Sometimes, you just can’t figure a character out.
Sometimes, most of your ensemble cast assert themselves in your head very clearly, and then there’s that one character who you can’t get close to.
Sometimes, your characters’ roles in the story are clear, their places in the world are obvious, and still their personalities escape you.
Today’s post is for those times. These are three quick, interesting ways to define characters for any work, regardless of genre. They can also help create groups of characters with diverse personalities, which naturally complement and conflict with one another. These archetypes can be applied to characters of any age, gender, race, species, vocation, time period, moral alignment or physical attributes, which is why I find them so useful.
I’ve arranged them from simplest to most complex.
1. Yin and yang
This dynamic is great for establishing contrast between two lead characters. You probably know that it’s based on the Chinese philosophy of dark and light: opposing dualities that are connected and interdependent. Though they are opposites, each can’t exist without the other and they balance, rather than conflict with one another.
‘Yin’ means ‘dark’ or ‘shaded; sheltered’. It’s associated with night-time, rest, death, quiet, coolness and winter, among other things. A yin character is likely to be introverted, cautious, empathetic, stoic and/or quiet. Their faults may include shyness, anxiety, aloofness or cynicism. Yin is often associated with femininity, but the character needn’t necessarily be female.
‘Yang’ means ‘bright’ or ‘sunny’. It’s associated with day, activity, life, noise, heat, summer and so on. A yang character is likely to be extroverted, passionate, impulsive, expressive and loud. Their faults may include a quick temper, recklessness, clinginess or idealism. Yang is ‘masculine’, but the character needn’t be male.
Angel is the yin – analytical, quiet, introverted, disciplined. Danny is the yang – naive, boisterous, chatty and emotional.
- It’s important that characters with a yin-yang dynamic have a little bit of their opposite in them, too.
- Although yin is often associated with passivity, this doesn’t make for a great character trait, especially where it concerns a couple. Mix it up; create situations where the yin character is more active.
- Avoid assuming that yang is inherently good or strong and that yin is inherently evil or weak. An evil yin might manifest as cold, subtle and calculating. But an evil yang would be angry, direct and brutal, which can be equally effective.
2. The Freudian trio
Freud had some pretty crazy ideas, but the concept of the id, ego and superego can still be useful for creating characters.
The id represents the impulsive, instinctual, emotional side of a person’s psyche. It’s often considered to be the most selfish and immature part of them. A character who represents the id of their group, then, will be typically driven by their emotions and impulses. If we consider a group as a single body, the id character might be called the ‘guts’ of the trio.
The superego represents the careful, moral, logical side of a person’s psyche. When the id wants something, the superego holds them back. A superego character will be the ‘brains’ of the trio – the rational, intellectual one. They may be the coldest or most uptight, but not necessarily.
The ego is the part of a person’s psyche that responds to both the superego and the id, finding a balance between them. A character who represents the ego will typically mediate between their two counterparts, sometimes leaning more to one side than the other. For this reason, ego characters are usually the leader of their group, and/or the protagonist. Halfway between the rational ‘brains’ and the instinctive ‘guts’, this character is the ‘heart’ of the trio.
Michelle Paver’s superb Stone Age fantasy series, Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, features a trio that embodies this principle pretty clearly. The id character is Wolf, who is a wolf. He often runs off to chase lemmings when there are more important things to do, and when he’s scared or angry, it’s difficult to calm him down. The superego of the trio is Renn, a girl raised in the large Raven clan. She’s a superb archer, the most rational and human of the group. Like most superegos, she’s the smartest, but unlike them, she’s also the most socially adept. The ego character – and the protagonist – is Torak, a boy raised by his father alone, who can enter the minds of animals. He understands the wilderness better than Renn can, but is prone to acting rashly. He’s also the bravest of the group, able to put aside both instinctive fear and sensible caution to get things done.
- Give these characters a good reason to stick together. If the id character and superego foil are bickering all the time, what’s to stop the ego character bailing on them?
- There can be many manifestations of each of these characters. You can have an innocent, sweet id (Wolf, in the example above, is the most innocent and least cruel, since he’s basically a dog). You can have a superego whose temper is a torturous slow burn. While the ego is usually the leader, they don’t have to be.
3. The four temperaments
This one comes from an Ancient Greek theory of medicine. It was thought that the body’s equilibrium is dependent on four fluids, or ‘humours’: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Temporary imbalances in these humours were thought to be the cause of illnesses (hence treatments such as leeching – by removing an ‘excess’ of blood, the humours would become balanced again). But a permanent imbalance would affect a person’s temperament. A person most influenced by the blood was said to be sanguine; by yellow bile, choleric; by black bile, melancholic; and by phlegm, phlegmatic. The humours as a principle of medicine and psychology stuck around in Europe for nigh on two thousand years.
Scientifically, of course, it’s all phooey, but it’s still a pretty great way to develop an ensemble cast.
The sanguine character is usually the most charming, optimistic and fun. She’s friendly, gregarious, confident, adventurous and playful. However, she’s also likely to be gullible, disorganised, frivolous or self-absorbed. She’ll often clash with the melancholic, unable to understand why he won’t cheer up and let loose.
This character is hard-working, determined and passionate. He’s likely to be honest, independent, iron-willed, task-oriented and a good leader. However, he may also have a bad temper, a mean streak, a vicious sense of humour and/or an inability to handle failure well. He’ll typically clash with the phlegmatic character, frustrated by what he sees as her laziness or indecision.
Despite the association with ‘melancholy’, the melancholic character isn’t necessarily a downer. Yes, he may be insecure, shy, perfectionistic or paranoid, but he’s likely to be the most empathetic and thoughtful character. He’s also organised, polite, ethical, selfless and practical. He might find sanguine characters exhausting and childish.
The phlegmatic member of the ensemble is typically calm, perceptive and easy-going. Her strengths include dependability, wit, elegance, emotional availability and an excellent poker-face. On the other hand, she’s often indifferent, stubborn about certain things, easily embarrassed or prone to teasing others, particularly the choleric character, whom she’ll likely see as a highly-strung control freak.
Probably the most overt example you’ll ever find of these character types! I love this movie and I really admire how, even though each character seems to embody only a single trait at first glance, they actually have rounded strengths and weaknesses. Joy is a typical sanguine – upbeat and optimistic, but unable to sympathise. Anger is choleric: determined and a good planner, but with a cruel sense of humour and a hair-trigger temper. Disgust isn’t a perfect fit for the phlegmatic type, as she’s not kind or gentle, but her level-headedness, grace and air of nonchalance are pretty close to the mark for this archetype. Fear and Sadness are both melancholic, which is kind of unusual in a five-character ensemble. Fear is the anxious but organised variety, while Sadness is gloomy at her worst but also sweet and compassionate.
- Sometimes characters can surprise us. You can have a melancholic with a choleric leaning (*cough* me *cough*) or a sanguine with some of the weaknesses of a phlegmatic, or any number of other combinations.
- Nobody can be one thing all the time. The phlegmatic ought to be passionate about something. The sanguine may not be able to put on a happy face in all situations.
- Each variation can be likeable for different reasons. If you’re always tempted to write phlegmatic heroes, try choleric instead. If you’re not sure how to complete a sanguine character’s arc, focus on their weaknesses.
That wraps it up for this week, folks! If you found this post useful, let me know in the comments!