French linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure was studying Western languages when he discovered that everything we understand, we only understand because we can compare it to something opposite. In order to know evil, we must know good. To know freedom, we must know slavery. To know light, we must know dark.
Jacques Derrida took this thought further and said that in all of those binary relationships, one of the values dominates the other. Light dominates dark. Good dominates evil. Freedom dominates slavery. Man dominates woman. You see where this is going. When you only have two values and you place them in opposition to each other, one of them is going to come out on top. In Western culture, many of these values have been cemented into our worldview. Thus, wealth dominates poverty. Capitalism dominates Communism. White dominates black. Those who are able are inherently better than those who are disabled.
Pieter Fourie claimed that deeper in each of these binary oppositions were secondary oppositions. White means wealthy, powerful, civilized, good, favored, intelligent. Black means poor, powerless, uncivilized, inherently bad, cursed, and unintelligent. Man means strong, virile, intelligent, capable of leadership, logical. Woman means weak, chaste, unintelligent, incapable of leadership, emotional. While most of these assumed binary positions have been criticized and proven false over the years, many of them still remain in our subconscious view of the world.
As storytellers, it’s our responsibility to shape others’ view of the world. The easiest and most subversive way to do this is to get ahold of one of these binary oppositions and deconstruct it. We do this by inverting the binary order. Instead of a Black savage in Africa, why not explore the mind of a White savage in New York? Try making your hardened special forces operator a mother of three. Or make your benevolent, successful businessman a high-school-educated Ugandan immigrant.
Doing this creates interesting characters who leave a greater impression, because they challenge our preconceived notion of the way things are.
Finally, you can invert the binary on locations or objects as well. So many fictional murders are committed in dark alleyways that it has become a cliche. Why not place a violent encounter in a place we deem as safe and free from turmoil, like a sunny day in a flowery garden?
So, how do you do it? When you’re creating a character or a setting, choose one defining characteristic, say age. You’ve got a little girl, age 9. Now, ask what characteristics are associated with youth. Innocence, imagination, playfulness, beauty, naivety, a lack of knowledge, etc. Pick one and invert it. Let’s take “a lack of knowledge”. Instead, we’ll make this girl very well read. In fact, when we meet her, she’s reading a Dostoyevsky novel in an attic where she lives while using a knife to cut off a slice of apple. She lays it down on a stack of other Russian authors and pulls an Isaac Asimov off the top of a tower of science fiction books. Already, this girl is more interesting than a pretty little princess in pigtails playing with dolls. What’s going to be even more interesting is how all that reading affects her decisions. We want to know how she sees the world, what she thinks, why she locks herself into books.
Give it a go. Try as extreme a departure from the norm as you can imagine. If that doesn’t fit, rein it in a little bit more or pick another characteristic. I’m interested to hear what you come up with.
2 thoughts on “To Write Better Characters, Invert the Binary”
You had me from de Saussure. I’m an anthropologist who was (bizarrely enough) trained in the structuralist school of thought, meaning that I think in nothing but binary oppositions. This is troublesome when trying to engage with contemporary anthropological theory, since there quite a few issues embedded in categorizing cultural groups in this way (e.g. essentialism, exoticism, etc.)
However, these binary oppositions are especially useful in storytelling and narrative analysis (and is actually how de Saussure intended structuralist theory to be used.) Understanding how these models are commonly constructed in stories allows writers to subvert them and create a more interesting narrative.
Wow, as you are someone who is thoroughly trained in the field, I’m glad to hear that you approve of my incorporation of de Saussure’s theory into the practice of writing. I was afraid that someone would come on here and rip me to shreds for simplifying the issue and development of the theory so much. Ironically, in the semester before I studied this for my Masters, I got to wondering if we are doing harm to kid’s way of perceiving the world by teaching them about it, initially, through opposites. To say that A is the opposite of B completely robs B of any positive qualities that A might have, especially if you elevate A to a position of prestige and power. I try to never use the word “opposite” with my kids, because there are so few true opposites. Man is not the opposite of woman. Man is just different than woman. Both share their own unique qualities and both share many of the same qualities. I feel like that’s a better way to understand the world around you.