Using the Enneagram with Judith Searle


The sophisticated and increasingly popular system of personality typing known as the Enneagram has demonstrated a wide range of applications: Psychotherapists use it to counsel clients. Lawyers use it for jury selection. Teachers use it to key into their students' most effective learning style. Career counselors use it to advise clients on suitable career choices. Religious communities use it to help their members live together harmoniously. Business executives use it to train salespeople, manage office conflicts, assign personnel to appropriate tasks, and encourage creativity.  Individuals in every walk of life use it to better understand difficult people in their lives. 

This modern system with ancient roots offers writers and actors a power tool distinctly different than any system currently in use. Directors of both stage and film, casting directors, teachers of writing and acting, and literary and talent agents can also benefit greatly from the practical information the Enneagram offers in its delineation of the nine types, their variations, and their interrelationships. 

The Enneagram symbol, a nine-pointed diagram enclosed within a circle, encodes the dynamics of the nine basic human types. Each type is connected by interior lines within the circle to two other types, which the basic type comes to resemble under stress or when feeling secure. These "stress" and "security" points are essential for understanding the potential "character arc" of each type. The points on either side of each type, clockwise and counterclockwise, are known as the "wings"; since a type may incline more toward one wing or the other, this element also affects the variations within a type. Within each type we find a wide spectrum of levels of health, ranging from the extremely healthy to the pathological.

No one type has any corner on heroes or villains, and we see in great literature and films many variations within each type. For example, in type Eight, male exemplars range from Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire to Shakespeare's Othello to the John Wayne character in Red River; female exemplars range from V.I. Warshawski in Sara Paretsky's novel Blood Shot to Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest to the Linda Fiorentino character in The Last Seduction. All these disparate characters share the same basic psychological dynamics, and all have predictable "character arcs." Because great characters reveal themselves through dramatic changes as they move from feeling secure to feeling stressed, we can see patterns that serve as important clues to how an actor would need to perform them or a writer prepare a screen adaptation from a novel. The range of possibilities for individual characters is almost limitless.

The value for both actors and writers of knowing the Enneagram system is that an awareness of underlying patterns within a character can produce a sense of consistency in a character created on the page or in performance. An understanding of the nine basic types allows an actor to make creative, psychologically astute choices about ways of playing a character. 

For an actor, knowing his or her own Enneagram type can be especially helpful for recognizing particular roles in which "type casting" may be a factor. Memorable performances often result from the matching of an actor's basic type with a character's. This would have obvious applications for the work of directors, casting directors and agents.

For the actor playing a supporting role, familiarity with the Enneagram can make it possible to identify the basic type of a character who is not fully developed and can steer the actor toward promising ways of fleshing out the character in performance.

An understanding of the Enneagram allows a writer to create on the page distinctive individuals whose actions seem both inevitable and surprising.

For the writer seeking to create complex and credible worlds, the Enneagram can serve as a powerful guide to organizing character grids that present a variety of types and allow natural conflicts to develop from their interrelationships. 

Writers will also find it useful to explore why various story genres (e.g. thrillers, westerns, love stories, and science fiction) tend to attract writers of different Enneagram types. Like the issue of "type casting" for actors, the Enneagram offers provocative insights into why writers feel drawn to work in a particular genre.