I understand that to most people this is a very minor issue in literature. In fact, I’ve mentioned it in passing to other readers on several occasions and have been quickly shut down for caring about something that, to others, either isn’t particularly important or, in fact, is something they quite enjoy and would love to see more of. My problem? The persistent stereotyping of twins in literature.
There are two basic characterizations of twins in literature, both of which I think are lazy on the part of authors and both of which represent twins as something amusing to be gawked at, rather than as actual people. I fail to see why this isn’t a problem for more readers when twins are more than a literary trope (they totally exist in real life!) and deserve more than a cliché representation in books.
The first option for literary twins is “the twins who are nothing alike.” Think The Parent Trap. One’s a tomboy. One’s a fashionista. One’s good at school. The other’s failing every class. They probably have totally different styles and could never be mistaken for each other, even if they look quite alike. While this does happen in real life—twins can definitely have different interests—it’s obviously reductive and a shorthand for the author to differentiate the twins without having to explore any nuances of what it might mean to be a twin. Most twins will have some things in common and some things not in common (based on the fact they probably had exactly the same environment growing up, were forced to go to exactly the same activities, attend the same classes, make the same friends, etc.) But any sameness gets pushed aside, and the author might as well be writing two characters who aren’t twins at all. There’s also an attempted shock factor as the author clearly shouts, “Look at how unexpectedly different these twins are! Isn’t it cool how they’re nothing alike!”
The second option for literary twins is worse, however, as authors go to the opposite end of the spectrum and write twins who are exactly the same. They are so the same they might as well be the same person. In fact, they want to be the same person. It’s like some freak of nature, one person in two bodies, and isn’t it just cool for you, the reader, to watch? In this representation, the twins often have cheesy rhyming names (Sasha and Tasha) and they definitely finish each other’s sentences. No one has heard them speak without finishing each other’s sentences. They dress alike, too. They’re the same person, just cloned. Or a hive mind. Or something. No other character can figure out which one is which, and no other character bothers to because it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if they’re talking to Sasha or to Tasha because, in the end, it’s exactly the same thing.
Now, some real life twins do some version of this, too, so I guess I can’t completely discredit it. Some of them play up the fact no one can tell them apart and try to play pranks or take advantage of the fact that other people seem to sincerely believe they’re telepathic. Or maybe telekinetic. Or just have some twin superpower that no one else does. However, from my observations, I think most twins like to play up their similarities at times, partially just because it’s possible and partially because that’s what people expect them to do after reading books like the ones I just described.
Twins as Individuals
(Who Just Happen to, Maybe, Look the Same)
So, without trying to speak for all the twins of the world, I want to posit a crazy idea: that twins are actually individuals and most would really appreciate it if other people figured out their name and didn’t act as if they were 100% interchangeable with their sibling. If you don’t have a twin, think of one of your siblings (or maybe a close friend, if you’re an only child). Imagine how it would feel if someone was constantly calling you your sibling’s name. And when you corrected them they responded, “It doesn’t matter.” They don’t actually care which one of you they’re speaking to because it’s basically the same thing. And they’re not going to bother trying to call you the correct name in the future because that doesn’t matter either and, anyway, it’s effort to figure out your name. Or imagine someone asking your sibling their opinion on something—and then assuming you hold exactly the same opinion because you’re siblings and that’s what you do. You must like chocolate milkshakes because they do. You’re definitely voting Republican in the upcoming election because they are. Or imagine someone calling your house and asking for either you or your sibling, they don’t really care which. Or, if they want to catch your attention on the street, just screaming your last name because, again, they don’t care whether you or your sibling turns around to answer them. Either one will do. You’re the same person anyway.
Imagine how annoying it must be to be constantly considered part of a set, or constantly assumed to be the same person as someone else with no feelings or opinions of your own.
So, unfortunately, I don’t think twins in literature with their matching names and complete-the-sentence puzzles are cute. I think these characterizations are a reflection of the sad fact most twins are not treated as individuals, especially as children and teenagers when people think it’s even more acceptable to gawk at them. Only when they move away from home and are around people who may not even know they have a twin are they allowed to have an individual personality. Add to that the fact that many twins will be stared at on the street, and constantly approached, by strangers who think it’s just so weird that they look alike and feel the need to comment on it, and stereotypical literary representations that portray twins as walking entertainment (so compellingly freaky they’re so alike!) look even less amusing to me.
I know a lot of twins. I get that it can be difficult to tell them apart. I’m not always good at it myself. But it’s definitely worth the effort to try and to treat twins like individual people, rather than a unit. I wish more authors would take the time to do this in literature, and to address some of the real issues twins face—like being harassed on the streets by people who have something to say about their looks or want to force them to run a test so they can be sure twins can’t actually read each other’s minds. Being a twin isn’t about dressing alike and speaking in unison like we’re all living in a horror movie about demonic possessions. Often being a twin is about trying to do the opposite, trying to get people to notice that you are not your sibling and do in fact have your own subjectivity, but without going so far as to become a goth kid while your sibling becomes homecoming king.
So let’s break away from twins as tropes and think about twins as people—as deserving the same type of detailed characterization that every other character gets. Can you recommend any books that don’t have stereotypical representations of twins?