Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Twins in Fantasyland

I think I should give you a warning and say, right away, that this post might come off as ranty. This is a topic on which I am easily annoyed.

Twins are cool.* Readers and writers seem to like the idea of two human being so close they spent nine months stuck next to one another in their mom's womb. Like it makes them share something extra special. 

Here's the problem. There is a ton of clichés about twins in fantasy, and threading too close to almost every one of them will make your twins (or their relationship) two-dimensional and mediocre. I'm extra-sensitive to this, probably because I have a twin sister and some of these spill over in real life.

So, let's take a look at them!

The Telepathic Twins
This is the one I hear the most about outside of novels and movies. I don't know why and when people started to believe twins had this telepathic link between them. They don't. I don't get sad when my sister is sad. I don't feel her pains and joys. And I certainly don't hear her voice in my head, though I sure can imagine what she'd say. This is an annoying myth in real-life.

In speculative fiction, well, you have a little more leeway. Magic could explain the telepathy. In a world where such connections are frequent between close friends or members of the same family, well, I'm willing to admit twins might have increased chance of developing a link.

If the only trace of telepathy in your novels, ever, is those two shiny special twins... Cut it. Seriously. Randomly giving twins powers no one else can have is bad. It's a serious affront to all your worldbuilding. It discredits the characters. It discredits the story. Just don't do it unless it is completely in line with everything else.

And even then, consider not doing it. For me, m'kay?

The Mirror Twins
This is perhaps the most frequent and most annoying of them, because it reeks of rushed characterization. There's typically two types of mirror: the morality mirror and the ability mirror.

The first is our classic Good Twin/Evil Twin. Two twins were separated at birth, one grows to be a valorous knight and the other an evil conqueror? I'm sure that rings a bell. Or perhaps they grew together, and one kept bullying the other.

The problem here is that there is often little to no explanations as to why one turns out so well and not the other. You get a little more room when they were separated, but the moment your readers see "twins separated at birth", they're likely to roll your eyes and not give you the chance.

The morality mirror twins is alluring, I know. It's a blast when done well. There are ways to make it less cliché. Play in the shades of gray instead of having it all black and white. Put the Good Twin on the wrong side, maybe? If you must make one change the others' belief, why not make it the evil twin convincing his gentle counterpart? There are other options here. If you must have a good and an evil twin, play with them.

The second, the ability mirror, can actually be combined with the first for maximum Claudie-Facepalm. The ability is when one twins' powers or appearance is the exact opposite of his other twins. One has Fire Magic, the other Water. One is a great warrior, the other a scrawny wizard. You know the drill. Intelligent vs Stupid. Paranoid vs Naive. Blond hair vs Black hair. Scientist vs Artist. The physical ability mirror is very frequent with fraternal twins.

Because really, if they're not going to look the same, they must look opposite, otherwise what's the point?  (Feel free to imagine me banging my head on the desk. Because I am)

The Copycat Twins (and the switch-place plot)
We all have read a novel where one twin takes the other's place. Where identical twins are concerned, this is a frequent plot device. It can work, if they aren't supposed to switch for a long time.

This is one of those I'm less bothered with. Most of the time when a writer does this, he has taken the time to give distinct personality to the twins, and the difficulty of hiding the differences is where the tension comes from.

Here's a reminder, though: identical twins, despite their names, aren't the exact same. There are always differences that allow a quick identification, especially as the twins get older (because environmental factors have an increasingly big influence on appearance). Yes, twins can switch place. In face of those who know them well, however, it isn't likely to last.

The Point of This
Here's the message, because I'm not just writing this to vent. I swear I'm not!

Twins, identical or not, are two separate human beings. They deserve to have complex personalities, unique outlooks on life and abilities that do not depend on their other twin. They have to be someone on their own. Build your twins as two humans who just happened to be born on the same day, not as a single unit meant to be together.

To end on a positive note, there are a lot of cool twins in litterature. I don't hate twins by default. In fact, when you get past my initial reserves, I tend to give unconditional love to cool twin characters. Here are a few...
Jaime and Cersei Lannister, from A Song of Ice and Fire  (though I do hate Cersei on her own. grr)
Fred and George Weasley, from Harry Potter.  (of course they're here!)
Raistlin and Cameron Majere, from the Dragonlance Chronicles. (they're a case study of all these cliches done in a way that actually works for me!)

There are others, such as Luke and Leila. And I bet you can come up with more! Who are your favourite twins?


  1. The problem is twins in real life do follow many of those cliches, and as you say it's fine when it's done in a way that works for you. Every writer who uses thoses tropes thinks they're doing it in a way that will work for you (the reader). I think people don't really understand how twins work and so they stick with the tried and tested, like giving elves pointy ears.

    Moody Writing

  2. My favorite twins hands down are Leto and Ghanima Atreides from Children of Dune. They're not telepathic, but they do sort of have special powers, though it not really BECAUSE they're twins, though it's not entirely unrelated either. They're complicated.

  3. Fred and George Weasley are probably my favorite twins.

    Right now I can't stand either of the Lannisters (still reading GOT). I want their eyes pecked out by ravens.

  4. LOL. I love this post. I will have twins in a future project, loosely based on my father and his twin brother, who don't fit any of the stereotypes. (Okay, maybe a tiny touch of the "mirror twins" applies to them.) I was fascinated to learn in college that Ghana is (or was at the time) the area of the world where twin births occured most frequently. Unsurprisingly, they have lots of beliefs specifically about twins. It was stunning how true many of them were when looking at my father and his twin.

  5. So true! I enjoyed Fred and George Weasley too, mostly because they form a very natural (and funny) team and don't get bogged down with 'twin' trappings.
    Also, when I worked at the Seattle Aquarium, there was a set of identical twins who worked alternate shifts, which meant I usually only saw Twin #1 (can't remember names). The first time they worked overlapping shifts, I got off my lunch break (taking to Twin #1), then ran smack into Twin #2 by the octopus tank and totally freaked (we wore uniforms and had rules concerning hairdos, so the 'identical' factor was enhanced).

  6. Claudie, if Blogger had a "like" button, I'd like this over and over. Thank you for discussing this very important topic! :)

    *says the jealous girl who always wanted a twin sister*

  7. I'm kinda jealous that you have a twin. I want a twin. Well, my brother and I could pass for twins, but it's not the same!

  8. mooderino: I think you're right. And not only do they stick to the tried and tested, but they often stay on the surface, too. Delving deeper would solve half the problems with twins (and elves. and many many things)

    Sarah: Complicated is good! I don't know the twins, but it sounds like the author spent some time developping them, at least!

    LG: Oh, don't worry, it took quite a long time before I started loving Jaime. He's an ass through the entire first book. Still is after that, but you get his POV. That really helps. ^^

    Margo: Oh, now I want to see that list, see if it applies to me and my twin, too. ;) That's really interesting. I mean... why Ghana?

    SB: Oh yeah, I know what that's like. There were twins in my class when I was very young, and this happened every now and then. There's always a moment of "AM I CRAZY?", before you realise it must be the twin. XD

    TL: I think that's what the Google +1 button is for. Kinda. I only have limited idea what that button does. XD

    Anyway, having a twin sister is very much like having someone your age you can *always* hang with. And, unfortunately, sometimes you must (we all know what happens when you spend too much time with the same person)

    cookie: Hey, this twin is mine. I'm not giving her away. :P

  9. I think the most interesting belief was that the twin born first would be submissive to the twin born second. The dominant twin makes the submissive twin come out first to make sure it's safe.

    In my father's case, he was the first born, and it was definitely true that his twin could apply heavy influence and lead him to do things that were not in his nature when his twin was not around. Of course, that didn't mean my father never stood up for himself or defended himself when his twin was trying to beat the crap out of him. It was more about influence and who led/followed when their goals were the same.

  10. *sigh*. Fine. I'll just settle for trying to have twins (they run in the family.)

    I have two sets of twins in my fantasy ms. One set had a couple of these cliches, mostly the telepathy thing, but that was for various plot reasons that have been written out and are no longer necessary. The other set look alike, but have completely opposite personalities.

  11. Margo: I imagined a foetus kicking the other out and laughing. Made me thinkg of another version of Evil Twin/Good Twin. ^^

    cookie: It runs *a lot* in the family, too. I also have an older brother and sister. They're twins. So mom had nothing but twins. XD

  12. I love that you wrote about this! I'm a twin and I can hardly stand to watch movies or read books about twins because they're inseparable and can't stand to be separated. Even Katy Perry's song "Hot and Cold" drives me nuts sometimes because of the line "Just like twins, so in sync".
    My sister and I are spending the first summer together since graduation. We got so used to be individuals since we're going to different schools and now we have to deal with twin jokes all over again.
    Anyways, one of the reason I dislike Harry Potter is because of the Weasley's.

  13. I'm the other way around, M.E.: about to spend my first summer *without* my twin. But see, the difference between your relationship with your twin and my is precisely my point.

    We all have unique, nuanced relations with our twin, and fitting all the twin characters in the same mold is ruining it.

  14. Good post, and point! It always pays to dig as deeply into the characters as we can. Cliches tend to fall away when we actually examine what we're writing.