In a new series on Character Archetypes, the first entry today is A for the Alter-Ego. When I hear the word, I naturally think of the superhero genre, but alter-egos or dual identities are more common than you might think, and provide an interesting method for developing a very creative fictional character.
Well recognised now as a trope for the superhero genre, the alter-ego has other uses outside of providing the unrecognised normal face for a secret costumed hero.
Signs of the Alter Ego
- A disguised character acting as a different personality in a different role
- Differing personalities or roles are evidenced by the character maintaining a different appearance.
- The alter ego tends to hold opposing characteristics than the other ie evil vs good, or meek vs strong, brunette vs blonde. (In many cases, this may make the alter ego the shadow archetype to the character’s normal archetype).
- Done to disguise a person to allow them an alternative life, or in the case of secret identities to preserve one of those lives from public scrutiny …
- …Often to save media attention and possible harm to their lives or those of loved ones
- Or to allow creative freedom (in music or writing for instance) where they have been boxed into certain genres etc
Examples of the Alter Ego
Fiction: Dr Jekyll / Mr Hyde; Superman / Clark Kent; Batman / Bruce Wayne; Two Face / Harvey Dent; Phoebe Buffay / Regina Phalange (Friends); George Constanza / Art Vanderlay (Seinfield); Walter White (Breaking Bad) and I’ll leave you with one name – Norman Bates.
In Fiction the dual role or alter ego is often used to secure the real identity of the villain away from their family, friends, and sometimes even the employees or sidekicks doing their evil work. Many fictional characters such as businessmen or even good friends of the protagonist can uphold normal lives and roles, yet in the background be plotting and planning (perhaps even with minions) their villainous plans to stop the protagonist. The alter ego is often used in mysteries, crime fiction and thrillers to hide the identity of the villain for as long as possible, to add to the surprise and climatic ending.
Real Life (Entertainment): Sacha Baron Cohen / Ali G or Borat; Barry Humphries / Dame Edna Everidge; The Beatles / Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; David Bowie / Ziggy Stardust; Eminem / Slim Shady.
Many authors take on pseudonyms or pen-names to allow them creative freedom in other genres. Even Earnest Hemingway had an alter ego when penning his early life stories (Nick Adams).
Other Names and Associates
- doppelgangers are slightly different, although the term is sometimes used for an alter-ego. Doppelgangers are doubles or people who look and often behave identically to somebody, but are a different person. Alter-egos are characters who are another side of one person, and often look or dress differently.
- shadows – Jung described the shadow as that part of us which is deep, dark and normally unknown. It’s the repressed emotions or behaviours found within ourselves. An alter ego is often used to bring out some of those behaviours which we don’t feel confident in using more normally.
- secret identity – an alter ego being used to disguise a superhero
- ventriloquist – the ventriloquist uses a dummy or puppet to voice their alter-ego side.
- dissociative identity disorder (formerly split personality or multiple personality disorders) – there is sometimes a psychological reason behind a person’s alter egos, but as a fictional trope the split personality has been over-egged
- alt – an alt (alternative character, alter ego) or avatar within MMOGs or RPGs can be a character avatar standing in for the real life player
- aliases – aliases are the double lives of characters who are spies or undercover in law enforcement roles typically to protect their real life identity
Further details on this archetype (origins, areas where alter egos are used, and further resources) may be found in an extended supplementary ebook: A to Z of Character Archetypes possibly published at the end of this series (dependent on interest). Please comment your interest.
Part of 2016’s Character Archetype Series (A-Z) @ Hunter is Writing.