Clones: Variations on Theme Through Character

One way of showing theme and thematic premise is through comparing and contrasting the main character’s thematic traits with those of supporting characters. Characters who serve this function are often referred to as

foils, mirror characters, reflection characters, symbols, or even clones. And they often drive a subplot (which we may look at in more detail when we get to plot).

What’s a Clone

“Clones are characters in your story that represent what could, should, or might happen to the protagonist if he or she takes a particular path,” says Brian McDonald. Through clones, a character and the audience can “see what might happen if the character doesn’t change her ways.”

“Almost all supporting characters face a choice that is a variation of the protagonist’s dilemma,” says Jim Mercurio. “All characters are some combination of same, different, or same and different. They become mirrors of or foils for each other.”

Mirroring subplots “often whisper: This is what you’re wishing for; are you sure it’s what you really want?” says Lisa Cron. Mirror characters are “secondary characters in a situation similar to the one the protagonist finds himself in.” They change “the way the protagonist sees the situation–because mirroring subplots reveal alternate ways in which the story question could be resolved. Thus they either serve as a cautionary tale or a validation or provide a fresh perspective.”

“Symbol characters symbolize something important to the hero,” says Victoria Lynn Schmidt.

And John Truby says, “The subplot character has a very precise function in a story, and … it involves the comparative method. The subplot is used to contrast how the hero and a second character deal with the same problem in slightly different ways” and with a different result.

Need an example of clones?

Mr. McDonald says, “Two of the Three Little Pigs are clones. It is the failure of the first two pigs that allows us to measure the success of the last pig. This is a simple use of clones, and one of the most obvious to see.”

Sounds like work. Why should I bother?

Why should you develop your secondary characters into clones?

Because, as Gary Provost says, this “is usually one of the main means of demonstrating or showing (rather than telling) … theme without the need for some kind of editorial comment.”

Mr. McDonald agrees. “A clone in story terms is a tool for showing, not telling. To the untrained eye, clone characters appear to be nothing more than secondary characters populating the story’s world. But in the hands of a skillful storyteller, they are the invisible ink that helps illuminate the story’s point.”

How so?

1. Clones Show-Don’t-Tell the Plot Alternatives

As Ms. Cron explains, “we learn from watching and discussing how others–whether friends, family, or foe–struggled with the banana peels that life blithely tossed in their path. We get a kick out of this because it reveals what might happen if we took a similar course of action without having to actually suffer the pratfall.”

By watching someone deal with a problem and make a choice to resolve that problem to certain results, we (and our protagonist) gain insight into how we should deal with our own version of that problem. We (and our protagonist) then either make a similar choice because we want a similar result, or we choose something else in hopes of a different result.

In other words and as Mr. McDonald puts it, “We measure the success of one character by the failure of another.”

2. Clones Show-Don’t-Tell the Main Character

“The purpose of a foil character is to accentuate aspects of the protagonist,” says Mr. Mercurio.  “Sometimes a foil character is just an opposite whose contrast sheds light on the protagonist’s overall characteristics.”

As Ansen Dibell says, “Two characters who in some meaningful sense are reflections of one another can highlight either the differences or similarities between them.”  This includes character traits and dilemmas, especially those that dramatize your thematic premise, as well as character backgrounds, attitudes and experiences.

Ms. Dibell provides several examples of how to do this:

  • 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 let the resemblance carry its own implications.
  • Is there a 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 especially helpful or destructive? Then show somebody more or less comparable, but even more able (or desperate) being helped/destroyed by it.

This last example suggests a third reason to use clones:

3. Clones Show-Don’t-Tell the Stakes

Clones can “underline the threat or hope as it relates to the protagonist,” says Ms. Dibell. “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.”

“Mirror characters are alternative versions of the protagonist. . . . who have already made the decision that the protagonist should or will eventually make,” says Mr. Mercurio. Such characters are currently living the consequences, good or bad, of their choices and thus demonstrating what’s at stake, good or bad, for the protagonist.

“Another way foil characters function,” says Mr. Mercurio, “is to be very similar to the protagonist, except for a single exception, a trait or an eventual action. When given the same figurative dilemma as the protagonist, a foil character will make a different choice that emphasizes the protagonist’s choice” and the consequences at stake.

Okay, so how do I come up with clones for my protagonist?

Here are a few ways:

1. Start with the thematic premise.

As Stanley D. Williams says, “the two phrases of the Moral Premise are exact opposites, and thus describe the decisions and actions of both our protagonist or co-protagonists, reflective or mirror characters, and antagonists or nemeses… all who are necessary to contrast and reveal the power of the drama’s message.”

“In most successful [stories], the protagonist starts off in the bad direction, learns something, and ends up going in the good direction. Likewise, there are friends and associates of the protagonist, some of whom are following the positive side of the Moral Premise and other characters who are following the negative side of the Moral Premise.”

2. Use a bubble diagram.

Once you’ve identified your theme and/or thematic premise, start brainstorming possible variations.

How? I’ll let Paula Munier tell you:

“Let’s say you are writing a love story. After writing the general term love in the big bubble in the middle of the diagram, you would add bubbles for all of the different aspects of love, good and bad, positive and negative, old and new.” For example: lust, jealousy, indifference, obsession, etc.

Ms. Munier also suggests a bubble chart that stems from your protagonist:

“List the contradictory aspects of your hero or heroine’s personality. Go for broke–the more qualities, quirks, traits, and tendencies you can come up with, the better. Once you’ve listed several pairs of opposites, think about how they might relate to your main theme and plot, as well as your variations on theme and subplots. And consider how you can play to those opposing forces when you plot your story.” Then “create a bubble chart of the secondary characters that your brainstorming suggested to you. Build this bubble chart around your protagonist.”

“Brainstorm as many scenarios as you can,” says Ms. Munier. “The more you come up with, the more you’ll prime the pump for plotting ideas– and the more deeply you’ll understand your protagonist.”

When you’re done brainstorming, use those aspects as the foundation for crafting the secondary characters who will demonstrate the variations of theme (through subplots, which we’ll look at later). Explore in a paragraph or two how these variations of theme might become variations of the thematic premise and how they might be dramatized or demonstrated.

What if I’m not a planner?

Not to worry, Pantsers, Mr. Hauge has a plan for you. (And planners can use it too.)

3. Write first, then study and further develop your characters.

For Michael Hauge, “theme emerges when the hero’s similarity to the nemesis, and difference from the reflection, are revealed. When we recognize how the hero, at any point in the [story], is like the character he opposes and unlike the character with whom he is aligned, we begin to see the [story’s] broader statement about how we should live our lives.”

For pantsers, once you’re done with a draft, study your characters, look for how the main character is thematically similar or different, how his inner motivations and conflicts are similar or different, to the bad guy and the ally, respectively. Then enhance the differences and similarities to strengthen your theme as you revise.
For planners, this method can get you started with a framework for balancing your characters and for choosing which ones will demonstrate the positive aspect and which the negative.

Two things to note:

First, the similarity and difference can be any combination of positive or negative characteristics. In other words, the antagonist can embody the positive trait the protagonist will eventually embrace, and the ally can embody the negative trait that provides the protagonist with a needed cautionary tale.

Second, you can show how the characters are similar/different at any time during the story. That said, negative qualities shared with the antagonist are often shown at the beginning, and shared positive qualities are often shown at the end… at least in stories where the protagonist embraces the positive half of the thematic premise. The same is true with showing how the hero is different from his ally: positive differences are often shown at the end and negative differences are shown at the beginning.

Final Thought

From Mr. Williams:  “Each of your main characters will have different physical goals, and consequently different physical obstacles. But each different set of goals and obstacles should be metaphors for the one Moral premise.  If the physical goals of the various characters do not refer implicitly to the Moral premise, then you are writing two different [stories]. Stop. Fix it.  A successful [story] is about only one thing.”

Books on Thematic Variations

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Well that’s it for me

How about you? Know of other ways to use or develop clones? Share in the comments!

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Up next, on Wednesday

We’ll try to find the use of clones in the novels (and perhaps movies) we’re reading (and watching). See you then!


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