Posts Tagged Four Humors

Four Humors in The Avengers

I’m working on my next Ace Double review, so it’s going to be a longer post that requires extra time.  So a quick post today.  Finally saw the Avengers, and what I suspected before I went to the movie was confirmed by the movie itself.  There are four superheros, there are four humors, and they map quite well.

  1. Choleric.  The natural leader.  Captain America.  His own movie was subtitled “The First Avenger,” and he’s the one giving orders when the group is actually working together.
  2. Phlegmatic.  The emotional follower.  Bruce Banner.  It’s hard to assign a personality to the Hulk, but Banner is chock-a-block with personality quirks.  Which is why everyone is raving over the portrayal of the character.
  3. Melancholic.  The introvert.  Thor.  The natural outsider, being the only of the four not from Earth, he’s accustomed to being self reliant and independent.
  4. Sanguine.  The fun one.  Iron Man.  He’s the easiest of the four to pin down, he’s the charismatic one.  The billionaire, playboy, genius, philanthropist.  Those are all sides of the sanguine personality.

It’s interesting, I’ve seen comparisons of the movie to Lord of the Rings, and there is the same fellowship of nine characters.  The listed four, plus the SHIELD characters: Hawkeye, Black Widow, Nick Fury, Phil Coulson, and Maria Hill.  In this analogy, I supposed the superheroes would be the four hobbits, most of the SHIELD characters would be the other members of the Fellowship, and Nick Fury would be Gandalf, the overarching Choleric who brings them all together.  I’m sure someone much more versed in film deconstruction could really pull this apart in-depth, but I’ve got my other post to focus on.

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A Writer Reviews: Lord of the Rings (pt2)

The Two Cholerics

Last time on A Writer Reviews I talked about the four temperaments, then pigeonholed the 10 main characters of Lord of the Rings (the Fellowship plus Gollum) into these categories:

  • Choleric (leaders): Aragorn, Merry
  • Phlegmatic (followers): Samwise, Legolas
  • Melancholic (loaners): Gandalf, Boromir, Frodo
  • Sanguine (wild-cards): Pippin, Gollum, Gimli

This time we’re going to look at the distinctions made between characters who share a broad temperament but are still quite different, and for this we’re going to look at the two bile-based temperaments, the yellow bile Cholerics and the black bile Melancholics.

We’re getting down to archetypes here.  When we’ve got just four broad categories to fit characters into, a wide diversity is going to end up in each of these pigeon holes.  Archetypes are fine, they’re wonderful, they’re absolutely fantastic.  They exist for a reason, and readers respond to them.  However, a character needs to be more than just the sum of their archetypes, and as writers we need to keep in mind how characters of both similar and dissimilar archetypes will react to each other.  This is the essential ingredient in creating both friendships and conflicts within a story.

Let’s start with our two Cholerics.  I made the obvious pick of Aragorn and the somewhat less obvious pick of Merry when picking who the Choleric characters are within the story.  Merry isn’t given many opportunities to actually lead, but remember I’ve only called the Choleric a “leader” as a short hand.  It’s more about drive, passion, and the ability to make those quick decisions on the fly.  Yesterday I cited the example of Merry making the call for the hobbits to escape the Nazgul via the ferry, but he also takes a clear leadership role when we’re down to just he and Pippin in Orcish captivity and in Fangorn forest.  His is an interesting leadership, as he’s the one willing to take the reins when no one else is, but he’s fully willing to defer to another when presented with an option.  Put Aragorn into the formula, and he allows Pippin’s Sanguine nature to rub off on him.  This is important.  Anytime that a story has more than one natural leader in it, there will either need to be that moment of deferral or that moment of confrontation.  There is a very short confrontation when the hobbits first meet Aragorn, and the real moment of deferral happens the morning after Bree when Merry pulls Pipping along when it’s clear Aragorn is not going to stop for every hobbit meal.

In a sense, we’ve got a natural leader, and a reluctant leader.  Both are Choleric, but one never strays while the other is more than happy to experiment with being a Sanguine when the moment is opportune to do so.

Among our Melancholic types, we see a broader range of characters.  We have an energetic Melancholic, able to lead men while still fitting many of the paradigms, in Galdalf.  We have a Melancholic whose thoughtful introversion scales all the way to scheming in Boromir.  And we’ve got our miserable Melancholic who can hardly bear the burden placed on his life in Frodo.  We see two of the three overcome their base natures.  Boromir ultimately backs off when given the opportunity to snatch the ring.  Gandalf acts as the military leader at the battle of Minis Tirith.  Frodo never really does.  Even after his burden is lifted, he lives alone, and joins the elves, leaving Middle Earth.  Which is fine.  Having a character overcome their Melancholic nature can be a fantastic plot device for a story, but it isn’t a necessary one.

The problem comes with just how heavily to play the Melancholic.  This is where we get into my issues with the movie.  Two of our Melancholics are given bigger personalities.  Gandalf is the great wizard, older than the ages, plyer of magic and in many ways the architect of everything that happens in the story.  Boromir is scheming to get the ring away from Frodo.  Frodo is…depressed.  With the exception of the scene right after he’s released by Faramir he spends the entire time from the beginning of the second movie through the destruction of the Ring in a deep blue funk about how miserable he is with the path he’s been forced to take.  This.  Gets.  Tedious.  A character cannot be defined solely by his temperament, but needs some other depth or trait, especially a character nearly so introspective as a Melancholic.

So we have our temperaments, but we’ve got our layers on top of them.  We have two leaders, but one is a destined king of men while another is a hobbit who only takes the lead when no one else is going to.  We have our loaners, but one is willing to lead men, one is a schemer, and one is our overly introspective lead.

However, people change.  Characters are dynamic.  And a character who may start in one pigeonhole may end up in another.  Which is what I’ll look at tomorrow with The Return of the Sanguine.

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A Writer Reviews: Lord of the Rings (pt1)

Part One: The Fellowship of the Humors

I’d like to retread ground I’ve walked on before.  Nearly a year ago I talked briefly about using the four humors when putting together a quarter of character within a narrative structure, using a Cracked After Hours video as a basis.  At the time the concept was a new one to me, but I’ve been looking at it more and more in the months since, especially after discovering that my wife and I had accidentally created four point of view characters for our current novel that map perfectly to the four humors.

Let’s do a quick recap of the four humors, or four temperaments, for those who not aware of them.  It all started with out of date notions of psychology, explanations of human behavior in terms of the balance and imbalance of the four primary bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.  This gave rise to four primary temperaments based on which of these essential humors was most in control of a given person.  Blood was sanguine, phlegm was phlegmatic, yellow bile was choleric, and black bile was melancholic.  While our understanding of bodily organs and our various internal fluids has evolved (at the time, blood was associated with the liver) and humorism no longer holds sway in psychology or medicine, the concept of the four temperaments has held on within fiction.  It’s the basis of an immediately recognizable quartet of individuals.

The sanguine individual tends to be an impulsive pleasure seeker who, in an extreme, might even be hedonistic.  We actually have a phrase in English that dates to this old four humors explanation of temperament, “hot blooded.”  The choleric individual tends to be ambitious and will take charge of a group and be its leader.  The melancholic individual tends to be a loaner, a perfectionist, and may even be a fatalist when taken to the extreme.  The phlegmatic individual is accepting, loving, and often a willing follower.

To oversimplify it within team dynamics, we have the choleric leader, the phlegmatic side kick, the melancholic outcast, and the sanguine comic relief.  This is a vast over simplification.  For one, the phlegmatic may not always be the choleric’s side kick, and the sanguine can be tragic as often as comic.  However, these simplified designations are helpful when considering just what role the four have within a group, and how it creates the classic group dynamic we’re accustomed to.  It’s one we even see starting in childhood.  Within the Scooby Doo stories, Fred is choleric, Daphne is phlegmatic, Velma is melancholic, and both Shaggy and Scooby (who are basically one character anyway) are sanguine.

This is a fantastic construct because it creates characters with natural in-built conflicts, and characters that viewers will be able to map themselves on to based on their own tendencies.

Let’s look at the Lord of the Rings.  This is a rather more complex series of groups that are constantly breaking apart and reforming.  At points there are just two characters together, at points there are as many as nine between the formation of the Fellowship and Gandalf falling in Moria.  But I’m going to break it down into two groups, based largely on the period between the fall of Gandalf and the breaking of the Fellowship.  They’re easy groups.  We’ve got the hobbits, and we’ve got the non-hobbits.  Among the non-hobbits we’ve got Aragorn as the clear choleric leader, Boromir as the dour melancholic who wants the ring for his own purposes, phlegmatic Legolas who makes only one active decision in the entire trilogy and serves otherwise as body-guard and ass kicker, and sanguine Gimli, turned into classic comic relief for the purposes of the movies.

The hobbits are a little more difficult.  It’s easy to consider Frodo the leader as he’s our protagonist through the movie (well, Sam actually is, but that’s another discussion), but he’s almost a textbook example of the melancholic, both within the temperamental definition, and the more modern idea of melancholy.  He’s the one who breaks the Fellowship by setting out on his own, and spends most of three movies bemoaning how unfair the world is.  Sam is the easy one to peg, he’s the phlegmatic follower.  At no point does he ever do anything but.  This even leads to my biggest disappointment in the movies, the moment when Sam briefly hesitates in giving the Ring back to Frodo.  In the book there’s no hesitation, as his devotion to Frodo is stronger than anything, even the allure of the Ring.  That leaves Merry and Pippin, who are so often “Merry and Pippin” that it’s easy to overlook them as their own characters, but that’s unfair.  Merry, even though he’s on the adventure to help Frodo, is actually the choleric, which doesn’t have to be synonymous with leader.  But he does take the lead at several key point, especially when the hobbits are fleeing toward the ferry.  Pippin is the sanguine, though he actually goes through more evolution than any other character.  At the beginning, he’s the one complaining that Aragorn isn’t aware of second breakfast, brunch, tea, lunch, or any of the other hobbit meals.  This rash nature ultimately gets him in trouble when he just has to look into the Palantir.  This also becomes the defining moment for his character arc, but that’s another topic.

There’s two wild cards: Gollum and Gandalf.  Gollum is easy, he’s a hot-blooded, single-minded sanguine, through and through (ignoring the split personality).  Gandalf is harder.  It’s easy to say, as with Frodo, that he must be choleric because he’s a leader.  But he’s also the one character who is the most at ease on his own within the story.  Thus, I would actually peg him as a melancholic, as he’s a loan wolf often concerned with the larger fate of the world.

That means within the story we get the following groups:

  • Full set of each (the Hobbits leaving the Shire)
  • 3 Melancholics, 2 Sanguines, 2 Cholerics, and 2 Phlegmatics (the Fellowship)
  • Melancholic, Sanguine, Phlegmatic (Frodo and Sam heading to Mordor, and led by Gollum)
  • Choleric and Sanguine (Merry and Pippin, luring the Ents to war)
  • Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Choleric (The remains of the Fellowship, trying to save Merry and Pippin, and getting into every major battle)
  • Full quartet (Gandalf rejoining the above group in Fangorn)
  • Melancholic and Sanguine (Gandalf and Pippin setting off with the Palantir)

These personalities lead entirely to the dynamic within each group.  It makes the trudge of Sam and Frodo rather tedious, as there’s no leadership qualities in any of the characters, so the Melancholic is bemoaning his fate, the Phlegmatic is commiserating, and the Sanguine is plotting his take down of the other two.  It makes the adventures of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli throwaway fun, as there’s nothing to really ground the group, which is why their adventures of body counting can transcend to the frankly silly.  Merry and Pippin?  Ah, that’s a little more complicated, and something I’ll talk about on Wednesday.

Now that we’ve pigeonholed everyone into four categories, and I’m already well over 1000 words, I’m going to turn this post into its own three part epic.  Tomorrow I’m going to look at how different characters within each of the four temperaments can be from one another.

Part Two: The Two Cholerics (Coming tomorrow)

Part Three: The Return of the Sanguine (Coming Wednesday)

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Building a Team

I continue to find writing lessons in the oddest places.  Last time it was as part of a discussion for how to make better video games, now it comes from a YouTube channel that I have posted from before: Cracked After Hours.  The discussion is about the Ninja Turtles and how they relate to Sex and the City, but the context is about the four humors and how they define characters.  Alright, I’ll stop gabbing, take a look:

A lot of literature is about the lone wolf. The guy who comes in and solves problems on his own. However, there’s also a lot of fiction out there about the team, the ragtag group that has to pull together, work together even though their personalities clash. Why do the clash?  Archetypes.

Archetypes are the bedrock for characters, whether the character embodies an archetype or fights against it.  If you’ve got a team of characters, they aren’t going to be interesting if they’re all the same archetype, because at that point they might as well all be the same character.  But if you set them up with contrasting archetypes, give them that challenge to overcome, then they become a dynamic group and can be more interesting than they each would be as individuals.

And in the end that should be the goal of any group with a work of fiction: they as a whole need to be more interesting than the sum of their character traits.  And the reason you see so many groups of four in story telling is it lets the four humors come out and create base characters people can relate to.  In the end you can only hope when you create a team people will be creating personality polls about which member they are.  Just like trying to figure out which Ninja Turtle or Sex and the City character they are.

Oh, and if the answer for anyone is “the girl, because I’m always the girl” then your team still needs tweaking.  Just a little bonus thought.

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