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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Hero's Mirror

In writing your story, what is your protagonist most afraid of as he pursues the story goal? A useful technique to make his fear larger and more tangible to the reader or viewer is to use a mirror.

The mirror character often acts as an antagonist (not necessarily the primary antagonist) in the story to *block* the hero from reaching his goal, meaning that the hero has constant run-ins with the mirror. But who is this character?

The mirror character is, or used to be, very similar to the protagonist, and faced the same dilemma or moral choice or fear that the hero is facing now. The difference: the mirror made the WRONG choice, and therefore shows what life will be like to the hero if he isn't able to handle this problem correctly.

Two very powerful mirrors are used by JRR Tolkien in his genius work The Lord of the Rings. As a very quick explanation in case you're not familiar with the series, the stories center around THE ONE RING as a representation of absolute power, forged by the ultimate evil called Sauron. A number of creatures, both good and bad, pursue the ring. The ring has fallen into the hands of a humble hobbit named Frodo who must carry it through dangerous lands to destroy it where it had been created, the fires of Mount Doom. Frodo is assisted by many including Samwise Gamgee and Strider.

Mirror #1: Aragorn and Isildur:

Aragorn (Strider) is the rightful heir of Gondor. He is afraid to claim the kingship because he is afraid to be corrupted by the power that it represents, and his fear is mirrored through his ancestor Isildur. Isildur was seduced by the One Ring before he could destroy it, and set into play a traumatic series of events that last many generations.

Mirror #2: Frodo and Smeagol (Gollum):

Frodo is the ringbearer until he can destroy it. He is afraid of the strong seductive power of the ring, seductive because it promises ultimate individual power to the bearer. His fear is mirrored through Smeagol (Gollum), a ruined hobbit once very similar to Frodo, who long ago found the ring and hoarded it inside the mountains. After losing the ring, Smeagol (Gollum) acts nothing so much as a drug addict trying to regain his prize, alternately helping and harming Frodo and Sam as they inexorably travel towards Mount Doom. He ultimately plots (and almost succeeds) to kill Frodo to regain the ring.

These mirrors work together in the story: Aragorn must regain the power although he is afraid, Frodo must relinquish the power although he is tempted.

While designing your story, consider whether you might be able to use a mirror. This powerful technique can add strong resonance and demonstrate your theme in a clear, tangible way.


Philangelus said...

So in Seven Archangels: Annihilation, Camael is LITERALLY the mirror for Remiel, and Mephistopheles is the mirror for Gabriel?

That probably explains my soft spot for Mephistopheles, actually.


Philangelus said...

Oh, I just realized, we called these "character foils" in lit class.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Your examples illustrate your point nicely.

It seems our character's inner doubts/anger/fears can act as antagonists as well, huh?

Lydia said...

What a cool concept! I never heard this before, but even as I consider my own two stories, I can immediately identify the mirrors to each of the protagonists.

Thanks, as always, Amy, for sharing your deep insights into story structure.

Travis said...

George Lucas did a fair job of this in Star Wars.

gzusfreek said...

Amy, makes me think, thank you. Could this mirror be a positive one? One that made the wrong decisions and is paying for it? One that pleads for the hero to make the right choices? Or has passed away and, from the beyond, asks the hero to make the right choices? Or is that not as interesting?
In real life, I know I hear Sarah (Abraham's wife) sometimes saying to me, "Don't give up! I know the end of the story! Don't laugh when He promises to give you the desires of your heart. Hang on for the end of His story!"
I don't know, maybe I've taken a tangent and ran, but I was just trying to see a mirror in my story (the one I'm living and the one I'm writing).

Amy Deardon said...

I truly believe that *story* is embedded within the human genome (or somewhere), so that we already *know* the story components and story shape before we set word one on paper. Mirrors are an example --> I think story tellers use these naturally --> by pointing out techniques, these natural/unconscious tendencies can be sharpened to make the story even stronger. George Lucas allegedly came up with Star Wars by using Joseph Campbell's *The Hero's Journey*, a description of mythic themes and characters in all stories.

And yes, it's certainly kosher to use character mirrors as *good* characters who help your hero! These poor souls have learned much, after all. Mirror characters, all story characters, are simply representations of real-life people.

dmarks said...

Great idea.