typing system. It gives you freedom to play with your characters in any number of ways.

What the Enneagram helps you with the most is in understanding the emotional needs that lie behind your character’s goal. If you’ve studied much writing theory, you know that a character’s goal in the story is not necessarily the same as their motivation. Jay Gatsby wants Daisy Buchanan to leave her husband and be with him, but it’s not just because he loves her. It’s also because he wants to be a wealthy, successful man, and her rejection of him back when he was a poor soldier wounded him. His desire to be successful started long before he ever met Daisy, and he is a type Three.

Another Three is Tahani Al-Jamil from The Good Place. She is born wealthy, beautiful and privileged, but she is made to compete with her sister Kamilah for her parents’ approval. Kamilah was always the better artist and student, so Tahani started fundraising to earn approval, first from her parents and then from society as a whole. No matter how successful her events were, it never filled the hole inside her. Then, in the afterlife, she meets Jason, a trashy goofball from Florida, who likes her without caring at all what she has accomplished. This starts her on a journey that ends with her learning to love herself, regardless of her outward appearance.

Yet another Three is Jayne Cobb, from Firefly. He looks nothing like the stereotypical Three. He’s rough, coarse, rude and ruthless… but if you’re trying to make a name as a mercenary in the criminal underworld he lives in, that’s what success looks like. He chews cigars, plays with knives the size of his forearm and hauls around a giant gun named Vera, because he wants people to think, “wow, what a macho guy.”

Then, in “Jaynestown,” he learns that, a small backwater town has turned him into a Robin Hood-esque folk hero. He is swept up in the attention, playing to the crowd’s image of him even though he knows it is based on a lie. For a while this seems like a goofy episode, but in the end, when the illusion is shattered, Jayne is absolutely broken. We have seen him shrug off physical violence, laugh moral quandaries and bluster his way out of anything else, but knowing he is a letdown? Knowing that even if they choose to hold onto their story about him, he will never be able to see them again because he will never live up to that story? It leaves him shaken and vulnerable in a way that we never see in any other part of the show.

Gatsby, Tahani and Jayne all have different goals, and their goals change over the course of their stories. However, underneath is the same motivation. They want to be worthy of admiration. They feel like they are nothing if they aren’t popular and successful. It almost doesn’t matter whether they achieve their external goals or not. They will feel good for a little while but soon want to chase the high of another accomplishment, or win over someone else. The only one who has a positive character arc is Tahani, because she’s the only one who stops chasing success and instead grapples directly with her internalized fear of worthlessness.

Writers often use “want vs need” to describe a character arc. An ending where a character achieves their goal isn’t always happy. If their goal was a thing that they wanted, but a distraction from what they needed, it can actually be incredibly tragic (The Godfather, the first season of House of Cards). Positive arcs end in the characters either abandoning their want-based goal and replacing it with one that meets their needs (Groundhog Day, The Devil Wears Prada) or they can achieve their goal, but are forced to go through an internal change before they get it (Finding Nemo).

This is where the Enneagram really helps writers. Often writers will read that advice about want vs need, but they will treat that like a game of mad libs, and fill in any pair of wants and needs at random. Tiana’s arc in The Princess and the Frog is a good example of this. The movie tried make her realize that she wanted success but needed to fall in love. There were two problems. First, Tiana was a fairly evolved and healthy Three. She had a love of accomplishment but also a strong connection to her community and sense of self-worth. Second, Naveen was a terrible love interest: shallow, spoiled and completely uninterested in Tiana as a person. For that want/need story to work, Tiana needed to have more obvious struggles with her self-worth, and she needed to be paired with someone who helped her love herself, like Jason did for Tahani.

My biggest problem with the list at the beginning is that it associates some types with their evolved need and others with their misguided want. A better list for writers would be something like the following.

  • Ones want to follow an approved ethical code but need to trust their instinctive moral compass
  • Twos want to be needed but need to trust in unconditional love
  • Threes want to be validated for their accomplishments but need to appreciate themselves, whether they fail or succeed
  • Fours want to be unique and special, but need to find a place where they belong regardless of how well they “fit in”
  • Fives want to be specialized experts but need to be lifelong students
  • Sixes want to be perfectly safe but need to have faith that despite the risks, they will be all right
  • Sevens want to avoid pain and be constantly entertained but need to appreciate the complementary highs and lows of life
  • Eights want to be invulnerable but need to be gentle
  • Nines want to avoid conflict but need to be in harmony that is genuinely fair and balanced

Another way to understand the motivations of each type is through the triad of intelligences, and the three stances. Characters don’t always consciously know their motivations. On The Good Place, Chidi is a Six who believes he wants to be a good person, but deep down he’s trying to develop a perfect ethical system as a security blanket to protect himself. On Arrested Development, Michael Bluth thinks he wants to be a nice guy and a good businessman. He’s actually an unhealthy Two who wants his toxic family to love him, but will settle for them constantly needing his help. Learning about the intelligences and stances will help you feel the characters’ true motivations in the same way that they feel them. That, in turn will help you write them organically, rather than going through a mechanical checklist.

The three intelligences are the body, the heart and the mind. This shouldn’t be confused with skills – not everyone in the body type is athletic, not everyone in the heart triad is emotionally intelligent and not everyone in the mind triad is book smart. I like to explain the intelligences with the Lorax. In the book, the Lorax appears first when the Onceler begins chopping down the Truffula forest, and announces that he speaks for the trees. This doesn’t mean he only cares about trees. He also speaks for each animal that is affected by the destruction of the forest, explaining how the loss of the trees and pollution from the factory is harming them. We all exist in an ecosystem where our bodies, hearts and minds work together. When one piece is harmed the others are affected. However, it’s hard to process all of this at once, so we focus on one, and then look at the ripples that connect us to the other two.

For Eights, Nines and Ones, the Lorax speaks up for the ways our bodies are affected by lack and neglect, and the way the environment harms or protects us. It also wants us to get in touch with our physical intuition: the way people can feel something in their gut. It often speaks in the language of anger, which is another name for these types. For Twos, Threes and Fours, their Lorax speaks first for the ways our relationships and self-worth are harmed, and the ways people are connected or disconnected. It wants us to get in touch with our empathy. It often speaks in the language of shame. For Fives, Sixes and Sevens, their Lorax speaks for the need to learn and experience the world, and the ways that life is confusing and unpredictable. It wants us to get in touch with our capacity for wisdom and understanding. It often speaks in the language of anxiety.

The stances describe how you prefer to use your intelligence in the world.

  • The assertive stance, in yellow, includes Threes, Sevens and Eights.
    • These have a bold, proactive energy. They want to get things done immediately.
    • They are comfortable with leadership, and often seek it out, especially if they see the current leader as incompetent. Being in the spotlight doesn’t bother them, and often they prefer it.
    • When in conflict, their instinct is to push back. The fastest way to get them to do something is often to tell them it can’t be done. The biggest exception is the Type Three, which is in the feeling center and cares about their social status. They will disguise their pushback by monitoring their image, becoming a charismatic leader.
    • They are the most likely to identify as extroverts. There are exceptions, but even those who feel introverted are usually slight to moderate introverts, rather than falling on the extreme edges.
  • The dependent stance, in blue, includes Ones, Twos and Sixes.
    • These have a more subdued energy, though they are still very involved. They want to collaborate with those around them.
    • If they step up as leaders, their strengths are often in bringing people together to a place of consensus. Validation is important to them so they tend to earn their place rather than step up and take it.
    • When in conflict, their instinct is to win people over. Often they will seek out a higher authority that can back them up, and convince the group to go along with them. The fastest way to get them to do something is to tell them this is what is expected of them. The biggest exception is type One, who will not want their inner critic to say, “you’re breaking the rules to get along with the crowd.” They will try to convince the group to follow the rules, but over time the group might convince the One to consider adding some amendments to their personal constitution.
    • They might identify as introverts or extroverts, but they don’t typically identify with the extremes of either end.
  • The withdrawn stance, in purple, includes Fours, Fives and Nines.
    • These have the most quiet energy, and they need a degree of privacy in their lives. They don’t go out of their way to draw attention to themselves.
    • They are the least likely to seek leadership, though they are often mentors or the power behind the curtain.
    • When in conflict, their instinct is to withdraw. They protect what they value by creating an inner sanctuary that the world can’t touch because it’s between their eyes. Good luck getting them to do something; you’ll have to settle for convincing them to do nothing so they’re out of your way. The biggest exception is Nines, who have the most trouble with boundaries and often try to be the mediator for other people’s conflicts.
    • They usually identify as introverts. If they identify as extroverts, it will only be a moderate or mild extroversion.

When you combine the intelligences with the stances, you can understand the values of each type, on a gut level.

  • Body Types
    • Eights, who are driven by the body and take an assertive stance, like stepping up and taking over so they can provide for everyone’s needs.
    • Nines, who are driven by the body and take a withdrawn stance, like to create a little oasis of calm and peace where nobody is neglected or about to come to harm.
    • Ones, who are driven by the body and take a dependent stance, want a system of ethics that everyone can follow, so nobody will get away with hurting anybody else.
  • Heart Types
    • Twos, who are driven by relationships and take a dependent stance, want to create a happy community where everyone feels loved and cared for.
    • Threes, who are driven by relationships and take an assertive stance, want to accomplish things that they and their team of collaborators can be proud of.
    • Fours, who are driven by relationships and take a withdrawn stance, want to get in touch with the weird and wounded parts of humanity that are often hidden in the shadows, so that relationships are built on a foundation of total acceptance.
  • Mind Types
    • Fives, who are driven by the mind and take a withdrawn stance, want to work away at puzzles and problems until they have found the truth.
    • Sixes, who are driven by the mind and take a dependent stance, want to act as lookouts for their community.
    • Sevens, who are driven by the mind and take an assertive stance, want to go out and experience the world in all its wonders.

All of these are fundamentally good motivations. The Enneagram can seem like a discouraging, cynical system at times, because it focuses so much on the worst potential traits of each type, including the ways that seemingly good traits can be self-sabotaging or manipulative. However, the core assumption of the Enneagram is that we each have a good intention behind our worst actions. It’s only when that intention is buried by fears, rigid thinking, distorted coping mechanisms and imbalanced reactions that we become “bad people.” This is also the perspective of the writers who create the best villains. Think of Darth Vader, Sauron, Loki in both the Marvel universe and Norse mythology, Erik from The Phantom of the Opera and the Candyman in his original film. They are compelling because, beneath the swirling black robes, the sinister baritones and the masks and/or shoulderpads of spikes, there was the glimmer of potential for them to be a good person.

Of course, nobody goes through life only wanting one thing. Most people can see the value in all nine core motivations, and can think of times when the needs of each type have been important to them. The goal of Enneagram typing is to find which core motivation is the most essential – what you have valued because it helped meet a deeper need, versus what you have longed for no matter what situation you found yourself in. But once you understand that core value, looking at how the other types can interact with it can help you understand the incredible variety in human behaviors.

But that’s a post for another time. Until then, thank you for reading, and happy writing!

Thank you to Vanessa Fernandez for helping me researching this post! To learn about how the Enneagram is used for coaching and self-discovery, check out her work on her site or her Youtube channel.

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