I first heard this term in The Story Toolkit Podcast episode #31 where they demonstrate excellent polarisation from Out of Gas one of the best teleplays from the amazing dead-before-its-time series Firefly. Good writing polarises the cast allowing each character to react differently to a story event.
Let’s consider the iconic characters of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy from the original Star Trek television series.
Spock is the logical character. The man of the future, who is completely in his mind, and approaches all things rationally.
Bones McCoy is the emotionally sensitive humanized character. He leads with his heart and his Id. He will always tackle a problem from the caring point of view.
Jim Kirk is the balance between the two. He maintains equity between the Super-Ego and Id. His hunches or gut instinct guides his decisions. Sometimes choosing the smart choice, sometimes the morally right path, and sometimes compromising both options.
Karin Blair identifies in Meaning in Star Trek that all three characters together create a fully functioning human being.
But what if you have four main characters?
You could split up the three aspects of Mind, Heart and Guts by mixing and matching- Joe has Guts/Heart, Denise has Heart/Mind, Betty has Mind/Guts, and Bob is Guts/Mind etc… Or you could look for another model. Consider the Four Temperaments, expressed in the Teenage Ninja Turtles.
More details on the four temperaments can be found through this TV Tropes article, but basically:
Sanguine (blood): Extroverted, emotional, and people-oriented.
Strengths: Charming, cheerful, loves people, energetic, talkative, passionate and compassionate, positive, sometimes unpredictable, expressive influencer, an excellent comedian, salesman or clown, quirky or eccentric and just plain fun.
Weaknesses: Undisciplined, too talkative, emotionally unstable, hyperactive, scatterbrained, gullible, disorganized, late for work, and sometimes frivolous.
Choleric (yellow bile): Extroverted, emotional, and task-oriented.
Strengths: Takes the lead, hard worker, strong-willed, practical, passionate, a good repossession worker, an excellent strongman/woman of the team (drill sergeant at the most extreme), determined, goal-oriented and thrives under criticism.
Weaknesses: Hot-tempered, rude, rebellious, can be cruel, stubborn, harsh, bossy, expects complete devotion, insensitive, often condescending, can become psychotic in overbearing situations, workaholic, without compassion or conscience, can be a warmonger, vindictive, a shallow cynic of people’s character, most likely a bad winner/loser, and may nastily misinterpret jokes.
Melancholic (black bile): Introverted, emotional, and task-oriented.
Strengths: Detailed, conservative, analytical, organized, perfectionistic, faithful to a fault, discreet will of stone, elegant (in the more dignified ways), selfless, an excellent medic or lawyer.
Weaknesses: Rigid, too straight-laced, critical, bashful, pessimistic, moody, depressed, impractical (yes, both practical and impractical), has unrealistically high expectations, very paranoid
Phlegmatic (phlegm): Introverted, unemotional, and people-oriented.
Strengths: Calm, humble, an excellent assistant, spy or librarian, discreet, flexible will of steel (flexible steel), elegant (in the simpler ways), thoughtful, patient, modest, a real sweetheart, accommodating, steady-paced, sympathetic, perceptive, faith in morality (and leading by example), very compassionate, assuming innocent until proven guilty, a good listener, open-minded, considerate, and empathetic to all.
Weaknesses: Indifferent, submissive, lazy, slow, shy and passive, slacker, indecisive and too yielding.
The point of Polarising your characters is to make certain that you have effective conflict that’s reasonable to the circumstances. Great polarisation identifies not only that the character’s temperaments require them to do something different than the others, but also provides the reader with conflict as they can see each response as being reasonable within the life experiences of that character.
How you delineate your characters as a writer is up to you. The above options are two models for polarising. Here’s a few more from the world of Businessballs and their Personality Theories, Types and Tests.
Good luck. Meet you at the poles!