Some Applications

But you're not writing about Scrooge or Marley. What can mirror characters do for your fiction?

They can highlight some central thing about a main character you want to bring out, as Scrooge's mirrors focus attention on the conflict between materialistic selfishness, however socially acceptable, and emotional involvement with others, however profitless. Is there some one trait of your protagonist you want to make plain in a way that's showing rather than telling? Then set up a mirror character who shares that trait in even more visible form and let the reader draw his own conclusions.

Is there something about the protagonist's present circumstances that's specially helpful or destructive? Then show somebody more or less comparable, but even more able (or more desperate) being helped/destroyed by it. That will underline the threat or hope as it relates to the protagonist. In the very simplest terms, sidekicks get bumped off right and left in detective fiction so that the author can maintain a sense of threat without ever having to really kill off his detective. (Doyle killed off Holmes, but only because he was sick of that insufferable know-it-all, and he was sorry afterward and wrote him back to life.)

What you can't afford to do to your protagonist, you can do to the mirror character, showing that it's possible, it's a real threat or hope. Drastic things, irrevocable things, often happen to mirror characters in fiction for just that reason. Like Marley, they can very suddenly become "dead as a doornail" or, like the foolish younger sister in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, they can marry most unsuitably to show the protagonist the way to a better, wiser choice.

If you don't want to go into your protagonist's background, or want to keep some other element of the protagonist's life a secret, set up a mirror who's explained in more detail and again let the resemblance carry its own implications.

Things you let readers figure out for themselves are sometimes more powerful than those you spell out in so many words.

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