The four dimensions of character

571px-Color_discThere are no new stories. Today’s most popular books are built on the plots of stories that have existed for millennia. In the same manner today’s current personality assessments are built  on much older theories.  Sometime around 2400 years ago, the physician Hippocrates described his theory that human moods, emotions were caused by an excess or lack of basic body fluids. Too much blood and you became giddy and talkative, too little and you would become morose. Feeling lazy? Blame it on too much phlegm.  He probably borrowed the ideas from someone before him.

Although this was not a sound medical observation, the idea of four different personality types keeps reappearing.  And like artists using tempera paint (which comes from the same root word as temperament) people in the personality business keep painting four different factors, which they mix to obtain their spectrum of personalities.

Writers are in the personality business, because they create characters. So reviewing different variations of these four dimensions of personality can help you.  Basically, identify the major trait of your character, and find which other ones are likely to accompany it.

The four basic personalities according to Hippocrates:

Choleric –energetic, ambitious, aggressive, tyrannical.

Sanguine – charismatic, friendly, impulsive, self-indulgent.

Phlegmatic – observant, steady, calm, apathetic

Melancholic – independent, cautious, moody, depressed

In each case the list moves from the strengths, which we long for in the characters of our dreams, to the weaknesses. However, well-rounded character must have fsults. If you want to choose the strong points from more than one type, such as a character that is both energetic and charismatic, on the worse days this character will turn into a self-indulgent tyrant. But, then the tyrant can sometimes be tireless in attempts to accomplish great things. If you develop a wise character that is observant, calm and independent, when the problems are overwhelming the character may slip into suicidal thoughts and not care what happens to others. But the morose, depressed downer character may exhibit a streak of independence.

Finally, beware of basing your characters on any personality theories that only have positive traits. These are not true portraits of people and your characters will not seem plausible either.

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Giving your hero a little help

lolly 2012 (3) c_edited-2Readers may be drawn to the impassioned, spirited, exciting and mercurial hero figure. In real life we often find of these  people over-emotional, high-strung, frenzied and hot-tempered. So this kind of protagonist needs a balancing factor. A good place to find the appropriate personality for the mentor or sidekick to assists your hero is in research on creativity in business. Creativity is no long the domain of eccentric inventors, impractical daydreamers, and those living in garrets on the edge of poverty. In the business community it has become a buzzword for bolstering a faltering company. But the wise sociologist realizes that creativity is strongly related to non-conformity. And, non-conformists rub many people the wrong way. The latest trend in innovation research tries to define the various creative styles that will support each other (and bolster the company’s bottom line). These are excellent resources to use as the basis of your characters.

For example, Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory describes Adaption and Innovation as styles of creativity. However, at close examination the different styles are related to levels of conformity/non-conformity.  This inventory scores people on a continuum ranging from working with the system to challenging the system. [1]

The Spontaneous approach is marked by freedom from constraint and traditions. It is an ADHD style that focuses on many goals at once, impatiently jumping from one thing to the other–the feeling approach to coming up with solutions to the major conflict in your story. (Consider the similarities with the ill-prepared character on a mission to right an injustice.)

The Conceptual approach is centered on formulating new ideas, different alternatives, innovative concepts, and creating an overall plan. This is the problem solving style of the thinking person. (Think of the highly intelligent, but eccentric private detective.)

The Normative approach requires putting new ideas into a familiar context, based on past experiences. People employing this approach need to know the consequences beforehand. This play-it-safe style is mostly conformist. These people follow rather than lead when it comes to original ideas, but these are the kind of people that end up in leadership positions. (For example, the police chief who just can’t see the possible answers that the private detective can in many mystery novels.)

The Methodical approach is not really creative at all but focused on proven solutions and creating order. However, a spontaneous or conceptual person people can become methodical and adopt a step-by-step procedure when it comes to testing their novel ideas. Or you can simply add a methodical sidekick with the detailed know-how to make the hero’s far out idea work.

Fahden’s & Namakkal’s research has led to profiles that identifies people as the Creator, who invents with the new idea, the Advancer who recognizes this far out idea as a possible solution, the Refiner who methodically figures out what the consequences are going to be, and finally the Executor who pays attention to all the details. [2] This group seems to work as well in producing new products in real life as it does in fiction for the elite criminals involved in a high-stakes heist or the core group intent on carrying out some covert activity.

No one is purely creative or purely uncreative, so no one fits completely into any category. Most people use all of these approaches at one time or the other when faced with the “major conflict,” but they show a definite preference of one type of approach. So feel free to have your protagonist switch their approach occasionally when it makes sense. In fact, this would be a good idea for all major characters, even your antagonist.

[1] Kirton, M.J. (1976). Adaptors and innovators: A description and measure. Journal of Applied Psychology, 61, pp. 622 – 629.
[2] Fahden, A. & Namakkal, S. (1995), C.A.R.E. Carlson Learning Company, pp. 8-9
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The merits of fictional characters

The first in a series on characterization…

Write about what?


Having seen discussion boards in which people spend time arguing about the merits of fictional characters, I would assume that a number of readers prefer these imaginary people to real ones. Fictional characters may be braver, more beautiful, or have greater ingenuity than real people so it is easier to become attached to them. But the real advantage is they don’t talk back and readers can imagine them however they desire. But, the same is not true for the people who create the stories. I can attest to a number of times that authors have related incidents in which characters they have created refuse to behave in the manner that the author envisions.

Characters live in the author’s heads, sometimes ignore their directives and even argue with them as the author tries to capture them with words. These finite words are the only way that reading audience may become acquainted…

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Wilde words

The final blog on creating the writer’s voice

Write about what?


Sometime in the eighties I noticed a shift in the focus of television sitcoms–the humorous situation was gradually being replaced by humorous banter. Witty retorts were more important than amusing events. In fact, often the events would be minimal. The entire plot may have been based solely on the character’s illusions, often nothing happened but clever conversations. Sometime the events in comedies actually struck a painful nerve. But, the audiences continued to laugh as the actors cut each other down a notch with witty retorts.

This is not the first time that ‘witty’ words have been prized over plot. Oscar Wilde, a 19th century Irish writer and poet wrote many poems, essays, short stories and plays. However, other than the fame achieved through his one novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and his hit play, The Importance of Being Ernest, Wilde is mainly known for his epigrams, wry observations…

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Playing musical words

Digging a little deeper into creating a unique voice…

Write about what?

stephs (4)One of the quickest ways to make your writing voice stand out from the crowd is to master the use of literary devices. Some devices are just fancy names for specific types of diction and syntax. For example, anastrophe is a type of hyperbaton in which the position of a single word is changed from the normal syntax for emphasis. It is also the formal name for the distinctive syntax that marked the speech of Yoda in Star Wars.

However, there are many more literary devices that have potential. These involve selecting words for their actual sounds, as the sloshing, crackling, twinkling onomatopoeia words. I fondly think of these as the ‘musical’ literary devices. Longer words, with many syllables ending in vowels, like onomatopoeia, sound elegant, while short consonant bound ones, such as slang, carry a cocky connotation. I’ve witnessed people discussing whether it is more important to be intelligent or smart. To…

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Deciding on a direction

Writing doesn’t just need to be organized; it needs to go somewhere.

Write about what?

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“Say what you are going to say, say it, and finally say what you have said.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this rule for organizing the written word repeated in the educational realm. But rules are meant to be broken. Following this rule consistently will end up putting your readers to sleep. So many formulas to create structure in writing breed boredom instead. Good writing requires movement towards a goal, without being completely predictable.

There are multiple types of graphic organizers to assist the writer in brainstorming: such as branching, bridging, and bubbling. However, consider exactly how the reader would comprehend a composition if you wrote it with one central idea and all the related sub-ideas jutting out in different directions? This would be like constantly returning to home between every leg of a road trip. There is no way to get away from the fact that…

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The speed signs for writing

This is about how fast your writing seems rather than how fast you write.

Write about what?

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The way we string together words and the type of words we use contribute to the “pace” of writing. Longer sentences with a plethora of subordinated clauses provide an intellectual sound to the writing. The reader must take more time to ponder the concepts presented, making the ideas seem as complex as the style,  and also making the reader slog through the work.

Short sentences with direct verbs are the antidote to a dragging pace. However, few readers can stomach an entire work of short choppy bursts.  When dependent clauses are avoided, flow is sacrificed. The trick to dealing with pace-changing techniques is knowing when the writing can be improved by putting on the brakes–to let the reader savor the experience of reading–or speeding up the pace for drama.

A good exercise to show how this works is to take a paragraph out of academic writing and rewrite it. Revise it by…

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Order matters how?

So what does Yoda have to do with creating the writer’s voice?

Write about what?

YodaPuppetWhile diction determines word choice, syntax determines where the words are placed. Language without syntax are words strung together with no method to the madness–in other words, nonsense. Our normal syntax mimics what we have heard before. Unique syntax requires mixing up that order without creating nonsense.

Do you recall Yoda’s distinctive style of speaking in the Star Wars movie series? Simply take the predicate object or predicate adjective at the end of a sentence and move it to the front. Voila–Yoda speak. “But what is a predicate object and predicate adjective?” you ask mystified. Basically it is everything in a normal syntax that follows after the verb.

Learning how to use syntax to create a unique voice requires a fundamental knowledge of grammar. I recall creating lengthy diagrams parsing complex sentences in my junior high days. But, diagramming went out of vogue (probably due to lack of time) just like…

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Write or wrong word

Another blog in the series on creating voice in writing.

Write about what?

chronic waste c2

Diction is one of the building blocks of voice that pushed far enough can become a two-edged sword, making the written word dangerously inaccessible to readers. When teaching Shakespeare’s plays to students I frequently pointed out that it was not the formal speeches that were hard to comprehend. Rather it was the lines full of common slang and innuendos of Elizabethan English that the students failed to grasp. After all, the bard did write to entertain the “man on the street.”

Beginning with the Renaissance there was a movement toward more formal diction in writing, and then sometime before the twentieth century writers started backing away from that same kind of diction. You could blame or praise Mark Twain for this, but he was not the only one in concerned in this swing. Today, the media has morphed into users of an informal brand of Standard English that is sprinkled…

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Tone of voice

Creating tone–second in the series on the writer’s voice.

Write about what?

ink1007 sunsetTone of voice… you have probably heard this phrase used frequently, such as in “I don’t like your tone of voice.” As a child I often assumed that phrase was the adults’ way of reprimanding someone whose statement was not malicious or false, but brought up an inconvenient truth. In speaking, tone is typically associated with a certain timbre, pitch or intensity that expresses an attitude, such as amusement or disdain. However those cues disappear if the words are written.

How are we to betray underlying emotions in writing? That is one of the keys to creating a distinctive writer’s voice.  Authors often use imagery to create the tone through their descriptive passages.  It does make a difference if the setting sun is “red as a ruby” or” red as blood.” A skillful writer uses imagery, full of connotative words with emotional undercurrents, to draw their characters and set the…

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