What is Polarity?
Polarity is something with two poles with many degrees of separation between them. One pole cannot exist without the other. Duality holds a similar meaning, but instead of being seen as the poles of one thing, each is its own separate entity.
Let’s take the example of good and evil. Duality sees this as two entities. Polarity sees this as a singular entity with good at one pole and evil at the other. Between them are many degrees of separation.
From a religious perspective, we find Duality in Christianity. The human experience is where Heaven and Hell vie to gain souls depending if you are deemed good or bad. In Hinduism, we find Polarity. The human experience is believed to be a divine experience. The goddess Shakti and the god Shiva represent two energetic poles in union through their cosmic dance.
So what does this have to do with writing stories?
The Protagonist vs The Antagonist
It is easy to see the Protagonist and Antagonist as two separate entities. Typically they are two individual characters, but when we shift our perspective from duality to polarity, things get interesting.
Your Protagonist is at one pole, and the Antagonist is on the other. Without an Antagonist, your character is no longer a Protagonist. Without a Protagonist, the Antagonist cannot exist. The crux of many stories is how these two poles meet in the middle. Neither exists without the other. When the Protagonist defeats the Antagonist, the story ends because there is no longer a need for the Protagonist to exist.
Typically your Protagonist will have opposite traits to the Antagonist. In this example we will return to good vs evil.
The Good Protagonist is pitted against the Evil Antagonist. However, between these two poles are many degrees of separation. Is the good Protagonist at the extreme, or are they closer to a neutral position? Is the Antagonist truly evil, or do they have morals which can be interpreted as good?
As it is rare for a character to be pure good or evil. Another way to look at polarity is as a percentage. For example, your Protagonist is 80% good and 20% evil. What might drive them to act out that 20%? When do things become so distorted in their life that this 20% suddenly becomes their 80%?
Characters are not stagnant. Polarity doesn’t have to be pitted between two individuals but also in a single person through their character arc. For example, a character begins evil, and the story is about their redemption. They discover the good in them and atone for the evil they did. This coming together of the two poles brings the person into true wholeness and completes their character arc.
It’s all about perception
Reality is what you make it. I love chocolate, but some people hate chocolate, and some are neutral and don’t give it much thought. Who is right? Well, no one is. It’s just our perception.
Does the Antagonist believe they are evil? Maybe they think they’re good, albeit pushed to do bad things for the greater good. A handy tool for me is to shift perspective. If you wrote the story with the Antagonist now labelled the Protagonist, how does that shift the viewpoint? I find this helps me better understand the Antagonist’s goals. Personally, I’m not a fan of characters who are evil for the sake of it. Shifting the perspective to the Antagonist (or any other character whose motives are confusing the hell out of you) helps deepen character development. You don’t even have to go into a huge backstory. Shifting perspective means you can see from their head and feel from their heart their needs and any trauma or emotional wounding which has led them to earn the Antagonist label.
Have you use polarity in your writing?