Mirroring Heroes and Villains; Will it Work for You?

The best villains are mirror images of the hero. There but for the grace of God, go I.  That’s one of the pieces of story wisdom that you see time and again. But is it true? Lots of excellent stories don’t  practice it. Lots of stories don’t even have villains. Where is the villain in stories that pit the hero against nature?

Unbreakable [Blu-ray]Remember M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Unbreakable? Maybe not. It didn’t do nearly as well as The Sixth Sense

The premise revolved around two men, one of whom (Bruce Willis’ character) was invulnerable, literally the sole survivor of a nasty train wreck. The other (Samuel L. Jackson's character) a man whose bones broke if he blinked wrong. Hero and villain, set up as mirror images of each other. The villain even says as much near the end. But it obviously didn’t work because the movie basically bombed. The question is why? I think it had to do with choices. Bruce’s character was wishy-washy about his abilities in the beginning. When he takes on a superhero persona, he does so reluctantly and only to be a hero in his son’s eyes. I don’t think that’s a strong enough reason. The villain seems to choose villainy for even weaker reasons. And at the core, neither of them chose to be invulnerable or fragile. That was a genetic crapshoot. So nothing here resonated.

Does that negate the mirror theory?

Or does execution make a difference?

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (Special Edition)Remember Raiders of the Lost Ark? Indy and the French archeologist Belloq? This is another one where the villain points out that there’s not much difference between himself and the hero, and Indy snarls at him for daring to say such a thing. Except Belloq really isn’t the big villain in the story. He’s more of a convenience for getting the characters into the position the screenwriter needed them to be in. The villains are the Nazis. I can’t really get behind making a case that the Nazis mirror anything about Indy.

So another place where the wisdom bombs.

Let’s try again.

One has to ask why Darth Vader is such an enduring villain because through most of the Star Wars trilogy, he’s pretty one dimensional. Okay, yes, there’s something terrifying on a primal level about that constant asthmatic breathing. That’s the kind of thing that can haunt your nightmares without even needing to see who’s stalking you. But character-wise, he’s an obstacle, a personification of the Empire, until the big reveal that he’s Luke’s father. Then he gets interesting. There’s a touch of that mirroring thing here. Will Luke become his father? And that’s interesting because it’s based on choices. Vader’s as well as Luke’s. 

There’s a lot we learn in the prequels that mark differences between the two, but we didn’t know all that when it was just the original trilogy, so I feel justified in ignoring it. The original movies are where Vader earned the status of immortal villain, and there’s mirroring in those. So yes, mirroring the hero and villain can be effective when it’s done well.

Crimson TideIn the movie Crimson Tide, Gene Hackman’s character plays an old-school submarine commander who believes his primary duty is to follow orders. Denzel Washington, his XO, is less rigid. When they receive orders to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against Russia which is then followed by a secondary transmission that is cut off, Hackman intends to follow his last standing order. Washington believes they must wait to get the order verified because the lost transmission could have rescinded the previous order (an excellent example of high stakes if ever I saw one.) The conflict between these two becomes the crux of the story. On a basic level, the two men mirror each other. Old school vs. new school. Follow the orders given or take the initiative to question?

Because audiences demand a winner and a loser, the story resolution gives us one, and Washington’s position is validated, although at the end of the movie, the military board determines that they were both right. And it would have been easy to write an alternate ending that validated the commander’s position, which also makes this movie an interesting example of the principle that the most interesting conflicts are good vs. good--but that’s another post. Although it provokes the thought that mirroring might be most effective in good vs. good conflicts. Hm. A thought worth exploring. But again, that’s another post. The point of this post is whether mirroring is a valid story tool, and this example clearly shows that it adds layers of depth that would be hard to achieve without it.

P.S. I Love You [Blu-ray]In fact, mirroring works even when you’re not talking about villains and heroes. P.S. I Love You doesn’t have a villain per se. Holly’s journey back to living after the devastating loss of her husband is the main story line. The mirroring between Holly and her mother, whose husband walked out and never came back when Holly was fourteen, is an important part of the story. Her father’s desertion makes Holly’s loss more poignant because on an emotional level the loss of father and husband mirror each other, but even more important to the story is the mirroring of Holly and her mother. Though the mirroring between the two is there through most of the movie, the screenwriter states it plainly when Holly’s mother says that the worst feeling a mother can have is watching her daughter head for the exact same life the mother led and feeling helpless to stop it. 


Powerful stuff that mirroring.

Do you use mirroring in your stories? If so, are you aware when you do?


  1. Hi Suz!
    Nice post! Interesting too.
    I think I use a bit of mirroring in my writing. But not exactly between the people you'd expect. The main MC is trying to get past what his father has taught him and not become him. Another of MCs mirrors the antagonist - they both go through similar things at similar ages, but chose different paths. One turned out one way and one turned out the other.
    Anyway, all this mirroring thing is in the grand finale, so I'm not sure how well I pulled it off. :)

  2. Wow! awesome post! And how true. This is a tough one. I am writing a WIP progress that definitely uses mirroring, but, although I'm sure I have, I can't quite pinpoint it as easily in my new release Wayward Soul.


  3. Hi - great post! My current WIP uses mirroring, though I had never actually considered it in that light until I read this. Very interesting!

  4. Wow great post! Found you through SheWrites and so happy I did.

    I had never thought of it this way but my WIP uses mirroring. Thanks for the comparisons of what works and what doesn't. Think I will do some rewrites.

  5. What a great post!

    I think mirroring as an idea is really interesting, and it can be very effective when done right. I think that some of the best examples of mirroring I've read have been where the protagonist and antagonist both start out from the same place, but you can see, in the decisions and choices they make, their paths rolling out in front of them, leading to the climax.

  6. A very thoughtful post. My villains end up being more mirror opposites then mirror images.


  7. Very interesting and helpful post. I like that you talked about "villains" that are not characters in a book. Whatever shape or form they take, they are the force that moves both the plot and mirrored character forward by standing in the way.

  8. This is a great post for me, Suzie, because I am in the process of creating a villain and need to begin to look a bit deeper. Will think about mirroring - really nice examples from the movies.

  9. It's nice seeing that everyone is giving thought to their villain. It's not easy writing a good villain. I have more to say on the subject, but I'm waiting for it to gel. Hope y'all will be around to give your thoughts.