In much of the 20th century, the most basic form stories took were often based in a good vs. evil setting. As if the world were that simple. One Hero, one Villain, and voila! They struggle and fight and often the hero is simple and pure while the villain is just mean for the sake of being mean.
In our 21st century world where audiences have been subjected to reviewers and critics since birth (I blame Siskel and Ebert for making us hyper-aware of the storytelling techniques and tropes in common use), it is increasingly difficult to get away with telling a tale that is just bad guy versus good guy and let the fight begin.
The study of eastern philosophies shows us the principles of Yin and Yang. They are the active aspects and energies of balance and harmony in the universe. In the west, we have often simplified this concept as dark and light, male and female, or good and evil. This doesn’t actually work for more reasons than we will discuss here, but a brief examination of the philosophy may increase your ability as a writer to craft a more complex and balanced story.
Yang more easily and accurately translates as action or structure, perhaps even as logic. Yin translates as peaceful or creative, emotional satisfaction, or as I say, the heart’s desire.
We are not dealing with opposites. Although the symbolization of yin and yang is delineated as two equal but separate shapes, within each shape is an element of the other. A circle of Yang within Yin, and a space of Yin within Yang.
If you have a character that is quite logical, they must also possess a bit of emotional strength to be complete. Conversely, a person who is highly emotional will be more interesting if they seek to nurture some logic or structure within their lives. A character bound in one dimension is stagnant. But if that same logical character has a secret desire to be an artist or engage in some form of creative endeavor, acting against the rules of their society, you have, as a storyteller, opened up a deeper level of conflict within your story.
If your character is a wild and crazy artist, a person who possesses absolutely no structure or limits in their life, how does that affect their society? They might even be viewed as a villain by some of the other characters if they leave chaos in their wake. But if they are doing so out of rebellion against strict rules or fundamentalist laws, if they are secretly desirous of an orderly life, one where they might be happy with themselves and then, perhaps another, a partner, then the inner conflict spices the outer scenario and intensifies the storyline.
The days of one-dimensional (or single-faceted) villains Hans Gruber and Goldfinger have passed us by for the most part. In our world we know enough psychology to understand that the villains have feelings too. The agenda they create has a purpose, even if they must use nefarious or antisocial means to gain their goal.
Our story and movie heroes transformed earlier than their villainous counterparts. Our somewhat flawed Bruce Willis’ John McClain and various James Bonds lack the purity of the older cowboy films or super heroic serials of Flash Gordon and Superman. Their imperfections work in allowing us, the audience, to engage more fully with the characters. They could be us! The flaws also allow us, as writers, to more easily create intriguing tales based on the twilight area between the brightest day and the blackest night.
Never underestimate your audience’s ability to grasp complex motivations. It may not be that they are doing so consciously, but the principles of Yin and Yang hold true in every level of life. It is the seeking of a balance that drives the best stories.
Jeffrey J. Michaels is a Gemini. As such he is deeply involved in whatever interests him at the moment. He describes his book “A Day at the Beach and Other Brief Diversions” as “metaphyictional,” combining fantasy and humor with metaphysical elements.
He is currently polishing a sweeping fantasy series of interconnected tales collectively known as “The Mystical Histories.” It is varied enough that he says he may even finish most of the stories.
In his real life he is a well-respected creative and spiritual consultant.
He does not like to talk about his award-winning horror story.
What if… …your perfect day never ended? …your life were to pass before your eyes, one person at a time? …the genie in the lamp had a wish? …you heard the perfect last words? Versatile author Jeffrey J. Michaels invites you to explore new ways of looking at your world and worlds beyond in this selection of metaphyictional short stories.