Mirror, Mirror: Valjean & Javert in Les Misérables

**Spoilers if you have not yet seen Les Misérables or know the story.**

Les Misérables has been one of my favorite musicals since I first saw it in Philadelphia while in college. One of the main drivers of this play is the conflict between escaped but reformed criminal Valjean and pursuing police officer Javert. These two characters aren’t just antagonists, but mirror each other.

We see this clearly in the song “The Confrontation“, where their different trajectories are laid out. Valjean, a decent man trying to live right but driven to break the law by desperate circumstances, and Javert, born in a prison and rising to become a true believer in the law he upholds. Their views of the world are opposite but related: Javert’s is unquestioning black and white, while Valjean sees shades of gray. They both feel people should do the right thing, but they differ on the role of mercy in dispensing justice.

A brilliant mirror effect in Les Misérables is the mirroring of “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and “Javert’s Suicide” (see here for lyrics and comparison). These songs are the same melody,  but different words–belying the very words Javert sings “there is nothing on Earth that we share: it is either Valjean or Javert.”

Each character experiences the same event: an act of mercy that saves his life and gives him freedom. The same act, but with two very different reactions.

In Valjean’s case, a man of God breaks the law to give Valjean a chance at redemption. In Javert’s case, Valjean refuses to kill Javert when he is outed as a spy. Instead, he frees Javert and forgives him for his relentless pursuit over the years.

For Valjean, the priest’s act of mercy is life-changing. “What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go?” For Javert, Valjean’s mercy is life-shattering. “And must I now begin to doubt, who never doubted all these years?”

Valjean sees the act as a gift: “Yet why did I allow this man to touch my soul and teach me love?”. Javert sees the freely-given mercy as a power play: “How can I now allow this man to hold dominion over me?”

Ultimately, their different world views lead to opposite outcomes when this same act of mercy challenges their current belief system. Valjean accepts the mercy as a chance for redemption: “Jean Valjean is nothing now; another story must begin.” Javert, however,  cannot let go of his unyielding belief that the law must not be questioned. “There is nowhere I can turn; there is no way to go on.”

This intricate play of similarities in protagonist and antagonist should be a lesson for all writers. When the characters have certain beliefs in common, it makes both accessible to the reader. The mirror differences in the characters explores an issue confronting the human condition. When characters have similar base beliefs, it creates tension by opening the door for EITHER the villain’s redemption OR the hero’s fall. This dual possibility will help keep your readers engaged to the very end.

What other stories have great mirrored characters? Do you use mirroring in your work?

Parallel Lives

Things have happened lately that have made me very aware of the parallel lives we humans live. So often we present one face to the world—confident or happy or calm—while inside we are dealing with emotions or events that have left us scared or sad or frantic. Even in this age where people habitually over-share, we all carry secrets we hide from most people.

This sharp contrast has made me realize two things: 1) We should never be hasty in judging someone, for we don’t know what is happening behind their smile, and 2) even the most honest person wears a façade.

This façade is not being dishonest or “fake.” Sometimes your real feelings are not appropriate to the situation or to the people you are currently with. For instance, a client meeting is not the place to sob and rant about a breakup. Also, the façade serves a protective purpose, hiding our vulnerability from people who would use those feelings to harm or manipulate us.

This is not only a good life lesson, but a good writing lesson. Our characters will be much deeper and more interesting if they live the parallel lives we real people do every day. Have a character that has to smile all day as a customer service worker? What if that character is dealing with an illness or death in the family? Or if your worker ends up serving the man she recognizes as the man who murdered her friend? Or the ex-boyfriend she still loves shows up with his girlfriend?

These parallel lives make your character and scene more interesting because it increases conflict and is the very definition of tension. And as most editors will tell you, you virtually cannot have too much tension in your book. Tension drives the reader to keep turning the pages—and who doesn’t want to write a page-turner?

So next time you want to spice up a scene or a character, think about the hidden emotional life going on inside your character at that moment.

And next time you’re annoyed by the behavior of someone in the real world, give them the benefit of the doubt—things may not be what they seem.

Have you made use of parallel lives in your work?

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