A Sense of Humors

Watch any film, TV show, or play with a cast of four or more characters, and you will likely encounter some elements of the classic “temperament theory.” The ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates (460-370 B.C.) was the first to propose this idea, and he believed that a person’s personality was based on the concentration of four fluids (called “humors”) which circulated throughout the body. These days, many organizations use personality tests, and practically all personality typing systems (such as Myers-Briggs, DISC, True Colors, etc.) group personalities into some rendition of Hippocrates’ four main temperaments (the only substantive difference being the nomenclature):

Sanguine (Humanistic, Steady, Blue): Relationships and feelings are very important to these social butterflies. They plan the birthday parties and baby showers for their friends, and they are the first to cry at weddings and funerals. They tend to be nurturers and diplomats.

Choleric (Spontaneous, Influential, Orange): Energetic and impetuous, these people are always in motion. They tend to shirk rules in exchange for a good time. They are risk-takers and often get bored easily.

Melancholic (Competitive, Conscientious, Green): These are contemplative, analytical, “glass is half-empty” kind of people. Pondering problems and solving puzzles trips their triggers. They tend to over-analyze situations.

Phlegmatic (Methodical, Dominant, Gold): The folks are the solid ones. Rules and traditions are important to them. They tend to be conservative and reliable, and they are resistant to change.

Writers often use the four classic personality temperaments to help bring their characters to life and to facilitate conflicts within their stories. Many familiar characters serve as good examples of this. For instance, take four of the main characters from the original Star Trek series. Empathetic and emotionally volatile, Bones is the sanguine. Kirk lives for adventure and often shirks the rules of Star Fleet, making him an archetypal choleric. As a melancholic, Spock is coolly analytical and a foil to Bones. And Mr. Scott is the stable, sturdy, reliably phlegmatic engineer.

There are scores of other familiar examples, such as the kids from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter), the four friends in Sex and the City (Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte), the characters from The Wizard of Oz (the Tin Man, the Lion, the Scarecrow, and Dorothy), or the cast Winnie the Pooh (Roo, Tigger, Eeyore, and Pooh).

Understanding basic personality types is not only helpful in people’s daily lives, it also adds a deeply human element to creative fiction. And as the long list of stories and characters attest, incorporating these types into an ensemble cast often makes for emotionally engaging narratives.

About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.

Comments

  1. I’ve taken several of the personality type-setting tests through the years and never realized they are derivatives of Hippocrate’s work. Having a framework of four distinct characters to play off of makes sense. Very insightful, Scott.

  2. Eric Bahle says:

    Hmmm….nothing new under the Sun, eh? Good post.