Literary Alchemy: Duality

Anne C. Miles > Writing > Literary Alchemy: Duality

We have looked at colors and their symbolism in the stages of alchemy, how these relate to story. We’ve looked at ring structure. The next thing to look at in our study of literary alchemy is duality.

Duality pops up in ring structure. If you have a plot that looks like this:


then you’ll have reflection of events. Ring structure in a real sense uses this principle of duality. What happens in section A gets revisited or resolved as the plot circles back. However, duality can be applied to your character roles. In my own work, my main character Sara has a twin sister, Marilla. There’s obvious duality. Marilla is a doppelganger. But Sara also has a nemesis, Chantal, her shadow.

When you look at Harry Potter, you see Draco Malfoy immediately introduced as a sort of anti-Harry in the first book with Voldemort as the overall series anti-Harry. Patrick Rothfuss uses duality with Kvothe. He has Kote as a doppelganger of Kvothe, but sets up shadow antagonists wherever Kvothe goes. Each antagonist displays exaggerated negative traits Kvothe himself needs to overcome. Kvothe has the Chandrian as the overall villains for the series, and lesser antagonists like the street children or Ambrose throughout the story.

JK Rowling has written inverses of nearly every organization and character, using them to create tension and stakes. Death Eaters/Order of the Phoenix, Slytherin/Gryffindor, Muggles/Wizarding world. With the characters, you have Dumbledore/Snape, Harry/Draco, Ginny/Cho., Ron/Hermione. The mirror characters change as the story evolves, but the opposing characters and groups provide a framework on which the world is hung.

You’ll see that some of these characters are what John Granger calls doppelgangers. They’re mirror characters, a reflection. Sometimes these two sides live in one body– think about Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for example. A negative mirror character is a shadow. Mr Hyde is the shadow of Dr Jekyll, the opposite of his character. JK Rowling applies the doppelganger device with her animagi. The animal shapes that characters assume reflect their inner character, their hidden person. The Patronus charm functions in a similar way, pointing to character alignment. Pettigrew can become a rat. Sirius can become a loyal hound. Harry’s Patronus is a stag. These are symbols which add layers of meaning and characterization. This technique can birth some very practical conflicts to use in plotting. Each character has a shadow side which they can embrace or reject. While it’s common to have mirrors or shadow characters in a story, Rowling has done it with almost every character and group, particularly if you dig into the backstory. The technique is what gives her world such depth.

You’ll see duality used in other popular works. Star Wars has its Jedi/Sith. Vader/Luke. Han/Jabba. The Lord of the Rings has elves/orcs, The descendants of Numenor/Southron armies. Gandalf/Saruman. Frodo/Gollum.

By giving your antagonists something of the darkness the protagonist must battle in their own hearts, you help them to develop as characters. Do you see it? You can use shadow characters and doppelgangers in whatever form to highlight or illustrate an arc. The character might fail or succeed, but either way, you have a story with tension and impact.

Make a list of your characters and main groups. In a new column, add a list of their shadows and doppelgangers. Use a few descriptive words to label each, showing how they are opposed. If you come up with some who don’t have an opposite, think about how they could have one. Even if it’s just in background information, the details wlll enrich your world. Remember, you can use more than one shadow or doppelganger if needed. Are there places in your plot where these groups or characters collide? Why or why not? See how this might be helpful?

This exercise will show you areas in your story where you can increase tension. I hope you find it helpful and if you have questions or use this technique, be sure to let me know! I’d love to see how you did it.

This ends my little series on Literary Alchemy, although there’s more to learn! For more information check out John Granger’s books. He does a great job of explaining the main concepts.

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