I have a problem with twins. Nothing personal, you understand. In fact I have a pair myself and two more beautiful, wondrous children it would be hard to find (I may be biased here).
No, my problem is with twins in literature. And the problem is that, in books, no-one is ever just a twin. No, being a twin is always a plot device. If you are reading a detective story and someone mentions that they have a twin, look no further for the killer. If your taste is for lighter fiction and a character has a twin, brace yourself for hilarious romantic complications. Phoebe and Ursula In Friends are prime examples. In a comedy, you are bound to kiss your boyfriend’s twin brother; in a crime novel, your long-lost twin is very likely to kill you. Incest, yes. Mistaken identity, yes. Good and evil, yin and yang. Yes, yes, yes.
And, in a way, I can see the attraction. It’s so easy after all. Even Shakespeare did it and he should have known better, being the father of twins himself. Specifically, he should have known that boy and girl twins cannot be identical. But the father of Judith and Hamnet makes this fundamental mistake in Twelfth Night. To be fair to Will, it’s a common misconception. I lost count of the times I had this conversation when my children were babies.
‘Ahh!’ (Looking into buggy). ‘Are they boys or girls?’
‘They’re a boy and a girl.’
‘Are they identical?’
‘No…They’re a boy and a girl.’
David Lodge makes this mistake in Changing Places, though he corrects it in Small World. Malcolm Saville has identical boy/girl twins in the Lone Pine books. To J.K. Rowling, twins are so obviously interchangeable that she doesn’t bother to give Fred and George Weasley separate identities. Ged and Forge, indeed. In Donna Tartt’s A Secret History and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (both wonderful books, by the way), having boy and girl twins is an excuse for a spot of incest. Reginald Hill takes the missing twin option in one of his marvellous Dalziel and Pascoe books. Children’s books aren’t immune either, viz Lynne Reid Banks’ deeply disturbing Angela and Diabola. You know, guys, it’s OK to have twins and one not be a psychopath. In fact, it’s OK for them to be completely different people.
So, this is my plea to my fellow authors. Next time, create a character who just happens to be a twin (in the same way, characters in fiction rarely just happen to be adopted). Have a character casually mention that they have a twin and don’t have that twin turn up in the last chapter to be unmasked as the murderer or someone’s lover. Go on, you know you can do it.
Elly Griffiths is the author of the Ruth Galloway novels (the latest is The Janus Stone, publishedby Quercus, )which are set on the Norfolk Coast of England. The books take their inspiration from Elly’s husband, who gave up a city job to train as an archaeologist, and her aunt who lives on the Norfolk coast and who filled her niece’s head with the myths and legends of that area.