Creating Characters with The Four Temperaments (as well as understanding character motivation in literature)

I read recently that Mary Higgins Clark works several books at one time. Never thought I could do that, but apparently I can as I not only wrote/edited nearly 10,000 words on Breaking Promises the past two days, but started another story at the same time.

Ossabaw Island Pigs at Colonial Williamsburb, part of their project to preserve “heirloom” animal breeds.

I started with a beginning scene with a shy young man, an outspoken young slip of a girl, and a Ossabaw Island Pig bent on destruction. It had been brewing in my head for several weeks. After only a few hours I ended up with almost 4,000 words and the plot for a novella. All of this was done without any planning/plotting/character charts, etc. I had certainly jumped the line from plotter to pantser on this one, and I can say that this has never happened to me before. It was a little like being in the Twilight Zone.

Whether this will happen in the future, as I learn and grow as a writer, I don’t know, but at some point, at least for me, I will have to come back to the characters and do some detailing on their background. One of the best techniques I have found when starting out is to work with The Four Temperaments.

You can read about the Four Temperaments in a variety of places online, including here on Wikipedia, and for a longer more thorough article try here.  The basic idea is that people can be divided into four basic personality types, albeit with some crossovers. Sanguine individuals are fun-loving and pleasure-seeking and thrive in social situations. Choleric persons are serious, ambitious, and function best if they are in charge. Melancholic individuals are usually highly sensitive, especially to personal criticism. They feel deeply and are motivated by beauty and feelings. They are also analytical and quiet. Phelgmatic persons tend to be relaxed and peaceful. They rarely get upset in any situation, preferring to just let things happen as they happen. Of course, people can be a mixture of several, but usually with a predominant type. For the purpose of writing novels, I find it easiest to stick with one overriding personality, and most great works of literature tend to do the same. (And if you have children trying to understand character motivation in literature, this is useful information as well.)

Hippocrates incorporated the four temperaments into his medical theories and they became part of the ancient medical concept of humorism., Humorism espoused that four different bodily fluids were responsible for the human personality and behaviors, and this was the cause of various diseases. I won’t go into that now, but you can read more here on Wikipedia. Science, of course, rejects this theory today, but it is worthy of note that it was still widely believed and practiced as late as the American Revolution.

But, back to creating characters.

There are several good charts and resources on the internet on The Four Temperaments. I use the second one found here, but for others you can go to my Pinterest page or do a google search in images. Since I have a general idea of my characters temperament, I then take the personality traits and make them specific to my character’s situations and personal issues. In doing this, I create a small bio which I can then use to go deeper into my character’s psyche. For example, the hero in this book is John Cayle, an extreme melancholic. As such, he is reserved and sensitive in his conversations with other people. In contrast, Sarah Grayson, the heroine, as a choleric, is straight-forward and usually speaks her mind, sometimes to her detriment. At first, John finds her bluntness annoying, later embarrassing, and finally he comes to appreciate this trait as it contrasts so sharply with his. These traits are, of course, brought forward through the scenes in the book as the two interact. Just from these two contrasts on The Four Temperaments, you can see the inevitable stress and fireworks between the two, and I haven’t even gone deeper into character motivation or pysche.

While working with The Four Temperaments is a great starting place for that rush of ideas that an author sometimes has come into their head, it isn’t generally enough. It’s a little bit like making a new friend, but not yet knowing them really well. I will go deeper into my characters’ background and psychology eventually, but I find this to be a very good start.

Now, for a quick tidbit from this unnamed work, and it is a working copy. I don’t promise to keep it like this, or even have it, in the final work. That’s my prerogative as a writer, of course. (I grin as I head back to the computer to work on Breaking Promises.)

Excerpt from Untitled book, by Donna Hechler Porter

“The fire licked up his spine. “But I am asking you to spend a few minutes speaking for me. You are asking me to spend hours with you teaching you to read.  ‘Tis a difficult thing you ask, and not everyone can master the letters.”

“I am a quick learner, John Cayle.”

That she was.

“And I have to learn. I need to be able to read my Bible.”’

“Your Bible?”

“So as not to be misled by . . . men.”

His eyes narrowed. Who was misling her?

“Just ask your step-brother.”

He may as well have slapped her.  “He would be the last person I would ask.” She pulled her shoulders back and leveled her gaze straight into his face. The girl certainly had an iron spine.  John couldn’t say she gave up easily. Maybe she could have handled herself against that pig after all. He had about decided he should have let her try.

“You need a wife, son, someone who can handle the children.”

If she could have handled the pig, she was more than a match for his step-siblings.

He waved his hand across his face to sweep aside the thought.

“Are you prone to twitching, John Cayle?”

“What?”

“Thy hand. It always seems to be sweeping across your person.” For effect, she mimicked his actions, except her sweep was twice as wide as his. She had to step sideways to catch up with her arm.

John crossed his arms savagely, shifting his knee forward and stifling the groan, or laugh, he wasn’t sure which it was, back down his throat. “Fine. I’ll teach you to read.” Why had he said that? She had insulted him twice. She had refused to help him unless he bargained with her.

She  was as saucy as the gravy on his potatoes.

But he couldn’t afford to lose that case. And all he had to do was get her reading enough she could figure out the rest for herself.

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