Melding the Enneagram with Brooks’ 3 Dimensions of Character

E-TypesNameI’ve been meaning to pen this post for a while, and Jami Gold’s post from yesterday, How to Use Character Flaws to Develop a Plot, spurred me on. In her post, she talks about using either the Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram to help with finding character flaws, and syncing them with Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Development.  Definitely scoot over there and read it–I’ll wait 😉

Back? Cool, huh? Can you see why we’re Beta buddies? We’re both plot nerds 🙂 I haven’t studied Hauge’s techniques, but I definitely will now. Another one I really like is Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing. It’s a must-buy, I think, but one of the aspects he covered that really stuck with me was his talking about the three dimensions of character. He says that all characters, like people in real life, have three dimensions, or aspects.

  1. First Dimension – Surface traits, quirks, and habits. These are things the world sees about this person, which may or may not be what the person thinks it says about them. It’s the person’s outward identity. In fiction, a writer can show aspects of a person’s character (what they drive, what they eat, etc) and a reader may or may not assign meaning to it. The reason it’s not good as a writer to stop here for main characters is that illuminating a character’s first dimension does not tell us his true self; it could all be a smoke screen.  If, however, as a writer, you show the meaning behind these outward traits, you’ve now crossed into the
  2. Second Dimension – The realm of backstory and inner demons.  In this dimension, the writer gives the backstory, agenda and/or meaning behind the surface traits, and what the reader assumed might be totally different. It adds depth to the character. It’s their inner landscape. It’s all the juicy backstory stuff that prompts, explains, and motivates the character’s first dimension choices of identity. First dimension is what you see– a guy with a tattoo. Second dimension is why he has that tattoo. Illuminating the second dimension creates reader empathy.
  3. Third Dimension – Where the true character emerges through choices made when something is at stake. Basically, when push comes to shove, just who is this guy? The true character is not defined by their inner demons and/or backstory until the character does something under pressure, which exposes who they truly are (good or bad). Usually in fiction, this decision comes at the end to show the character’s arc. It’s what shows the character as a villain or hero. A villain will continue to define himself by his backstory, while a hero will overcome it.

Around the same time I was digesting all the wonderful advice from Brooks, I was also obsessed with the Enneagram. I probably have about seven books on it. So when I read about the three dimensions of character, I saw a connection I could use with the Enneagram. Remember in Jami’s post where she talks about Average health and Healthy versions of the same personality? What I like to do is pinpoint a character in the Average health range and have their responses to stress, their third dimension choices, come from the Average health range. Then by the end of their arc, they’re making third dimension choices in the Healthy range.

So just how to use/study the Enneagram? Word of caution–you could easily get sucked in trying to find your own type and those of your loved ones. Try to stay focused on your characters. With that in mind, here’s some books I recommend to help with character development:

Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery — this is the one you want to get to learn about the stages of health for each personality type. It breaks it down to nine levels: three in the healthy stage, three in Average, and three in Unhealthy. To keep with Jami’s example of a Enneagram 2, Mother Theresa was a Level 1, a selfless giver. Tons of wonderful traits at this level, but when you get to the unhealthy levels? An unhealthy two partly corresponds to aspects of histrionic personality disorder in the DSM-IV psychiatric types! I like to put my characters at or around a Level 4 (Average, but at the highest rung for Average) and move them to Level 3 or 2.

Are You My Type, Am I Yours? : Relationships Made Easy Through The Enneagram – since I write romance, I like to use this to get some ideas for how their relationship dynamics might work. It has a comparison for each type match. So if you have a 2 with an 8, it’ll tell you what they like most about each other and what annoys them. For an in-depth look at the Enneagram, this is not your book, however. It’s pretty basic.

Believable Characters: Creating with Enneagrams – this is a good one for looking at the different types specifically with creating characters in mind. It goes into each types Inner Fear/Wound and their heroic strengths. If you’re on a budget, you can skip the Are You My Type book above, as this one also compares each type together in a relationship.

The Literary Enneagram: Characters from the Inside Out — This one is great too, but it approaches it in a different way. It goes through each type and uses examples from literature to demonstrate/show each type, from healthy to average to unhealthy.

Related posts:

Or if you’re of an age where this makes sense (I’m not), here’s another way to look at them 🙂


So have you used the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs to help with character development?

5 Replies to “Melding the Enneagram with Brooks’ 3 Dimensions of Character”

  1. Thanks for the chuckle this morning Angela! Why did I smile? Because most of what your post on character delvelopment is exactly what I am learning in class. As you know I’m a pantster but in class we started with a synopsis, so I had to have an idea of some sort of plot straight away. When we got to character, the reams of hand outs increased, with the end result that I know my characters better than myself. Today I am hoping to take my index cards with outlines of the formulas and for myself write them out in narrative fashion to check for flow.

  2. Great post, Angela! I added the link to our comments where you were talking about this. 🙂

    As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve read Brooks’ work, but his 3 dimensions teachings never stuck with me on an intuitive level like they did with you. So getting your insight is very cool. Thanks! 🙂

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