On parallel characters and plots

by look i have opinions

Some terminological and taxonomical notes:

  • Mirror characters are the same thing as parallel characters.
  • I regard foil characters as a subset of parallel characters. A parallel character always differs in some way from the character they parallel, otherwise they would be identical rather than parallel. A foil is simply a parallel character whose contrasting qualities are more prominent (or more significant) than their like qualities.
  • You could also call them shadow characters, but that sounds like it has a more specific Jungian meaning. Perhaps a shadow character could be a type of foil who represents the qualities that the shadowed character carries only in their subconscious? (And overlapping with the shadow character, there’s the tempter character, who urges another character to act on subconscious or forbidden impulses. Tempters don’t necessarily parallel their victims, though.)

I remember being bewildered when I first grasped the concept of parallel characters and plots. It wasn’t when I read Anna Karenina, which I interpreted, naively though not incorrectly, as having two loosely related plots with one main character each. It wasn’t as a preteen when I read the Baby-Sitters Club books, which followed a rigid A Plot/B Plot formula. The B plot never just ran parallel to the A plot, if memory serves; it always, ultimately, affected it in some explicit way, if only to prompt the main character to self-reflection.

The thing that bewildered me was the show Revolutionary Girl Utena. Minor characters get their own episodes that have no noticeable effect on the main storyline, only mirroring it and echoing its obsessive themes. The choice to spend so much time on side characters would be fairly comprehensible in keyhole fiction like The Baby-Sitters Club, but in a surreal and richly symbolic dream-tale like Utena, it strikes me as a very pure, stark use of the parallel character device.

All this sounds rather naive. Was I an unskilled reader, to be so taken aback by such a simple trick? Am I an unskilled reader now? I suppose what bothered me at the time, and still bothers me a little, is the feeling that this device is unnatural, learned. The “natural” way of reading is to treat each character as an individual, and to expect the connections between characters to be drawn explicitly, either by their interactions or by the narration itself. Looking back, I see I’ve also described parallel characters and plots as having a distancing effect. Again, the “natural” way of reading is to sympathize with a character, and not to see the character as a mere vehicle for themes.

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