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Archetypes Through a Psych Lens: Temperament

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, March 13, 2021

According to the theory, you are born with a temperament. Its manifestation occurs soon after birth, and it is based in biological configurations you have, such as your tolerance or intolerance to stimulations, your sensitivity to noxious stimuli such as noise, and a range of other things.

As a baby, you may have been easy or hard to sooth, easy or hard to entertain, easy or hard to warm up to a caretaker, and so on- and all of that would be due to the temperament you were born with. Temperament is something that doesn't really change throughout life. What changes is how you learn to handle it, work around it, or work with it.

This is as far as the general consensus in the academia goes. From here on, it's a free for all and you get to pick the theory that most suits you regarding temperament and the different categories of temperament (and the behavioral patterns that go with it) to suit you.

There are way too many of them for a single article (hell, for a single course) but I will pick the simplest one best formulated by Hans Eysenck, from which the rest are derived anyway, and I invite you to research the others.

Eysenck suggested that temperament varied across two axes: Neuroticism (N) and Extraversion (E).

For his theory, Neuroticism is defined as “the tendency to experience negative emotions” and Extraversion is defined as “the tendency to enjoy positive events, especially social ones”.

Note that neuroticism here does NOT have a psychopathological connotation.

Depending on how a person places on both of these axes, we get the four basic temperaments:

High N, High E = Choleric
High N, Low E = Melancholic (also called “Melancholy”)
Low N, High E = Sanguine
Low N, Low E = Phlegmatic

If you look around the internet, you will find little blurbs about what a Sanguine, a Choleric, a Melancholic or a Phlegmatic temperament equals in terms of personality.


The reason this theory is so good for a writer to play with is that it is a spectrum theory . That means that instead of neat little boxes, you have ranges of manifestation. That means you can have a whole team of Sanguines, and each of them will be vastly different because while they may score high in Extraversion and low in Neuroticism, HOW high and HOW low is a completely different thing! They may all be energetic, but how they manifest this high energy will be unique to each of them. They may get easily enthused with new friends, but how they connect to them or what they want to do with new friends is different (i.e. one might want to keep going out for coffee, the other might stalk them 24-7 for a month to get to know them).

When building a character through the Temperament lens, you will have two tiers to consider: first, the genetics. What temperament are they born with, and where exactly do they fall in that spectrum? How were they as babies due to their temperament?

And second, the socialization. How much has their temperament interfered with their life's important events? How much have they managed to work with/control/exploit/ be aware of their temperament and how did they manage that? Based on their temperament, what are the stimuli, the situations, where their socialization breaks down and the pure temperament manifests?

No matter what answers you come up with, it's very likely that you'll have created a unique, vibrant character with a solid basic background in the process.

NOTE: this is a THEORY. Nobody has proven that genetics control personality. As I said in my previous introductory post, take this only as a theory, and use its reasonings (i.e. the why's) as real only within your story, do NOT apply it to yourself or real life. Most psychologists don't, they use all these theories as tools, not as ‘the one and only truth’. This was my disclaimer for tonight. :D

SOOO… where do YOUR characters fall in the Temperament spectrum??

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Tantz_Aerine at 5:21AM, March 16, 2021

Thank you so much Paul and Banes!

PaulEberhardt at 1:45PM, March 14, 2021

That's the best and most concise rundown on temperaments I've ever seen - I was vaguely familiar with this theory but I've never really realised its potential for writing before. That's probably because I immediately thought of the four humors of ancient Greece and especially Early Modern theatre and art, too, when I read about it. However, these notions are not quite the same, they just use the same labels. It's good you emphasise how important it is to keep in mind that the character traits associated with a temperament are just tendencies that can each be stronger or weaker. Else, the whole notion would limit your writing rather than expand it the way it really can. Reading your article made me realise that this can help to build up characters and their interaction in a really subtle way; and that I haven't really got a melancholic character anywhere, just the other three in a fairly equal distribution. Guess I just found something to keep in mind for future projects, then. :)

Banes at 11:54AM, March 14, 2021

I've read about these four temperaments here and there, but your explanation allowed me to actually understand it for the first time. Great article.

bravo1102 at 9:17AM, March 14, 2021

The four humours formed the basis of pre modern medicine with physicians trying to keep them in balance through various purgative treatments to include bleeding. Pretty nasty stuff as it often involved leeches, laxatives and enemas.

Tantz_Aerine at 8:59AM, March 14, 2021

@Corruption: that's right! But I figured I would omit this because the article was getting long and I didn't want to come across as going on and on about ancient Greece. XD

usedbooks at 8:38PM, March 13, 2021

@Corruption: This is a little OT, but studies found most dogs seek out and benefit from the companionship of humans over that of other dogs. Primitive breeds and wolves, however, prefer the company of their own species. I find it fascinating how natural and artificial selection can affect things like that. I know it all comes down to receptors and proteins and the "wiring" in the brain, which is even more incredible to me. (Weirdly, the more I know "how the trick works," the more magical it seems. Lol)

Corruption at 8:28PM, March 13, 2021

Interestingly, the 4 temperaments date back to ancient Greece and the belief in Humours (essential liquids in the body) causing sickness when they are out of ballance. Sanguine means Blood. Phlegmatic comes from Phlegm. Melancholy means "Black Bile" and Choleric was resulting from "Yellow Bile" (Yes this mean being excessivly humourous can mean you are physically or mentally sick. When you consider some of my jokes, that makes sense . . . ) @Usedbooks, I think things like how the body produces different chemicals needed for survival in the wilderness may be part of the hereditary traits you mentioned.

bravo1102 at 11:31AM, March 13, 2021

Temperament is a great tool for conflict among and within characters. Many people are raised and often live lives that are at cross purposes with their temperment.

usedbooks at 11:25AM, March 13, 2021

I believe temperament has genetic influences, even if it has mixed scientific evidence at this point. Environment has its effect, but there is definitely something congenital/chemical/physiological in how brains process things. I have quite a few friends who breed a variety of animals, and they strongly favor their heredity in terms of whether they will be docile or nervous and how they respond to things. (The fact that domestic subspecies exist at all is pretty strong evidence of this. Dogs are completely different than their wild ancestors, for example.) Humans have capacity for deeper logic in controlling behavior, but our emotional responses are deeply ingrained. Some people may feel great anxiety or rage, for example, but have taught themselves to ignore or manage it.

Tantz_Aerine at 11:01AM, March 13, 2021

Thank you Kawaii!

kawaiidaigakusei at 2:45AM, March 13, 2021

Amazing writing, and article, Tantz. :)

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