What You Need to Know About Doubling and Doppelgängers

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As far as literary tools go, doubling and doppelgängers aren’t exactly the most inviting. Doubles can be difficult to define, and umlauts don’t scream ‘easily accessible’. Despite this, it’s worth persevering, because these tools are a lot more versatile than you might think, strengthening themes and plot points, and forging connections within your story that intensify depth and meaning.

Doubling in your writing

Depending where you look, you’ll find different definitions of doubling, and that’s partly because it’s meant different things at different points in history. What most sources agree on is that doubling involves using one character to reflect or comment on another.

Beyond that, things get tricky. Are doubles opposites or are they identical? Are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a great example of doubling because they’re opposites or because one is just the other making different choices? Academically, it’s a fascinating discussion, but practically, it doesn’t really matter.

As an author, what’s important to understand is the process by which characters comment on one another. Characters can be doubled up for an entire book or just for one scene – you might confront the hero and the villain with similar situations (the loss of a mentor, for example) just for their doubling to expose how they differ.

Doubling allows the actions of one character to reflect on another. Click To Tweet

In fiction such as the TV show Fargo, multiple characters circle each other, confronting similar challenges and opportunities in a way that makes each character a study of the others. In season one, Lester and Gus make similar mistakes – confronted with the malevolence of antagonist Lorne Malvo, both refuse responsibility and allow him to do whatever he wants. Gus, however, allows his regret to inform his later behavior, while Lester doubles down, eventually sacrificing others rather than confronting Malvo himself.

At the same time, Malvo and Lester are doubled, with both men seeing others as disposable. It’s a portrait of what evil means in the Fargo universe, but the way Lester deploys this belief is passive, while Malvo is more active… like Molly, another character who also doubles Gus in many scenes. And so it goes.

Characters can even be doubled by animals. In Of Mice and Men, Candy’s dog doubles both Candy and, eventually, Lenny. The dog is old and useless, qualities Candy believes he may also embody, and when Carlson, a co-worker, offers to shoot it, Candy allows him to do so.

In this moment, Candy is doubled by his dog; he, too, is approaching a state of uselessness, and both he and the reader see that the world will deal with him harshly. This informs Candy’s desperation to find a new kind of life, and the threat implicit to all the characters.

Nevertheless, Candy regrets his decision. He admits that shooting the dog was probably right, but says:

I ought to of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn’t ought to of let no stranger shoot my dog.

– John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

Later, when George realizes his friend Lenny is going to be killed, he makes the decision to do it himself, even using the same gun that killed the dog to underscore the comparison.

In this way, the reader gains a deeper understanding of George’s decision to kill Lenny, and the nature of the choice he makes. The doubling allows the reader to see a version of the worst-case scenario – what happens if George doesn’t take responsibility for Lenny, and the regret he will live with as a result. Because this concept has already been explored through doubling, Steinbeck isn’t forced to belabour the point, making the moment itself purer and more powerful.

Likewise, Fargo uses doubling to show what its characters decisions say about them. Similarities are drawn between approaches and situations, zeroing in on what each idea means in isolation and in application. You can break the central cast up as heroes and villains, with Gus and Molly on one side and Malvo and Lester on the other, or you can split them down lines of passivity and aggression, grouping Molly and Malvo as separate to Gus and Lester.

The end product is dense and complex, but it’s a web built up over the editing process, finding ways for characters to double each other in expected and unexpected ways. As each character grows, that growth is measured against the metric of characters who, in a variety of ways, represent aspects of each other. This means that, as with George’s murder of Lenny, much less needs to be explicit – meaning is loaded into the story early and naturally, which allows a feather-light touch later on.

Successful doubling facilitates showing over telling. Click To Tweet

Doubling is useful because a) it does so much work and b) it can be used to such varying degrees. In Wuthering Heights, the characters of one half of the book double the other, as a new generation tries to avoid the terrible mistakes and fates of their forebears. Likewise, in Fight Club, Tyler and the narrator are doubled to the extent that each is a critique of the other. These are stories built on doubling as a central conceit, but you can also use minor instances of doubling like Candy’s dog to underline key moments.

I’ll move onto how to do this practically shortly, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider an even more intense form of doubling: the doppelgänger.

Writing the doppelgänger

A storytelling tool as old as time, the doppelgänger is a literal double of a character. They fulfil the same societal niche, they often look the same, and something about that makes them a dire threat.

The doppelgänger has existed as long as there have been stories, but its use has changed over time, as Freud reflects.

…the idea of the double (the doppelgänger), in all its nuances and manifestations – that is to say, the appearance of persons who have to be regarded as identical because they look alike. This relationship is intensified by the spontaneous transmission of mental processes from one of these persons to the other – what we would call telepathy – so that the one becomes co-owner of the other’s knowledge, emotions and experience. Moreover, a person may identify himself with another and so become unsure of his true self; or he may substitute the other’s self for his own… the meaning of the ‘double’ changes: having once been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death.

– Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny

In fiction, the doppelgänger is a double so exact that they draw a character’s individuality – even the validity of their soul – into question. The most famous use of the doppelgänger is probably from Dostoyevsky’s The Double, but this device occurs in more fiction than you might think.

In their purest form, a doppelgänger is seen as a growing threat to the person they double. Often, they represent what that person sees as their ideal self, not exactly possessing the opposite attributes, but rather behaving as that person wishes they could behave.

The doppelgänger is an intense study of another character and a great source of conflict.Click To Tweet

In doing so, the doppelgänger reveals their double as a fraud and, fulfilling their purpose better than the original, slowly begins to take a character’s place in the world. This might sound incredibly specific, but it doesn’t take a lot for us to see someone as a better version of us, and the doppelgänger appears in everything from horror and high drama to sci-fi and comedy.

Humanoid robots and aliens are often painted as the doppelgängers of humanity, and many comedies have their protagonists face off against a romantic or professional rival who, when you come down to it, is just a better version of them.

In Simon Blackwell’s Back, the death of the protagonist’s father prompts the return of his former foster brother, Andrew. Over the course of the first season, Andrew gradually infiltrates the protagonist’s life – perhaps as part of a deliberate con, or perhaps simply because he deserves it more.

Andrew’s won, hasn’t he? Transformed the pub into a terrible, brilliant success in a way I simply couldn’t. Owns a bigger share of it than me, customers love him, he’s won… I accept he has. He’s stolen my life, and he’s living it better than me. He deserves everything that wasn’t coming to me but will come to him now that he is me… He’s got powers. Mum’s asked us both to give speeches at Dad’s birthday memorial. Whose speech will be brilliant? Who will people think is Laurie’s heir? You know who.

– Simon Blackwell, ‘Episode 6’ from Back

Again, the doppelgänger is surprisingly flexible, but it’s also worth discussing alongside the double because of a few different factors.

Anxiety and the uncanny

We’ve talked before about the uncanny (in Want To Disturb Your Readers? Mastering The Uncanny Is The Answer), and the doppelgänger is an incredibly uncanny device, at once familiar and threatening: it’s you, but it’s also most certainly not.

The truly terrifying thing about the doppelgänger is that it taps into our inherent anxiety about our own worth. The mere presence of the doppelgänger suggests the replacement of the original, and perhaps even that the original should be replaced.

Where androids or aliens threaten to replace humanity, as in William Gibson’s ‘The Belonging Kind’ or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, they’re generally revealing and exploiting a flaw in our nature. In short, they’ve got a point.

As an extreme example of the double, the doppelgänger suggests an inherent antagonism in similarity. When two characters fulfil the same purpose, or where one exhibits a superior attribute to another, there’s the potential for immediate conflict. This is something you can reverse engineer – a way to get characters at each other’s throats – or to increase realism, applying to characters who find themselves in this situation.

Self-aware doubling

Another way in which the doppelgänger is relevant to practical doubling is in the fact that characters instinctively know when they’re being confronted by a doppelgänger, even when no-one else does. Characters tend to pick up on the fact that they’re encountering a double, and it makes them uneasy, even if they don’t know why.

Realistic doubling often involves the characters seeing their own flaws. When Lester meets Malvo, he sees the opportunities offered by a more active evil, and when Gus meets Molly, he sees the necessity of active good. Likewise, George sees himself in Candy and understands the implications of his later responsibility.

Importance of individuality

On a level outside the story, doppelgängers illustrate the necessity for individuality. When two characters are too similar, the concept of the doppelgänger implies they naturally begin a process of amalgamation – the more interesting version takes over.

When creating characters, let this process play out. In stories, doppelgängers are a threat to the protagonist, but when writing stories, let the more interesting character swallow their double, taking over their story lines and plot duties.

Practical doubling

So doubling and doppelgängers are useful, but how can you set about writing them? The answer is that it can actually be done later in the writing and plotting than you might think. Doubling picks out and emphasizes comparisons and themes within the text – often, it’s easiest to let the story reach a point where those factors exist and then find a way to turn characters into doubles.

Did Steinbeck know that he needed George to understand his duty to Lenny before he thought of the scene with Candy’s dog? It’s a good bet, because it’s a scene that seems designed to focus and codify multiple themes.

Doubling doesn’t need to be in your story from the start to be effective. Click To Tweet

Books like Fight Club hang on the explicit use of a doppelgänger, but doubling is a subtler device and easier to incorporate in the second, third, and fourth drafts. Once you start paring down your story and reflecting on the form it’s taking, natural similarities emerge; that’s the point at which you can start using doubling to highlight those similarities.

In terms of writing a scene that doubles characters, be conscious of framing similarities for the reader. If you’re comparing a lost job to a lost dog, be conscious of framing – can you describe the character striking a similar pose, pick out a similar bit of scenery, or describe the weather in the same way? Readers are attuned to these patterns, and so a small nod to similarity can be all it takes to make them consider the relationship between scenes and characters.

Doubling up

Doubling and doppelgängers offer unique opportunities, and in their subtler forms, they belong in a wide range of stories. They also offer a lens through which to consider stories and the use of characters – specifically, the value of unique characterization, and how different characters can describe and explore each other.

Practicing with doubles and doppelgängers will give you a masterful control of each tool, but remember that it’s never too late to start considering doubling in your stories.

What doubling have you spotted in your favorite stories, and how do you intend to use it in your own? For more great advice on this topic, check out Want To Disturb Your Readers? Mastering The Uncanny Is The Answer and How Many Characters Should A Novel Have?


5 thoughts on “What You Need to Know About Doubling and Doppelgängers”

  1. Rob, you have provided us with a gold mine full of ideas. And I looked up doppelgänger, obviously a German word, and roughly translated, it means “double predecessor”.

  2. This is just what I needed. I’m almost finished my wip and I’m finally turning my mind to all my minor characters. I thought it would be good time to double down on mirrors and foils but I was getting nervous that other (better) writers didn’t do this to their minor characters. It’s good to learn that it is done closer to the end, especially as I pantsed the first draft. Is there a limit on the number or type of characters that can serve as doubles?
    (I assume that the novel should be readable and comprehensible even if the reader doesn’t pick up on the symbolism.)

    1. Hi Kale,

      Thanks for commenting. You’ve hit the nail on the head – the limit is when it stops serving the story.


    1. Hi Susie,

      Absolutely my pleasure! A little tricky, but something you can absolutely introduce in degrees and build on later.


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