Last updated: 6 Nov, 2014
A friend was chatting with my about mirror universe versions of our fictional characters yesterday. Sometimes, the mirror universe is just a fun excuse to slap on goatees and be evil, hamming it up and chewing on scenery. But, there's serious potential in understanding people by imagining what they'd do in a novel situation or what kind of people they'd be if past life events had happened differently. Indeed, even the silly, over-the-top evil version of our characters can inform their regular versions. Perhaps those evil tendencies are lingering right under the surface of the good version.
Learning about a person (or character) by seeing what they do in a new situation is something commonly done even in real life; people encounter new things outside their comfort zone all the time. The latter, however, is exclusively the domain of "what if?" and we can never really know the answer. (Well, except for readers of fiction, then what the author writes is as real as anything. But in real life, we cannot change the past, and as writers of fiction, imagining how we want it to work out is a fascinating - and often difficult - exercise.)
Nobody lives in a vacuum. We're all influenced by things that happen around us and the people around us. These influences shape who we are, and in turn, who we are shapes the world around us. Changing one thing may have a ripple effect that strongly affects us, but how far should the change go?
See, I simultaneously hold two contradictory beliefs: on one hand, I believe that one event or one person can make an enormous difference in both an individual's life or even on historic events. But, on the other hand, I also believe that a person's life or national history is the sum of an infinite number of previous events and circumstances and changing one thing won't have that big of an event on the whole.
That is, on a personal level, I think the little, day-to-day things other people do have the potential to make an enormous difference in us... but also that changing any one of them is unlikely to change the big picture. When someone says something that strongly impacts us, I thank that someone for their positive influence, but I'm skeptical that we would have been receptive to that influence if not for a countless number of prior things that prepared us for it. Moreover, if that one individual wasn't there, when you're receptive to a message, you'll often have other opportunities to hear it too; in the long term, maybe that one person's different choice might not affect you.
Similarly, on a national level, a great leader might be able to effect change and guide the country, but if the people in that country are against it or even if the state institutions don't support this change, the leader will be isolated and powerless. The individual can make a difference, but he or she is not all-powerful.
Let's apply (and better understand through example) this principle to some of my fictional situations.
In my fictional world, the two principle characters met in a ship that had a serious engine malfunction, leaving them stranded together for an extended time, unsure if they'd ever make it home. Over this time, they became good friends. As a result, over the subsequent years, they would experience all kinds of things and significantly learn and grow together. Their lives are intricately intertwined, each enormously major influences on one another (and they affect their surrounding world too).
What if that ship's engine never blew up? That's a pretty small change in isolation, saying a freak accident never happened. The same people are still together, with exactly the same backgrounds, in mostly the same place, for about the same amount of time, but the context has changed.
This, on the face of it, seems like it might be one of those things that has a small impact. And, indeed, it might. These two people are still together in this enclosed space for the period of a few months. It is completely conceivable they'd still grow to be close friends.
But, this is one benefit of the exercise for characterization: we have to ask who are these people at this point in their lives? By looking at what might have happened, we can better understand what did happen.
These two people have a lot in common: significantly, they're both pretty shy and would both want to maintain professionalism and a big emotional guard. This is a situation in real life I'd use to argue that opposites attract (sort of)... with two shy people, who is going to take the first step to get the ball rolling? As a result, I think that if that engine didn't malfunction and the trip went exactly as it was supposed to, these two people would have sat about thirty feet apart all day, every day, for like three months.... but never would have gotten to know each other.
This radically changes their lives... or does it? Could this one event be the change that allows the character (one or both) to go down an evil path, satisfying the mirror universe desire? I actually don't think so, though the details of their lives will undoubtedly be totally different.
(Of course, as the author if this fictional world, if I really do want them to be evil, this could be just one piece of a whole new and different backstory. I think the way I'd do it is to introduce another influential friend who feeds rather than fights those corrupting seeds over the years, causing him to end up in a totally different place. Say, I could introduce this character into the main story too and use as a contrast... see, the what if exercise is already yielding fruit!)
Anyway, the reason I don't think this change would have the desired effect of becoming evil without additional writing effort is that the characters, despite never really meeting, would still fundamentally be the same people, in generally the same environment. The reason that they got along so well isn't necessarily that they're two unique soulmates that can never be replaced by anyone else (as enticing as such an idea can be from a literary or romantic point of view), I think the reason as as much to do with the facts that they share similar moral principles, interests (one of my favorite scenes is the first time they sing together... where they coincidentally happen to both know the same obscure song and happen to share the same kind of musical dreams), emotional availability, and so on.
There's other people out there who can fit the same general mold. Again, not the details - though, the reason those details are so significant in the regular story are because they happened to work out, not necessarily that they are the one true way things had to have happened. That obscure song they sang together was special not because of some intrinsic value of the song (though it is awesome btw), but because they enjoyed it together.
So, I think the greatest odds are that if this meeting never worked out, they'd eventually come across someone else who is similar, another good and decent person and their story would have new details, even changed personality, but it would be more like taking a different fork in the road than totally changing direction. Decent people don't willingly walk the evil path - it'd have to be written that by the time they realize they're going the wrong way, they are already too corrupted and surrounded by corrupting influences to care.
That said, again showing that I'm of two minds on the issue, everything is different, but everything is also the same.
Whelp, over the last hour or so I've taken to write this up, I think I have started to write in circles. I can either go back and edit it to better make my point and then proceed... or just hit post. Since I'm lazy, I'll just hit post for now.
To briefly summarize, the little events that make us up, either as fictional characters or real people, are absolutely significant, but not necessarily the only road we could have taken to get to where we are. Since who a person is often informs where they want to go, missing one road may just lead them to take another, similar road, which is probably going to be available in one form or another as that's generally based on big surrounding circumstances over which we, as individuals, have limited power.
I could go on about this at so much more length, a big part of me would love to detail my story stuff some day and talk about that evil mirror universe backstory too (and I'd learn about it myself as I write that, and in turn, learn more about the main story, and even myself in the real world), but perhaps some other time.