Tuesday, November 27, 2012

When Others Define You

I've been thinking a lot lately about how the people you know and interact with can define you. Those closest to you are like mirrors into your true personality. You can hold up your own picture to the world, but the way you treat other people -- especially the people you treat the worst -- is one of the truest reflections into your soul.

via Avatar Wiki
This can work very powerfully in fiction. One of the most striking examples I can think of is from the animated series Avatar the Last Airbender (which I watched mostly). One of the main villains of the show, Firelord Ozai, isn't actually physically revealed until season 3. But we know what he's like, because we see him in his outcast son, Zuko. Sure, the accounts of Ozai vary depending on who's talking about him. Some are trying to defeat him, and some, like Zuko, are trying to please him. But even though Zuko thinks his father is an honorable man, the burn on Zuko's face shows us who Ozai really is, irrespective of what anyone says about him.

Or take the Harry Potter series. The main antagonist, Voldemort, isn't actually seen or spoken to until the end of the first book. And yet we know what he's like even before we officially meet him. We see it, not in him, but in all the people whose lives he's ruined. We see it in the fear everyone displays towards him, not even daring to speak his name. We see it in the joy everyone shares when they think he's gone. We see what he is like every time the book mentions the scar on Harry's forehead. It's a mark of Voldemort's character.

via Fandango
Often the mark isn't physical, like in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth thinks poorly of Mr. Darcy until she tours his house, meets his servants, and meets his sister. He seemed aloof from afar but when she finds out how he treats those closest to him she is challenged to reform her opinion. Mrs. Bennet is a silly, fickle woman, and her daughter Lydia (and her subsequent elopement) is the deepest reflection into both her character and the character of Mr. Bennet, Lydia's father.

The use of mirrors in fiction is something very subtle and very effective, and that is, of course, because it's true in life. We are all both mirrors (of other people) and the ones being mirrored.

Take a look at the person you treat worst in your life. And don't lie -- you know there is someone. Don't start thinking about someone else who is treating someone you know bad, or even someone who is treating you bad.  Who are you, personally, acting horribly towards, and what does that say about you? Are you starting to rationalize your treatment of that person - well, they deserve it? It's for their own good?

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Your treatment of that person says something about you. Are you hateful and malicious toward them? You know what that says. Are you rude and patronizing? You know what that says. Do you continually give them the cold shoulder? In all of these examples, you know what that would say about a villain in a story. And yet often we ignore what that says about us.

The best stories are the kind we take to heart and apply to our own lives. The more I think about mirroring the more I'm inclined to work harder, both at understanding how to use this tool in my stories, and in understanding how I've been using it in my own life.

Do you have any other examples of mirror characters in fiction? Or any examples of this happening in your life?


  1. I've been noticing this, well, something like this in my life a lot lately. It made me take a step back, as they say, and think about how I was acting more carefully.

    In fiction, I hadn't thought of it, but this is true. One doesn't have to meet a certain character right off to know what they are like, they just have to meet those who know them.

  2. Great post! I've never really thought about it much before, but I agree, a character's relationship with and treatment of others really does say a lot about who they are. Developing mirrors like this is a great way to use the show-don't-tell technique for a specific character's personality!

  3. Great food for thought, Lauren! It's true, and what a wonderful connection you've made between mirroring character in fiction and in our own lives as well. It's hard to love people who have hurt us or mistreated us, but we can if we give our weaknesses to God and allow Him to be our strength. :-)

  4. Very excellent post with great examples. Zuko's one of my more recent favorites.

    I gave you a Shout-Out on my blog today. :)

  5. I actually play around with mirroring characters in my main MS. It's a really interesting way to deal with them. :-)

  6. Well, if this isn't a post that makes you think, I don't know what is...



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