The Enneagram and Inner Conflict


EnneagramDiagram(1)As Donald Maass points out in Writing the Breakout Novel, the most interesting characters in fiction are often those who do or say something that seems “out-of-character,” something that, as they look in the mirror, they know they would never say or do or think.  

This is where The Enneagram comes into it own, particularly if your character’s personality is one with which you don’t have much personal experience.

For example, a primary character in my novel (A Fitting Place) is an attractive woman who makes friends easily. She sees herself as loving and generous. Her desire line is based on being helpful and making a positive difference in other people’s lives.  But my story arc requires that her help be rejected.  How does she respond?   

Being an introverted observer of life, I had no intuitive way of answering that question.  The Enneagram, with its spectrum of healthy and unhealthy behaviors, offered priceless assistance.

      Enneagram Levels of Development: “Helpers”

  • Healthy:        Compassionate, Nurturing, Caring 
  • Average:        Appreciative, Encouraging, Generous, Intimate 
  • Unhealthy:   Manipulative, Possessive, Martyr-Victim-Guilt Producer

The Enneagram table above offered so many possibilities for making this character multi-dimensional, for behaving in ways she would just never admit to.  Along the way, these actions served to ratchet up the pressure on my protagonist, Lindsey.  Would Lindsey recognize the manipulation, the attempt at guilt production? If so, how would she respond? And, if not, how would she respond?

As I’ve noted before, understanding your characters does not replace good writing.  But the converse seems equally true … a way with words is not a substitute for understanding your characters, in all their complexities.

I would love, as part of this post, to start a discussion on the challenges you’ve had creating the important characters in your fiction.  And—of course—how you dealt with that challenge.



  1. Mary, these posts in this series have been helpful and informative. I especially enjoyed this one on the two women in your book and the traits and behaviors that might come to light as you write your story. I’ve been keeping these posts in Evernote so I will have them to refer to when, someday, I get to writing a novel and not just my memoir! 🙂

    • Sherrey … thanks for the encouragement. I actually think there is some benefit here for memoir writers as well. The people and the actions are “givens,” insofar as your memory is accurate. But if you are trying, as I was in Sailing Down the Moonbeam, to be a credible witness to the story (i.e., not put all the blame on my husband), the Enneagram levels can offer a way to think about how what might have been going through that person’s mind. It doesn’t change the facts of your story, but sometimes it can help to make it more nuanced and sympathetic.

  2. Really intrigued by this post. I’m the type of writer that just writes. I have no planning or any idea where my story goes, it just flows. However, using the Enneagram would allow me to know my characters in more depth and help them to become stronger too. I will most certainly be using this way of building my characters.

    Thank you!
    Rachel x

    • Mary Gottschalk says:

      Hi Rachel … I’m delighted that you find this tool interesting. I too tend to let my characters flow in the early stages of writing, but as I get deeper into the story and am searching for ways to “raise the emotional stakes”, I have found the enneagram profiles to be so very helpful. I hope it works as well for you.

  3. Fascinating discussion! I hadn’t thought of using the Enneagram in this way, but I certainly will now. Thank you.

    • Mary Gottschalk says:

      Gwen … sounds like you’re starting on another book. Hope you find the Enneagram helpful — in life as well as in writing.
      I’d love to keep in touch with a fellow memoir writer. We have a shared love of John O’Donaghue!

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