Questionable: How Do You Use Doppelgängers?

Kat wrote:
“Have you used a doppelgänger before? . . . I’d love to hear more about the specific pairings in your books.”

First, let’s define some terms. A doppelgänger is a double, a character who is the duplicate of another character, often an evil twin or a supernatural entity that tries to take over its twin’s life. The term is from the German, meaning “double walker,” and it’s often creepy, but it can also be use used as a story-telling device: here are two characters who are essentially the same; watch one of them change while the other one stays the same and acts as a foil or point of comparison to its twin. I’m not a big writer of evil, so I use it to show character, not as an actual plot point; that is, Liz never thinks, “My god, I have a doppelgänger,” but people do point out some of the similarities to her.

As an example of the doppelgänger in characterization, in Macbeth (my favorite Shakespeare), in the beginning, Macbeth and Banquo are honest, loyal, blood-covered warriors celebrating a victory when they meet the witches. The witches prophesy that Macbeth will be given the title of thane, that Macbeth will be king, and that Banquo’s sons will be kings after Macbeth. Banquo rejects the prophecies, as far as he’d concerned, they already have a king and he’s loyal. But then messengers show up with the news that the king has made Macbeth a thane, and Macbeth says, “Well, wait a minute . . .” and his fall begins.

Although Macbeth’s actions are monstrous throughout the play, it’s the comparison to Banquo that really shows how far he’s fallen. After Macbeth murders the king and takes the throne, two of the prophecies fulfilled, he cannot stop obsessing over that third one, and gives orders to kill Banquo, his best friend and loyal subject, and Banquo’s son Fleance. But you don’t mess with witches: Banquo dies but Fleance escapes to engender the future kings.

So you begin with two noble, loyal knights, and end with one ravening maniac of a murderer and one knight who is loyal to the end. That’s a great use of a foil and doppelgänger. Also a helluva a story that has so much more going on, including the gender politics of Lady Macbeth. If I’d had any courage at all, I’d have become an actress, and the role I’d have gone after first is the good wife, Lady Macbeth. She fascinates me.

Where was I? Right, doppelgängers.

So mild spoilers for Lavender’s Blue ahead.


Liz Danger is a tall, rebellious dirty blonde who left Burney fifteen years before the story starts.
Lavender Blue is a tall, conservative platinum blonde, who left Burney but has stayed involved, working in nearby Cincinnati but spending a lot of time politically and socially in the small town.

Liz Danger had an on again/off again relationship with Cash Porter, Burney’s golden boy, mostly off again because he was a cheater and kept dumping her, but she stuck because she loved him.
Lavender Blue, as the story opens, is engaged to Cash Porter, still the town’s golden boy, permanently in a relationship with him because he’s going to be running for state senator, and she’s looking ahead to a life of power and influence; Cash is still cheating, but she doesn’t love him, so she’s indifferent to it.

Liz Danger comes home and her presence immediately causes waves in town since Cash is marrying Lavender and his family much prefers Liz.
Lavender Blue smooths the waves, invites Liz into her wedding.

One of the plot points revolves around their superficial resemblance, which includes not only “tall and blonde,” but also “cold and efficient.” Liz has sealed herself off from caring about people, Lavender was born into a cold family and has never known another way to act..

Okay, why all this messing about with doppelgängers?

Because it’s dangerous for Liz to go home. Somebody there really hates her, wants her dead (thus the tagline “Would it kill you to go home and see your mother?”). But I can’t kill my protagonist, this is not a ghost story. What I can do is kill her by proxy, offing the character who is her double walker, the woman who is walking in the steps of her life, engaged to her first love, reversing Liz’s ways of dealing with it all. Liz likes Lavender in spite of her flaws, knowing she has a lot of flaws herself. There’s a connection there, so Liz suffers a psychic death when Lavender dies.

But Liz has also been affected by things that Lavender doesn’t connect to, so the contrast of Lavender as a foil is at work as Liz changes and Lavender doesn’t. Lavender knows Vince and thinks of him as beneath her, just a local cop. Liz meets Vince and is attracted to him, flirts with him, sees his worth, and begins to connect with him on a deeper level. Lavender has a niece who needs help, but Lavender is busy. Liz pays attention to the kid, setting up a strong relationship in the next book, Rest in Pink. Lavender is passionately interested in what Cash can do for her (and he’s the same for what she can do for him), Liz is passionately interested in never being involved with Cash again (and he’s the opposite). Lavender and her mother have an awful strained relationship; Liz and her mother have a strained relationship they’re trying to navigate because Liz can’t walk away from her, she loves her mother. The more trauma that happens, the colder Lavender grows (in more ways than one); the more trauma that happens, the warmer Liz grows, trying to save people, connecting to them in spite of herself because she cares about them.

**** End of Lavender Spoilers *****

In short, I really needed Lavender to be Liz’s doppelgänger/foil so I could make it plain how, even though Liz is a cold fish in the beginning, her character arc to warmth is there in the contrast.

Kat asked what other doppelgängers I’d used, but first let’s do another one of my favorites: Indiana Jones.

Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with two archeologist/thieves battling over a religious artifact of an ancient tribe. Jones and Belloq are the same guy. We root for Jones because he’s the first character we attach to and because he’s Harrison Ford, but look at these guys: they’re both racist assholes stealing powerful objects they cannot understand because they think everything is up for grabs. Then the events of the story unfold, Jones gets slapped upside the head both literally and emotionally, symbolically goes to hell in a snake pit and is reborn in some pretty blatant birth imagery (I love this damn movie, it works those tropes like a pro), and finally comes face to face with The Religious Artifact To Rule Them All, the Ark of the Covenant. Belloq gets dressed up, ready to open the Ark and take its power, and Jones says to Marion, “Don’t look” because he’s learned there are things beyond his ken, things he is not meant to see or have. He closes his eyes, Belloq opens the arc . . . and well, you know how that goes. (Come on, that movie’s forty years old, if you haven’t seen it by now, get on that.). Raiders is one of the most blatant uses of the doppelgänger that I’ve ever seen; both men even throw Marion away, Jones when he dumps her as a teenager and Belloq when he throws her in the snake pit. Spielberg wasn’t even trying to be subtle. I love it.

So working backward in my own stuff:

Andie and May in Maybe This Time: both wanting North, both wanting second chances, both angry about their pasts, both dealing with Alice as surrogate mothers, both failing Carter as surrogate mothers. Obvious foil moment: at the end when May tries to convince North she’s Andie in order to take her place, and he knows immediately she’s not.

Agnes and Brenda in Agnes and the Hitman: Agnes is trying to become Brenda, buying her house, cooking, getting engaged to a local, etc. Brenda is trying to take over Agnes’s life: scamming to get her home back and marrying Agnes’s fiancé. Brenda works as a foil when Agnes tells Shane she’ll leave Two Rivers, it’s just a house, and Brenda kills somebody to get the house back. Their final battle in the kitchen is no accident: It’s where they both draw power from, the heart of the house.

Min and Cynthie in Bet Me: Both blonde, both rational and logical, both decent people, both in love with Cal. Foils because Cynthie is traditionally attractive and Min is not, and Cynthie uses traditional seduction to achieve her ends and Min uses confrontation and honesty. If they weren’t so similar, their differences wouldn’t resonate.

Those first two are protagonist/antagonist doppelgängers, which I particularly love because it’s such a good way of showing why the protagonist (in those stories) win and the antagonist fails: The protagonist learns through the story how to be a better, stronger person and the antagonist doesn’t. Jones learns that stealing religion from people is bad, Belloq doesn’t. Andie learns to understand Alice, Carter, North, and accepts who they are; May just takes what she wants without understanding the people she’s taking from, assuming they’ll change for her. Min changes and becomes more open, taking chances; Cynthie holds onto her preconceptions about herself and Cal, trying to get back her old life even though it’s dead. Jones, Andie, and Min change; Belloq, May, and Cynthie don’t. (The flip side is at work in MacBeth: Banquo doesn’t change and keeps his nobility and his place in heaven; Macbeth changes and falls and spends eternity in Hell wishing he’d ignored the witches.)

I’m sure I’ve done other doppelgängers because it’s a trope I really like and it’s a workhorse of a characterization tool, but that’s enough about me. Liz and Lavender are probably the most overt use I’ve made of that trope, and I’m really pleased with how that worked out.

So how I use doppelgängers?

1. Set up parallels that you can draw from the story: appearance, place/setting, goals, flaws, relationships, etc.
2. Show how the two characters are alike especially in their flaws, the things that need to change.
3. Arc one character’s story to make her change while the other character ignores or resists the pressure to grow.
4. Pay off the difference in those arc with basing the climax/outcome on the differences in those changes.

I should also point out that I don’t plan doppelgängers too far ahead of time. I get a chunk of the story down and then look at it to see what it’s about and if I can use it. In the story we’re working on now, my protagonist is a woman with no career who dresses in frumpy aprons and doesn’t wear make-up and gets by on charm and manipulation. Her best friend is an elegant lawyer who used logic and reason to navigate the world. They’re both middle-aged, they’re both single mothers of daughters in high school, they both live in a strange little town, they’re both hiding out from/refusing contact with their exes. I don’t know if they’re doppelgängers yet because the book isn’t finished, but even beyond that, I don’t see how I could use that. On the other hand, the antagonist is also a single mother, but she doesn’t share anything else with Rose, so I don’t see how I could use it there, either. Maybe when the book is done something will become clear, but right now, those are just characters who have some similarities. No reason to make them doppelgängers.

And I want to repeat: this is not a technique anybody has to use or should use. Many roads to Oz.

[Anybody else got a Questionable? I’m moving next Monday, so after that I’ll be able to play again since the worst will be over.]

24 thoughts on “Questionable: How Do You Use Doppelgängers?

  1. You’re wonderful. Seriously, this is amazing!

    Next time you decide to do a writing course, can you please do a recorded version? Seriously, people are out here charging $250 to watch their how-to videos and they’re just going over the Hero’s Journey or Romancing the Beats. You have so much depth, detail, and intricacy in how you approach the analysis, sharpening, and clarification of your own writing- which is really where the rubber hits the road.

    Thank you so much for this!

  2. Oh, my! I don’t know if you’ve ruined those stories for me, or deepened my understanding of them. A lot of it sinks in intuitively, and the reader is saying “Why can’t you move on? Your manipulations aren’t going to work. She’s winning, and you’re losing.” So, I guess it works on any level. Thanks for explaining it all.

  3. There was so much meaty goodness in this but I am fixated on Min being blonde. I always pictured her with curly brown hair. This is so not important and yet it is what I have fixated on. Ha.

    1. Min’s blonde????? Yes, that was my reaction. Min has straight dark hair and quirky eyebrows and has since she first opened her mouth all those years ago.

    2. Min and Cynthia both have dark hair. I think that must have been a brain fart.

    3. I think Min is described with gold- tipped curls (I assumed brown with honey highlights) and Cynthie had straight brown hair?

      Now i want to go check!

  4. P.S. Had never thought of Macbeth/Banquo like that. Thanks. (Hamlet is my favorite tragedy. Macbeth is my second favorite, even though it’s structurally sounder.)

  5. Wow, this was a great read! Very academic and enlightening.
    It brought to mind a video I stumbled a across some time ago in which you were interviewed for an Ohio State writers series ( no I am not a stalker). I was blown away in watching the videos by how much is in the background of the novels as you plan them and write them.
    You were discussing a WIP called Always Kiss Me Goodnight, which I recognize as Maybe This Time, In its conception is The Turn of the Screw, and your discussion of the structure of the story was so intense. Never having read Henry James, I did not recognize the connection-I will make a point of reading it.
    I think the richness of your life experiences and educational depth ( and just natural sense of humour and intelligence ) is what sets your novels apart from the majority of popular fiction. Perhaps if your standards were lower you would have turned out more books but on the whole I expect we all prefer the route you chose.
    I also enjoyed your description of all you learned from Prof Lee K Abbott about the structure of fiction. His voice in your head admonishing you for going for the cheap laugh, and your ‘Damn it, Lee’— that brings to mind Agnes and Dr. Garvin. I hope you still hear his voice.
    In any event, you do seem eminently suited to creating a book on Writing. If the above just came pouring out of your pen this morning …

    1. Lee was a huge influence. I know a lot of people don’t get much from their MFAs, but thanks to Lee, my writing improved by leaps and bounds.

  6. I’ve never tried a protagonist / antagonist doppelganger like these. I’ve done the ‘Internet twin’ type of doppelganger – you know, the one where people trip over pictures of people who look almost exactly like them but are completely unrelated and live continents away. 🙂 That’s the basis of my novella ‘Sugar Daddy.’

  7. Excellent explanation about doppelgängers. Always made a point of listening to or attending a course, (only once in person) and many of Bob’s writers workshops. I’ve learnt so much from both of you. After your move and Bob’s move, still plans to do the workshops mentioned several posts ago?

  8. Jenny – thanks for this. I learned soooooo much!

    Wishing you a smooth move. (That may be the name of a tea lol)

    My paperback of Lavender’s Blue is winging it’s way towards me!

  9. Thanks for this excellent discussion and examples. I’ve been using doppelgangers but I always thought of them as mirror characters, showing the opposite path that can be taken by a character in the same situation with a similar background. Now I know the correct term. BTW your discussion of Macbeth is illuminating. It was my favorite play to teach to high school sophomores.

    1. Oh, there are a lot of interpretations/uses of the doppelgänger. Mine is just one, not the correct one.

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