This targets the clichés, mostly, but also includes ways to try and improve them, because I’m feeling nice like that this evening.
1) It’s awfully hard to cheer for infants, even if they’re twins.
When a book starts with a baby, I usually roll my eyes. The baby is often an heir to the Something of Something, spirited away from god-knows-what danger into hiding, and of course the reader is meant to cheer for him or her because, gasp, what kind of villain would kill a helpless baby?!?
Well…a practical one. It’s better than waiting for the heir to the Something to Something to grow up, claim the Something of Something, and come to kill him.
It’s even worse when they’re twins. I bet the author is splitting them up. I bet the adults in the scene—who should be better-characterized than they are, given that they have had, oh, lives and experiences to have them in—will wail about how that is so unfair, and my what sorrows life will weave, and how they hope that the twins will find each other someday. And of course they will.
I fail to see how having a woman bear twins, then expire messily in the midst of blood (of course she does), then splitting the twins up for an infinitely predictable reunion years later is, in and of itself, exciting.
At the very least, make the adults interesting. Show why and how they’re devoted to the heirs, or the Something of Something the babies are heirs to. That way, if the book focuses on the quest to carry the twins to safety, I can at least feel sorry when the adults die (as they inevitably do). I’m not left feeling I have to cheer for a character the author has not made more than a bundle of baby blankets.
If the book focuses on the twins when they’re adults, or, far more likely, teenagers, then don’t rely on that first scene to tug on the reader’s heartstrings and hook her for life. It’s sentimental button-mashing. Yes, yes, the twins are being split up, sob sob. War orphans usually suffer far worse. At least these babies have people who care about their safety. And if the enemy is looking for twins, excuse me if I think it’s a better idea to split them up and try to hide them far apart from each other than to leave them together in plain sight because “gasp, twins have to be together!”
2) About the mind bond: Put up or shut up.
I’m resigned to the fact that fantasy twins will have a mental bond, sometimes telepathic or empathic, usually both. They will be able to feel each other’s pain, to speak silently (and distance does not the fuck matter, usually), and sometimes to wield magic in concert. The author will go on long mystical spiels about how Speshul twins are. I will hide under the bed, and possibly keep reading if the writing is good enough. All the stupid things that I’ve already ranted about in person-to-person telepathic bonds will happen.
But, please, for gods’ sakes, show the mental bond in all its depth, including its agonies and its consequences. Don’t use it for a plot convenience, to be forgotten when the author wants one twin to wallow in angst, inexplicably alone. And don’t hinder it without explanation. So these twins have a bond that lets them tell which direction the other one is in at all times, and usually exactly where the other one is. But then one of them gets kidnapped, and the rescuers never think to have the other twin pinpoint the location of the one in danger, just so that the author can have a long dramatic chase scene? Oh come the fuck on.
You had better have an excellent idea of the potentialities and limitations of such a bond, and apply them rigorously. Yes, hi, it’s another form of magic that needs rules. This is less because of the nature of the magic itself than because of how authors writing fantasy stories centered on twins plot. One is always getting kidnapped or turned against his or her sibling or sent on a dangerous mission. Why the empathic bond then mysteriously falls silent or doesn’t work anymore or can only give partial and incomplete information rather than the exact information it gave before is never explained.
So, decide on the limitations. I don’t care what they are. In a very good story, the author doesn’t need to waste time infodumping about them, either. I just need to have the sense that she knows what they are, so that she doesn’t mysteriously abandon that magic she’s spent so much time extolling when she wants angst.
3) There’s a limitation to how stupid you can make other people about the twins’ appearance.
Another favorite plot device involving twins is having one take the other’s place. The younger (evil) brother becomes the heir in the elder brother’s place. The elder (evil) sister marries the man her younger sister was supposed to marry. One of the twins fools a villain into believing that his or her captive sibling has escaped.
And, of course, nobody ever asks very, very simple questions such as, “Remember that discussion that we had last night, Your Highness?” or “Why are you looking disgusted with this locket when you told me that was what you wanted for a wedding gift?” or even “Let’s divide our guards in half and check the dungeons as well as chase this inexplicably free person, why don’t we?”
Impersonating another person requires far more than the right appearance and clothing. Yes, fantasy authors often don’t show that, but that is because many, many fantasy authors are enamored of this supposed plot “twist.” So they dumb down the other characters, instead, and make them accept the most stupid excuses, up to and including, “I mysteriously lost all my memories last night.”
*Limyaael sticks out tongue*
This is one place where the supposed empathic bond could actually come into play, you know. If the twins can read each other’s minds, then one could have access to all the other’s memories and personality traits. I don’t think it would work perfectly, but it would be a better disguise than lying all the damn time.
You can also let other people suspect. I’m sorry, but I refuse to buy that everyone is going to be fooled by the same eyes and hair and face and clothing. A spouse or long-time friend of one twin and not the other is going to notice all kinds of little mannerisms that are off. A lover will notice that the body is missing scars or tattoos or love bites or wrinkles or other distinguishing marks. A beloved pet could refuse to come because the other twin isn’t feigning the usual tone of voice well enough. And that’s not touching the immense store of gestures, in-jokes, memories, expressions, routines, and other things that make people who they are in social context. A twin who studied the other obsessively, was a good actor, and also had the empathic bond would have the best chance, and even then, I don’t think she could leap into the other’s role right off. It would take practice. Too easy, way too easy, to just think, “Well, she tilts her head to the right when she’s telling a lie, so that’s what I’ll do.” It’s one thing to imitate such small things consciously, another to move like that until the unconscious motions are part of you. Someone trying to act like the other twin in an exaggerated fashion would be more noticeable, not less.
It doesn’t even have to be conscious on the suspecting person’s part. A friend might accept that this was the same person, particularly if he doesn’t know that this woman has a twin, but he could feel uneasy without knowing why. He certainly doesn’t have to tumble into the usual trap of, “I will happily smile, and never ask a relevant question, until the author reveals the supposed plot twist and I can feel shocked and betrayed!”
As you might guess, I think this plot “twist” is really stupid. If authors are unwilling to present certain difficulties with and limitations for it, I think it should be tossed out the window.
4) If one twin is good and the other is evil, decide why.
Too often, the evil twin is just jealous of the good twin. Oh, yes, later she’ll probably turn out to love murdering and torturing and raping people, and to want to take over the world besides, but the first evil thing she ever does is envy her beautiful, talented, thin, compassionate, magical twin Destined to Save the World.
Giving your protagonist an evil family is low characterization on the totem pole, the ultimate badly-reasoned and badly-characterized excuse to let her get away with everything. Their dialogue is predictable, their actions are predictable, they of course abuse her and kick her out and are jealous of her, and there is no sensible explanation for how the protagonist learned all her skills in an environment where no one would want to teach them to her, nor why she doesn’t act like an abused child or teenager could be expected to act. Usually the first turns out to come from friends and mentors who for some reason do nothing to stop the abuse, and the second from inherent Speshulness. “Anyone else would have blamed her family, but not Krystalynne! Oh, she is so brave and good!”
I loathe this plotline with a quiet but savage passion.
Think about that.
Now imagine how I feel about evil twins.
So, yeah. If you want one twin to be the protagonist and the other to be on the opposite side, reason them both out. Don’t show the good one accepting all the right opportunities and making all the right decisions without a mistake, thus implying that the evil one just wasn’t smart enough to act like she did. Don’t show the evil one just being inherently, generically Evil, Because. Don’t show the good one being good because she’s pretty and plays a musical instrument and is kind to little furry animals. Someone can be kind to little furry animals and massively unkind to other human beings, after all. And making your protagonist Good because of what she can do is the biggest problem, and the nadir, of all fantasy characterization, off the totem pole and sitting on the ground smearing itself with feces.
Also, ask yourself honestly why you want a good twin and an evil one. If it’s not for a good reason, scrap it.
5) Twins can be normal siblings, too, you know.
So many authors become obsessed with twins looking like each other that they seem to forget to give them normal sibling traits. Either the twins are completely devoted to each other, or they hate each other forever and ever. Any possibly normal problem, such as jealousy, is thrown out of all proportion. Somehow, it’s wrong for people who look alike to feel any negative emotions towards each other.
Don’t look at me, I didn’t make this shit up.
Get over your obsession with the twins’ looks, please. Give them backgrounds and problems and conflicts and common traits that make sense for the story. And no, not just for their roles in the plot, either, or you wind up with the good twin and the evil one again. For the story, which is the world and the language and the style and the pace and the themes as well as the plot.
Here’s an exercise: First write out two characters who are normal siblings, a pair of brothers or a pair of sisters or a brother and sister born at the same time or near the same time. Then try saying that they’re identical or fraternal twins.
What changes? Do you feel you have to flip your whole conception of them just because they look alike? Geez, I hope not. That’d be really pathetically silly, wouldn’t it?
…Yes, that’s the point.
6) You are not the first author in the world to have thought of twincest.
This is here just because I’m irritated with authors who seem to think that they’re doing something incredibly original and daring and risqué in making a pair of twins lovers. No, actually, you’re not. Other people have done it before.
Can you show a pair of twins becoming lovers for their own reasons? Can you show how their society reacts to it, and show it well? Can you show what consequences come of it? That is, can you get past the childish obsession with two people who look alike fucking each other and make them into lovers who would be interesting even if they weren’t twins?
Then thank you. If it’s just about looks, then good luck peddling your story to people who are interested in that.
Yes, that was bitchy. On the other hand, I’ve really started to dread stories with twins in them, because authors get so freaking hung up on their looks and nothing else.