Why I Hate Most Literary Twins

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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.

Stereotype #1

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!”

Stereotype #2

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?

30 thoughts on “Why I Hate Most Literary Twins

  1. Krysta says:

    Ursula Vernon’s Castle Hangnail is pretty cool because the protagonist, Molly, has a twin who isn’t really in the book–so Molly has to be her own character!

    I agree, though, that I find it annoying that twins are usually portrayed as the same person or two halves of the same person. It almost seems a little cheap, like the author couldn’t be bothered to flesh out two characters and decided to take a shortcut instead.

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      • Krysta says:

        I remember it because it was so weird to me to see a twin in literature who was treated like any other character. Like, she has character development and stuff and doesn’t just stand there saying things in unison with a clone to make the other characters chuckle. o.O

        Liked by 1 person

  2. QuirkyVictorian says:

    My brother and I were born on the same day, three years apart, and we’ve always been super close, finished each other’s sentences, said word-for-word what the other was about to say, etc. When one of us steals the other’s thought, the response is, “Stop it! You were born three years too [late/early, depending on who’s speaking] to be my twin!” Personality-wise, we’re similar in a lot of ways, but there are some really key differences, so there’s no way anyone who knew us well would mistake one’s personality for the other’s. No one has done that anyway, because we’re not actually twins, and probably also because I’m a girl and he’s a guy. Therefore, they don’t see us as a set and automatically file us in a shared mental folder. I have thought, however, about how it might have been different if he hadn’t been born three years later. How I’d feel if people automatically assumed we had the same style (we don’t; I like vintage eclectic, he likes sleek and modern), the same tastes in food (we don’t; he piles cheese on everything, the sight of that makes me sick), and felt the same way about things (we don’t; he relates to narwhals on a personal level, I think it’s kinda weird). And my conclusion is that it would be pretty darn annoying. So I feel like having this perspective—being about as similar to my brother as the twins I’ve known are to one another, and yet being viewed as individuals while they get lumped together—has really made me roll my eyes a lot more than I otherwise might when I read most portrayals of fictional twins.

    So, long story short, I don’t see this as a minor issue or a weird thing for you to be annoyed by. Because authors have a responsibility to portray their characters in a realistic manner that helps readers to see the world from new, complex perspectives. By failing to do this and instead lazily perpetuating the mythology that twins are essentially the same person in two bodies, authors are only reinforcing a real-world problem.

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    • Briana says:

      Thank you so much for sharing this! I think that’s a great example!

      Yes! I think authors have some responsibility for the ways they make people think. A lot of readers seem to think stereotypical twins are fun–but it’s not fun when it bleeds into the real world and they indicate to twins they don’t consider them individuals, don’t really care what their names are, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    I never even thought about this! Then again I haven’t read about a lot of twins so far. Can I ask what your opinion is on twins who don’t actually know they have one and get to meet when they’re older?

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    • Briana says:

      Interesting! I’m sure I’ve read a book like that but can’t think of one offhand. (I guess The Parent Trap movies count?) In general I want to say that should work because, theoretically, the twins would have developed their own personalities in that time period. Though The Parent Trap shows that the writers STILL couldn’t stop themselves from making the twins have polar opposite personalities (tomboy vs. rich preppy girl), even if I think it was primarily to have the comedic effect of the switch, rather than to make some statement about twins.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Briana says:

          There are two movie versions. The more recent one has a young Lindsay Lohan. But basically twins’ parents got divorced, and each took a twin and didn’t tell them they have a twin. Then the twins meet at summer camp and decide to switch lives, but one’s a country girl and one’s a city girl, basically.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Krysta says:

            I think The Parent Trap works despite the cliche tomboy/girly-girl dynamic because the twins really do have different characters that go beyond that surface description. At one point one of the girls wants to call off the charade and the other refuses because she’s having fun. It’s that real tension between them and their desires, rather than any superficial tension about “Ew! You like sports and dirt?!” that creates the drama and makes you really care about what’s going to happen to the characters.

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  4. Kaja says:

    Hm, this isn’t a question I’ve thought of very often but you’re right! The two stereotypes describe most of what I’ve read about twins so far. It must be great to have a twin but in the end, it probably isn’t much different from having an “ordinary” (younger or older) sibling.

    I liked how Rainbow Rowell portrayed twins in Fangirl – they used to do everything together and then one of them started to crave more individuality while the other wanted to stay like they were.

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    • Briana says:

      That’s what I would imagine! I hear people asking twins “So what’s it like to be a twin?” a lot. And that doesn’t really make sense to me as a question. People don’t go around asking other people what it’s like to have siblings. for the most part. I think it’s a similar situation, just that your sibling is your age, so it may be a different dynamic from having a sibling who’s five years older than you.

      Ooh, I haven’t read Fangirl, but that sounds good. I’ll have to check it out!

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  5. klyse3 says:

    This is a fabulous issue to talk about! I just finished “Lois Lane: Double Down” by Gwenda Bond, which has a good portrayal of twins struggling to find their identity. She brings up the issue of one sibling feeling like the other was “stealing” her interests or outdoing her in her hobbies, which I noticed because that tension existed a lot in my family of 4 girls, even though we weren’t twins. But I think you’re right–most authors swing to one extreme or the other instead of portraying a balanced relationship.

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    • Briana says:

      That sounds really interesting! I think it makes sense, too, as a family dynamic. I think of a lot parents funnel their kids into similar hobbies (I mean, why drive to 3 different sports when you can just take everyone to soccer, right?), and that can cause competition among siblings. Like, maybe the oldest kid was used to being “good” at soccer, but her sister started and her sister seems to be better. It’s depressing! :p

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  6. annachaber says:

    This is a great post! I couldn’t resist reading it because I’m writing a book about fraternal (boy/girl) twins who are separated when they’re young and thus have different personalities, interests, and life experiences when they meet again as teenagers. (Although, since it’s a fantasy, they actually are telepathic. :)) You make some really good points here, and I will definitely apply them to my novel, although boy/girl twins are less easily stereotyped as the same person. Thanks!

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  7. Krysta says:

    Perhaps you were trying not to be creepy in this post, but it occurred to me that the other twin stereotype is the one perpetuated by texts like The Duchess of Malfi, where the two or one of the two has an…unusually close and unhealthy interest in the other. It’s like an extension of the trope of twins as the same person or twins as almost sideshow freak. Almost like authors positing that, if twins are unnatural, then the ultimate unnatural act is incest.

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      • Krysta says:

        I wonder if it will become less extensive now that twins are supposed to be becoming more numerous due to fertility treatments. If there are twins everywhere, will they seem less unnatural?

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Michelle @ Pink Polka Dot Books says:

    My favorite twins are Noah and Jude from I’ll Give You the Sun. I thought they were just enough alike and different and REAL PEOPLE to work really well as characters. I know what you mean though… The Wakefield Twins syndrome of having a tomboy and a princess is SO overdone!! I’m looking forward to reading the 2nd Lois Lane Fallout book that was mentioned above. I didn’t realize there were twins in that book!

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  9. gotmybook2 says:

    I have twin siblings (a brother & sister) and it used to make my Mom furious when people only sent one birthday or, worse, Christmas present for the two of them while the rest of us all got our own.

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    • Briana says:

      Yes, I’ve heard of that happening, and it seems so absurd and insulting! Or also situations where, say, an older brother gets $100 from an aunt for high school graduation. When the twins graduate two years later, they each get $50. :/

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      • gotmybook2 says:

        Exactly, if you can’t afford two gifts in the same month – please plan ahead. And people also talk about “the twins” as if they don’t have names of their own.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Briana says:

          That also drives me nuts. They have names. They’re not a unit. I would think people would be more likely to use names with a brother and sister because they’d be easier to tell apart, but apparently not always. There are a number of twins in my family, and I’m convinced the only reason people use names at family gatherings is because if you said “the twins,” you could be referring to about ten different people.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. sassgasms says:

    I actually know quite a few twins in real life and they have mentioned how they hate the trope that they are either the same or completely different. I know one pair in particular that are extremely similar but still different and I think it’s like you said, they are twins as people. These girls have the same friends and the same major, but the difference lies in their personalities and how they express themselves. I would love to read more books that are like that verses the either or .

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    • Briana says:

      Ah, I’m not alone! That makes me feel so much better! Every time I’ve mentioned this in real life, people have brushed me off and told me it’s not a real problem and they like it. I’m basking in all the supportive comments online. 😀

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  11. jubilare says:

    I love that you’re speaking up about this. I feel the same way about albinism. Something like 85% or more of characters with albinism in fiction are characterized as evil, and even when they aren’t, stupid myths about them seeing in the dark, or being somehow “mystical” are tossed about. Anything that isn’t standard seems to get this kind of treatment.

    My brother and I are 4.5 years apart in age. He’s a summer baby, I’m a winter, he’s a boy, I’m a girl. But we’re close. We used to (and sometimes still do) finish each others sentences. We had our own language growing up (simply called “code”) that consisted entirely of quotes and communicated via shared connotations, mostly for purposes of making each other laugh. We’ve been known to guess each others’ passwords, and it’s frustrating to let him read my writing because I can’t fool him. He always guesses the plot, even when no one else reading does. I guess it’s what happens when kids have some similarity of mind and get raised in the same house.

    The relationships between twins can be very close, and no wonder, as they’re growing up at the same pace, together. And with identical twins, similarities in genetics can pull them in similar directions. But genetics aren’t destiny, and as you point out, twins can react in many different ways to their situation. Maybe the stereotyping of twins in literature is a clumsy attempt to explore those reactions by exaggerating them, though that’s no excuse of course. That is, after all, where most stereotypes come from: one small observation blown out of all proportion. And the small truth gives a kind of furious insistence to the big lie.

    Twins run in my family, on my mother’s side. Her father lost his twin to an accident when they were young men, and he was devastated. But I know I would be equally devastated by the loss of my brother. And I do know that my grandfather and his twin brother were very different people, and yet very close. Just like my brother and I.

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