An Overview of Ones

How Motivation Creates Personality

We are shaped by our environments, but we are not blank slates. The assumption behind the Enneagram is that we are born with a general motivation: a sense that some value would be particularly meaningful, and the absence of that value would be particularly devastating. We can’t explain why, but the assumption does seem to help people make sense of their lives in a way that other assumptions can’t. From that motivation, we start learning which behaviors bring that value closer to us, and which ones make our worst fears come true. From this we develop habits, and in time those habits become so automatic that we call them character traits.

This is why personalities can seem so rigid, but also change over time. We tend to stick with behaviors that have worked in the past, but what worked in one situation might not work in another. Over time we might make a conscious effort to change our personality, but what motivates one person to change might not motivate someone else. This is where those core values come in: we do the best job of changing our behaviors when those changes support our core values.

As a writer, understanding how each of your character’s traits ties back to their motivations will tell you which situations to place them in, to create compelling arcs and meaningful conflicts.

Motivations of Type Ones

While characters of any type may face moral dilemmas in their story, for Ones, questions of right and wrong are inherently meaningful. A One will have been interested in morality long before the story forced them to confront right vs wrong, and they will continue to think about it after the story ends. Ones are sometimes called perfectionists, but this misses the mark slightly. A more accurate characterization would be that Ones are reformers. They like to improve things, and with that desire to improve comes a tension between perfectionism and progress. At the same time, they have a high standard of personal integrity that they like to maintain, whether or not they enforce that standard onto others.

Each type comes with its own tendency to self-sabotage, and Ones who lack self-awareness have an unfortunate tendency to improve things to death. Their ongoing dissatisfaction can make them tinker with the good-enough until they have deconstructed it down to nothing. They can also adopt a judgmental attitude that wears others down, when what they need to actually grow is patience and forgiveness. On the other hand, Ones who are aware of these unhealthy tendencies can embrace the complexities of moral questions and have a deep appreciation for the value of effort. When they find that balance between high standards and healthy tolerance for the real world, they can be incredibly effective at making the world a better place.

Backstory and Traits

All children misbehave, though young Ones try especially hard not to. Whether their parents and teachers are strict or lenient, Ones will try to seek an understanding of the proper way to behave and live up to it as best they can. As a result, they tend to develop the following traits.

  • Inner Critic. Ones put themselves under a microscope. They don’t want to ever be accused of taking the speck out of someone else’s eye when they have a plank in their own. As a result they develop an inner voice whose entire job is to check for specks.
  • Managed Anger. Ones are in the body triad, which tends to feel anger first when things go wrong. At the same time, Ones tend to have rules around when they are and are not allowed to express their anger. Depending on the rules they have absorbed, they may be obviously outraged towards incompetence and inadequacy, or it may be surprising to realize they get angry at all. Regardless, when they look inwards, they will no doubt discover that they have rules around when and how they are allowed to express their anger, and those rules do not always line up with their authentic feelings.
  • Consistency. Whatever a One believes, they want to live that out with as much integrity and reliability as possible. While a One’s standards might be exhausting, at the very least you can say they are not the sort of people to value one thing on Tuesday and something else on Wednesday.

Because Ones are one of the dependent types, they tend to pay close attention to authorities. That attention is usually not blind faith, but the critical attention of someone who is looking for clear, reliable guidance. Ones tend to follow the rules closely, but also have periodic crises of conscience where they carefully reexamine their beliefs, and reshape their identities accordingly. Stereotypes like “all Ones are neat freaks” or “all Ones are religious” fail because they do not take this into account. Every One will be strongly principled in their own journey, but their journeys are all different.

  • T’Challa from Black Panther was raised as the heir to the secret kingdom of Wakanda, and so his moral code includes a personal duty to his family, his kingdom and their secret technology. This sets him up for a crisis of conscience when his sense of who does and does not belong in that sphere of protection is question.
  • Margaret Houlihan from MASH proudly identifies as an army brat. Her constant clashes with Hawkeye Pierce usually revolve around army discipline, which he mocks and she elevates to almost the point of religion. This makes her a perfect foil to the irreverence of Hawkeye and Trapper/Hunnicutt, and drives the conflict of most of the plots.
  • Light Yagami from Death Note is the son of a police officer, raised in middle class privilege and with an anger at the people who get away with crime. When he is given a magical notebook that will kill anyone whose name is written inside, he uses this to exact revenge on the criminal in society. The result is one of the most compelling and intricate corruption arcs ever written.
  • Sheriff Hassan from Midnight Mass was raised Muslim, but not by a particularly religious family. 9/11 came at a formative point in his life, when he simultaneously saw the damage of religious extremism and the generosity of his Muslim community at the blood drives immediately afterwards. His life’s mission is to be a model of both faith and tolerance: an example people can look to and inspire them to acceptance. Much of what makes his character so effective is the way this narrow path weighs on him, making us sympathize deeply with his suppressed frustration.

Connected Types

Just as all types tend to develop certain traits that feel aligned to their motivation, they also tend to dissociate themselves from other traits. Ones tend to suppress parts of themselves that are associated with Sevens and Fours, including the following.

  • Hedonism. Ones tend to internalize the message that too much fun ends up getting you into trouble. They feel like they have to earn their good times and, when they have earned them, they wonder if it wouldn’t be better to earn them a little more, just to prove that they are really good enough?
  • Misery. On the other hand, Ones want to always believe that things can be better, and despairing that there is something just broken and tragic in the world is never going to be what you want it to be? That isn’t a comfortable thought for them either.
  • Flexibility. If you have gotten nothing else out of this article so far, you have probably gathered that it is a bit exhausting to be a One. They hold themselves to high standards and resist giving themselves leeway.

In short, Ones like to pretend they don’t need self-care or time for emotional processing. Of course this is wrong: in order to keep pushing on in their quest to reform, heal and improve, they need to take breaks to laugh and mourn. When they put this need off for too long, they crash. They often go to a Four-ish headspace first: depressed, obsessed with the ways they are too good for this world and everything is too difficult for them. This can be unhealthy, or it can be an honest reality check for someone who has been listening too much to that inner critic – it depends on the One and their situation. Usually it’s somewhere between. Sometimes they come out of it and return to their usual selves, and other times they first go to a Seven-ish headspace, where they want to indulge in everything they have denied themselves, even to the point of becoming hypocrites. In Enneagram spaces this is sometimes called “the trapdoor,” because it feels like they have just fallen down into a dark cellar where they keep all their suppressed desires. Again, this could be a harmless break, or a gateway to seriously dangerous behaviors and addictions. The shift to Seven can also happen when Ones are unusually supported and relaxed.

Ideally, Ones learn to integrate the lessons of these connected types into their daily expressions: reforming when there is something productive to do, relaxing when there isn’t, crying when they feel like they need it.

  • The pop culture police will probably come for me if I don’t mention Elsa from Frozen. She is a responsible young princess with ice powers, and when one day she accidentally hurts her sister, she begins to internalize the message that her magic is evil. She spends most of the film stressed to Four, helpless, confused and miserable. In public, she tries to present a rigidly proper image, and then she cries alone in her room, surrounded by ice storms. When her powers are revealed, she stresses all the way to Seven, abandoning her responsibilities with the iconic song “Let It Go.” Thankfully she gets a happy ending.
  • Annie Edison from Community is a good example of a One going to Seven under support. She was raised in a strict, education obsessed household, so her image of “good person” meant getting straight As above all else. This lead to an Adderall addiction and committing to recovery caused her to lose her chance at a four year college, as well as contact with most of her family. She instead joins Greendale Community College, where the study group gives her the goofy friends she needs. Greendale is a place where everyone fits in, no matter how broken. She never stops trying to improve the school, but she also finds peace and joy in a place that will love her even at her worst.
  • Michael from The Good Place (spoilers for the first season follow). He is an immortal being who initially presents himself as an architect from heaven, meaning his job is to design an idealized afterlife for humans who have earned “the good place.” In reality, he is a demon. He believes that the standard method of torturing (butthole spiders, penis flatteners, really bad farts,etc) can be improved on. Experimentally, he puts four humans in a place that they believe is paradise, but which is designed to manipulate them to torture each other. When the humans start actually growing as people, he has an existential crisis and completely falls apart. Finally, he joins forces with them, using what he learned about human nature to completely redesign the afterlife. He is a demon who literally talks God into reforming the fundamental moral core of the entire universe: I think this makes him the Official Ultimate One.

Signs That Your Character is a One

  • They have a specific sense of how they should be. Even healthy Ones, who have a more flexible sense of how people should believe, tend to develop a personal plumb line for themselves to align themselves to. They often feel like, in order to let go of a toxic standard, they need to pick up a healthier one.
  • Their moments of hypocrisy come when they have held themselves to an unrealistic standard for as long as possible, until something in them just breaks.
  • They are not just critical, but they also have rules around how critical they are allowed to be, and in what ways. Some Ones openly rant while others gently nudge, but they will always have a clear sense of the right way to tell someone they are doing something wrong.
  • They are caught between fitting in and standing out, because they take notes from others about how they behave, yet they feel an obligation to push against social norms that they disagree with. When they are put in a fish-out-of-water situation, they might hang onto their former codes of conduct longer than most, because their morals are such a big part of who they are.

Examples of Ones

  • Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird is another one that I am more or less obligated to mention. Not Atticus Finch from Go Set a Watchman, though. I could write an entire essay on how this is a case study in how to not do character evolution.
  • Because of their moral code, they paradoxically make excellent villains. It is so fascinating to see someone go to extremes of violence and abuse in order to enforce what they believe is right. I have already mentioned Light Yagami: other iconic examples include Javert from Les Miserables, John Doe from Se7en and Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
  • Simon Tam from Firefly is an immaculate gentleman, surrounded by criminals, smugglers and general riff-raff… but he’s in that situation because he had a duty to protect his sister. Even his swearing is “appropriate.”
  • Both Captain Holt and Amy Santiago from Brooklyn 99 are Ones who come from marginalized, underrepresented groups. Holt is Black and openly gay, Amy is a Hispanic woman, and both are written with autism coding. They are also both overall healthy examples who have enough flaws to stop others from putting them on pedestals. Despite the exaggerated comedy of the show, it is a good one for grounding your perception of Ones outside of the extremes of heroism and villainy.

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