Wednesday, April 8

Mirroring: An Easy Way to Deepen Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Copying the actions of someone is an instinctual behavioral trick to get someone to consider you favorably. They smile, you smile, they take a sip of a drink, you take a sip--con men and pick up artists have been using it for ages, and a similar technique can help readers feel a stronger connection to our novels.


The most common mirror is how the ending often mirrors the beginning, showing how the protagonist's life has changed and why she's better off (or worse if that's the type of story it is). If she starts the story alone and watching Friends on TV, by the end of the tale she's out living her life in a Friends-type style. If the novel opens with her making a huge mistake, it ends with her catching someone else before they make that mistake. However she's grown, that growth is reflected in the "mirror" that is the ending.

Mirrors aren't just copies, but ideas and themes reflected in characters and situations around the protagonist. Sometimes they match the protagonist's emotions or choices, other times they reflect the opposite, but they deepen the story by allowing the protagonist (and reader) to "experience" other potential outcomes without derailing the story. Stakes become more real when we see them occur, and the right mirror can do a world of foreshadowing and raise the tension.

Other mirrors we can employ include:

The Path Not Taken

Another character represents the consequences the protagonist will face if she doesn't fix what's wrong in the novel. This might be a plot path, a character arc path, or a subplot. Whatever bad thing is facing the protagonist is also happening to someone else, and that struggle helps show the protagonist what her life would be like if she doesn't get her act together.
  • What character would make a good sacrifice to show the stakes of the story?
  • Who has similar traits or flaws the protagonist needs to fix? Who might disagree with the protagonist and take this other path? 

The Example

Similar to the Path Not Taken, this character has already suffered all the consequences the protagonist fears. She's broken and enduring the protagonist's worst nightmare.
  • Who might have made all the same mistakes and paid the worst price for them?
  • Where might the protagonist encounter this person?
  • How might this character affect the protagonist?

The Road to Salvation

On the flip side, someone might represent all or some of the benefits of the protagonist doing what's right and growing as a character. Maybe it's a person she envies, or a life she wishes she had. It's visual proof that she can get what she wants if she's willing to put in the work to get there.
  • Who has everything the protagonist wants (or thinks she wants)?
  • Which character exhibits traits the protagonist is striving for?
  • What life or situation might the protagonist be striving for?

The Conflicting Opinion

Quite often the antagonist mirrors the opposing view of the protagonist, but sometimes another character (often a sidekick or best friend) can take the other side. This character can show why the protagonist is fighting so hard, and can even show the redeeming aspects of the other side.
  • How might a character share opposing views to the protagonist?
  • Is there any merit in the antagonist's opinion?
  • Who within the protagonist's circle of allies might voice an opposing opinion?

The Voices in Your Head

Different characters can offer perspectives that mirror the internal conflict the protagonist might be having. They can even help the protagonist keep it real and consider all sides of an argument.
  • Which characters (both allies and enemies) have views or lives that represent something the protagonist is struggling with?
  • What situations might force the protagonist to think about or face those conflicting ideas?
  • Who might represent the various outcomes of choosing one of the sides the protagonist is debating?
Mirrors don't have to be major elements of the novel, and small mirrors can be just as effective as large ones when used in the right place. A peek at the worst consequence she faces when the protagonist is at her lowest can spark her to action, same as a look at all she can have if she pushes through the pain.

What mirrors do you use in your novel? 

Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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  1. Great post, Janice! It's nice to have all this info on different types of mirroring in one place. :)

    1. Thanks! They're limited only by the writer's imagination, but these cover the basics, and hopefully help show the various types of mirrors one can use.

  2. Awesome info, Janice. Thanks so much. You have a talent for distilling the facets of good writing into tools that are clear and easy to use.

    1. Aw, thanks so much! I do try. When I was first learning to write, I used to struggle over vague advice that didn't *actually* help, even though it sounded good. :)

  3. What helpful information this was. This is actually a great tool to use, never thought mirroring was a mechanic for writing!

    1. It's a wonderful tool, and useful no matter what genre or market you write in.

  4. Lots to think about Janice, really enjoyed this post thank you.

    1. That's the goal, thinking is good. Glad you liked it :)

  5. Is this information in your book?

    1. This technique isn't in there (the book is on planning a novel). But it will in the "writing your novel" book when I get that done and out there. No date for that one yet since it's still in the early stages.

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  7. Many thanks, Janice. Useful technique, especially as trying to revise a novel in which there could be mirrors. At the moment they are cracked.

    1. Love that--cracked mirrors. That could be a good technique as well. Mirrors that don't reflect the truth!

  8. I loved this! I have noticed it's used a lot in episodic TV shows like Castle. The main case almost always mirrors the personal struggle one of the main characters is having.

    Somehow it never occurred to me to use it in a story.

    This article sparked a lot of ideas. Thank you so much!

    1. That's a very common device in TV dramas. The subplot almost always holds the "ah-ah!" moment for the main characters.