Proper character development can be a key element in a book’s success. But while authors often think of backstory, motivations, and appearance, personality can sometimes be ignored or forgotten altogether. In a recent First Draft Friday chat, I discussed with author Greta Boris about the Enneagram personality typing system and how to use it in your writing.
In our live chat, we took questions from the audience and discussed how to type your characters.
- Where you can type yourself and your characters, for free
- What “typing” is, along with the explanation of wings
- How a single personality type can vary immensely depending on their emotional health level
- An example of how personality types can dramatically affect a plot and experience
- How many characters you should type in your book
- And so much more!
Click below to watch our discussion or continue on to read the full transcript.
Greta Boris is the USA Today bestselling author of The 7 Deadly Sins, a series of psychological suspense novels from Fawkes Press. She’s also the co-author of PUBLISH – Take Charge of Your Writing Career and co-founder of The Author Wheel, an online resource for writers that helps them save time, save money, and get clarity to keep their stories rolling.
If you enjoy the video, please explore our other First Draft Friday chats.
Greta Boris’ website for authors: https://authorwheel.squarespace.com
Explore Marlowe (our A.I. manuscript analysis tool): authors.ai/marlowe
Alessandra: All right. We are live. Welcome to First Draft Friday. I am joined today by Greta Boris, who is going to be chatting all about creating next-level characters. And she does this using the Ingram system. So I’m really excited to talk about this. Welcome, Greta. Do you want to introduce yourself to the group?
Greta: Sure. Hello everybody. I am the author of The Seven Deadly Sins, which is a series of psychological suspense. I call them OC murders because they all take place in Orange County, California where the home of the Real Housewives, where I hail from. And then I’m also the co-founder of the Author Wheel, which is a website for authors, resources, books. What do you call… online conferences and online courses.
Alessandra: It’s Friday, it’s all good.
Greta: And books and a blog for writers, that’s it.
Alessandra: I love that. And so characters are something we’ve talked a lot about on First Draft Friday and it’s always interesting to see how different authors build their characters, but specifically, you use your courses and content uses the enneagram. So for someone who doesn’t know what the enneagram is, can you give us just a high-level introduction?
Greta: Sure. So the enneagram is very old, kind of ancient. Nobody really knows the origin, but it’s been around for hundreds of years. It is not for writers to develop characters; that’s not what it started from. It started from psychologists and religious people, helping them to type different individuals so that they could help them in different ways. And today it’s kind of… it’s had a resurgence and popularity in pop psychologist and psychologists, and there’s nine basic enneagram personality types. And we discovered that using them for creating characters is a nice little shortcut to make sure your characters don’t derail your stories.
Alessandra: And I love this. Oftentimes the best way to dive in and really understand the enneagram is to type yourself.
Greta: Oh yeah.
Alessandra: Yeah. And is there a website that you suggest for that? I think you can type yourself for free or you can, pay a little bit to get more in-depth.
Greta: Yeah. We refer people to the Enneagram Institute. We like the way that they have it laid out and I can go into that more when I talk about it. And they also have – normally the enneagram personalities are numbered and they are numbered there, but they also give you a little name and that name is the quick understanding to what that particular personality is going to be. So the enneagram website, and I think they have a free type yourself test, but don’t quote me on that
Alessandra: I’ll tell you I’ve, you know, taken a lot of personality tests. There’s so many different personality tests you can take, but I think this is one of the most interesting in terms of really diving into personalities as you can use them in your writing. So, do you want to talk about how you got into using the enneagram for characters?
Greta: So my first series that I just finished is the Seven Deadly Sins. And it’s as I mentioned, it’s psychological suspense and if you know, psychological suspense, it’s usually something happens to every mankind of character. So it’s a, you know, my case, the first book was a real estate agent. Well, you can’t have a real estate agent bumping into serial killers every other day, or it’s just so, you know, I had to have a different main character for every book. And then since I was doing the Seven Deadly Sins, I thought would be fun to kind of have that character as well is the bad guy or girl, struggle with the title of sin. And the enneagram is very interesting because it gives you a person’s greatest strength on their greatest weakness. So, all I had to do is in go and look and see, oh, which character struggles with lust. Okay, that that’ll be my main character, you know? So it was sort of a shortcut to starting a character.
Now, obviously, you don’t want a cookie-cutter cliche character, so it’s just kind of a starting point and then you’ll that character will get deeper as you write. And as you know them and they can get wings and they can get all that stuff. But it was a method for me to kind of just get an envision, what kind of character would do what I wanted them to do in this plotline? And so I believe the first time I even heard that anybody was doing this, I was at a conference and it was a college professor psychologist who was teaching on all different personality type methods. And it just hit me, like, that’s the one for me, and I started using it, and then have since developed a workshop on how I do it and to help others.
Alessandra: So one thing that I really like about enneagram and one of the first classes I took that was enneagram for authors was talking about – the headline was something like the Plot Lines Write Themselves. And I think if anyone stuck with their character or stuck with their plot, just reading the descriptions of, you know like an alpha male controlling type character, and then what they struggle with, it really does give you so many different ideas for where your plot can go. But it can also tell you if it just doesn’t make sense. Sometimes you read a book or a character and they just don’t seem to fit in that story. And that can often be because their personality type, you have them going down this path or struggling with this issue, and it’s not a good fit for the strengths that you have that character displaying.
Greta: Absolutely. I’ve taught some coaching classes and some revision classes, and so I’m working with somebody who’s got this novel and the character starts out and they’ve got this sort of passive personality trying to please everybody. And then, I happen to know that this author wants this character to blow up the world at the end of the book. It’s like, no, this isn’t going to work. Nobody’s going to buy this, you know? I think it’s really helpful so you don’t have to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite as your character is… because most of us have an idea at least where we want the plot to go, and so you have to pick a character that would actually do those things.
Alessandra: And this is great. You write psychological suspense, it’s also really great in romance because you can look at the personality types that pair together, you know, so the enneagram types that pair well together. And again, it just kind of, you know, there’s so much; you can look up jobs that are good for a type four, because oftentimes at least for me, my character said the same jobs over and over again, it’s like names. Like, it can’t seem to think of other jobs other than the same five jobs. So you can look up job types for enneagram four or I don’t know, you know, compare relationship issues between a four and a six.
Greta: There’s another thing that I love about, and this is from the point of view of somebody who does write murder is that they should… I know. So they do show you too, like, so say you have a reformer type one, right. And when they’re really healthy, they’re fantastic people, they’re Martin Luther King Jr, they’re like all this, but it shows you when they degrade in their personality and they get less and less and less and less healthy. And you can see at the very bottom because some personality types, like when they get psychotic or as I write a lot of psychotic people, yeah.
Alessandra: Once the body start piling up and the cops are close on their tail.
Greta: Right. And so if they get that way, some people will turn inward and they will become self-destructive or suicidal. Other people become full on psychopaths and will go out and kill people. So I know if I’m writing a villain and that villain is going to get murderous, which most of my villains do, you know, it has to be one of those personality types. It can’t be one that’s more introverted and is going to do damage to themselves but nobody else, that’s very helpful. That’s very helpful too.
Alessandra: I had forgotten, it’s been probably a year or maybe nine months since I’ve gone down this path and used this in my books and I’ve forgotten, that’s one of my favorite things about the enneagram is it has like a healthy or whatever, and then it talks about what happens. And so, so often when we’re talking about, you can use it going down onward, but you can also use it going the other way with the character arc. If your character starts here and then grows and develops as a person throughout the course of the book, you can start with that unhealthy number three. And I don’t know the names, but like Reformer, an unhealthy reformer. And then, you know, by the end of the book, they’ve become healthy. And again, there’s so many sub plots and ideas that can come just from reading that.
Greta: You know, too, we use it a lot with the whole idea of plot and character arc being kind of like two parts of the same thing, like it’s very hard to separate them. And often in a lot of stories, your character is going to start not really unhealthy, but not at the top of their game either. There’s somewhere in there. And if you can kind of understand like, okay, like maybe they’re at a mid-level health and by the end you want them to be really healthy, but wouldn’t it be fun to have them degrade into not so healthy in the scary parts of the story? In fact, the character sheet that I did give to Margaret for people to download, I kind of have them ask those kinds of questions. So, you know, in act one, what’s the character like when the story opens and what are they dealing with and what is the primary motivator and emotional state that’s driving that act, and then where does it go in act two A, and what’s their mirror moment? What’s their aha moment where they it to the middle of the book and they’re like, huh, I should have had a V8 and now they have a big change and they’re going to get much healthier or much less he, if you’re writing breaking bad, and so it’s fun to play with that.
And again love interests, like you mentioned, that’s great because you can see how the character will collide and then also villains because I’ve done this in at least a couple of my books, probably more than a couple trying to remember all the plot lines, but where my protagonist and my villain actually are the same person type. It’s just one of them is much healthier and has a healthy heart, and the other one is like not so much in his head and down, so it’s fun to play with that. And how that they kind of can sometimes almost understand each other better than you think that they should understand each other being the antagonist and the protagonist.
Alessandra: The good and the bad. It can also be inter – like a mother and daughter relationship, you know, I mean, it really any relationships between major characters.
Greta: Oh, absolutely. Even a mentor character, all of that kind of thing can be really helpful. Another thing we do in the workshop that we teach on this subject is we take the Cinderella story and we show people how, if you just change Cinderella’s primary personality to a different type, it can completely change the genre of the whole, you know. So for instance, say if Cinderella – I’m using the Reformer, because it’s type one and it’s handy and it’s right in front of me. At their best, they’re ethical and purposeful, at their worst they’re full of self-righteous anger. And so their major sin, well, I’m always on the sins or weakness is wrath or anger. And their biggest fear is of being corrupt or defective and they want integrity in the world; that’s what motivates them.
So if that were Cinderella, she would be so angry at the injustice of her position. I mean, she was the heir to that household, to her evil stepmother came in and now she’s a domestic slave. I mean, that’s bad news. We think she would be so angry, she’d probably take the fireplace poker and go up in the night and bash them over the head, and now you have a Stephen King thriller; that is not the Cinderella story that we grew up with. And different character personality types lend themselves better to different stories. Like, there’s one called the enthusiast and enthusiasts are all over Romcoms. And if you made Cinderella an Enthusiast, you would turn the story into a Romcom, and she would be at the buffet table getting drunk and eating much and tripping over the prince and it would be great. It is fun to play with that kind of thing, and it does help you sort of dial in what kind of character do you really need to have the story you want to tell.
Alessandra: I love that. I love that exercise and I can imagine going through it in the workshop. We have a few comments and for anyone watching, if you have any questions, if you’re watching live on either YouTube or Facebook, if you have any questions, don’t be shy, we want to be sure to answer as many questions. Nikki says that she’s never heard of enneagram, she should dive in, it sounds interesting. And Mel says, for romance, it works really well, especially with the enemies to lovers trope, which I absolutely. And we have attendees joining or watchers joining from Branson and from Canada. So I can’t even imagine you guys, what the weather is like for you, but if you’re watching, if you have any questions as we go, don’t be shy, pop them in the comment section.
So I have a question and that’s when, if I’m an author, if I’m listening, I go, oh, this sounds interesting, where do I really begin? So they can take a test for their own personalities that they understand that; is this something that needs to be done before you start writing a book? If I’m an author and I’m in the middle of writing a book, is it too late for me to figure out my character’s personality? What would you suggest then?
Greta: I don’t think it’s too late. I mean, now that I’m aware of Enneagram, I usually start my early plotting by going to that and pondering the story and reading the different personality types. And as you said, sometimes you just get great little ideas about plot twists and places to go with the story when you read the personality types. But I’ve also had on the book I just had come out few weeks ago, the Peril of Pride, I was sure that my evil, bad guy had a certain personality type. And then as the story progressed, I realized he was really OCD, and that the personality type I had chosen that is not a thing for them. And so, I had to rethink and we retool and come up with the personality type he really was, which did mean going back and editing some of his scenes and refining him. So yeah, I think it’s never too late, and I think that it’s good if you have an awareness of it to realize when you’ve been wrong, because now you know you want your character to go in a certain direction and that personality type wouldn’t, so what do I need to do to now make them more realistic – to go back to the beginning and make them more on point.
Alessandra: Yeah, I’m recalling. I was for a short time in an enneagram group of authors. And I remember someone being like, oh my gosh, no wonder he said two, that’s why it hasn’t been working this whole time and hearing everyone chime in. I’ve always used the numbers, but I need to learn the name because I think that’s much easier. Graham who’s joining from the UK said that they just took the test and there are 4W5 Artist dreamers. So I guess four is the main, can you explain how wings work? Is that a four with a five wing? Is that correct?
Greta: So my understanding is, and I have to say – I’ve tell you a very brief, funny story. So the first time I taught this workshop was at a writer’s conference and I was a little nervous because the first time I taught this topic and I tell the whole thing out. And then I got like just partway in and it turns out one of the men in the workshops was a doctor of psychology who used the enneagram with his patients. I’m like, oh, no, I’m not nervous at. And he offered to do a free enneagram typing on me, but I was just terrified of him, so I never told him yes. But I would say, back to the wings, so that was my prerec to say, I am not an expert in this. I use it for what I use it for. The wing will be one side or the other side, so you can’t be like a four with a nine wing. You can be a four with a five wing or a four with a three wing. But they do something in there where that’ll show that – so for instance, like say you were a four, which I don’t remember what a four is. When you were very unhealthy, you might degrade to a different type that isn’t your wing. So if you’re a four individualist, like I’m spit-balling here, I don’t know. But for instance, you might, when you degraded, you might go to a type eight enthusiasts what they’re like when they’re super unhealthy, so there is some crossover and that kind of thing. But the wings are usually – like for instance, I am an achiever, which is type three. But the wing that sort of tempers me a little bit is type two, the helper. My business partner is an achiever type three and her wing is the individual as type four. So we both have the same primary personality type, but we’re different in our approaches.
Alessandra: It’s kind of like on different spectrums of that.
Alessandra: So I didn’t realize that the numbers are kind of similar to, I mean, like if you’re this number, you might share some characteristics, we with the number that is immediately below or immediately above you.
Alessandra: Oh, how that is really interesting.
Greta: That’s where the wings come from. They need to be on either side. So there’s some crossover thing, but I don’t understand completely. They have like little grid patterns, but it’s like the idea.
Alessandra: Graham’s an Artist dreamer, so that’s really like…
Greta: You know, different websites give them different names. So artist dreamer, I’m not sure what that would be on the Enneagram Institute.
Alessandra: Well, he said four wing five.
Greta: Okay. So in the names that we would use is he’s an individualist. Oh, that’s right, that would be like an artist with an investigator wing, which is very interesting.
Alessandra: Yeah. And would be great for a mystery writer like, you know, or something like that. We had a question from Facebook, the name didn’t come through, but for those not familiar with Enneagram, what information do you get about each personality type – strength, weaknesses, drivers? What is the overarching idea? What do the numbers mean?
Greta: So the numbers are really the way that they delineate them, this particular website that I’m giving you uses some names, other websites use other names for the types. And I believe that when you… it’s kind of complicated, because it’s like a medieval system, so the numbers coincide with a pattern that’s complex.
Alessandra: Each number is a personality type. Like, number four is one website might call it artist, one website might call it individual, but four is standard for this group of people…
Greta: And the numbers, they do have like some kind of geometrical patterning thing that connects thing. But that is really more than you need to know just to use it as an author, and so you do you get a lot. You also get on this website, famous people who are those personality types, which is kind of fun too to see. So like the reformer we’ve been talking about all along, Confucius, Michelle Obama, Jone and Nelson Mandela are all reformers. So it’s just kind of interesting to see where your character might fit in this crowd of people. And then it’s very in-depth, they give you a lot. And like we were talking about earlier, they give you, here’s what they’re like when they’re healthy, a little less healthy, a little less healthy, okay, all the way down to psychotic, you know, because each personality goes in a different direction.
Alessandra: Yeah. And to answer your question from Facebook, a lot of times when I tried it, like for free, you could get a quick description that talked a little bit about strengths and weaknesses. And then if you paid like $8 or something like that, I don’t know how much it is, it varies from website to website, then you unlock like a ton of information. Like you could read 17 pages if you wanted to about, you know, that type of personality type, so you get a lot more information. But it’s easy and there’s a ton of free information on the internet if you know you can explore personality types, you can see their strength, their weaknesses what motivates them. You said what they’re afraid of.
Greta: And what are like their basic desire what they want. Cute doggy. And what they’re like when they’re at their worst, the sin that they most grapple with being mostly one of the seven deadly sins, which was super handy when I was writing, as I said. There’s also podcasts and books. I mean, you can go…
Alessandra: You can know as much as you want to know. Graham said, if it helps 4W5s are more introverted, enigmatic and itellectual, but can also be more depressive and solitary.
Greta: Right. See, so that would be a good thing what Graham just mentioned. It gives you kind of like an idea of what they’re like, but oh, this is the direction they can go when it’s not so good, you know, they can get a little bit solitary and so on. And that’s one thing I was going to mention when we do that – Cinderella story, you begin to see that depending on what genre you’re writing, different personality types do definitely show up in different genres. So, like if you’re writing cozy mysteries or any kind of sleuth police procedural, like more traditional mysteries that the investigator. I mean, it’s obvious; like Sherlock Holmes, it’s the quirky investigator is definitely. And then the investigator often has like an enthusiast sidekick because they make a funny combo. If you’re working on humor, that’s also a fun thing to see different personality types can bring out the humor or in each other. And then reformers are often good for big epic hero stories, sci-fi, military. Helpers I’m sure are good mentor characters and best friend characters and that kind of a thing. Even love interest can be if you want to not do an alpha male type, but you just want to do a really sweet guy, could be, or girl, whatever rewriting. And then the achiever is always good for books about people who need to learn that their career and their job isn’t the most important thing in the world. And so, the fits for different genres as well.
Alessandra: We had another great question from Facebook. Can a personality change from one type to the other during the course of a book, even if the time period isn’t years?
Alessandra: Is your personality type like ingrained, like I’m always going to be a four?
Greta: Yeah. I mean, that’s the theory behind enneagram. So the theory behind enneagram is that you were born with a personality type, just like, you know, you’re born with brown eyes, unless you did some operation, you’re always going to have brown eyes, but within that personality type, there’s so much room for movement. So there’s room for movement up and down in health, there’s movement it toward wings, there’s movement, so yes, that’s actually a common question and a common misunderstanding. You don’t start as one personality type and become another by the end; you just become a better version or a worse version or different version of your personality type.
Alessandra: Can you change across the wings? Can I move from one wing to another or that’s also something you’re born with?
Greta: I don’t think so. Like I say, if there is a doctor of psychology listening to this, don’t send me an email.
Alessandra: You said something like they could take on the unhealthy traits of a… was that just?
Greta: I think it’s just a comparison, like, yeah. Like, so for instance, one personality type, when it becomes very unhealthy, it tends to become like a different personality type when that personality type is unhealthy. And that is like, I’m going to show you. So here’s a little, you see that web, there we go.
Alessandra: There you go.
Greta: So that’s from the enneagram website and that’s on the sins, but you can see all those crisscrossing lines, they meet. So like a nine has connections to threes and sixes, and ones have connections to sevens and fours and that’s where it starts getting super complicated. And I feel like as an author writing characters, you could drive yourself crazy. I just wouldn’t go there.
Alessandra: We have a really great question from Jodi, which I’m about to ask from YouTube, but before I do; how many characters should they type? Like just the major characters will, you know, or do they need to type anybody who has a recurring role in the book?
Greta: Well, I can tell you what I do. I usually do my protagonist, my love interest, if there’s a best friend or mentor type character whereas her sidekick or whatever the villain because those are the primary. And sometimes the other ones, you know, they’re more pop on characters or they’re not. But if you know your… like my new series is the same cast of characters, it carried through book after book, after book. So there, I have spent a little bit more time thinking about the personality types of even a little bit more sub-category characters, because they’re going to show up for book after book after book.
Alessandra: Yeah. And you want them to be consistent. We are already out of time. I do want to ask this last question by Jodi because I love it. She said, what if your character is mentally ill? Do you overlay that on personality?
Greta: I love that question, Jodi.
Alessandra: I do too.
Greta: I have a lot of mentally ill characters and that’s one thing that the enneagram is so great for because just go down to the more unhealthy places and you will see that different personalities, if they become mentally ill will become mentally ill in different ways. So, you know that’s why I was saying I had a character who I realized they wanted them to be OCD part way through the book. Well, the personality type that I had chosen, they would never become OCD. That’s not what would happen if they were breaking down, they would become something else, so I had to change personality types. And so you don’t exactly overlay it, it’s actually a piece of that personality. If that personality is going to fracture, it’s going to fracture in certain ways, if that makes sense.
Alessandra: And someone asked where you go to take the test. We did mention it at the very beginning, but you might have come in and missed the Enneagram Institute. Is that correct, Greta, where you would recommend that they take the test?
Greta: Yes. And I did put a link to that on the sheet, the handout sheet on all of this.
Alessandra: Yeah. And if you’re looking for the handout, don’t worry; we’ll get it to you. So I will post a comment on this thread, but also if you RSVP-ed for this First Draft Friday, I will send out a follow-up email with more resources. And if you didn’t RSVP, don’t worry, there will be a blog post that I’ll follow up. But again, you can always just come back, check on YouTube or check on Facebook and I’ll put the links in this post as a comment. So thank you so much. If you’re interested in… If someone watching is interested in taking your workshop or any of your courses on the enneagram, do they visit the author wheel.com?
Greta: Yes. Yes. Come to authorwheel.com and also just sort of as a fun aside, we do have an author personality test that you can take at the authorwheel.com.
Alessandra: I love that.
Greta: There’s five personalities that we came up with and it’s really more to help you. It’s not super scientific because we came up with it, but it’s really to help you kind of understand where you’re at and what your motivation, thinking about your own motivation for writing and what do you want to do with your books and what would be a good path to publication possibly for you? So that’s just sort of a fun, little freebie on our website.
Alessandra: I love that. And if you’re interested in running your future or current manuscript through Marlowe, who is our artificial intelligence that can read and critique your novel in just a few minutes, visit authors.ai, you can try her out for free, or you can check out her pro report, which has some really fascinating insights. So thank you so much, Greta. It was fantastic to have you here, thank you to all of our live attendees who watched and chimed in. We will see you guys at the next First Draft Friday. Bye.