I’ve been thinking about the concept of dual (or secret) identities and how it’s handled in books and film. This came to me because I was reading a Star Wars review thread and someone came up with an interesting concept: in the prequels, Darth Vader would be both a person and a title. Anakin defeats Darth Vader, and we never see when he assumes the mantle, just that he goes evil. That way when Darth Vader shows up in the original trilogy, you have no idea why he’s back until the big reveal in Empire. Interesting concept, sort of a Dread Pirate Roberts scenario.
But again, it got me thinking about dual identities. There are a lot of examples, arguably beginning with the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, right up through just about every superhero and their alter egos and Tyler Durden in Fight Club. It’s not that I’m particularly considering adding this to a story that I’m writing, but the concept has always fascinated me on some deep level. Secret origins were always my favorite part of super heroes and villains, and a well-done secret identity that is hidden even from the character him or herself is just icing on the cake (see Durden again).
Handling this takes a great deal of care, though, lest you render your story unbelievable. One of the best examples that I’ve read is the Prestige, which I’ve mentioned here before. Now, fair warning: if you don’t want spoilers, now is the time to skip over what comes afterwards – I’ll try to keep it to one paragraph.
So, as it turns out, the character whom Christian Bale portrayed in the movie, were always twin brothers. It’s fairly clear in the movie that this is what’s going on, so we’re not discussing the movie. It totally blindsided me in the book. Upon re-read, I realized that the hints and clues were there all along, like a clever mystery novel: the waxing and waning of his affections for one woman or another; slight changes in diction and grammar; different attitudes toward his rival. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Once you’ve gone through it one time, you can see these clues. Of course, the concept of his identity is to maintain an illusion for the purposes of a magic act. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t some sort of unconscious inspiration for the story of my Rule of Three story.
But what amazes me is how skilled Christopher Priest is in weaving this thread through the tale. I wonder how much planning and how many passes it took to get that right. And I’ll admit, Tyler Durden was a shock to me, as well. Granted, I watched the movie first, so the book wasn’t shocking. The movie, though? I couldn’t believe I hadn’t picked up on it. Upon rewatching, I realized that there were so many clues and visual cues that betray the narrator’s true nature: as in The Prestige, a woman’s reaction to the character provides a big clue. There are changes in speech patterns and attitudes. Of course, Tyler Durden is overtly presented as a separate character, rather than the way it’s handled in the Prestige, but I think the spirit of the thing is the same.
I don’t know if one approach is trickier than the other. They both present their own problems from a writing standpoint.
So, really, overall, what is my point? I’m not sure I have one. I just wanted to look at a few examples of these, examine the tradition, and see if anyone else had favorites they’d want to add to the list. It’s one of my favorite tropes, but it’s also one that can be handled so badly, just as my concept for weaving two stories can be done so badly.
Maybe that’s ultimately what drew me to this topic: seeing that I’m not quite experienced enough to pull something like that off. It’s humbling, but it helps me to have some perspective when looking at the work of other writers. I don’t know if it’s a question of talent or a learned skill, built upon a refined process that allows you to weave these narratives. Or maybe it’s just not my thing. Maybe I am ultimately a character-driven writer and such plot-driven devices just aren’t my cup of tea, as much as I love them. Perhaps I need a straightforward narrative from an identifiable character.
I don’t know. What do you think? Is this overused? Do you ever feel cheated, or delighted when the box is opened and the contents revealed? I’d also love to hear any other good examples of this.