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Lacanian Mirror Stage | Writing 101

Okay, let's take a step back. Way back. A little further. There you go. Calling Lacanian Mirror Stage "Writing 101" might be author malpractice, it's actually "Fairly Advanced Writing 5902" but, here we are.

When you get down to it, all talk about writing and how writing functions is Literary Theory. When I talk about Four Corner Opposition I frame it as though it's an instruction manual, but really: its a Theory. And it's up to you to decide if it works. The theories I usually instruct on are typically very functional and very universal, but sometimes I like to go a little higher.

I especially like to go to Lacanian Mirror Stage Theory as it applies to fiction, because I find it one of the best ways to Show, rather than Tell, character growth.

So, writers love to steal. Lacanian Mirror Stage Theory started life as a psychoanalytic theory proposed by Jacques Lacan, and it's been adapted into different disciplines since. Visual artists have a Lacanian Theory, Anthropologists have a Lacanian Theory, Behaviorists have a Lacanian Theory... you get the idea.

But it started as a very simple way to describe an early stage of human development: recognizing your reflection. According to Lacan, by the time a child is around six months of age it will have passed all the "body discovery" stages: discovers their feet, discovers their hands, etc. But they don't yet have an idea of what they look like as a whole: as far as they're concerned, their hand just floats in front of them sometimes and is kind of in their control.

Then, at some point, your parent or loved one takes you in front of a mirror and they point to the reflection and they say: "Hey man, that's you." And for the first time you see not only those arms and legs, but the thing that connects them. You see your body, your face, your eyes. You see the whole of you for the first time, and you feel complete. But, because your loved one pointed to you reflection and not to you, you externalize your consciousness you make it an object. Boiled down: "I am not me, the reflection is me."

And according to Lacan, we spend the rest of our lives trying to feel that sense of completeness we felt for just a second when we first looked in that mirror, before it was ripped away.

Well, that's dark, right? So when adapting this theory to literature, we're trying to recreate that Mirror Stage for the main character of the story. But instead of using literal mirrors, we show how the characters actions reflect in other people. According to this theory: in every story, the main character will become confronted with the knowledge that how people see them is different from how they see themselves, and be threatened by that.

Now that might seem crazy on it's face, but if you stop and think about it: this has happened to you in your life. Maybe a child in your life looked up to you and called you steady and strong when you know you're barely holding on: their idea of you changes how you think about yourself. You realized that in their eyes, you're strong.

Maybe a close friend snaps at you for being an asshole when you didn't realize you were being one, and you're confronted with that reality: that you weren't conscious of how your actions were reflecting in others, and now you want to adjust and change that.

Maybe you're confronted at an intervention by how your alcoholism reflects on your family and friends, how it effects them, and you realize you're hurting more than just yourself.

Have you ever had it happen that you walk in on people talking about you, or seen that trope in fiction? That's this.

These are all examples of Lacanian Mirror Stage moments that could happen in real life: or, in fiction. In this particular Lit Theory, people who subscribe to it say: this is what the whole story is about. They pinpoint this moment, when the character is confronted with their reflection, and they say this: this is the whole thing, in isolation.


Where I, personally, differ on Lacanian Mirror Stage Theory is that to me, it is a necessary tool of writing any longform narrative: anything longer than a short story, basically. And even then, often, short fiction has these as well.

To me, Lacanian Theory is a byproduct of Four Corner Opposition. Each of those lines between the squares on your grid? That's a mirror, and the character on the other side of it is a reflection of you: the same, but opposite. Chiral. You, but turned around, reversed.

In the above example, the line between Character A and Character B is a Mirror. They're reflections of each other: the same, but a little different. And when they conflict, boy howdy, they're going to conflict over those differences. B is going to say to A: "You're weak, you refuse to break the rules and it gets people killed." And A will have this crisis: "Oh my God, am I weak? I thought my rule adherence was a strength, do people see it as a weakness?"

To me this is also a concrete way of instructing on Show, don't Tell. You want to be showing that a character has a trait, never telling the reader. You don't want to say "Matthew was mad," you want to show Matthew pounding the table, his face getting red, his blood pressure spiking. You want to Show the reader what Matthew being mad looks like and have them, in their heads, go: "Holy cow, he's mad." It makes for more engaging story.

But sometimes it's hard to do this. How do we Show that Batman won't kill? Well, we do it with Lacanian Mirror Stage. We have Batman exist in a scene with his mirror reflection from the four-corner opposition, and we have them argue over his no-kill rule.

How do we show character progression? You have your main character be evaluated (reflected) by others at different points throughout their character journey. If at the start people see them as weak, in the middle getting stronger, and at the end people see them as brave: you're illustrating your character's journey through the eyes of those around them: through their reflection. In this kind of scenario, once the the image reflected in others matches what they want it to be, the character growth is complete.

Think about Red in The Shawshank Redemption: we see Andy's reflection of him, his mirror opposite, many times, but we also check in with the Parole Board at three key sections of the movie (Rule of Threes!). Each time, we see how his words and attitudes reflect on this neutral governing party, until in the end he gets what he wants: release.

Think about Watson in the BBC Sherlock episode "A Study in Pink." First we see him through his therapist's eyes, as weak and frail and suffering from PTSD, then through Mike Stamford's eyes, as the man he used to be, then through Misses Hudson's eyes as a disabled homebody, then through Mycroft's eyes as something more, then finally through Sherlock's eyes as an action hero, the way he wants to be seen and the way he will be seen for the rest of the show. Watson's character arc is tracked by how others see him.


Like this and what more of it? I teach interactive online classes over Zoom, three-four times a year for 10 weeks. Take your writing to the next level! Click the link for more information or to contact me.


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