Creating Characters Using the Dialectical Method

6 Oct

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:

  1. Everything is transient and finite, existing in the medium of time (this idea is not accepted by some dialecticians).
  2. Everything is made out of opposing forces/opposing sides (contradictions).
  3. Gradual changes lead to turning points, where one force overcomes the other (quantitative change leads to qualitative change).
  4. 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!




Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. You can follow her on LiveJournal here and on Twitter here.



20 Responses to “Creating Characters Using the Dialectical Method”

  1. Kat Zhang October 6, 2010 at 12:37 AM #

    What an interesting way of looking at things! I’m loving all the “thesis” and “antithesis” talk. Makes me feel all scholarly, lol.

    Great article, Julie. I really enjoyed it 🙂

  2. Julie Eshbaugh October 6, 2010 at 12:48 AM #

    Hey Kat! Thanks; I’ve noticed this odd trending of my recent posts toward the scholarly. I guess it’s the frustrated college prof in me! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  3. Jules October 6, 2010 at 6:54 AM #

    This post really spoke to me! Thanks, Julie. I’m going to try this exercise on the books I’ve read recently, and then use it as an outlining tool for my novel. I think dialectics may be my answer. 🙂

    Just wanted to commend all of you on your latest posts – the quality of writing advice is really top-notch.


    • Julie Eshbaugh October 6, 2010 at 9:39 AM #

      Hey Jules! Thanks so much for the praise for LTWF! We really make an effort to create useful and entertaining posts. I’m so glad you find them helpful!
      As for dialectics, I had read about this concept years ago and re-visited it for this post. I’m SO glad that I did! It’s helping me with my own revisions, as well. 🙂
      Thanks for your comment!

  4. Lydia Sharp October 6, 2010 at 8:01 AM #

    You explained that so smoothly it makes perfect sense. Thank you for introducing me to this method! *And* you write YA SF Romance? I think I’m love. 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 6, 2010 at 9:42 AM #

      Hello Lydia! I checked out your blog and I was so pleased to learn that you also write SF! I’m glad that you enjoyed this post and I hope you can get some use out of the dialectical method. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  5. Vanessa October 6, 2010 at 10:11 AM #

    Julie, I swear you write some of the best/most interesting articles!!! This is such a fantastic method!

    “Change moves in spirals, not circles” – pretty sure I need to print that out and put that somewhere. I had never thought of it like that!

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 6, 2010 at 10:19 AM #

      Thanks V! That principle really caught my attention, too! If you take a close look at the character arcs in really wonderful novels, it definitely holds true. (I wanted to use Katniss as an example, but held back because I know some readers may not be familiar with her character’s evolution. But she’s a great example of the character who changes in spirals!) Thanks for your comment!

  6. Jess October 6, 2010 at 10:50 AM #

    Too funny, I was about to point out how smart your posts have been: “unity of opposites” “cultural identity” and “dialectical method”? I love it!

    I think this ties in nicely with Donald Maass’s post today at Writer Unboxed. (

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 6, 2010 at 11:17 AM #

      Thanks Jess! That “Unity of Opposites” post really did take me in a very intellectual direction! I’ve been working with students to improve their essay writing; I think the tone is starting to infiltrate my posts. 🙂 Thanks for the link to Writer Unboxed. I’m heading over there right now. Thanks for your comment!

  7. Savannah J. Foley October 6, 2010 at 11:43 AM #

    Fantastic article, Julie!!!! I loved all the vocab words.

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 6, 2010 at 11:52 AM #

      Thanks Savannah! I crack myself up when I re-read my own posts. I really am a frustrated English prof, LOL. 😉

  8. Myra October 6, 2010 at 1:18 PM #

    Fantastic post, Julie! I love all these “scholary” posts as some others have been saying, especially since we are reading Socrates/Plato’s dialogues in my Philo class, so it came at just the right time for me. 😀 Also, I just realised I’ve been doing this in my current WIP without even knowing it.

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 6, 2010 at 1:24 PM #

      Hi Myra! That’s so awesome that you are studying Socrates/Plato’s dialogues! And congrats for using this method without knowing it. You must have a natural talent for character arcs. You are very fortunate! Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  9. tymcon October 6, 2010 at 2:44 PM #

    I like it. I once read a book where men who could do magic were killed, or gentled (severed from the magic), because they went mad and caused chaos +carnage. Then (sooner or later) the main character realised that not all men who could do magic needed to be killed, or feared. Mind you he was a man who could cast magic sooo…
    But that author has so many characters in hs series, and they’re all fairly well drawn out (except for the women. Not by lack of writing skills, more because he comes from a diffrent time) and they all face character arcs.
    So yeah. (disapears in poof of smoke and thunder)

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 6, 2010 at 3:05 PM #

      Hey Tim! That’s a great example. I have always struggled with arcs, because I saw them simply as change for change’s sake. It’s so much easier when you view them as the revelations of contradictions. That book sounds AWESOME!
      Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  10. Jessi Cline October 6, 2010 at 5:51 PM #

    I am struggling with my main character’s emotional progression so I think I will try and play around with working this concept into my story.

    The thesis, antithesis and synthesis reminded me of a pendulum swinging from one extreme to another and landing somewhere in the middle with the benefit of knowledge from both sides.

    Thanks for the great article!

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 6, 2010 at 6:18 PM #

      Hey Jessi! I’m glad you liked the post, and I hope it works for you! I love the metaphor; a pendulum illustrates this concept perfectly. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  11. Marilynn Byerly October 11, 2010 at 7:22 PM #

    This idea also works with three characters. Think the original STAR TREK. Spock as head and Bones as heart spar through a situation, and Kirk pulls ideas from both sides to create the perfect solution.

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 11, 2010 at 7:29 PM #

      Hey Marilynn! I agree; you could also use Harry, Ron, & Hermione as examples as well as Luke, Leia, and Han.

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