Twin Representation in YA Fiction

Twins in fiction, especially the young adult works I read, tend to fall within a few tired tropes. As an identical twin myself, I judge works pretty harshly on how they portray their twin characters. In this post, I will examine a few of these tropes and how I would prefer to see twins represented.

Here are some of the most common tropes I see fictional twins fall into:

  • Interchangeable.
  • Direct opposites (usually one good and one evil).
  • Two halves of a whole (can often feel each other’s pain or read each other’s minds).

How do these play out in the books I read? Let’s dive into a few.

Fred and George in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

George and Fred fall perfectly into the interchangeable trope. Even their own mother can’t tell them apart. To some readers, they started to take on subtle differences in personality as the series went on, with Fred coming off more as the leader and George as slightly kinder, but you had to be really looking to see it. I’m not sure J.K. Rowling was even conscious of the differences she was writing into them. They are also two halves of a whole, rarely seen apart and always spoken of as a unit (it sounded weird to read “George and Fred” in that order at the beginning of my paragraph, didn’t it?). They had all the same interests and hobbies and even started a business together.

Cover of Harry Potter #1

Sandy and Dennis from the Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle

Down-to-earth and athletic, the older twin brothers of Meg and Charles Wallace from A Wrinkle in Time again fall into the interchangeable trope. Even when they get their own spotlight as protagonists in the fourth book of the series, Many Waters, they hardly differentiate themselves. One of the main conflicts, once they fall into the world of Noah and his ark, centers on them falling for the same girl, which is just…can we not. I would never be attracted to somebody who couldn’t be bothered to learn the differences between me and my sister well enough to find themselves more compatible with one of us over the other.

Cover of Many Waters

Jude and Taryn from The Folk of the Air series by Holly Black

Jude and Taryn are two human girls raised in faerieland and they are direct opposites. Jude likes to solve her problems with physical combat, while Taryn prefers to use appeasement. Taryn believes the way to find power in this world not built for them is to work within the system, while Jude learns to manipulate and play dirty. There is some romantic tension over the same guy, but as soon as Jude realizes that, she finds it a major turn off. Jude, as the point of view character, is fleshed out and believable, but Taryn seems to function mostly as her weak-willed foil. She is everything Jude would be if Jude didn’t fight to change her circumstances. I feel like there was so much more the author could have done to explore Taryn’s motivations and feelings. I hope they will be addressed in a later book, but even that may feel like too little too late.

Cover of The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)

Jack and Jill from the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire

Jacqueline and Jillian are direct opposites, but for a very specific reason, explained by the plot. Their parents were full of preconceived notions of what twins should be like, so they raise Jill as a tom-boy and Jack as a girly-girl, forcing them into those roles. At age twelve, when the girls fall into a fantasy world and finally have the freedom to be themselves, they rebel and essentially switch roles. This time, however, Jack is a mad scientist’s apprentice, and Jill is dying to become a vampire maiden. Both girls have separate interests and motivations. They even have different sexual orientations. Nevertheless, they still end up in the good twin/bad twin trap that plays right back into the common tropes.

Cover of Wayward Children #2

Ren and Yi from The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

(See my full review here, which sparked the conversation that led to this blog post.)

Ren and Yi are the clearest example of two halves of a whole, with a mystical psychic connection. At the novel’s start, Ren is a young house servant in colonial Malaya, his brother having passed away a couple of years ago. With his psychic connection severed, or at least spanning between the world of the living and the dead, Ren finds himself picking up psychic signals not only from his brother’s mind, but also from objects or other people. Yi exerts a pull on Ren from purgatory, causing near-death accidents because he is unable to move on into the afterlife without his other half. Ren may be able to build a new life for himself, but not until his brother lets him go.

Cover of The Night Tiger

So did any of these books get it right? Here and there, bits and pieces of them rang true. In The Folk of the Air, I appreciated the way Jude and Taryn understand each other better than anyone else, but not in a weird magical way, just as two people who have spent their whole lives together and are close to each other would. They end up growing apart, and that can happen in the real world, too. Wayward Children also comes close, by at least examining the tropes on a very meta level. McGuire looks at the idea that maybe the reason twins fall into these tropes, whether in fiction or in real life, is because of societal expectations. Jack and Jill grow and change rather than staying static together in the same personalities they both started with. In both of these examples, the sisters have a complex relationship with each other, navigating betrayal and mutual understanding, learning where and when to set boundaries, and redefining their relationship as circumstances and personalities change.

What I would really like to see one day, however, is a book in which the twins are neither pitted against each other, nor constantly lumped together. Where they share some hobbies, but also have their own separate interests. Where they have a special bond that defines their interactions, without being it blown into something magical or all-consuming.

Got any recommendations of books that reflect twins as fully fleshed out, multifaceted characters? Send them my way in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Twin Representation in YA Fiction”

  1. I really enjoyed Down Among the Sticks & Bones, since Seanan intentionally played with those tropes, but yeah if she ever continues Jack and Jill’s stories I hope we get more nuance to the good twin/bad twin thing.

    I found her depiction of twins in Into the Drowning Deep to be more realistic, though those characters are not the center of the story and in fact it focuses a bit more on their older sister and what it’s like to be the third wheel in the twin dynamic. But the twins in that book have very different careers in slightly related fields and obviously distinct personalities. And it explores the interesting intersection of being both twins and deaf.

    I’m interested to pick up her upcoming book, Middlegame, which also features twins. The book summary sets it up to fall into the opposites trope (Roger is all about words and stories! Dodger loves numbers and math…), but I have faith that Seanan can pull this off with nuance, thoughtfullness, and self-awareness.

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