Image: Matthew Loffhagen
If you’ve been following our blog closely (and if not, why not?), you’ll remember our recent post on using the Myers-Briggs personality types to build your characters and influence the decisions they make in your plot. Now, that’s all well and good, but Myers-Briggs is just one of dozens of personality tests designed to sort people into different groups or types. Far, far older than Myers-Briggs is Hippocrates’ notion of the four humors and, by extension, the four temperaments.
Hippocrates, the Ancient Greek father of medicine, came up with the four humors to explain why people got ill. Basically, the idea is that we’re all made up of four fluids – blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile – that are all in perfect balance. When these fall out of balance, a person becomes ill.
Now, each of these fluids was also thought to be related to a particular personality type, and while Hippocrates’ medical theories have more or less gone out the window (thank goodness), businesspeople, writers, and would-be psychologists still see value in the personality types he describes. And, for writers at least, there’s a good reason for this.
While the four temperaments may not be grounded in amazing science, they do describe consistent personalities you can observe in the world around you. That means that if you’re trying to craft authentic, interesting characters who find themselves in nuanced conflict, there are worse places you could start.
Because of this, an understanding of the four temperaments can be found everywhere, from as highbrow work as Shakespeare to as basic storytelling as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While you can always build on top of the four temperaments, they offer up a ready-made group dynamic that can help define how characters interact.
So, let’s look into what these four personality types are and how exactly they can improve your writing.
The sanguine, as you Latin nerds will have already surmised, is the temperament linked to blood. The humors are also linked to the four classical elements (fire, water, earth, and air), and – as the temperament described by air – sanguine people are appropriately light, easy, and fun. They’re talkative, extroverted, charismatic, and tend to suffer when they’re isolated or deprived of an audience.
You’re probably already thinking of characters who fit this description, as there are many; think of Daisy from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Lucy from C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia series, Caddy Compson from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, or, to get away from literature, Joey from Friends or Michelangelo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
From a sanguine character’s traits, we can take a good stab at their values: they’re likely to prioritize fun over more serious pursuits, charisma over hard work or intelligence, and loyalty over independence, and they’re likely to be conflict-averse, charming, and maybe a little superficial.
How would these values and traits affect a sanguine character’s in-plot drive and decisions? If we look at Daisy from The Great Gatsby, we see that her own sanguine personality is embodied in her eagerness to please conflicting forces, her conflict-aversion, her superficial happiness, and her undiscriminating warmth and affection. She’s ultimately shown to be a rather thoughtless, selfish character, but nonetheless she draws other characters to her – Nick, Tom, Jordan, and Gatsby himself all revolve like satellites around Daisy’s magnetic sanguine personality.
This is the great strength of the sanguine character: they draw other characters to them and thus become socially central. This makes them powerful plot mechanisms: as we see in Daisy, sanguine characters tend to spawn drama wherever they go, which they’re uniquely poorly equipped to deal with. Bad for them, great for your story!
Choleric people have the extroversion of sanguine people without the charm; they’re domineering, confident, and capable people who value independence, assertiveness, and personal achievement. They’re your stereotypical business executive: all goal-orientation and ruthlessness.
Choleric traits are linked with fire – constructive in the right circumstances, but often difficult to control and dangerous when they run amok. Mentally strong and tough-minded, choleric people tend toward coldness and detachment; their extroversion is less about winning people over and having fun than it is about making sure their voice is heard.
In The Great Gatsby, Tom is the choleric member of the cast – he’s capable, abrasive, and single-minded, and he hates more than anything being made to look stupid. Or, for a more likeable example, see Monica from Friends or hot-headed Raphael from the ninja turtles.
With their domineering attitudes, choleric characters can be tough to navigate; they tend to be driven to fight their way to the top of the social hierarchy, which can spawn all kinds of drama.
In fiction, choleric characters tend to show up as jealous gatekeepers or else as complex antiheroes/antagonists (as in Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho), but it’s arguably more interesting to try to fit the difficult choleric into your sympathetic ensemble cast. Cholerics tend to come across as looking for a fight, so one tip for making them sympathetic is to put them in a situation where that behavior is entirely justified.
Despite the name, melancholic people aren’t miserable 24/7; rather, they’re quiet, sensible, and careful. They think a lot about their decisions and tend to be emotionally sensitive, reserved, and detail-oriented. They’re the self-aware and uncertain pessimists of a given group, prone to thoughtful reflection and logical analysis, and tend toward introversion over extroversion. The melancholic temperament is linked to the classical element of earth – like mountains, melancholic types are unlikely to make any sudden moves, but they’re also immovable obstacles when they choose to be.
In The Great Gatsby, Jordan is our melancholic; she’s thoughtful and observant enough to foresee and distance herself from the drama between Daisy, Gatsby, and Nick, and she maintains a healthy cynicism throughout; unlike Nick, she’s never taken in by Gatsby or Tom and is smart enough to see through Daisy’s over-the-top warmth.
Because melancholic characters don’t tend to be extroverted or particularly gregarious, they don’t tend to pull their weight until you get inside their heads – that’s where the interesting stuff is happening. As such, melancholics make for good commentators on the events of your plot (it’s telling that Jordan is the main source of information Nick has on Gatsby) and good foils for your more fiery characters – the choleric and sanguine types – to bounce off of.
Melancholics are valuable in ensemble casts, but they tend to work best as solo protagonists in stories where careful consideration is the name of the game. A murder mystery wouldn’t work as well with a choleric detective charging in and pointing fingers, whereas a melancholic inspector helps build tension until the appropriate time.
Donatello is the melancholic turtle, and Friends shares this duty between Chandler and Ross. In a comedy, ‘sensible’ depends on context, but these are the characters who tend to point out the flaws in others, and their errors are often errors of inaction or needless caution.
This gross-sounding word actually refers to the Hufflepuffs of the four temperaments (it should come as no surprise that this analogy extends across the temperaments: Gryffindors are sanguine, Ravenclaws are melancholic, Slytherins are choleric, and J.K. Rowling did her research.) Phlegmatic people, far from being disgusting, are quiet, stable, friendly, and easy-going. They love nothing more than a quiet life but, despite being relaxed and sedentary, care deeply about other people.
A world away from the angry solipsism of choleric characters, phlegmatic characters see themselves as just more people in a world full of people – they’re quick to shrug, make compromises, and accept differing opinions. Phlegm is linked to the classical element of water, and phlegmatic characters are able to reach their goals by many routes, often redirecting around challenges rather than tackling them head-on.
Done poorly, phlegmatic characters can come across as bland and inauthentic, as if they’re only there to support a book’s more driven characters, but remember, phlegmatic doesn’t mean simply meek or uninteresting. Rather, phlegmatic people are likely to be more subtle in pursuit of their goals and will try to co-operate with others rather than compete with them. Indeed, because of their open-minded, easy-going, and non-judgmental nature, phlegmatic characters often make good protagonists or reader-proxy characters. There’s a reason The Lord of the Rings rests on the back of phlegmatic Frodo; he’s the character who makes it easiest for the reader to see every corner of this world.
Nick is our phlegmatic character in The Great Gatsby; he’s polite, open-minded, easy-going, unquestioning, and naïve. In some ways, the story is entirely enabled by Nick’s phlegmatic nature; his naivety and his tendency to see the best in people lead him to elevate Gatsby to heroic levels, help Gatsby and Daisy meet illicitly, and ultimately put too much trust in Tom and Daisy’s goodness. Even by the story’s end, he continues to worship Gatsby. And yet, Nick is still his own person with his own goals and desires. He isn’t defined by others, but his values are outward-facing.
That’s not to say that phlegmatic characters can’t be leaders – Leonardo is an ideal team leader for the ninja turtles because he’s able to balance their warring temperaments with a cool temper. Meanwhile, Phoebe is the most phlegmatic of the friends, a role that arguably gives her something of an outsider status when it comes to instigating plot lines in the show.
As you’ll probably have noticed by now, the four temperaments tend to be more pronounced when they manifest in a group. Just as each type is represented in The Great Gatsby, Anthony Burgess characterizes each of his droogs in A Clockwork Orange after each of the four temperaments, and Shakespeare’s casts are chock-full of choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic characters. Sitcoms like Friends and How I Met Your Mother similarly rely on the four temperaments, proving that even pop culture enjoys blood, phlegm, and bile.
But why? What are the benefits of using these templates to craft your characters? The answer is actually pretty simple: these four types bounce off of each other incredibly well, meaning that interactions are likely to be taut, dramatic, and engaging.
With characters like these in your book, your plot’s going to write itself! In fact, the real struggle will be trying to rein in these characters’ interactions before you find yourself chasing subplots and emerging dynamics across tens and hundreds of pages.
The reason I keep bringing us back to both Friends and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is first to offer up some easy research on how writers use the four humors in simple stories, but also to show how effortless it is to spawn conflict from the four temperaments. Once you dump these four into a situation with any kind of dramatic prompt – even something as inane as ‘we’ve forgotten the keys’ – the drama will come thick and fast, with dynamics, resentments, and alliances springing up before you can stop them. The nature of the four temperaments means that you can throw together any combination of characters and get an interesting relationship – the exact kind of tool that makes long-running fiction work, even when it’s a children’s cartoon.
Of course, in the real world, people tend not to be purely melancholic or purely choleric; we’re all a bit of a blend (and that’s if you even subscribe to the idea that our personalities are static!), and this should be reflected in your writing. After all, Nick in The Great Gatsby is interesting because while he’s phlegmatic, he’s also got a melancholic streak; meanwhile, Daisy is both sanguine and melancholic. People have nuances, and you should try to reflect these – have fun experimenting with contradictory traits in your own characters rather than just replicating stereotypes.
Better still, take the four temperaments – sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic – and throw them up against characters defined by the Myers-Briggs test or other personality tests. You’ll be surprised by how fruitful such forced encounters can be in terms of plot and character development, and you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t. After all, while conflict and desire are compelling, nonsensical or inconsistent characters can feel frustrating and cheap.
What other popular characters do you think exemplify the four temperaments? Have you used this method in your own writing before? Let me know in the comments, and for more advice on creating consistent characters, check out What Authors Need To Know About Commedia Dell’arte and How To Create Characters Using The Enneagram.