Polarity is essential to storytelling, governed by a few simple rules but capable of generating conflict, complexity, and audience involvement. These ideas on polarity are pulled from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. I'll go into the second half of the polarity bullet points next week.
1. Opposites Attract. Like the differently charged ends of a magnet, two contrasting characters will be drawn to one another. The clash of their differences attracts and holds an audience’s attention. Two lovers, friends, or allies may be attracted to one another because they complete one another, perhaps clashing at first because they possess contrasting qualities, but discovering that each needs something the other has. Characters may seek out those whose strengths and weaknesses balance weak and strong qualities in themselves. The hero and the villain may be locked together in a struggle, drawn together by circumstances but operating in strongly contrasting, polarized ways that show the whole range of possible human responses to a stressful situation.
2. Polarized Conflict Attracts the Audience. A polarized relationship naturally generates conflict as the characters at two contrasting extremes explore and challenge each other’s boundaries, concepts of the world, and strategies for living. Audiences find this endlessly fascinating. Conflict, like magnetic energy, is attractive, automatically drawing the attention of the spectator.
3. Polarity Creates Suspense. Polarity generates not only struggle, but suspense. Which world-view will triumph? Which character will dominate? Who will survive? Who’s right? Who will win, who will lose? What are the consequences when a hero chooses one side or the other of a polarity?
4. Polarity Can Reverse Itself. When the conflict heats up, the forces that draw two people together may reverse themselves, changing from a force of attraction to a force of repulsion. They may be temporary, quick reversals of attraction or power within a scene, or they may be major turning points of a story. Within a scene, a quick change of polarity might happen because one of the lovers gets a new piece of information that reverses his or her attitude, from trust to mistrust, or physical attraction to disgust. The information may prove to be false, only temporarily challenging the attraction of opposites, but it creates tension along the line of energy that connects the two characters.
5. Reversals of Fortune. Reversal of polarity in a story can be the abrupt overturning of a character’s fortune, a change of luck or circumstances that switches the prevailing conditions from negative to positive or vice versa. Good stories have at least three or four of these reversals fro the main character, some have many, and some are even constructed so that they produce reversals of fortune in every scene. A shift in power, the underdog standing up to the bully, the fates dealing a blow to the victorious athlete, a lucky break or sudden setback, all these are reversals of polarity that punctuate a story and give a sense of dynamic movement.
6. Recognition. In the ancient world, a favorite device for bringing about an emotionally charged reversal was a recognition scene, in which the disguised identity or secret relationship of a character is revealed, and the fortunes of the characters are reversed. These are the scenes where long-lost lovers are united, where cruel tyrants realize they are about to execute their own sons, where the masked superheroes are unveiled. A recognition scene makes a good climactic reversal when a character has been going around in disguise. Often it represents the catastrophe of unmasking that the hero has dreaded but it is also the opportunity for emotional honest and self-ecceptance.
7. Romantic Reversals. In stories of romance, the two lovers may go through several cycles of reversal, alternating between attraction and repulsion or trust and suspicion. The romance may begin with attraction, but when the situation is reversed, and the characters realize that the other person isn’t all they seemed to be, they’re temporarily driven apart. After several reversals of attraction and repulsion, the lovers usually end up in alignment, the forces within them lined up in harmonious energy that promotes their connectedness, unless the relationship is doomed for tragedy. Romances can take on the opposite approach, beginning with initial repulsion and mistrust, which will gradually reverse to attraction.
8. Polarity and the Character Arc. A polarized relationship between two mismatched heroes, be it a friendship, partnership, alliance, or romance, allows for a full exploration of character as the two people, representing opposite ends of a spectrum of behavior, find their standards and habits intensely challenged by energy that is just the opposite of theirs. These differences could be outgoing and shy, organized and chaotic, brave and cowardly, planned and spontaneous, or sacred and profane. Stories can be built around these charged opposites.
Polarities in stories form a conceptual framework with which to organize ideas and energy, building up positive and negative charges around selected characters, words, and concepts. They serve an essential dramatic function by stirring us up, triggering emotional involvement and physical reactions.