Saturday, April 28, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Yin Versus Yang

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on duality in speculative fiction, Yin Versus Yang.

Though perhaps most overt in traditional works of fantasy, greater themes of duality can be seen across just about every genre of speculative fiction (and fiction in general).

In fact, duality is so ingrained in our culture, especially from a moral standpoint, that we might not even notice its prevalence in the stories we enjoy. We are so used to reading tales of good versus evil, right versus wrong, the forces of light battling the agents of darkness, that it has become the expectation for many genres. Indeed, the deviations from this formula often stand out more than those works that make the effort to conform.

So where does all of this dual thinking come from? Perhaps, the easiest answer to the question (though not necessarily the best) can be gleamed from the black and white morality of religion. A great many of the various religious beliefs over the eons have a dualistic center, going all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, with the contrasting qualities of the gods Set and Osiris, brothers who ultimately come into conflict. Modern religion is also filled to the brim with duality. The most obvious example in Western culture is probably Christianity, in which God is eternally opposed by Satan.

Of course, this entry's title comes from Eastern philosophy, in which yin yang are actually not seen as opposing forces. They compliment each other, like the feminine and the masculine (another concept that likely lies at the heart of human dualism). Westerners sometimes perceive the yin yang as representing good and evil, but Asian philosophies like Taoism eschew this assumption. It's meant to represent balance, not conflict.

In speculative fiction, duality frequently comes down to the simple concept of good guy versus bad guy. But it's not always that cut and dry. One of my favorite examples is Batman and his archnemesis, the Joker. The Joker has been portrayed many different ways over the years, but he rarely represents evil in the traditional sense. He despises the rigidity of order, and believes he's doing the world a favor by introducing chaos and discord.

And I would be utterly remiss in mentioning Batman without pointing out Two-Face, a character so forged of dualism that he allows a coin flip to dictate his morality.

Because of its ingrained place in our culture, dualism is one of those things that can sneak into your work without you even realizing it, as it's probably done for a lot of my own work. I've also had a couple of stories with intentional themes of duality, including one I've just laid the groundwork for. It's a fantasy story about two neighboring city-states walled apart from each other with divergent cultures. Their religious beliefs are diametrically opposed, and the story involves a man who finds himself caught between the two. The story's just a small nugget right now, but I'm planning on diving into it soon after the A to Z challenge comes to a close. In the meantime, I'll keep feeding my fascination with the concept.

Maybe the root of our predilection towards dual rationale lies at the heart of human experience. After all, so much of life is about reconciling our internal wants and needs with exterior circumstance. The fact that we can weigh the two is one of the things that separates us from the primal. But each of us interfaces with society in the same way: external stimuli, external being the key word. Until the singularity comes and we all upload our consciousnesses onto a server in orbit, we are creatures of duality.

It's you versus the rest of the world.

Recommended Reading:
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
The Dark Tower series by Stephen King
Corum series by Michael Moorcock

Recommended Viewing:
Star Wars

Recommended Gaming:
The Longest Journey
Jade Empire
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic


  1. The underlying concept of Ying/Yang, two opposing forces within a single space (or mind), is one of the greatest sources of story conflict there are. Man versus nature, love versus adversity, one ideology versus another, all fade in comparison with good versus evil, or man against himself. Very important principle you've tackled J.W., and very well explained in so little space.

    "After all, so much of life is about reconciling our internal wants and needs with exterior circumstance. The fact that we can weigh the two is one of the things that separates us from the primal."
    -- excellent point.

    As to when "the singularity comes and we all upload our consciousnesses onto a server in orbit" -- buy me a ticket in the front seat! ;)

    1. I'll be right behind you! Thanks so much for the kind words, Vero.

  2. Well said, J.W.!

    I won’t go down the road of why I believe duality interpretations foster real world problems – especially in the realm of religion – but if we are to assume opposite rather than complementary forces, writing in the grey area in between is a fun place to work. (Off the top of my head, Twain’s “Letters from the Earth” come to mind.)

    Personally, I like the grey area. I think both ends of the spectrum can dip their toes in it. Flawed hero, discomforted foe.

    1. I agree, Tracy! As both a writer and a reader, I love stories that meddle in the grey space between good and evil. Not only is it realistic, but it makes for multiple layers to the conflict.

      Thanks for reading.

  3. I read a book a while back titled, "Hater" by David Moody. In this book a large portion of the population suddenly starts lashing out and attacking people for seemingly no reason. Normal people- perceived as the good guys-- begin hiding so that they are not attacked by these 'monster' individuals. Halfway through the book, the protagonist's viewpoint suddenly changes and he begins to think like one of these 'bad guys,' only David Moody creates a sort of magic: Once the protagonist's viewpoint changes, the 'bad guys' suddenly seem good, and vice versa. Halfway through the book I found myself suddenly empathizing with all of the characters I previously despised!

    Great topic- made me think back to some good reading.

    1. That sounds like an awesome book! I'll definitely add it to my future reading list.

      Thanks, Randi!

  4. That does sound like an awesome book to read Randi, I must chase it up! J.W. an interesting topic you have brought up. Writing in the 'grey' area is fine but the writer must remember that the reader needs to be able to connect with the main character in the book. And being too bad is not always good! Pushing that main character over the invisible line drawn by the reader, will inevitably make them close your book and never pick it up again!

    1. There have been some truly bad characters used as protagonists by some great authors over the years. Alex from A Clockwork Orange and Patrick Bateman from American Psycho both come immediately to my mind. In fact, the villainous protagonist is practically a trope of its own.

      But you're absolutely right, it's a VERY thin line to walk, and the further into the grey a writer is willing to traipse, the more careful they'll need to be!

      Thanks for reading, C.M.!


Thanks for reading!