Those in the Mirror

On the drive back from church this past Sunday, we tuned into the public radio station, which aired a show on symmetry. If you’re a writer, you’ll find this stuff fascinating, so I insist you head for Radio Lab, where you can find these episodes.

Symmetry is an odd concept because nature presents itself asymmetrically. All right, I know what you’re going to say–most of nature does present itself symmetrically, just not exactly so. For example, butterfly wings and leaves appear to match each other bilaterally. But if you were to fold a leaf in half, the two sides would not match up. However, I do understand that the sides follow the same pattern. If one wing of a butterfly presented in spots and the other in stripes, the wing pattern would not be symmetrical at all. Because the wings mirror each other, they are called symmetric, even if the measurements are slightly off.

Those slightly off measurements make a big difference. Mirror images appear to be true, but they’re not. If you listen to the radio presentation called Mirror, Mirror, you will learn that the mirror image of the caraway molecule tastes like spearmint. For those of you who are fans of rye bread, you will understand immediately that caraway’s mirror image molecule can’t replace it. Mint flavor in rye bread is wrong–it’s off–it’s not right.

The same is true of people. Have you ever wondered why you look creepy in photographs? This is because you have no idea what you really look like. You are only capable of looking at a mirror image of yourself, which isn’t how you appear to everybody else.

I began to wonder how this concept applies to fictional characters. After all, aren’t they mirror images of humanity? They don’t exactly resemble flesh and blood humans, but, even so, must appear to be real in order for readers to accept them. These thoughts spun around in my mind after my attempt to finally read Jodi Picoult. Yes, that’s right. I decided to finally give Picoult’s books a chance and, therefore, grabbed two of her thick volumes from the library shelf. I realized almost immediately that her writing style, with its melancholic drone, would bore the heck out of me. I rolled my eyes in impatience as she followed gratuitous rabbit trails and over-described certain elements that I didn’t want to know about in context with the novel, such as the prison system. Unless the book is actually about the prison system, I don’t want to know the ins and outs of its structure and–get this–how to make meth. Yes, she tells the reader how to make meth, which has nothing to do with the story.

But I would’ve been willing to ignore or even enjoy all these extra, researched subjects that had nothing whatever to with the novel, IF her characters had been spot on. Every single character had the chance to tell their story–all in the same POV. Yes, that’s right. Every character, in both books I plucked from the library, had the same tone, same POV, as if they were distorted mirror images of the author that were reflected off shattered glass.

It’s as if Jodi Picoult is attempting to reassemble her own mirror image, puzzle piece by puzzle piece, and hasn’t managed to create a complete picture yet–certainly not of herself, and of no one else either. Her characters ring false.

Knowing, of course, that all mirror images are not quite true, how do we go about creating this asymmetry in such a way that it doesn’t appear to be asymmetrical at all? God managed it when he created butterflies and leaves. How are we, as artists, to do the same with our characters?  



  1. Great post, Jill–I've never considered fiction in this way, but you're right–it's an artist's rendition of a reflection. Will have to think on that question–how to keep it from feeling artificial.

  2. Hi, Rowenna! Character makes the story for me, so I'm always thinking about these things. Obviously, many people don't agree w/ me on Picoult, at least, or she wouldn't be a bestseller.

  3. Terri, I was waiting for somebody to say they loved Picoult! Obviously, her characters work for her and a lot of people. If you come back, tell me what you admire about her characters. I'd love to know.

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