by Julie Eshbaugh
Dialectics is a method of argument that dates back to ancient times. Central to both Indic and Western philosophy, the method was popularized by Plato in his Socratic Dialogues. Dialectics is based in dialogue, but unlike debate, which centers on two people of opposing views trying to prove the other wrong, dialectics starts with two people of opposing views who wish to reach an agreement.
What does any of this have to do with creating characters? Good question! All strong, well-rounded characters have a dual nature. So when I talk about “dialogue,” I’m not referring to a conversation between two opposing characters; I’m talking about an inner dialogue between the opposing forces within an individual character. In other words, dialectics can be used to draw out and reveal the dualism and conflict within each of your characters.
The dialectical method is made up of four basic principles:
- Everything is transient and finite, existing in the medium of time (this idea is not accepted by some dialecticians).
- Everything is made out of opposing forces/opposing sides (contradictions).
- Gradual changes lead to turning points, where one force overcomes the other (quantitative change leads to qualitative change).
- Change moves in spirals, not circles.
Opposing forces? Turning points? Now we’re talking about writing!
As your novel opens, your main character will be of a specific frame of mind. One attitude is dominant. You should be able to sum up this perspective in a statement. For instance, Romeo’s original perspective at the opening of ROMEO AND JULIET might be phrased as, “I will always hate all Capulets.” This original statement, in dialectical terms, is the “thesis.” Later, Romeo is faced with a contradictory view point. An opposing statement would fit Romeo’s new attitude. This statement might be, “Capulets and Montagues no longer matter, because I love Juliet.” In dialectical terms, this opposing point of view is the “antithesis.”
Character development happens on its own when you delve into these opposing points of view within your character. Once your character’s original view is opposed by a contradictory view, the original view must yield. This doesn’t mean that the thesis is thrown over completely in favor of the antithesis. In dialectics, unlike debate, truth is sought through compromise. In the example of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo avenges the death of Mercutio by killing Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt. So his love for Juliet has disproved his thesis, but his loyalty to his own clan has disproved his antithesis. Romeo’s compromising view point could be stated as, “I will always be a Montague, but that fact will not prevent my love for Juliet.” The compromise, in dialectical terms, is known as the “synthesis.” When the synthesis is reached, generally your character has completed a full character arc.
Taking Elizabeth Bennet from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE as an example, Elizabeth’s thesis might be stated as, “Mr. Darcy is an overly proud, obnoxious person, not worthy of my attention.”
Elizabeth’s antithesis might be, “Mr. Darcy is a good man, and I do not deserve him (and he knows it!)”
Eventually, Elizabeth reaches a synthesis that might be stated as, “Mr. Darcy and I are both proud and stubborn, and we belong together.”
Take a look at your own favorite books. Do the characters’ turning points and arcs fit the dialectical method?
Do the characters in your own manuscripts move from thesis, to antithesis, to synthesis? If not, and you think the development of your characters could be stronger, can you find where the principles of dialectics could be applied?
I’d love to know if this approach works or doesn’t work for you. I don’t know that it will work for every book. Im looking forward to reading your comments!