New Worlds Theory Post: Duality

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

It’s the fifth Friday of the month . . . which means that, by the grace of my patrons, I bring you a theory essay!

The concept of duality is one of those engines that can drive a whole lot of a setting, both for good and for ill. If you have two things in polar opposition to one another, then you have tension, dynamism, sometimes (but not always) conflict. You have a striking central image. HBO may have called their adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s work Game of Thrones, but the original title of the series is “A Song of Ice and Fire” — a contrast of the sort that tends to make our subconscious sit up and take notice.

The most striking and recognizable image for this nowadays is probably the taijitu, known in English as the “yin-yang symbol.” Two interlocking comma-shaped pieces, one white, and one black — with dots of the opposing color inside them, which we’ll come back to in a moment. Yin, in traditional Chinese cosmology, represents a bunch of different things: darkness, the feminine, passivity, coldness, wetness, the moon, and so forth. Yang represents their opposites: brightness, the masculine, activity, heat, dryness, the sun, etc. These are only a few of the dualities you can find or construct in the world around us: inside and outside, up and down, left and right, night and day, good and evil, order and chaos, creation and destruction, life and death, land and sea, summer and winter, beginnings and endings . . . the list keeps going.

But note that I said “find or construct.” While some things (like up and down) are legitimately in opposition to one another, others are very much social constructs. Feminine and masculine are, for obvious reasons, concepts deeply embedded in human culture around the world — but there are plenty of instances, historical as well as modern, of societies recognizing options other than those two. In some branches of Hindu cosmology, creation and destruction form not a duo but a triad with preservation, in the form of the deities Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. While the fact that our planet has only one moon probably encouraged us to treat it as the counterpart of the sun, there’s nothing truly “oppositional” about them.

And of course many of these dualities are at a minimum a spectrum, stretching from one pole to the other, rather than a straight up binary. In between darkness and light lies dimness; in between winter and summer lies spring. The classic “alignment” system of describing morality in Dungeons & Dragons recognizes this by including a “neutral” stage at the middle of each axis. The contrasting dots in the taijitu complicate the binary in a different way, representing the idea that each half of the binary includes and generates its opposite, rather than being wholly separate. (Which is why it’s such a telling point that the similar image used in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series contains no dots: in his cosmology, masculine and feminine are completely different things, with no potential for either to contain the seeds of the other.)

Dualities are powerful things for storytelling because they draw on fundamental archetypes, and they present the reader with a powerful contrast between the two extremes. This shows up in visual art as well, e.g. in the chiaroscuro style, or in the recent tendency of films to use a color palette of orange and teal, because those are opposite each other on the color wheel. Dualities “pop,” visually and mentally.

They also lend themselves to two particular types of narrative, both of which we tend to like. In one, A triumphs over its opposite B: the classic “good versus evil” story. Which gets decried as simplistic these days, and not without reason — but in the end, we still enjoy seeing the good guys beat the bad guys, and summer come to the land that’s been locked in eternal winter. In the other kind of story (which I’ll admit I’m an unrepentant sucker for), the protagonists find a way to harmonize two opposites, unlocking greater power or strength through the synthesis of those contrasting forces.

And finally, consider liminality, which was the subject of an early theory essay in the first year of New Worlds. I said there that you can generate a lot of narrative power out of something that crosses the boundaries between our mental categories. For that to work, you need boundaries — and they’re a lot more psychologically influential when it’s the division between opposites like life and death, rather than (say) canines and felines.

But take a look at that “good versus evil” thing. One of the problems of using duality in a story is that you can very easily fall into the trap of mapping one half of that spectrum to evil. The most well-known version of alignment in Dungeons & Dragons has two axes, one good-neutral-evil, one law-neutral-chaos, recognizing that both law and chaos can be used to good or bad ends. But there have been editions of the game that only had the law/chaos axis, or conflated the two into a single spectrum — and in those cases, law equates to good, and chaos equates to evil. Which leaves you with no way to talk about, say, fascists (lawful evil) or Robin Hood (chaotic good).

It also discards the “none of the above” options. Not only are masculine and feminine completely separate concepts in Wheel of Time cosmology, but there is zero room anywhere in the setting for non-binary gender. Worse yet, it can create a situation where that idea of liminality and boundary-crossing starts getting applied for the purpose of making something like non-binary gender seem disturbing and unnatural. The only genderqueer character I can remember in Jordan’s series was a villain who got resurrected in a body of the wrong sex as punishment for previous failure — and that’s a troubling idea.

In the end, the strength of dualism as a concept is also its flaw: it’s simplistic. Archetypes are powerful storytelling tools, but by their very nature, they don’t leave a lot of room for nuance.

The Patreon logo and the text "This post is brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon. To join their ranks, click here!"



About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds Theory Post: Duality — 2 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds Theory Post: Duality - Swan Tower

  2. Too often, though, “duality” (and other discrete logical models) represent an easy path toward a form of cultural imperialism. Sharks and Jets (or, if you’re old school, Montagus and Capulets) are just one obvious example, and Shakespeare’s play exposes the real problem: Anyone who isn’t aligned with the dualist (duellist?) tribes is just collateral damage.

    The other problem that goes along with dualism, especially when extended beyond immediate issues, is a horrible kind of tribalism that excuses misconduct in all else by (at least facial) allegiance to one side. That usually has… consequences; consider Mohamed Pahlevi, Ian Smith, and Ferdinand Marcos, all of whom rose to power on a wave of foreign-financed “anti-Communism.”

    In short, “dualism” is often self-defeating when applied to messy, nonbinary things like humanity.