History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

30 January 2008

Character Analysis: The Four Temperaments

Around the year 450 B.C. Hippocrates determined that four temperaments, derived from humours dominant in the human body, were responsible for a person’s behavior and the way they looked at the world; and therefore, there were four basic types of people:

The Choleric (liver)
The Sanguine (blood)
The Phlegmatic (phlegm)
The Melancholy (bile [kidneys])

A stable person would have all four temperaments or humours in balance.

Hippocrates (460-370 B.C.)

During the Middle Ages and even into the Renaissance, it was popularly held if a person behaved in a certain way (although it first applied to how that person might be fit for a career in the Church) that one of the four temperaments was too dominant. Nowadays, you could say his chakras need balancing. Both Chaucer and Shakespeare refer to the humors or to characters being melancholy, choleric, etc.

Emma Hamilton

Someone who was sanguine was the sparkling blithe spirit of the bunch, thrived in company, and enjoyed the spotlight. Their home lives tended to be happy and they were faithful in their relationships. Yet one of sanguine temperament also had the tendency to be shallow, enjoy peripheral relationships, go along with majority decisions regardless of his own convictions, and therefore his ideas could be changeable. These days we might call him a flip-flopper. In fact, many politicians these days might indeed be ruled by this humour.

Sir William Hamilton

A Phlegmatic was a stable sort who lacked the vibrancy of the sanguine personality to the point of appearing passionless, although he did form warm relationships (as opposed to antagonistic ones) with others. He was contemplative and tended to take his time to consider a situation, which lent him the appearance of seeming detached because he did not allow his own judgment or preferences to cloud a situation. Like the sanguine temperament, a Phlegmatic will go with the flow, but for the sake of tradition, rather than expedience. This was the temperament capable of detailed analysis: the writer, forensics specialist, or judge.

Horatio Nelson

The Choleric was a zealous type, quick to anger, and impatient and disgusted with those who don’t see things his way or who he sees as less intelligent than himself. With him it’s all or nothing, his way or the highway. They are leaders and achievers. But the Choleric can also be tender toward someone who has been maligned or injured—as long as that person is on the Choleric’s side. The Choleric is as intimidating a personality as he is an inspiring one, a leader who still manages to divide; the type who champions a cause he thinks will benefit all, yet who often ends up alone because of it. We’re back to politicians again; I’m sure you can think of a few snarling pit-bull types. Being a New Yorker, a native son who used to have a really bad comb-over comes to mind. So does a certain lame duck and his duck-hunting Vice.

The Melancholic is both an idealist and a doubter with little use for rules. Nothing he sees on earth meets with his approval; consequently he seems permanently disappointed, and in fact, a Melancholic’s downfall is despair and depression. His awareness of what the real world is like pains him because he knows it will never live up to his ideals for what it should be. He is slow to form relationships, but when he does, they are lasting ones (as long as they don’t end in disappointment). Injustice or personal harm to himself or one he loves can set him off like a cannon. Nearly every character John Wayne played, and hard-boiled noir detectives like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade fit this description.

And Jaques from As You Like It (on Sunday night Kevin Kline won the Screen Actors Guild award for his performance in the role in Kenneth Branagh's screen adaptation) is a perfect example of the melancholic temperament, perfectly illustrated in the “seven ages of man” speech.

Kevin Kline as Jaques

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms;
Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin'd,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav'd, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
— Jaques (Act II, Scene vii, lines 139-166)

The Four Temperaments also tempt me to think of the four basic types of children, or Four Sons, described in the Passover Haggadah, who are variously wise (the smarty-pants, know-it-all, brown-noser, apple-polisher), wicked (confrontational and churlish, but he’s my favorite because he makes a good point and has the strongest personality!), simple (the dog ate my homework), and utterly clueless (I know we did this last year, dude, but I still don’t get it).

These days, as writers we might play with astrology for character analysis as much as for fortune telling through our daily horoscope. In my historical fiction where actual figures are the protagonists and villains I find myself working backwards, if only by the most basic sun sign characteristics. I know their birthdate and I already know how they lived their lives and interacted with other people, and the astrological signs of the people they married or had affairs with. I don’t devote a lot of time to my real-life characters’ signs and I know there are numerous factors in a person’s chart that supposedly play into their personality and their destiny, but I’m amused at how often the people behaved true to form for their sign.

And if I were to apply the basic characteristics of the Four Temperaments to them, assuming their humours were imbalanced and they tended toward one Temperament or the other, I can see right away that, for example, at its most basic level, Emma Hamilton was Sanguine, Lord Nelson was Choleric, and Sir William Hamilton was Phlegmatic.

Do you ever choose an astrological sign for your characters and determine elements of their personality based on the characteristics of that sign? And then choose the love interest or villain based on a compatible or non-compatible sign?


Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Amanda! I love using different techniques to analyze characters. I've never used astrological signs (or the four temperaments), but I do often use tyfour "core needs" as outlined in a fabulous workshop on character I once heard Elizabeth George give. I'm not sure who originally came up with the four core needs, but they are:

To do one's duty - the driving force in the character life is to do what they see as their duty, which could be anything from doing one's duty to one's family (as a dutiful child or parent) to one's country (as a politician, soldier, or spy) to a cause (as an abolitionist, revolutionary, anti-revolutionary, etc...) or even to one's creative muse. Charles and Mélanie in my books are both driven by duty--differing duties, which is why they come into conflict but ultimately also why they understand each other.

To be competent - the driving force in the character's life is to be the best at whatever they do, whether it's being a good mother, a powerful politician, a master spy, a composer or artist or novelist. I think Jane Austen's Emma is driven by competence--she likes to control things.

(Duty and Competence can drive characters to excel at a lot of the same things, but for subtly different reasons. I'd say Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond is driven by duty whereas her Nicholas is driven by competence, at least at first).

To be spontaneous - the driving force in the character's life is to be free to live in the moment. Marianne from "Sense & Sensibility" would fit in this category I think (whereas Elinor's core need is definitely duty).

To be real - the driving force in the character's life is to be true to themself, with little patience for the conventions and pretensions of society... Jeremy Roth, the Bow Street Runner, in my series, has this core need. So, I think, does Elizabeth Bennet.

I love thinking about characters, my own and other writers'!

11:16 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Tracy, those are wonderful descriptions. Just reading them I was able to figure out which ones suited my characters in my historical YA. I'm going to use those from now on! I have also used astrological sun signs for my characters, just for basic characteristics, as well as Tami Cowden's wonderful book on archetypes.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, how insightful! I've never heard of the four core needs, but they make a lot of sense and I can certainly see how one might break down characters that way. It reminds me of a weird acting technique we learned in college. Actually, it a psychological theory which a certain Cornell professor applied to acting technique. It was called "Bioenergetics," a theory that hypothesized that there were 5 types of "star bodies," each of which corresponded to a set of behavioral attributes and that theatrical characters, like human beings bounced between the bodies depending on who they were dealing with at a given moment and what they wanted from them in that moment. To delineate line by line objectives, during the class we theatre students had to assume one of the five exaggerated body positions (e.g. bully, masochist, yadda-yadda) on our line or the other performer's line, as we worked on the scene, which was supposed to clarify the objective(s) as it/they shifted within the scene.

Frankly, I thought it was a lot of hooey! :) And yet, I can see it as one of many exercises designed to steer the actors toward the minutiae in a scene.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating, Amanda! Despite being an almost-double-major in drama (until I decided I couldn't handle commuting from Marin to Stanford to take Theater History at 9:00 a.m. senior year, and I already had honors in history :-), I've never run across Bioenergetics. It sounds a bit extreme, but I can see how it could be helpful for pinning down motivation shifts in a scene. I think that's the thing with all these techniques for writing or theater--they can all help with different aspects of approaching characters.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I usually just try and figure out what the worst thing in the world would like like and then throw it at them. I like these two ways of looking at characters though. Sometimes you need to dig a little deeper to figure out what really makes them tick . . .

2:15 PM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

I've never used any type of temperament analysis in creating characters, but once I took a Myers-Briggs personality inventory as several of my characters. I had three heroes in a row turn up ENTJ, which worried me a little because I'm an INTJ, so I wondered if I was writing myself over and over again, but with better social skills! But then when I started taking the test as my heroines, the types were all over the map. When I read up on ENTJs, I realized it's just a type I'm drawn to--sharp, analytical minds, strong leaders without necessarily being alpha heels--so it's no wonder I write my heroes that way.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Susan, I took the Myers-Briggs test as part of an online workshop (I think it was creating characters through Tarot analysis or something like that, and I was interested in Tarot for a book proposal I was doing that ended up falling by the wayside. I can't remember which initial sequence I ended up being; it was one of the extroverted ones, but to be quite honest I could have answered the tests in a variety of ways depending on the day I took it and how gregarious or misanthropic I was feeling at the time. :)

Kalen, I often apply a version of the "stick your character up a tree and then throw rocks at them in increasing size and velocity" method. I heard from some writing guru once that this was the Hollywood sitcom formula. Which doesn't say much for Hollywood sitcoms, but as a technique it does remind a writer to keep the stakes high and the pace swift.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

RE-choosing an astrological sign for characters---Cherry Adair does that...she has an old "What's your sign" kinda book that has personality types for each sign and goes into great detail about how they match, or don't, with other signs. It was very cool how she used that book to establish hero/heroine interactions.

I think want to give it try now.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Well, Cherry's a bestseller, so her method must be working -- along with strong writing, of course!

I recall reading somewhere that within her vast organizational notes for the series and backstory, J.K. Rowling determined all of her HARRY POTTER characters' astrological signs. I think Harry is a Cancer ... which is sort of interesting, since Cancers are the homebody nesting types [I have a Cancer moon and Cancer rising, with my sun in Libra, which might explain the yin-yang I go through between loving sociable opportunities to get out and meet my readers at booksigning events, or perform onstage, and just wanting to curl up at home with my hubby, a good book, a great old movie, and a needlepoint canvas in progress! :) ]

8:33 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Me? Use astrological signs? Never!

Or so I would have thought, but then I made my motormouth SM heroine Carrie a bike messenger, which puts her under the sign of Mercury, making her a Gemini like me. As is my French hero Joseph, always (like me) of 2 minds and ending the book an ambassador, regularly crossing the ocean, not quite American and not quite French.

I don't understand any of the other signs very well -- but I can see a Gemini a mile away.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

Hi, I'm coming to this a little late and am poking my nose as someone with an interest in medical and surgical history. I am unsure where the connections between humor and bodily fluid/organ in the original post came from, but it's far from my understanding of the four humors as the cause of illness.

Working from the Temperaments as given, my understanding is:

Choleric = Yellow Bile => stomach acid (gall bladder)

Sanguine = Blood => liver (until William Harvey's published experiments on circulation of blood (1628) were accepted (another 50 or so years), medicos accepted Galen's 1400 year old explanation that the hot elements of food traveled from the stomach/intestines to the liver which then was pumped to the limbs to nourish and turn into flesh.

Phlegmatic = Phlegm => lungs/brains

Melancholy = Black Bile => Some sources indicate the spleen, but I'm not sure this was universally agreed on. My understanding of medieval/early modern thought is that Black Bile was Blood (hot & moist) gone cold and dry.

In restoring illness, physicians used food as a way to bring balance (based on combinations of hot/cold and wet/dry). Surgeons, barbers and bath house operators used blood letting.

Looking over modern charts of four humors/temperaments, I see a mixture of Ancient, Medieval, Islamic, Ayurvedic systems plus modern personality tests such as Myers-Briggs. Just a word of caution if anyone wants to use the four humors/temperaments as in character knowledge.

I looked around the web and wasn't happy with recommending any one site until I found a this NYTimes review of a history of the four humors and summaries the rise and fall of the four humors in about one page.


I haven't read "Passions and Tempers" by Noga Arikha yet, but I just added it to my Amazon wish list as an interesting review of why bloodletting the the humor theory continued in various forms during and after the Enlightenment.

10:30 AM  

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