Tuesday, February 13, 2018

How does a writer juggle a cast of multiples?

Breathes there the writer so dead, who never to herself has said, “how the heck am I going to keep all the characters in my novel straight?” Having witnessed more than one horrific manuscript which opened with multiple pages of character names and descriptions, I sought refuge in the class at the LoneStar.Ink writing conference entitled, “The Four Element Ensemble.” 

I expected something dry, only to find my notions both all wet and full of hot air, and left on fire with the simple, albeit distinctly medieval-sounding concept taught by Donald J. Corey, aka Don Corey.
Corey, mild-mannered software engineer by day, writer by night – or at least, during his lunch hours – combines elements of ancient Greek wisdom and alchemy for a simple but powerful solution to character differentiation.
image: pixabay
What’s everything in the universe composed of, the Greeks asked? Four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. What are human bodies composed of? Four humors: phlegm, blood, black bile and yellow bile. What human temperaments correspond to excesses of these humors: the phlegmatic, the sanguine, the melancholic, and the choleric.
But, this is the 21st century. What do these ancient (and now, the writer fears, sadly outdated) concepts have to do with assembling an ensemble cast of fictional characters?
Simple, Corey said, passing around a color quick reference guide aligning elements, humors, and personality types, with lists of corresponding personality traits. If I hadn’t already known Corey wrote computer programs, that fact would have been apparent from his handy quick reference guide. Although he’s definitely a programmer with a sense of humor, not to mention a grasp of popular American culture that puts me to shame.
There are so many websites with discussions of the body humor theory of personality that I won’t attempt to replicate everything Corey said.

Here’s the two-second version: phlegmatic personalities are “water” people, cool, calm, logical and introverted. Sanguine personalities are associated with air and blood – warm, life-giving, extroverted. Personalities who are melancholic (from the Greek word for “black”) are associated naturally with the humor black bile (although I’m not sure why bile has colors), and with the earth. They’re introverted and emotional, but potentially moody and unstable. Choleric personalities are fiery, extroverted, unstable, logical, but can be hot-tempered and rebellious.
Lest his audience doubt the wisdom of his designations, Corey took us through tours of popular movies, TV series, and cartoons. Is Homer Simpson choleric? Is his daughter Lisa melancholic? Is Bart sanguine? Marge phlegmatic? How about the characters of Star Trek, of the Godfather movies, The Golden Girls, the Fantastic Four?
We were astounded to realize that yes, we could identify the four elements/humors/personality traits in all of these. They were tropes: ways of conveying concepts to an audience without spelling out all the details. Which gave Corey an opening to broadcast what seems to be one of his favorite websites, TV Tropes, which has branched out into non-television forms of popular media as well.
The concept of tropes can feel cliched from overuse, which is a disadvantage of their familiarity. But used wisely, the very familiarity of tropes can be reassuring to readers. 
Wait a minute, someone cried, as the rest of us mulled the wisdom of Corey’s words. There are actually five major characters in some of these ensembles, noted the naysayer. What about the Simpson baby, Maggie?
Ah-ha, Corey said. Remember the four personality types corresponded to excesses of particular humors? What happens if all the humors are balanced? The result is an “eclectic”, healthy, balanced, “normal” person, frequently the group’s leader, but sometimes the outside observer. (Think Yoda in the Star Wars movies, observing the antics of Han, Leia, Luke and Chewbacca.)
OK, we said, but what if we have even more characters? How do we use the four-element rule then, we asked, attempting to disconcert our eclectic leader. 
No problem, Corey told us cheerily. The four-element ensemble can be multiplied as many times as needed. For proof, with a click, he brought up a slide of the cast of Friends. Eight people. Two of each personality type. How’s a viewer to tell them apart? By the differences in gender. Duh-oh.
Or further differentiate multiple members of a single element-personality type by age – as in the TV show Fuller House. One of each personality type in the kids, one of each in the adults. 
And over the course of a story, movie, TV series, the characters are not necessarily stuck with the same sets of personality traits. Want to develop a character arc for your four personality types? Move a phlegmatic, watery personality from her weaknesses of indifference and indecision to her corresponding strengths of calm and thoughtfulness. Or send your choleric, fiery personality, with his strengths of practicality and determination, into a tragic downward spiral via his characteristic weaknesses of stubbornness and insensitivity, Cory said.
Tropes. They’re not just for kids anymore.

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