Thursday, April 1, 2010

Twins in fiction

Some cliches to avoid…

The Good vs. the Evil

Sidney Sheldon’s Master of the Game features identical twins Eve and Alexandra, but Eve is like a female version of Damien from The Omen. She attempts to burn Alexandra alive when they’re both five, then grows up to become a promiscuous murderess. No one sees through her façade, and Alexandra adores her, which made it near-impossible to identify with Alexandra as well.

The concept occurs in speculative fiction as well – Raistlin and Caramon from the DragonLance books came to mind instantly. It doesn’t even have to be as drastic as good and evil, or good and morally ambiguous. The Sweet Valley High series revolved around Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, who were the studious nice girl and the popularity princess respectively.

It’s better to give each of them traits because those work for them as individuals, rather than because said traits contrast with whatever the other twin has – e.g. the first twin is cold and sarcastic, so the second one must be kind and caring.

And if there is sibling rivalry, why not for a good reason? A real-life example: Amy and Karen Grossman were twin figure skaters, but Amy was better, and professional figure skating is intensely competitive. There’s only room for one at the top of the podium. That’s realistic conflict, which isn’t easily resolved either.

The Switch

This is where the twins change places, usually so they can see what each other’s different lives are like.

Again, no one sees through it. Judith Michael’s first book, Deceptions, dealt with this plot, where aristocratic Sabrina and housewife Stephanie trade places, so Stephanie can enjoy a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous existence and Sabrina can see what it’s like to be a married mom of two.

There’s no idea so tired that a good author can’t make it readable, but I wouldn’t find the Switch easy to buy if one twin can fit too neatly into another’s life. There’s more to a person than just their appearance – their way of speaking, preferences in jewelry, daily habits, all of these contribute to making up a person, and changes in too many of these should be noticeable.

Even if friends can’t put their fingers on whatever’s changed, they shouldn’t be a hundred per cent accepting of the impostor either (unless the impostor has had a great deal of practice in passing for the other person).


Twins in both fiction and real life often have similar names, but one disadvantage of giving them such names is that it emphasizes their twin-ness rather than their individuality. The writer has to work that much harder to show that they’re different (as Jacqueline Wilson did for Ruby and Garnet in Double Act).

And it can get twee. The heroine’s two sets of younger twin sisters in Bertrice Small’s Blaze Wyndham were called Bliss, Blythe, Larke and Linnette, but those kinds of names are more or less normal in historical erotic romance.

I was less keen on Dawn and Eve in Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels, and I gave up on that series altogether around the time that the twins met two brothers called Mourning and Knight.

Twin bonds

Twins can magically sense each other’s presence or emotions. And the flip side is?

When there isn’t one – or when the supposed link between the twins is only used as a plot device – this can be a tired cliché. On the other hand, a mental link can be a lot of fun for writers to play with.

Twins can be one mind in two bodies, so there’s no need for them to talk between each other any more than your left hand needs to communicate with your right. This can be very creepy. Dean Koontz’s novel Whispers makes great, if horrifying use, of such a setup.

Or they can have a bond which diminishes both of them in some way. In one of my worlds, twins are always born without intelligence or personalities. But they also have a link which makes them the perfect means of long-distance contact, since they’re able to mindlessly send whatever they hear to their siblings, who will then repeat it. They’re like living telephones.

And the bond doesn’t have to be only mental or emotional. If you’d like to have twins being very different, maybe there’s a secret but immutable balance in the universe that means only one of them can be rich and successful, or intelligent, or happy. Not both. What would happen when one of them figured that out?

What are your most disliked twin-cliches?


Sarah Ahiers said...

i pretty much hate all twin cliches in writing because i am myself an identical twin. I especially hate when two tiwns love each other and then one dies and the other just keeps on going like nothing is the matter. Would Not Happen.

A. Shelton said...

In one of my fantasy stories, I've got a pair of twins. One hates the other (for a heinous mistake the other made) while the other had moved on out of the person he was when he made that mistake.

I'm planning on killing off the second twin, leaving the one who hates alive. Unfortunately for the survivor, the death of his twin is going to incapacitate him for at least several days--because hate is the strongest emotion extant, and he's hated his twin for years.

Marian Perera said...

Neat, Falen. You are now the second identical twin I've "met". :)

I haven't read any novels where one twin shows no serious effects of another's death, although one of the twins in Deceptions is killed, forcing the survivor to keep up the pretence.

Of course, by then she was sleeping with her sister's husband and mothering her sister's children, and my suspension of disbelief was long gone.

A. Shelton - I think it's realistic to feel bereft when someone you've hated intensely dies. No target for all that emotion, and no closure.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to mention one thing about your point 2, the switching. I was classmates with a set of identical twins in high school, who would occasionally (for the hell of it) switch with eachother. They would go to each-other's classes, and (so they said) never got caught. Now, obviously there were things they couldn't fake (we were in band, and they played different instruments) and I never heard of them switching among their friends. But it isn't totally beyond the realm of believability for twins to switch in specific situations.

Anyway, neat post. I always think twins are super interesting characters when done well.

Anonymous said...

Funny that you should mention Master of the Game. That was the very first Sidney Sheldon book I ever read when I was ten. And even back then at that young age, I remember thinking it was silly that one twin should be SO evil and the other SO good (not to mention boring and rather dim-witted).

I'd love to write or read about twins where they are three-dimensional human beings instead of polar-opposite caricatures.

Marian Perera said...

Tasha - And how could Alexandra continue to believe, despite the multiple attempts on her life, that Eve was a loving sister? It didn't make any sense.

Especially since there were so many hints from people deceived by Eve.

bookewyrme - Good point, within certain situations it's possible for twins to deceive others.

I remember Ruby and Garnet in Double Act doing it just to scare off their father's new girlfriend. She was kind of unnerved at first.

Thanks for commenting! :)