Good Brother, Bad Brother Stories

A few years ago I watched the anime Trigun, a story that centers around a man named Vash and his twin brother Knives. Unsurprisingly, one of the brothers was evil. I’ll leave you to guess which one…

I was laughing about this less-than-obvious name choice with a friend, when it occurred to me that the dearly departed TV show Lost involves a similar interpretation of brothers. One baby, Jacob, is born and wrapped in a nice white blanket. Then Jacob’s brother is born and wrapped in a foreshadowing black cloth. White-blanket baby becomes the illustrious protector of the island and black-blanket baby gets shafted with the role of Nemesis. Poor evil baby doesn’t even get a name.

Why do so many stories out there have a plot involving a good brother and an evil brother? Often these brothers are twins, but not always. In the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, good little Ender becomes the Battle School hero and saves the world, blah blah blah. Meanwhile, his older brother Peter’s hobbies include torturing animals and Ender.

I haven’t conducted a thorough survey here by any means, but by just recalling my own media consumption experiences it seems like the good brother/evil brother trope is quite common. Other examples include The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks (good twin/evil twin), the Bible (Cain/Abel and Jacob/Esau), The Man in the Iron Mask (good twin/evil twin), The Dragonlance series (good twin/evil twin), and The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan (good brother/bad brother, although there’s a cool twist to that). Oh, and let’s not forget Dexter (Season 1 SPOILER), where, um, I suppose both brothers are serial killers but Dexter is most certainly the good serial killer. I’m sure there are plenty of others out there that I’m forgetting.

So, again, what’s the deal with all these good/evil brother pairings? I’m wondering why I can’t think of any good sister/evil sister stories, twins or otherwise. Can you think of any? Luke and Leia in Star Wars are boy/girl twins, and both good, so maybe girls just cancel out the evilness of boys? Seriously though, the good brother/evil brother tale seems entrenched in our storytelling, ancient as the Bible.

I wonder if it’s a vestige of the pre-feminist revolution days when mostly everything was by men and about men. But that explanation seems too shallow, too easy. We’ve had decent stories in recent memories with strong female protagonists, and some in the past too, so why not a slew of good sister/bad sister stories to keep pace with the boys? Or even more boy/girl twin stories?

Perhaps our modern brother stories are echoes of legend, of an archetype. But still, why are brothers handy personifications of good and evil and not sisters? I understand why women in legend are often earth goddess mother types. I get why ancient cultures were kind of freaked out by twins in general. Is the brother cliche a result of men’s higher rates of murder in society? Is it because men are typically more physical than women, and physicality equals violence equals death equals evil?

From the stories I’ve named, the brother trope seems to appear more frequently in speculative fiction than in the literary variety. Of course, I enjoy reading/watching speculative type things and have probably read more of such stories as a result, so my experience is biased.

I’m curious if anyone else has thoughts on this. Why are we drawn to brothers, and not sisters, who personify good and evil?


Filed under Thoughts, TV, Writing

9 responses to “Good Brother, Bad Brother Stories

  1. Great article though you should probably tag all the spoilers before the first paragraph even begins! They are pretty massive spoilers for all these stories!

    Also, I wonder if I’m supposed to be the good or evil brother.

  2. That’s a pretty interesting perspective. Bill Willingham’s “Peter and Max” novella does the same…and it’s pretty darn wicked.

    I’m trying to think of any sister pairings, but it’s always smart sister/beautiful sister. That seems to be the more common dichotomy set up in female tales, versus the good/evil in males. That would be a super interesting study to tackle though, to contemplate what role society has in shaping these sort of paradigms and why we’re so accepting of them.

    The book I’m reading now, Shanghai Girls, definitely has this set up.

    • Yeah, it does seem like smart sister/beautiful sister is common. That’s sort of what the Sweet Valley High series did with Elizabeth and Jessica. I’ll have to think more on it.

  3. Although I’ve never thought about it before, you are certainly right. There is a huge collection of books that features the good brother/bad brother storyline. It’s more of a plot device than anything – easy to use, easy to understand, doesn’t require much explanation.

  4. I found your blog through your comment left in response to “Fear and Writing.” Your insight encouraged me! Your writing has that “soul” you speak of and thanks for the reminder to keep mine intact!”

  5. Daniel Schealler

    I always thought it was just the most clear and obvious expression of the classic nemesis trope. The nemesis of the hero is portrayed as a near-copy of that hero that is inflected in an evil way.

    Making them brothers just makes them closer and more evenly matched. It also introduces sibling rivalry and other issues that we have familiarity. The evil brother rejects familial bonds, which makes him more evil. There’s also an element of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ – for it implies that the hero himself could have so easily turned out evil in his brother’s place had the situation been reversed.

    It’s a symbolically laden trope. And an old one: Cain and Abel spring to mind.

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