Sep 9 2010 2:12pm

Double Identity

“Double identity” is a name I’ve given to a genre of books that people don’t tend to group as a genre. In fact, it’s a trope that can be used in any genre, but I think it’s interesting to consider these books together and see what they have in common, what makes them so fascinating, and how they work.

Double identity is where a character looks so much like somebody else that they could change places, and they do. The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) is a well known example. There are all sorts of variations on the theme, both in science fiction and fantasy and in mainstream novels. There are versions where the double has only a family resemblance and the original is dead, versions where the double is pretending to be a double and is actually the original, versions where almost everybody guesses about the substitution but has their own reasons for keeping quiet, and so on. Some doubles have been well drilled on the family they must deceive, others know literally nothing. The centre of these stories is the masquerade, keeping up the facade, the tightrope walk of pretending to be somebody who looks exactly like you.

The books I’m going to be looking at are Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar (1949), published as a mystery, Daphne Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat (1957), published as a mainstream novel, Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree (1961) published as romantic suspense, and Joan Aiken’s Deception, (1988) published as regency romance. I’m probably also going to read The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) which I haven’t read for decades. I may even read George Macdonald Fraser’s Royal Flash (1985), which is one of the weaker Flashman books but which does The Prisoner of Zenda. I shall tag these posts “double identity.” If you have comments on these specific books, try to save them for the individual posts, coming soon.

Of the four I’ve read this weekend the most striking thing they have in common is the way they are about houses and families. None of these books are about royalty, the way Zenda is. The families in all of these books are respectable middle class, with servants. There’s money, but not huge amounts of money. They live in nice houses, and the houses are important. Come to that, all the details of their lives and dinners are significant, and significantly described. Because of the deception, the simplest things become charged with significance and danger. As well as domestic detail, there’s a lot of scenery in these books, and it’s scenery the text approves of.

Another point of commonality, which I only noticed when I was trying to think of more examples, is that the doubles are uniformly the heroes of the books. Trollope’s Is He Popinjoy (1878) is fiction based on the Tichbourne case in which the imposter is strongly disapproved of by the text. But in all of these examples the text is thoroughly on the imposter’s side. The joy of reading them is seeing the character getting away with it, and being constantly aware that at any moment they might plunge into the abyss. You don’t want them to be revealed as false. Generally they do better than the real person would.

The deception in these stories is sympathetic, but it’s something where the protagonist has a choice. They could walk away from it if they chose, yet they keep on with it. Their reasons for this vary, but I think this is one of the defining parameters.

There’s also the inevitable question of revelation. The substitution will at some point have to be revealed, and the way the different books deal with this in different ways—not revealing at all, revealing at different times to different people, discovery without revelation—is one of the things that makes them interesting.

What really draws me to them is the way these stories have a new angle on identity and belonging, and on seeing things from the inside and the outside at the same time.

I’ve already written about Heinlein’s Double Star, which is probably the best known genre example. In Double Star, an actor who is similar but not identical to a politician is hired to impersonate him and essentially becomes him, overcoming his aversion to Martians and changing his political opinions on the way. This is different from most of my examples in that there isn’t a house and a family—Lorenzo is deceiving the public, but those closest to Bonforte know he is an imposter. It doesn’t have the delight in domestic details—never Heinlein’s thing.

I’ve also written about Pamela Dean’s Secret Country (1985). In this, five children from our world take the places of the five royal children of the Hidden Land. They’ve been pretending to be them in games for years, now they have to pretend to be them full time and fool everybody else. There’s a house, there’s domestic detail, there’s the potential abyss and there’s also fantasy plot and magic and unicorns. No wonder I adore these books.

Tarr and Turtledove’s Household Gods (1999) which I posted about recently also kind of fits with this theme. L.A. lawyer Nicole finds herself in the body of Umma, a tavern keeper in Roman Carnuntum. She has to deal with Umma’s slave and children and friends and family as if she were Umma, and with no preparation. This is one of the things that makes the book fascinating. It’s not a deliberate deception though—Nicole has no choice. It’s all part of her passivity, which is the thing that annoys me so much about her.

The best science fiction example is Mark Vorkosigan in Mirror Dance (1994). Mark is a clone of Miles, designed to take Miles’s place and assassinate Miles’s father. He gets away from the plotters who had him made and makes his own plan, which also involves impersonating Miles, at least to start with. Mirror Dance takes this double identity trope and does a lot of really interesting and brilliant things with it. No wonder I love this too.

So, does anybody else have any double identity examples you’d like to throw in? Any genre?

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Scot Taylor
1. flapdragon
What about Gene Wolfe's Fifth Head of Cerberus?
Scot Taylor
2. flapdragon
or PKD's VALIS? ("Phil Dick" vs. "Horselover Fat")
3. OtterB
Well, there's The Horse and His Boy from the Narnia series. Although the double and substituting for him is not the focus of the plot, it's a key element.
Andrew Mason
4. AnotherAndrew
A problem, of course, is that saying a work belongs to this genre may often be a spoiler.

That said, two obvious classic examples are Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, and Twain, The Prince and the Pauper.
I'm a bit confused about Is He Popenjoy? Many sources do indeed say that it is based on the Tichborne case. However, the actual accounts of the plot I've seen make it appear that it is not about one person pretending to be another (really existing) person, but about the question whether one person is really the son of another person - which sounds more like the Douglas Cause, a famous case of the eighteenth century.

flapgragon@1: specifically 'V.R.T.', I take it? On the one hand... but on the other hand...
5. D'artagnan
How about The Man In The Iron Mask?

or if you want to get really odd, Fight Club
rick gregory
6. rickg
Varley played with this in short work a few times and in one novel. I can't name them, because in his use of the trope he makes them clones and in the cases I'm thinking of one of the pair didn't know they were clones and that lack of awareness was key to the story.
7. KEvelyn
Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper; Georgette Heyer's False Colours (Regency romance).
8. bwm
There's really a pretty good example of this in a very recent book, but I don't want to spoil the novel in any way for anyone who hasn't read it.
Spoiler with whitespace and text color:

One of the key characters in Black Prism by Brent Weeks is a surprise case of this concept.
Helen Peters
9. Helen
Shakespeare? Twelfth night and A Comedy of Errors or do they just come under the heading of mistaken identity?
Jotham Parsons
10. jotham.parsons
A work of history rather than fiction, but Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre is really a must-read with regard to this trope. She discusses the "literary" character of what was, at the time (sixteenth-century France), a very famous case of impersonation.
Pamela Adams
11. PamAdams

I think the story is The Phantom of Kansas.
12. Sue11
E. Philips Oppenheim's The Great Impersonation is a spy story set in World War I. An Englishman and a German who are identical meet in Africa just before the war. One of them dies and the other comes home to England.
Eugene Myers
13. ecmyers
The timing of this discussion is great, because I'm writing a "double identity" novel now and would love to a) see good examples of it and b) reassure myself that it has legs.

As for another book that fits the theme, I guess this is spoilery too (though many people have seen the film), so I'll also place it in white text with a spoiler block:


The Prestige by Christopher Priest

Eli Bishop
14. EliBishop
Clive Barker's Imajica features a variation on the evil twin/clone & mistaken identity trope.
17. Gwyneira
Joan Aiken's sister, Jane Aiken Hodge, wrote one called Savannah Purchase -- not as good as If I Were You (which I love), but worth reading.
18. Adrienne Travis
There's a reasonably good Simon Green novel, Blood and Honour, that takes on some of this trope. It's in his main fantasy universe, but it can be read independently of the rest of them. There's a murder mystery, and all sorts of intrigue and magic and fun.
19. AlecAustin
Turning for film for a moment, Kurosawa's Kagemusha doesn't really allow the double much of a choice, but is otherwise thoroughly in discourse with the works in this genre.
Chris Meadows
20. Robotech_Master
There are a couple of versions of this noted in TVTropes:

(Why can't we assign links to actual words in this dopey new editor like we used to be able to in the old one?)
Leigh Butler
21. leighdb
Just about any caper story in existence probably has this as at least part of the plot. Which is part of why caper stories are awesome. A good genre example of both is The Lies of Locke Lamora (highlight to read).
David Levinson
22. DemetriosX
Most of what I would have suggested has already been mentioned, most especially Twain. About the only other example I can think of would be Erich Kästener's Das doppelte Lottchen (Lottie and Lisa in English and best known through the film version, The Parent Trap). I'm not sure if it quite fits, since the double and the original (as well as those terms can be applied here) are in on the deception.

I would also note that Double Star differs in one other way: the deception is never revealed.
[da ve]
24. slickhop
Tana French's The Likeness is a forensic thriller set in Dublin that does this quite well and to I thought original effect.

Spoilery bit below in white:
The murder victim is a dead ringer (cough) for the detective protagonist, who then assumes her identity to determine who killed her, using this huge scheme where she was merely severely injured rather than killed. Requires more suspension of disbelief than most thrillers, but very tense.
rick gregory
25. rickg
@pam adams - Yes, that's one. He does it in other places and in one novel.
Liza .
26. aedifica
The double identity thing happens again and again in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover books. Usually someone comes to Darkover who doesn't know that they themselves have Darkovan ancestry, fall in love with the planet while their fellow Terrans regard it suspiciously, and the first time they leave the Terran compound someone mistakes them for a native who they happen to look just like.
27. Robin M.
Twain has two identity switching books. One is the Prince and the Pauper. The other is Puddinhead Wilson about a slave and a masters son switched as babies. Mirror Dance is still one of my favorites though.
Liza .
28. aedifica
In a twist on this concept, there's the very odd book I picked up at a garage sale when I was young: The Life Swap, by Nancy Weber (apparently reissued: ). Nonfiction in which two women change places and try to live each other's lives for a period of time despite not looking anything alike and not knowing much about each other.
29. ChuckEye
I've long been a fan of this trope, but it's particularly hard to pull off for modern audiences, especially on film. I agree with ecmyers that it was done particularly well in that novel & film. But the whole Shakespearian "mistaken twin" trope can easily be called out as dated.
Estara Swanberg
30. Estara
This post seems to evoke serendipity because Sherwood Smith just released a book this week which addresses this trope in particular - as she herself said:

"This story began as an homage to Prisoner of Zenda, only with a female having to prove her courage, dash . . . and honor."

The name is Coronets & Steel, out in hardcover from DAW

Kim's a grad student in L.A. Her passions are ballet, fencing, Jane Austen, and swashbuckling, romantic old movies. When her grandmother begs her to go east and see if "they" are safe, then slips into an uncommunicative silence, Kim goes to Vienna in search of her family, armed with only two clues. She's having no luck when she first runs into a ghost, and then meets a guy she mentally dubs Mr. Darcy. Only this Mr. Darcy acts like he knows her. When she goes out for a drink and wakes up on a train, the adventure takes off.

Jo Walton
31. bluejo
I can't think of a Darkover example where somebody actually tries to live the other person's life. I agree there are plenty of examples of people looking like someone else, but I can't think of any where someone walks the tightrope of pretence. But I keep feeling I've forgotten something. Have I?
Michael Ikeda
32. mikeda

In "Two to Conquer" Paul Harrell impersonates Bard di Asturien when Bard is away during a crisis.
33. Hatgirl
Lois McMaster Bujold explores this idea in "Brothers In Arms" and "Mirror Dance".
34. Tansy Rayner Roberts
The double identity story is a common feature of genre tv - Doctor Who and Xena both have a long tradition of it, under two variations 1) the protagonists just happen to meet someone who looks exactly like them, as with the Second Doctor and the tyrant Salamander, or Xena and her various dopplegangers, or 2) a villain actively takes on the shape of one of the protagonists, as with Meglos or Gabrielle's daughter Hope. Then of course there are the 'evil universe' stories as with Star Trek and Buffy.

Not to mention robot duplicate stories - again, Buffy, but my favourite example is in the Prisoner-of-Zenda homage Doctor Who episode The Androids of Tara in which his companion Romana and the Princess Strella and the Princess Strella's android duplicate are all played by Mary Tamm.

What interests me is how often the 'doppelganger' storyline is used in stories which are otherwise non-genre, when surely it requires a huge leap of suspended belief, similar to that required to believe that Lois Lane might not be able to tell the difference between Clark Kent and Superman. The sitcom How I Met Your Mother has a doppelganger storyline, where each of the gang have spotted another version of themselves somewhere in New York.

On stage or screen, believing in precise duplicates is strangely easy, depending on the performance of the actor, who must convince that they are two different people, while looking the same. It's very hard to get away with in books unless there are very good reasons why two people should be convincingly identical - twins, clones, robot doubles, magical illusion, etc.

I've always loved Simon Green's Blood and Honour, as one of the great examples of actively treading that line of deceit. And as mentioned by many others, the Bujold novels which show just how dificult and problematic it is to build a clone duplicate who can replace the original.
35. LAJG
Would stories with identical twins count? Or is that too obvious? Her Fearful Symmetry (which I was disappointed with) has identical twins switching places. (That's not too spoilery, I don't think.)
36. Dietes
I'd include identical twins who pretend to be each other, like the above Spoiler, or Cronenberg's Dead Ringers.
One of my favorite examples of the trope is a very groovy episode of Hammer House of Horror from back in 1980, called The Two Faces of Evil.
Michael Burke
37. Ludon
As others have mentioned TV examples, I'll point out that Deep Space Nine had T. Riker impersonating W. Riker in an episode.

Then there are the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica. In general, they do not fit here but Boomer impersonated Athena once and I'm pretty sure that Athena had impersonated Boomer in an earlier episode.
38. (still) Steve Morrison
MZB and Diana Paxson have one character impersonate a very similar-looking one in their Avalon prequel The Forest House, though only for part of the book.
Beth Mitcham
39. bethmitcham
Heyer's False Colors does this, with identical twins.
40. sushisushi
On the Darkover front, apart from the usual Secret Heir, I think that The Bloody Sun had a pair of seperated-at-birth twins, only one of whom knew the other existed. I don't have the books to hand, but I think the Terran one was trying to impersonate the Darkovan at some point, although if he wasn't there was definite identical people skulduggery going on. Auster and Ragan, I think?
41. etv13
Rosemary Sutcliff's The Mark of the Horse Lord is another example of an impostor standing in for a king, in that case with the king's full cooperation.
42. a1ay
For a real-life example, the war memoirs of the actor Clifton James: I Was Monty's Double.
43. Gorbag
You might like to check out the "real spy story" genre on the Doppelganger theme. It contains some real doozies, such as A Spy for Churchill.

And yes, truth is the first casualty in war, and most often, the last as well. Doppelgangers occur with alarming frequency, and many an otherwise good fiction author gets evenutally discredited ...
Ursula L
44. Ursula
If you're looking at Mirror Dance as an example of this genre/trope you can't forget Brothers In Arms.  Particularly because BIA reverses many of the expectations of the trope - from the POV of the replaced, rather the person doing the replacing, and the reader wants to see the deceit discovered and stopped.  
45. coalbiter
This is so obvious I hesitate to post, but....
Don't forget Rupert of Hentzau, the sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda.
It made me cry, when I was young!
46. Affreca
Another genre example is : Lady Sula in Walter Jon Williams' Dread Empire's Fall series, who replaced a noble to get out of the ghettos. It makes her a muc more effective rebel than the other nobles.
47. Kvon
Also from the movies is Dave, with a Presidential replacement.
48. Lsana
I would second The Likeness if you're looking for an interesting "Double Identity" novel that really explores the concept of identity. The protagonist assuming someone else's identiry is really only the beginning of it there:


The murder victim, Lexie Madison, had in some ways already stolen Detective Cassie Maddox's identity; "Lexie Madison" was the identity that Cassie used when she was an undercover drug agent. There's some discussion that when they made the "Lexie Madison" identity, they made her so detailed that it was impossible for her to just disappear. The book has all kinds of interesting identities games: Cassie as herself, Cassie as "Lexie" during the drug investigation, Cassie as the murder victim, the murder victim trying to play Cassie's version of Lexie, etc. And that's just the start of it...
Gabriele Campbell
49. G-Campbell
Thomas Mann's Felix Krull.

Should be avaliable in English. It's literature, but a fun read because Felix Krull is such a charming rascal. :)
Nancy Lebovitz
50. NancyLebovitz
H.F. Heard's Doppelganger is an example of the political variant.

Just because it's on my mind, though it's a different sort of doubling-- Charles Williams' Descent into Hell.

And an eerie sort of multiplicity which has no fantastic elements-- three women with the same name in Susan Conant's All Shots. It's a reversal, though-- the effort is to keep them adequately distinct in everyone's minds.
51. Lenora Rose Patrick
Andre Norton and Rosemary Edghill's Carolus Rex books do this (The Shadow of Albion is the first), but the books have too many other weaknesses (A surprising number from two writers usually much more competent) I hesitated to suggest them.

There's a thread in Anansi Boys where Spider borrows Charlie's identity, but it's neither a major theme nor a serious exploration.
52. JMS
Another Andrew, you are absolutely right about Is He Popenjoy?---no doubles are involved, and the case in question is definitely The Douglas Cause, not The Tichborne Claimant.

I am fixing the Wikipedia article now, because I fear that is the source of much of the misinformation.
Mary Aileen Buss
53. maryaileen
There's an interesting variant where someone turns up claiming to be a long-lost relative (often someone who disappeared as a child or teen), and the question is whether or not they're an imposter. Two examples: Amanda by Kay Hooper, and Father's Arcane Daughter by E. L. Konigsburg.
54. the zedmeister
I don't have any titles to recommend, because I usually avoid books like this like the plague. They tend to trigger my embarrassment squick (or feelings of second-hand embarrassment, to use the better-known colloquial term for it).

I find it fascinating that some readers feel joy, as you put it, rather than dread in "being constantly aware that at any moment they might plunge into the abyss". I can understand the thrill of them getting away with it, but in most books, the exposure is almost inevitable, and the buildup to it just makes me feel anxious.
Madeline Ferwerda
55. MadelineF
I remember this as one of Poe's creepier stories, though perhaps it's just one of his stories that I found memorable: William Wilson.

Another that hasn't been mentioned, though it's not quite on: Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber. Corwin's pretty sure he is Corwin, but at the beginning of the book he can't know for sure, and all through the series the rest of his family are all "Are you sure you're really Corwin, not some shadow double? Because you're not the complete jerk you were and it's messing with our heads, dude"...
p l
56. p-l
Isn't Counterfeit Kings by Adam Connell (no spoilers) an example of this trope?
57. hapax
Chiming in late, but I adore this trope. Most of the example that I would think of have already been mentioned (I'll leave out the innumerable examples in cheesy romances, mysteries, and comic books)
If you have the interest, Jo, I'd love to see an exploration of what I think of as this trope's "evil twin" -- the hero (almost always a he) who has two identities in one life, using the "lesser" (in some sense) as his public face and the "greater" as his private self (think Zorro, superheros with "secret identities", arguably characters like Oskar Schindler, etc.)
Aquila G
58. Aquila1nz
The fourth Dalemark book by Diana Wynne Jones - The Crown of Dalemark, has someone being transported into the past, and taking the place of a recently murdered doppleganger. It doesn't tend to dwell on the substitution though.

The doppleganger tag on librarything:
60. Gorbag
Of course, only someone hidden under a rock for the last few millenia would have missed the way Kinky Friedman plays with that in Elvis, Jesus and Coca-Cola ... The character Kinky Friedman is having an affair with Uptown Judy, at the same time he is having an affair with Downtown Judy - his nicknames to keep the two Judys separate in his head. The two Judys , so he says ...

I will spare you the spoilers ...
Matthew Stevens
61. kent_allard
The exact-double trope was used, multiple times, in Terence X. O'Leary's War Birds. Now this was perhaps the most horribly-written pulp series in history (a category with many contenders!), so you might want to take that as a warning...
Andrew Mason
62. AnotherAndrew
Talking of mysteries, it strikes me that Michael Innes is particulary fond of this trope. He used it in A Night of Errors (which is self-consciously inspired by Shakespeare; the family involved is called Dromio), and also (spoilers, obviously) in

Lament for a Maker, What Happened at Hazelwood, A Change of Heir, Hare Sitting Up, The Gay Phoenix, Money from Holme, The New Sonia Wayward, and no doubt a few others which I would remember if I thought about it long enough.

He wrote too much, didn't he?

(If anyone wants recommendations, I would say that the one most worth reading is Lament for a Maker, which I think is also the earliest. His quality declines fairly consistently through his career.)
63. LizardBreath
I say this only in the interests of completeness, but the Patty Duke Show.
64. filkferengi
There's Mildred Ames' _Anna To The Infinite Power_.
65. NancyM
Just remembered a couple more: Under Gemini by Rosamunde Pilcher is a romance with twins separated at birth, and one takes the place of the other.

And a movie version: The Return of Martin Guerre
66. Roz Kaveney
It isn't strictly speaking a double story at all, but John Spurling's AFTER ZENDA has a later Rassendyll, who is less nice than Rudolf without reaching Flashman depths of poltroonery, gets involved with Zendan politics in the aftermath of the fall of the People's Republic thereof. Because he looks exactly like Rudolf, everyone knows who he is and everyone wants a piece of him...
67. Elaine Gallagher
Interesting that no-one has mentioned Charmed Life in this thread yet,


with Janet from our universe replacing Cat's sister Gwendolyn in Chrestomanci's house

68. Elaine Gallagher
Sorry, I tried to hide that last with text colour, but it doesn't seem to have worked
69. thanate
Finally placed the one I kept trying to think of-- Searching for Shona by Margaret J Anderson, which is not genre and a kids' book, but involves a pair of girls trading places when evacuated from wartime London, where the one that we follow finds herself in a position to follow up leads on the other's mysterious past.
70. N. Bloch
I'm very late to the party here, but I was surprised that although some people mentioned M. Twain and Shakespeare, no one seems to have mentioned Plautus' Menaechmi (aka The Brothers Manaechmus). I thought that might still be of interest to you. I could be mistaken, my understanding was that Plautus (circa 200 B.C.) is considered to be the "father" of the mistaken identity/identity swap idea.
71. TheophilusThrockmorton
How about John le Carre's The Little Drummer Girl. It's not precisely 'double identity', as the main protagonist is not replacing a real person, exactly, but it's many of the same themes about identity and being/becoming someone else, worked out thoughtfully and cleverly.

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