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Monday, June 20, 2016

The "Twins as Clones" Writing Epidemic

Let's be honest, people are naturally interested in twins and multiples. When my sister had twins, she could never make it through the grocery store without people stopping and talking to her about twins in general and twins they know. Conversations became something like this (newsletter subscribers, sorry, but you have to see the video off my blog):

But while we may find twins and multiples fascinating, it's important to remember they are each distinct human beings. Why this is so hard to grasp, I don't know, but for some reason this reality rarely ever makes it into the storytelling world. Instead, most writers I know opt-in for the "Twins as Clones" approach, where they are essentially the same person in each body. You could pretty much merge the two characters into one and nothing would change. Nothing would really change in the character, and more often than not, nothing would change in the story. The twins are like one person in two bodies. Heck, even Lyra and her daemon Pantlaimon are more different from each other, and they are one person in two bodies.

I think one reason writers make twins into clones is because they've seen it done this way, and it's been done so many times that it's cliche, and of course, cliches are the first things that come into our minds when we brainstorm. I also think it happens because writers sit down and say, "I'm going to have twins in my story," and they create the characters "together" instead of as individual people. (More on that later.)

I won't go so far to say that the Twins as Clones characterization is never a good idea, but honestly . . . I can't think of any situations where it is a good idea. Because as I said earlier, you can usually just combine these twins into one person and the only characterization that changes is that there is one body, so they can't talk (what is essentially) to themselves. Maybe I could see it working for a thematic or plot reason, and it's got to be a legitimate thematic or plot reason. Or maybe it would work to depict how the viewpoint character views them--but only sometimes and only in certain situations.

Another problem with creating twin clones is that we're also increasing the likelihood of ridiculous questions and viewpoints directed at real twins, because of how they are represented in media.

Twins as Clones

Crash and Eddie

Fanty and Mingo

Flora and Hestia

Tweedledee and Tweedledum

Hikaru and Kaoru

Susan and Mary

And do I dare do it? I'm going to do it. Stef, if you are reading this, don't hate me and wait before you freak out.

Fred and George

Okay, so one of my good friends will love Fred Weasley to the high heavens, and she genuinely sees Fred and George as two distinct people--and I believe her. But I've decided to include them because she is the only person I've met who views them as two very distinct people. Some say that they favor Fred, but I'm suspicious he is only, generally, favored more than George because . . . of what happens to him in the last book.

Some of you may be looking at the pictures and saying, "No, no, these twins aren't clones. I know differences in the characters!" Okay, but even clones are likely to have some differences. If you have to actually stop and think and think what their differences are and try to name them, there is a good chance they fit into the "Twins as Clones" category. And besides, a few minor differences aren't enough to make them into distinct individuals.

A good test to see if they are twin clones is to see if people group them together into one entity. "Who is your favorite character?" you might ask.

"Fred and George."
"The twins." (<-- yes, because apparently they are one entity, defined simply by the fact they are twins. I mean, would anyone say "The Blacks" or "The Mexicans" or "The lesbians"?)
"Crash and Eddie."

Well guess what? That's not one character. It's two. (Or is it?)

And for some reason we are okay with this answer. We are like, "Yeah, okay."

In fact, with clone twins, it would be funny to ask the follow-up question, "Which one?" or "Yeah, but which one out of them is your favorite?"

I think most people would struggle.

While looking up stuff for this article, I also ran into more grouping. On the Ice Age wiki, Crash and Eddie are lumped together in a single wiki page. The writer even says something like, "Hey, actually, they are somewhat different from each other, if you look for it." But the thing is, if they were actually distinct individuals, you wouldn't even need to say that.

Creating distinct individuals who happen to be twins, is more than just giving a few differences. It's more than just changing a couple of things on one twin and calling it good.

Even identical twins are different individuals. I went to high school with some (I admit, I usually couldn't tell which was which), but one of my friends was friends with them, and she could immediately tell who was who just by the way they walked. And they had different demeanors. The only reason I had trouble was because I never actually spent any time with them, never talked to them enough to pick up on what their demeanors were. And perhaps this is one time to use the Twin as Clones technique--when you are trying to portray how your character views them and has trouble distinguishing them. But alas, if your character is spending a lot of time with them or is related to them, we should eventually see them as distinct people.

The opposite danger of writing clone twins is to make them complete opposites out of the sake they are twins. This often becomes cartoony. Julie likes pink and dolls and is kind. Jacky hates pink, loves punk, and is a bully. Even in this case you are essentially defining the twins by each other. You are still sitting down and saying, "I'm going to write twins," and then brainstorming their characteristics as "together."

Let's look at some better examples of twins who are their own person in their own right.

Twins as People

Luke and Leia

Vash and Knives

Wanda and Pietro

Poppet and Widget

Caramon and Raistlin

It's true that one could argue that Luke and Leia are so different because they were separated at birth--but does that matter? My point is that almost never are twins actually copies of each other. Even if Luke and Leia grew up side by side, they would still be two distinct characters.

Some could say something similar about Vash and Knives--they were separate from each other for over a lifetime (they're immortal), but I argue, even before they separated, they were distinct individuals. Even as children, Knives was logical and intellectual and Vash believed in ideals and dealt with emotions.

You could also say, "Hey, aren't they really an example of twins being the exact opposite of each other?" It's true that Vash and Knives are on two different sides of a belief system. They foil each other, certainly, but they aren't defined as characters by those foils. They aren't cartoony (ironically) opposites. And they aren't complete opposites--in some ways, they both want the same thing, they just have different views in how to get there. Again, they are two distinct, fleshed out people, who are stunning characters in their own right.

It's okay if your fictional twins are opposites in some ways and similar in others. In fact, having some of both is almost necessary to creating a great relationship. But they need to be bigger than that. Make sure you flesh out each twin (or multiple) so that they are their own person with their own mind. Create two characters who are twins, not twins that are a character.

A better way to play with the twin thing is not by defining the characters by it, but having the characters deal with being defined by it. Like that video above pointed out, people in general have some weird notions about twins and multiples. Some people think twins are special by default (and I guess in a way they are). Some people feel that if they are friends with one twin that they must be friends with the other, and maybe there is some truth to that, but not always. It depends on the people, twins, and situation.

Maybe consider whether or not your character likes being a twin. Keep in mind that to them, this is similar to asking someone if they like being a sibling. Some will not really think about it at all, because they don't know life any other way. Others might embrace it--having a buddy and playmate, extra attention from strangers and classmates, someone to share all experiences with (if they want). Others might not like it for some of the same reasons--extra attention, always having to share things (including birthday parties and presents), being compared to one another constantly, not getting along but people expecting you to be together because you're twins, being expected to invite the other twin and his/her friends to things, maybe having to invite the other twin's friends you don't like to your shared birthday party. Does your character get annoyed that people mix her up with her twin (this happens even if they aren't identical)? Or do your twins use it as an advantage and run with it?

Do either of them try to distinguish themselves from the other (physically or internally) (yes, this can still apply to twins of different sexes)? Or does one try to be like the other? Does one view the other as more popular or better than him? It's true that people compare twins a lot, but it's true that they compare each other, at least subconsciously (just as "singles" compare themselves to their siblings). How does a twin feel about one of them getting more praise than another?

See all of these interesting and complex things about being a twin that most writers aren't utilizing? Simply touching on some of these things alone will make your twins more interesting than dozens of others. You don't have to deal with these things, but it's likely that some of these dynamics would come up naturally, either from within or from without. Either obviously or subtly.

Also there are a few basic things about twins and multiples that I take for granted that people know, but the reality is, some people don't:

- Not all twins are identical. In fact, most aren't. So saying something in awe like, "You two look nothing alike," isn't that big of a deal. And they probably actually do look alike, just not identical as everyone expects. With that said, people will probably say that to them anyway.

- The term for twins that aren't identical is "fraternal."

- Identical twins can't be of different sexes (unless one had a sex change).

- Even identical twins don't need to look exactly alike. They may have different hairstyles, clothing, scars, piercings, etc.

- It is extremely rare for triplets and other multiple to all be identical. But it is more somewhat common for two of the triplets to be identical and the third not.

- Not all twins have matching names. Also, keep in mind that matching names for twins of the same sexes will increase the likelihood that people will mix them up. But also know that even if their names are very different and they don't look alike, but spend lots of time together, people will still mix them up. Family and friends won't, but people who don't know them very well will. And if your twins have matching names, it's more likely your reader will mix them up too.

- Twins made up of a male and female will be compared to one another less often than twins of the same sex.

You may have noticed that a lot of my "Twins as People" examples are a boy and girl pair. I think writers are less likely to make them clones when they are of different sexes, simply because we are ingrained to see males as different from females. But even with different sexes, they are sometimes still depicted as "clones." (T.V. Tropes has lovingly called this writing approach "half-identical.")

All in all, please, please think twice about making your twins clones, and if you choose to anyway, please have a legitimate reason for it. Instead, consider making your twins distinct individuals that happen to be twins and/or have to deal with being defined as a twin.

(By the way, if you skipped over the video at the starting, I really recommend you watch it.)

UPDATE: I'm also been told that the twins, Dipper and Mabel, from Gravity Falls is an interesting example to look at, particularly because they were created by a twin himself.


  1. The best aproach is not to think of them as twins but as siblings.
    My sister and i were raised by a single mom, so basically we were treated as a single entity and not as two different individuals. No matter what we did nor what we wanted, we had to stick together. For me, being the younger one, was really tough because i was the quiet one and had few friends but i had to pass time with people who didn't even knew my name. Even my mom gave more attention to my sister because she was louder and thought i was fine by myself.
    The funny thing is that we don't look alike, nor we think the same, our personalities are like day and night and still we end each other sentences and talk at the same time. People can't tell who is who at the phone.

  2. I was looking for an article on this not because I'm unfamiliar with twins but because I wasn't sure how to put them into a story. I've wanted to write a pair or two into a story for a long time as I am a twin and am quite sick of the popular portrayal. I've never done that with a story I could be proud of though, so I wanted to see what others had to say on the matter. I'd say that you did pretty well in your article, though I'm still not sure how to integrate a pair into the flow of my next story. Still, more people ought to see this as a good guide to writing twins.


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