If you’ve never heard of doppelgänger romance, don’t worry—it’s a term my partner in crime and I came up with a few weeks ago to tag my Ranger Paraversum alt!historical queer mystery series on social. We weren’t the first to use the term, but since I haven’t been able to find all that many examples in fiction altogether—not in the way I ended up writing about it, anyway—along came this post.
I think of this post like an effort to explain a few things to myself, as well as to the rest of the universe. And no, I haven’t read The Echo Wife (which releases a few days in the future from when I’m writing this), nor will I probably ever do (it looks a little too dark for me), but I will note that the first time I heard about it was, well, as a book which just might feature doppelgängers up close and personal. Until I find out whether, you know, it’s just a doppelgänger (clone, in The Echo Wife’s example) book, or a book with a doppelgänger romance subplot, the question remains open. (I am looking forward to finding out, though, even if I end up never reading it.)
Doppelgänger romance didn’t start out as such, at least not where I’m from. Where I’m from, it started as selfcest. The problem with using the term, and the reason why we’re slowly switching to the other, longer one—no matter the ä, which I kinda find cute anyway—is because it can be, pretty easily, misunderstood as something much less proper and way more illegal. Selfcest is, though, a decent term for, say, fanfiction, which is where I picked it up from. Out here, beyond the fandom life, the doppelgänger fiction, in the general sense, that you most notably run into is funny (movies in the nineties), scary (thriller novels of the 2000s) and horny (Croatian speculative fiction—yes, it was the one story, and I still remember it, and not because I liked it).
Since I’m well aware that nobody can claim to be a first in anything, these days, I’m not going to misquote that author and I say, e. g., that I’m the first to write doppelgänger romance fiction where the ‘secondary’ copy is of the same sex as the ‘primary’ one. But I have to admit that most examples I keep seeing online, when there is a romance plot to the whole multiplicity, often include some sort of sex or gender reversal.
Well, I didn’t feel like writing another het novel. At the point when I’d started writing Johnny’s Girls, I’d already written two and a half, and I was ready for a break. So along came Lina and Karol.
In hindsight, I have to admit that choosing such a miniscule niche (if it can even be called that!) for my English debut was huge gamble. I can write regular, non-doppegänger romance plots, no matter the gender combo and partner number. I might even be able to write non-speculative contemporary, even though I haven’t tried in over a decade, I think.
But the idea of two copies—same genetic material, but born in other worlds, raised by other people, evolved into pretty different personalities—finding each other across the multiverse and falling for each other, despite it being forbidden… well, it’s not called ‘inspiration’ in vain.
Johnny’s Girls is not erotica. It’s not even, strictly speaking, romance—it’s just that the romance plot is the main reason the Ranger Paraversum series exists in the first place, and that the [SPOILERS] series finale will most definitely have a version of a happy end (because I’m just that type of person, reader and writer). Yes, there are sex scenes. (An increasing amount of them, which makes me very happy, because, the more the MCs’ relationship progresses, the more sexytimes I can fit in between the plot lines.) Yes, it’s most definitely gay. I mean lesbian. I mean sapphic, dammit.
But it’s also an alternative history murder mystery series, and I’m writing it as such—separate cases for separate books and stuff. It’s just that my sleuthing couple have the same face, the same hair color, and the same (tragic) backstory.
And that’s where the similarities end.
It might be argued that a romance plot like this is narcissistic. One might even say that it’s, dunno, insane. Bizarre. Incredibly ill-advised. But you must note that the person who’s writing these lines grew up with fanfiction. Our definitions of weird are so out there that I’m not even comfortable sharing them in writing.
On the other hand, the history of doppelgängers in non-romance plots is so wide and varied that I’ll just use this doppelgänger appreciation post to note two of my many beloved examples, which had probably influenced my poor little brain to have it come up with a plot like this one.
Oh, no, wait—three!
Since I almost forgot all about it, the fabulous story And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker comes first. It was, I think, the straw that broke my imagination’s back. It’s one of the best doppelgänger pieces I’ve even read (and it’s free online!), written by a person who understands that varieties in lives mean varieties in gender expressions (it was truly appreciated). To add to that, it’s such a fun short read altogether that anything I might say about it would only spoil it for you, so, shooo. Go read about the Sarah Con.
The Vorkosigan Saga is my favourite sci-fi series of all (yes, I love it more than Star Wars—and The Locked Tomb is still a little baby, with just two books out, even though it’s a serious contender), and Mark Vorkosigan is one of my favourite characters of all time. Mark is a clone-brother to the main character of the series, Miles Vorkosigan (remember the name Miles for the next entry in this very short list of awesome doppelgänger plots, because we’ll be revisiting it), and—alright, you know what? I’m not going to spoil this one for you, either, if you’ve somehow managed to miss the brilliance of Lois McMaster Bujold’s space opera series so far. Read the Vorkosigans. Start with The Warrior’s Apprentice and don’t let Mirror Dance bring you down too hard, when you get to it. It’s my favourite part of the whole series.
But the OG doppelgänger, for me—not a multiverse copy plot, nor a clone thing—was Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, which I was privileged enough to have a glorious copy of the 1986 Croatian edition (the best) in our household. I loved Mark Twain as a kid—Tom Sawyer is still my favourite—and I guess the whole doppelgänger thing from the P&P stuck with me through life, only to coincide with the other stuff—Sarah Con, Mark Vorkosigan, the selfcest thing on AO3 and a few visual works I’m not going to go into here (the post is already a little on the long side)—to start the burning wish to write doppelgänger romance. And as for Miles, the early one; Miles Hendon, the prince’s bodyguard in the Twain novel, was one of the reason why Lois McMaster Bujold named her own character Miles.
There aren’t any Mileses in the Ranger Paraversum novels. (Nor Milesias, nor Milesannas. There’s not a single Cordelia, either—but I did manage to squeeze in a few select references; favourite series and all.)
In time, I’m sure, there will be more doppelgänger romance plots out there, though, and it won’t be as tricky to list, tag & bag Johnny’s Girls. The internet is wild in that way—it gives us things we’ve never even dreamed of. Not every doppelgänger plot needs to be nefarious. Not every clone romance needs to be a gender reversal.
And as for Lina and Karol—who are not clones, not related, not of the opposite sex, and who most definitely do deserve to have lots of vintage sexytimes together—there are so many things planned that I can only do so much not to start giggling like a Bond villain.
Which is, you know, a pretty good place to be, when you’re a writer. Even when you’re plotting something so, uh, rare.
And I still wonder, sometimes, if it is truly possible that the whole doppelgänger romance thing is rare, the way it’s approached in Ranger Paraversum—or have my googling skills failed me? I’m looking forward to the day I’m proved wrong, either way!
If you’re up for a chat—about doppelgängers, romance, writing or keeping cat hair out of your hummus—I’m a regular lurker over at twitter. Stop and say hi!
Cover art: Korina Hunjak, for Girls in Black.