Your unique and inherent personality affects everything you do—including writing. Most of us are going to spend the rest of our lives learning how we tick and how best to apply our strengths and correct our weaknesses. This is just as true of writing as it is of familial relationships or workplace effectiveness.
The first step in learning how to maximize your personality’s pros and minimize its cons is to figure out your basic personality type. I’m a fan of the ancient “four temperaments” approach (popularized by Tim LaHaye, among others), in which human personalities are narrowed down into four basic categories: choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic. Today, we’re going to take a quick look at all four personalities to help you identify into which category you predominantly fall* and how to make the most of it as a writer.
I’ve asked three other writers to help out by describing their experiences with maximizing their personality’s potential in their
writing. I’ll sound off first:
The Choleric Writer: K.M. Weiland
Cholerics don’t do much of anything halfway. They thunder through life at top speed, which presents both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. They’re determined, aggressive, and productive. They’re “good enough” people. Perfectionism doesn’t cripple them, but that can mean they don’t always complete jobs as well as they should. They can also be disorganized, impatient, and overbearing.
What strengths does being a choleric bring to your writing?
As a choleric, I have a good work ethic and the ability to focus and grit my way through difficult tasks. If I want to get something done, I get it done. I’m more organized than some cholerics, which helps me streamline my productivity. I’m good at breaking projects down to manageable chunks, chewing through them without letting perfectionism hold me back, and then moving on to the next thing.
What weaknesses does being a choleric inflict on your writing?
Moving at such a fast and furious pace all the time can sometimes lead to burnout. For better or worse, I usually just end up blowing right on through that as well. But I am learning to pace myself on certain projects to let my brain and body rest and regenerate. I actually have quite a few melancholic traits, which gives me an attention to detail that often makes up for my lack of perfectionism. But, even still, sometimes my “good enough” attitude can let projects slip out into the public before I’ve double-checked important aspects. Really, I find that the greatest pitfall of a choleric personality in a writer is the tendency to put productivity and deadlines before relationships. I have to work to keep my priorities straight.
The Melancholic Writer: London Crockett
(London is a YA fantasy author, living in Chicago.)
Melancholics are arguably the most talented of all the personalities. They often have a natural bent toward artistic expression, including writing. They’re detail-oriented, patient, and idealistic. But in spite of all their talent, they’re often prone to feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. Their perfectionism and mood swings can cause them to feel they never measure up, which can, in turn, keep them from completing projects.
What strengths does being a melancholic bring to your writing?
For non-fiction writing, a need for precision is a huge virtue. For example, I’m compelled to note that I can’t necessarily extract the melancholy nature from my personality at large. Art—whether fiction, non-fiction, or something else—is born from labor as much as inspiration. Being energized by artistic expression makes the labor rewarding, and patience allows me to stay dedicated to big projects for years. I don’t normally think of myself as detail-oriented (I care about idealistic abstracts more than details), but in practice, the pursuit of the ideal means that I sweat the details.
What weaknesses does being a melancholic inflict on your writing?
It took a long time to have a consistent faith in my writing. Even now that I have a persistent confidence, I struggle with getting stuck and avoiding writing. Managing the tendency to be derailed by doubt requires forcing yourself to write badly and skip over things that aren’t working. Remember that when writing “bird by bird” (per the wonderful Anne Lamott), you don’t have to craft each bird in order. If the chickadee isn’t taking flight, skip to the crow. One warning that is commonly given to sensitive perfectionists (melancholics) is to start small: walk around the block before you plan a marathon. However, I think that’s unrealistic for idealists. If you’re inclined to dream big, go for it, but build in rewards to ensure your patience carries you past your self-doubt.
The Sanguine Writer: Linda Yezak
(Linda is the author of the romantic comedy Give the Lady a Ride, an editor for Port Yonder Press, and *drumroll please* my longtime critique partner.)
Sanguines are the bubbly extroverts who bring life to any party. They’re fun and funny, sociable and charismatic. These folks know how to tell a good story—with all the dramatic flourishes. They’re often compassionate and emotional (in both the good and the bad senses of the word). However, they can also be unorganized and undependable, which can lead to difficulties in creating consistent writing schedules and finishing stories.
What strengths does being a sanguine bring to your writing?
Just like the definition says, I know how to tell a story, with all the dramatic flourishes. Rhythm and timing seem to come naturally to me. Knowing the pause beat before the punch line, knowing tone development, knowing when, on a dark and stormy night, to flash the light under my chin and yell boo! are all intuitive. Charisma often flares upon the page, and its immediacy draws readers in every time. My opening pages always promise a good time … which leads me to my weaknesses.
What weaknesses does being a sanguine inflict on your writing?
I really can start a novel with a bang, but unless someone’s constantly riding me, unless someone’s expecting to see that next chapter, I may take a year or two to finish my first draft. I’ll get the first two chapters written, then put it off. When it comes to my own work, I need to be pushed and, though I hate to admit it, I need strong, praise-filled encouragement to keep me going. I get discouraged very easily. I can take the criticism (after engaging in melodramatic episodes of self-pity), but I feed off praise like a vampire on a juicy vein. The “undependable” part of the definition applies only to my own work. For my clients and others, I have no problem whatsoever. But I’d hate for anyone to see how many incomplete projects I have—and not just writing!
The Phlegmatic Writer: Johne Cook
(Johne edits the speculative e-mag Ray Gun Revival and has contributed to the Space Battlesanthology edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt.)
Phlegmatics are the Steady Eddies. They’re not easily ruffled, which means they get to avoid many of the high and low mood swings the other personality types can be prone to. They’re dependable, thoughtful, and pragmatic. But they can also struggle to find motivation and energy to start—and then finish—projects.
What strengths does being a phlegmatic bring to your writing?
I am calm, friendly, easy-going, and balanced. I see the best in people and work well with difficult people—this works to my advantage working with editors and as an editor working with writers with delicate sensibilities. I adapt easily to changes, which helps me pick up new genres, applications, contact people, and technologies. I’m a pretty good listener. This helps me see sides of people others may not see and represent a person’s complexity in my writing. I have a talent for bringing people together in real life, and also in my writing. I like the energy and synergy of throwing apparently disparate people together, and I especially value stories where that happens. I am not usually the leader, but am a fierce follower. I am immune to what the cool kids are doing, but when I find something good or noble or undervalued, I am good right-hand man.
What weaknesses does being a phlegmatic inflict on your writing?
Despite my apparent friendly exterior, it can be difficult to really get inside my head and know my true person—I have subtle armor. As a result, my writing can also come across as genial but shallow. It takes effort to really dive deep and open my soul. I like it when everyone gets along and has a good time. Therefore, I wrestle with allowing my characters to feel pain and conflict. As a steady, even-keeled person, I have middling energy to begin with. When I am bounced with an idea or a turn of phrase, if I don’t capture that insight the moment I think about it, there’s a decent chance I’ll never do it at all. This means I’ve learned to have mechanisms to deal with that spur-of-the-moment epiphany; I use online tools like Evernote and Dropbox to capture ideas from anywhere. I can be indecisive, have a tendency to procrastinate, and can be difficult to motivate. If not careful, I tend to play it safe (when I
rouse myself to participate at all). I wrestle with the fact that my goals may be lower than they ought to be.
So there you have it—a quick primer on basic writer personalities. Once you’ve identified your primary personality traits and figured out your strengths and weaknesses, you can move forward with a plan of action to help you take advantage of your good points and overcome your weaknesses—in life as well as writing!
*Most people manifest one personality type as their primary and another—possibly even two others—as secondary types. No one fits perfectly into the box of any one type.
Tell me your opinion: What do you feel are your personality’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to writing?
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1: The Four Temperaments
Through most of human history, it has been assumed (correctly, I sincerely believe) that people come in four basic personality types, or "temperaments". This was noted by the great Greek physician Hippocrates as long ago as 400BC (2400 years ago!). Hippocrates named the four temperaments "Melancholic, "Sanguine", "Choleric", and "Phlegmatic" (after various human body fluids which he believed influenced personality). Today we call these four temperaments "Guardian", "Artisan", "Idealist", and "Rationalist".
While Hippocrates' body-fluids theory turned out to be a dead end, his observations about human temperament were very accurate indeed. You can see this all around you, in everyone you meet. Some people are fact-oriented (they're "Guardians"). Some people are action-oriented (they're "Artisans"). Some people are ideals-oriented (they're "Idealists"). Some people are theory-oriented (they're "Rationalists"). True, there are some people, especially older people, whose personalities tend to bridge the gap between two or more temperaments; but the vast majority of people do tend to have one particular temperament.
Over the years, several different naming schemes have been proposed for the four temperaments. At least four such schemes are in common use today.
In 1958, psychologist Isabel Myers and her mother Katheryn Briggs wrote a landmark paper titled "Myers-Briggs Type Indicator" (MBTI for short). In this paper, they gave the four temperaments the names SJ, SP, NF, and NT. (There is much more on Myers and Briggs later in this essay.)
Then a few years later, David Keirsey published his best-selling book "Please Understand Me", in which he gave the four temperaments yet another set of names, by attaching a patron Greek God to each temperament: Epimethean, Dionysian, Apollonian, Promethean.
Personally, I prefer the names "Guardian", "Artisan", "Idealist", and "Rationalist" for the four temperaments, because they are clearly descriptive. But the other three name schemes are also in common use. To sum up, and avoid confusion, the following table shows the various systems for naming the four temperaments:
|The Four Temperaments|
2: Carl Jung
In 1921, Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung published his book Psychological Types. In this book, Jung proposed, based on the evidence of his years of working closely with hundreds of psychiatric patients, that people come in eight different psychological "flavors", depending on which of four mental "functions" they preferred using the most, and on whether they were "introverted" (preferring the inner, subjective world of thoughts, ideas, and emotions) or "extraverted" (preferring the outer, objective world of things, people, and actions).
Jung's four functions include two "perceptive" functions and two "judgmental" functions.
The perceptive functions are ways of perceiving, or taking in information. The two ways people do this are called "sensing" and "intuition". Sensing means using data (either real-time or remembered) from our five senses as our main source of information. Intuition means paying more attention to our inner voice and its ability to recognize patterns, than to our sensory impressions.
The judgmental functions are ways of judging, or making decisions based on the data we take into our conscious minds from our perceptive functions. Jung called our two ways of judging "thinking" and "feeling". By thinking, Jung meant making decisions based on deductive logic. By feeling, he meant making decisions based on emotions.
Of course, it is also common to make decisions based on things other than thinking or feeling. We may eat ice cream because it tastes good (a "sensing" decision), or we may add a second wing to a house we're designing because it completes the pattern (an "intuitive" decision). Jung called these non-judgmental decision-making techniques "irrational". (By "irrational", Jung meant only perceptive as opposed to judgmental; the word should not be construed as meaning "illogical" or "inferior".)
Jung proposed that people chose one of these four functions as their "primary" function, and used that function either introvertedly or extravertedly. Hence in Jung's system there are eight basic personality types:
- Introverted Thinker
- Introverted Feeler
- Introverted Sensor
- Introverted Intuitor
- Extraverted Thinker
- Extraverted Feeler
- Extraverted Sensor
- Extraverted Intuitor
You may ask, then, which of these eight types correspond to which of Hippocrates' four "temperaments"? Well, a little bit of thought and observation will show you that the Sensing types correspond to the Guardians and Artisans, and the Intuiting types correspond to the Idealists and Rationalists. But beyond that, the correspondence is murky. It was another forty-seven years before Myers and Briggs finally made the connection clear.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, the science of human personality types fell into disrepute as other psychological ideas took its place. Most importantly, Behaviorism became popular. Pavlov and Skinner presented their theories that peoples behavior was all purely dependent on their individual life experience, and that the proper role and function of psychology was to induce people to adhere to "proper", "normal" behavior patterns by conditioning them with rewards and punishments.
Even today, after many studies have shown that behaviorism is a concept that simply does not work, modern introductory college psychology textbooks steadfastly continue to teach Pavlov's and Skinner's obsolete ideas to young students, while ignoring much more useful branches of psychology, such as personality typology.
I certainly hope that in the twenty-first century the psychology industry will advance to the point where personality-type models (and especially MBTI) are taught in high-school and college psychology courses as being the valid and useful things which they are.
4: Myers and Briggs
In 1958, Isabel Myers and her mother Katheryn Briggs wrote a paper titled Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI for short), in which they proposed that there are actually sixteen different human personality types.
Ms. Myers had been reading various obscure psychology textbooks when she stumbled across Psychological Types. Being intelligent and perceptive, she immediately realized that here was a masterpiece of psychological thought, written by one of the greatest geniuses in human history. She read the book cover to cover, and thought long about how to expand Jung's ideas into a complete model of human personality.
Ms. Myers came to realize three things:
- That everyone chooses not only a first-choice or "Primary" function, but also a second-choice or "auxiliary" function.
- That if the primary function is judgmental, then the auxiliary function will be perceptive, and vice versa.
- That if the primary function is introverted, then the auxiliary function will be extraverted, and vice versa.
In this system, then, a person has 2 choices for orientation, introvert (I) or extravert (E); two choices for method of information intake, sensing (S) or intuition (N); two choices for method of judgment, thinking (T) or feeling (F); and two choices as to which function is used in the outer world, judgment (J) or perception (P). Hence there are 2x2x2x2=16 different MBTI personality types, as shown in this chart:
Tests were created to help determine which of the sixteen types the test taker was, and after a time, when many people had taken these MBTI tests, personality "profiles" (correspondences between MBTI type and the personalities of individual people) emerged. When one examines these profiles and compares them with the "temperaments" of Hippocrates, a clear correspondence emerges:
- SJ = Guardians
- SP = Artisans
- NF = Idealists
- NT = Rationalists
When I was first introduced to MBTI a few months ago, I found it to be the most true and useful psychological theory I had ever heard of. It was like a breath of fresh air after reading the antiquated (and often obsolete or just plain false) concepts that are in most psychology books. This one theory explains most of the things that have happened in my life, and also explains behavior patterns in my friends and acquaintances which, until MBTI, I found totally inexplicable. It turns out that usually people's seemingly-inexplicable behavior is really just them being their own inborn personality type.
A few years after Myers and Briggs published MBTI, David Keirsey wrote his excellent book Please Understand Me. (The second edition, Please Understand Me II, is now available at bookstores and libraries everywhere.) To quote from page one of that book:
If I do not want what you want, please try not to tell me that my want is wrong.
Or if I believe other than you, at least pause before you correct my view.
Or if my emotion is less than yours, or more, given the same circumstances, try not to ask me to feel more strongly or weakly.
Or yet if I act, or fail to act, in the manner of your design for action, let me be.
I do not, for the moment at least, ask you to understand me. That will come only when you are willing to give up changing me into a copy of you.
I may be your spouse, your parent, your offspring, your friend, or your colleague. If you will allow me any of my own wants, or emotions, or beliefs, or actions, then you open yourself, so that some day these ways of mine might not seem so wrong, and might finally appear to you as right -- for me. To put up with me is the first step to understanding me. Not that you embrace my ways as right for you, but that you are no longer irritated or disappointed with me for my seeming waywardness. And in understanding me you might come to prize my differences from you, and, far from seeking to change me, preserve and even nurture those differences.
This does an excellent job of summing up why personality typology, and MBTI in particular, is so important to me. I believe that MBTI is the best and most useful tool in psychology today. It encourages people to see each other's differences and respect them and cherish them. It points out the foolishness of trying to force someone else to become a copy of one's self. It explains many of the tensions and disagreements in this world, and gives useful tools for building teams instead of making enemies. It brings people together in a way that no other psychological theory has ever done. This is the legacy of MBTI.
5: Other Personality Type Theories
Several other personality typing systems have cropped up over the years. I don't know anything about most of them. One that I do have some experience with is the Enneagram.
The Enneagram is a very different system from MBTI. Instead of measuring function preferences, Enneagram measures motivations, coping strategies, and defense mechanisms. There are nine basic types, but many people have a second or "wing" type in addition to their main type. I'm a 5w4, which is a 5 (Thinker) with a 4 (Tragic-Romantic) wing. For more information on Enneagram, search your local library or a web search engine.
6: For Further Reading
This brief essay can only scratch the surface of personality typology, of course. But I hope I have whetted your appetite for information! I strongly suggest the following books and web sites for further reading:
- Carl Jung: Psychological Types
- Isabel Myers: Gifts Differing
- David Keirsey: Please Understand Me II