How Body Types can Help Shape your Characters

When I first read about constitutional psychology, breaking down the human physique and behavior by body type, a theory proposed by American psychologist Dr. William H. Sheldon in the 1940's, I thought I hit pay dirt. Better known as fitting people into three body types: endomorphs, mesomorphs and ectomorphs, Sheldon explained his views in two books, Varieties of Physique and Varieties of Temperament.

Sheldon's body type theory is discussed in a book I mentioned in my June 28th post, Child Behavior: The Classic Child Care Manual from the Gesell Institute of Human Development, by Frances L. Ilg, M.D., Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D., and Sidney M. Baker, M.D.,, which among other things, offers an interesting description of children's behavior at each age, from four weeks to ten years. The descriptions are general and offer guidelines to better understand children and for our purposes, offer incite into the characters in our stories. After the age of ten, Child Behavior launches into a discussion of individuality. That's where the body types fit in, neat and reassuring.

At least that's what I thought until I did some exploring. Though I barely scratched the surface, I found that constitutional psychology is a controversial theory. The Wikipedia article about it, which also categorizes it as, Somatotypes, another name for the body types, states that this school of thought was widely popular in the 1940's and '50s but is today discredited, partly due to the idea's tendency to promote cultural stereotypes. "One study found that endomorphs are likely to be perceived as slow, sloppy and lazy; mesomorphs . . . as popular and hardworking; . . . and ectomorphs are often viewed as intelligent but fearful and usually take part in long distance sports, such as marathon running . . . The principle criticism . . . was that it is not a theory at all but one general assumption . . ."

You would never know this by exploring the topic online. It appears that physical fitness organizations, such as,, and, have jumped on the band wagon, though there is a common disclaimer such as the first sentence in one of the sites, "Most people have a combination of the three body types." You can find all sorts of help in determining your body type, from examining your eating and training habits to taking a test to find out your body type, or even by using a "body type calculator."

Like the fitness websites, the authors of Child Behavior are careful to point out that each individual is made up of a combination of the characteristic body types; no one is strictly made up of only one.

What does this have to do with creating characters?
For a writer's purpose, taking a look at body type characteristics can simply offer another tool to help understand the characters in our stories, why they act the way they do and how other characters might relate to them; much as the two references books, The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, can do.

The following chart summarizes what the authors of Child Behavior noted as key points of the body types and what is considered their accompanying normal behavior:

                        Endomorphs                             Mesomorphs                                  Ectomorphs      

Characteristic Soft and spherical shape           Hard, firm, strong              Thin, fragile with long
                       Unkindly known as fat             Heavy muscles                    Slender arms and legs
                       Big bones
                       Well-developed heart
                       and circulatory system

Behavior        Relaxed, loves comfort            Vigorous and active             Restrained, shy, inhibited
                      Sociable, loves food                  Loves exercise, active         Oversensitive
                      Loves people, affectionate        Can be domineering            Desire concealment
                                                                                                                     Shrink from ordinary social

Sleeping       Enjoys sleep-goes to sleep and  Loves to wake up, active     Hates to sleep and wake up;
                     gets up easily                                                                          wants to keep dreaming
Eating          Seems to "live to eat"                Hearty eaters                        Eat very little and seem
                                                                                                                    never to gain weight, yet
                                                                                                                    are among healthiest of types
                                                                                                                    Might not notice missing a

Emotions    Open, warm, loving, friendly,   Naturally noisy, vigorous,   Normal: holds emotions
                    Responsive                                assertive and dominating    inside
                    Seems to express emotions       Laughs the loudest              Can be characterized by:
                    easily                                                                                     Stony silences
                                                                                                                  Shows little affection
                                                                                                                  Seems to lack warmth and

Along with posting photos of children on my bulletin board who look like the characters in my stories, and modeling my characters after children I have known; viewing my characters by body type, even with fuzzy boundaries knowing each type doesn't fit into any one neat category, has helped me get a clearer picture of who they are. I hope the suggestions in this post help bring your characters into sharper focus, too.

Image: "Autumn Abstract" courtesy of Simon Howden at

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, recently completed two of Joyce Sweeney's online courses, on fiction and writing picture books. She has published over 40 articles for children and adults, six short stories for children, and is currently developing several works for children. Follow Linda on Facebook.


Saumya said...

I never knew about this theory and it's helpful for character development! Thank you!

Joan Y. Edwards said...

Thank you, Linda. Great food for thought.

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, what a great article. It is interesting that body types may be indicative of behavior. As Saumya agrees, It's an iuseful tool for character development.

Kathleen Moulton said...

So interesting, Linda! Thanks for sharing your insights.

Debra Quarles said...

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

Linda Wilson said...

You're welcome, Saumya. I do hope the article adds a new perspective to your characters.

Linda Wilson said...

You're welcome, Joan. I've gotten a clearer picture of my characters since I began thinking of them in this way.

Linda Wilson said...

Thank you, Karen. Yes, who would have thought that body type could influence behavior. It might be just a theory or an assumption, and certainly not each body type is cut and dry, but knowing this could add some new characteristics to our already-interesting characters!

Linda Wilson said...

I'm glad you found the article interesting, Kathleen. I vaguely knew about body types before researching this article but never put character development together with the theory about them.

Linda Wilson said...

You're welcome, Debra. It was most fun matching the body type theory with character development. I hope you have fun with it, too.

Debbie A Byrne said...

I have one of those books. I need to get the other one. Thanks for the post!

Linda Wilson said...

You're welcome. Yes, those books are helpful tools.

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