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
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
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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