Character Development & Personality Type: Part I
The purpose of this series is to help complicate the way we think about and approach character personality and development. Part I delves into the Four Temperaments, the oldest of the personality typing systems we discuss.
Beginning with Hippocrates and used in medicine, the Ancient Greeks and Romans believed the body was governed by four humors—bodily fluids that affected someone’s behavior and health. These humors were Sanguine (blood), Choleric (yellow bile), Phlegmatic (phlegm), and Melancholy (black bile).
While it has been over 150 years since this theory was definitively disproven in terms of applications to health, similar ideas of personality type still exist today, such as the DiSC method, which you may have used at work or in school: Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness.
Emphasis on Temperament
The name has evolved a bit over time as well, and, when it comes to personality, Choleric, Sanguine, Phlegmatic, and Melancholy are more often called the Four Temperaments. One of my favorite things about this way of organizing and discussing personality is the emphasis on temperament—someone’s natural state of being or behavior.
That shift in thinking, from personality to temperament, can serve as a helpful reminder that while some aspects of our being are innate, we can also change and evolve over time. Of course we want to play to our strengths as much as possible, but complicated characters, just like the vibrant people writing them, are going to be nuanced far beyond these overarching categories.
How It Works
With the Four Temperaments, the general idea is that everyone has a primary and a secondary, creating twelve unique personality types. What some people also find is that their personality dominant shifts depending on a given situation or location. Your tendencies at work and at home might be rather different, for example.
As I briefly discuss in the introduction, the Four Temperaments divide across extroversion and introversion, Cholerics and Sanguines being the extroverts and Melancholies and Phlegmatics being the introverts.
Some charts also divide the four across a spectrum of emotional stability (Phlegmatics and Sanguines) and instability or neuroticism (Melancholies and Cholerics). I want to emphasize again that no one type is better than another, and so I steer away from this aspect of the classification system as emotional instability and neuroticism tend to have more negative connotations.
Note: You may find this spelled “extraverts,” which is the more traditional spelling that has, for the most part, fallen out of common usage outside of psychology circles.
The quintessential leader, a Choleric is going to be the person to take charge quite naturally. They tend to make decisions quickly but in a level-headed way as well. Cholerics excel at planning and problem solving but may not be very empathetic or patient and can tend to insist on things going their way.
A confident half-elf steps forward from the band of rangers who have surrounded your party in the woods. Looking each of you hard in the eye, she asks, with an edge to her voice, what you’re doing traipsing through the forest. Glancing about, you notice that each of her rangers have turned their bodies slightly to her. A quick scan of your own party reveals that her commanding energy evokes respect from your fellows, even a sense of calm despite the tense situation. She’s not someone that it would be wise to cross, to be sure, but she and her loyal followers would make powerful allies.
The life of the party, Sanguines love people, and others tend to feel the same way about them. They’re really fun and engaging to be around, but they can sometimes be forgetful or easily distracted and may struggle to finish tasks, especially ones they don’t find interesting. Sanguines are also very expressive and tend to be active and optimistic.
You really weren’t sure about this weird little town of Humphly-Dumph, especially seeing the overexcess of floral decorations for no apparent reason. It’s a little too cute. However, stepping into the city center to take a rest by the fountain, an elderly cleric approaches you and your party. He smiles at each of you in turn, and your misgivings begin to ease. “Welcome, weary travelers,” he says, each word emerging as though it’s happy to be there. He chuckles and exclaims at different questions you ask about the town and the surrounding countryside. Your conversation is interrupted frequently by passersby, each of whom he greets by name. You watch the same curious effect fall on each of them as you felt on your own party: a sudden lightness and contentment causing a lift in the chest as though a burden had been taken off and replaced by a smile tugging at the corners lips. Could he be casting charms on everyone?
The most easy-going of the set, Phlegmatics are peaceful and very steady. They’re kind and observant, though they’re resistant to change and can be lazy or stubborn. Phlegmatics are very reliable and remain in control of their emotions; they also tend to have a very dry sense of humor.
Meetings with Councilman Thendrir are never fast, but you find yourself not wanting them to be either. He studies you carefully as you explain the difficult political situation you’re still pondering over, hoping for guidance as to how best to intervene to avoid increased conflict between the neighboring villages. His head bows for a few moments as he works through the nuances of his response, and you have to lay your hand on the fidgeting arm of the rogue next to you before they explode with impatience. He advises continued discussions between the two sets of leaders, believing that, in time, they will come to understand one another’s perspectives and reach a peaceful agreement of some kind. You have your doubts, knowing the greed of the aggressor and the stubbornness of the opponent, but you hope that Thendrir is right and that he perceives something that you’ve missed.
Moody and artistic, Melancholies are very thoughtful and detail-oriented, but this can sometimes manifest in perfectionism, hampering their natural creativity. Much like the common usage of the word, this temperament internalizes tragedy very deeply and can have depressive tendencies. They’re have a very active emotional life and tend to be over-thinkers.
The beautiful noblewoman takes a step back from the table, gazing out the window at the endless meadows beyond the estate walls. She sighs deeply, gathering herself, and returns to the spread of documents, clutching her arms to herself. The toll her mother’s death has taken on her has been grave indeed, particularly the visits from the various homesteads the family oversees and attempts to provide for and protect. The brief respite seems to have triggered something inside of her, though, and she returns to a document you and her other counselors had dismissed half an hour before. Asking a series of very specific questions, her expression breaks into a smile. “Well, there we have it!” You exchange a look of confusion with the others and, before she has a chance to drift away, ask her to explain more fully. She looks momentarily confused but then walks through her plan to alleviate the financial burden on one minor estate and the security concerns of another all at once. The solution is small and intricate, but perfectly so. She nods to the rest of you and steps out toward the gardens.
Each of the four dominant types have three expressions that change depending on the secondary temperament. Individuals will also have varying balances of the temperaments, and so even two Sanguine-Cholerics might look very different depending on how far they lean in any given direction.
There are lots of different iterations of these ideas online if you’re interested in looking into them further. I’ve found that some of the visual charts can be quite helpful as they emphasize spectrums and scales instead of absolutes.
What balance of temperaments do you have in your own adventuring party? What about their allies or the rules and politicians they have to interact with?
I think it could be easy to group various classes into different temperaments, but working against those stereotypes can lead to really interesting and unique narratives. A lawful good paladin who is a Choleric-Melancholy will thoughtfully lead their party forward on their quest, but observant companions would notice a darkness or shadow beneath the surface of their decision-making stemming from their struggle between the call of serving the greater good and their own personal desires.
We’d also love for you to check out our ideas for character alignment and personality, balancing character class in your central party, and creative ways to empower your primary character in your one-on-one D&D game.
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