Marveling at Enneagram One to Write Better Characters

The Enneagram is a system that divides personalities into nine types, and suggests people naturally gravitate towards one in childhood. There are an infinite number of expressions within each number (don’t worry, you’re still a unique snowflake). Instead of trying to put people in a box, the Enneagram analyzes what fears and emotions drive people. Rather than the actions themselves, the system deconstructs the motivations behind the actions, and this is what makes the Enneagram useful for character creation.

When creating fictional characters, sometimes you start with a vague idea about their personality: “he’s sarcastic,” “he’s charming and arrogant,” or “he’s shy.” You might have some backstory in mind. Perhaps he lost both parents. Perhaps she was abused as a child. Perhaps she got into a top school despite the odds being against her.

This is all good, but the Enneagram can help you flesh out your character even more. What is the character’s basic fear (hint: it’s not spiders)? What do they want? What motivates them? What are they like when they’re calm? What are they like when they’re stressed? The Enneagram is full of ideas you can pull from to answer these questions!

Today, I’m kicking off a series on character creation with the Enneagram by taking a look at Type One, sometimes referred to as the Reformer or the Perfectionist. As a case study, we’ll analyze one of my favourite fictional Enneagram Ones: Captain America.

“For as long as I can remember, I just wanted to do what was right. I guess I’m not quite sure what that is anymore. And I thought I could throw myself back in and follow orders, serve. It’s just not the same.” —Steve Rogers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Motivations and Fears

Ones are driven by anger, but they try to repress it. “Ones believe the world judges people who don’t follow the rules, control their emotions, behave appropriately and keep their basic animal instincts in check,” write Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile in The Road Back to You. “For Ones, anger tops the list of feelings ‘good’ people shouldn’t express, so they bury the anger they feel about the imperfections they see in the environment, in others and in themselves.” 

Ones feel like they need to control their emotions at all times and direct the energy according to their principles. They are motivated by a desire to make the world a better place. These motivations are perfectly embodied in Captain America. 

In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers wants to serve in the war. He’s so determined that he attempts to enlist even after he’s rejected. He feels angry and frustrated that they won’t accept him, but uses those feelings to fuel his resolve. You wouldn’t describe Rogers as an angry person because of the way he deals with the emotion.

A Ones’ basic fear, according to the Enneagram Institute, is being corrupt, evil, or defective. Rogers is unable to enlist in the army at first because of his various health problems; he’s afraid he’s not physically capable of accomplishing the things he wants to do. What makes him a hero is that he doesn’t give in to that fear.

Obstacles and Desires

These are descriptors commonly used to describe Ones:

  • Perfectionistic
  • Ideological
  • Self-controlled
  • Purposeful
  • Controlling
  • Productive

These characteristics on their own aren’t that interesting. Captain America could have been a boring character. What makes his story captivating are the obstacles that get in the way of his goals, i.e. conflict. 

Cap wants to promote justice, be fair, and do good. These are the innermost desires that drive him. When the writers put him into situations where he’s unsure what is right and has to make difficult decisions, things get interesting. In his later movies, he is driven by righteous anger due to the government trying to control him and blaming his best friend for murder. He doesn’t let his emotions stop him from doing what he thinks is right, but those emotions and his desire to stay true to his principles factor into his decision to go into hiding. He doesn’t let his anger cut off his relationships, however, giving Tony Stark a way to contact him even when they end up on opposite sides.

Hurting people and destroying relationships are not items on Cap’s agenda, which is what makes him a “good,” moral character.

Make sure you put obstacles in your story that get in the way of your character’s goals and innermost desires. For Ones, the most interesting obstacles are those that make the character question their own sense of justice. Put them in moral, grey-area quandaries where they have to make difficult decisions. Ones will experience conflict when there is no right answer, but they still have to decide.

Stress and Security

Whether your character’s arc is moving to healthy or unhealthy places, whether she’s a hero or a villain, her personality will change when she’s stressed and when she’s comfortable. This is less to do with a long-term arc and more associated with what she’s feeling in the moment. Some characters are better at handling stress than others and their struggles will be internal, while others may act on their stress.

The diagram used for the Enneagram, a circle featuring each number with a bunch of arrows moving between them, demonstrates what numbers do when they are stressed out. Enneagram Ones can look like an unhealthy Four (the Individualist) when they’re stressed. This means they could be moody, illogical, and sensitive to criticism, or blame others and lose confidence in themselves. The Enneagram Institute suggests under-eating and alcoholism as addictions Ones might be susceptible to. Captain America doesn’t go here much, or if he does, he keeps those emotions tightly in check. However, I’m sure he does question his confidence when he’s forced to choose his principles over sticking with Tony and the government. 

When a One feels secure, he may behave like a healthy Seven (the Enthusiasts): self-accepting, joyful, appreciative of what life has to offer. I think Cap lives here a lot because, as part of a team, he doesn’t feel solely responsible for the world’s future. Even though he’s often their leader, he learns to share the burden with others.

Character Development

The Enneagram includes descriptions on what a type looks like at healthy, average, and unhealthy levels. There are nine levels of development (not to be confused with the nine different types of personalities)—one to three being the most healthy, four to six being average, and seven to nine being unhealthy. This progression is useful for writing fiction because it can help you plan character arcs. A stagnant character who doesn’t change throughout a book or series is boring. These levels of development can help you decide where you want your character to start and how their personality progresses. (Are they unhealthy at first and move up to healthy? Are they average and improve? Are they healthy and become unhealthy? Do they move up and down the scale?)

Captain America moves from about an average four to a healthy one in his arc between Captain America: The First Avenger and Civil War. His character progression doesn’t involve that many shifts, dips, or leaps because it is part of his role in the story to be the grounded, principled leader. But there is some noticeable movement, and that’s what matters. He begins as a high-minded idealist, taking it upon himself to improve the world by becoming an American symbol of heroism. After he becomes encased in ice and wakes up in the twenty-first century, his character development could have gone either way.

If the writers had taken him along destructive path and moved him down the scale to “unhealthy,” he could have kept the naive mindset that worked for him during World War II, taking it upon himself to fill others with true “American” spirit. He could have become self-righteous and judgemental, assuming everyone else was wrong and he was right, obsessing about how far the world had “fallen” and needing to correct it. 

At their most unhealthy, Ones may suffer from severe depression and be suicidal: real possibilities for someone who has entered a new world where most people he knows are dead or aged significantly. This would have been a great way to begin Cap’s arc as a villain.

Instead, Cap moves in the opposite direction, working through his depression from waking up to an unfamiliar world. He is still incredibly ethical and sticks to his guns on what is right and wrong, but he doesn’t force other people to follow him. Sam, Bucky, Clint, and Wanda take his side in Civil War, not because he forces them to, but because they agree with his principles. It is, perhaps, the strength of his convictions that convince Natasha Romanoff to change her mind about taking sides mid-battle and let him go free. 

Cap grows into a wise hero and his wisdom is rooted in humility. He doesn’t assume he’s always right and admits when he’s wrong, exemplified in the letter he sends to Stark at the end of Civil War:

“I know I hurt you, Tony. I guess I thought by telling you about your parents I was sparing you, but I can see now that I was really sparing myself, and I’m sorry.”

Cap’s development is a heroic arc that leaves him in a difficult place but at peace with his decisions. This is the type of development you go with if you want readers to love the goodness of your character. But you could easily choose a different route to achieve just as powerful a character.

If you decide your character is a Perfectionist, I hope my thoughts on Enneagram Ones and Captain America help you in your character development. Use this tool to consider not just what they do, but why they do it. For further research, I recommend the Enneagram Institute.

Read “Marveling at Enneagram Two to Write Better Characters” >

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