I. What is an Alter Ego?
An alter ego (pronounced awl-ter ee-goh) is a secondary self. The fascination behind an alter ego is in its secrecy—it’s almost always a second identity or life that is being hidden from a person or character’s friends, family, and others around them. Of Latin origin and stemming from the Greek állos egṓ, the term is believed to have been coined by the author Cicero, who described it as “a second self, a trusted friend.”
When a character lives more than one life, having a secret identity or taking on more than one personality, that alternate personality is their alter ego—for instance, think of Spider-Man, who is the alter ego to Peter Parker. He is just a normal guy by day, but secretly has supernatural powers that he uses to fight crime. In many cases the characters are in control of their alter egos, but in other cases (that focus more on the psychological aspects of the alter ego), they may not even be aware that it exists.
What’s more, sometimes a character in a story is said to be the author’s alter ego, or, an author himself may use an alter ego when they publish their work. So, both fictional characters and real people can have alter egos.
II. Examples of Alter Ego
Here are some short excerpts capturing the idea of an alter ego:
During the day, she was just a school teacher; the simple, quiet book-lover that most people overlooked. But by night, she was the leader of the most notorious rebel army that would soon take back their country.
This example suggests that the rebel identity is the teacher’s secret identity that only comes out at night.
By looking at him, you would never know that nice old Bob had a secret life—every month on the full moon, he became a man-eating werewolf.
Like the first example, Bob’s secret werewolf identity only comes out after dark.
She kissed her husband goodbye as he said “have a great day at the office!” She wished she could tell him who she really was—Special Agent 987, lethal spy and assassin.
In this example, the Special Agent 987’s secret is the spy identity she hides from her husband.
The examples describe characters and their alter egos. While each of them seemingly leads a normal life, in truth they are a rebel, a werewolf, and spy.
III. Types of Alter Egos
The alter ego is just one literary device, but can be brought to life in a couple of different ways.
Alter Ego of an Author
Sometimes, an author tries to represent or introduce their own alter ego as a character in a story. They use a fictional character to express a secondary personality that they may feel they have but don’t show in real life.
- Ernest Hemingway wrote about his own life through his alter ego Nick Adams, the stories were later made into a collection called The Nick Adams Stories.
- J.K. Rowling has been known to describe the character Hermione as a representation of herself in the Harry Potter series
Other times, authors don’t user their own name when publishing a work. This can be as simple as preferring pen name, or it can be a way to keep the audience from associating the work with a person they already have ideas about.
- Because of laws prohibiting women to publish, the Bronte sisters initially used alter egos to publish their works to hide from publishers that they were female.
- Author Mary Ann Evans, who you know as George Eliot, developed a male alter ego for her writing because she feared the work of a woman wouldn’t be taken seriously
- K. Rowling also published the book The Cuckoo’s Calling under the alter ego Robert Galbraith, who the publishers claimed to be a former cop. Already being famous for Harry Potter, she wanted to publish something that wasn’t associated with her former work.
Alter Ego of a Character
In fiction, a character’s alter ego can take several forms—a hidden identity, a secondary personality, or a secret life being led in addition to a normal life. The alter ego is a particularly important characteristic of comic books, which frequently center around characters who are normal people with second lives or humans with supernatural abilities that they only reveal when they take on a hidden identity. Alter egos are also very popular tools in psychological thrillers, which frequently utilize psychopathic characters who are perhaps fooling the world into thinking they are normal.
Famous characters with alter egos include:
- Clark Kent, whose alter ego is Superman (see Examples in Popular Culture)
- Bruce Wayne, whose alter ego is Batman (see Examples in Popular Culture)
- The vampires of the Twilight series, whose alter egos are high school students
- Norman Bates of Psycho, whose alter ego is his own mother, Norma Bates
- Dr Jekyll, whose alter ego is the evil Mr. Hyde (see Examples in Literature)
Of course, these are just a few of the alter egos that can be found in fiction. The idea of a second life and alter ego has fascinated authors for centuries, gaining particular popularity since the 19th century, when the awareness of multiple-personality disorder really began to be exposed.
IV. Importance of Alter Egos
Alter egos let authors explore other sides of themselves, or other sides of their characters. They also exist to make certain storylines more plausible—for instance, it would be difficult for superheroes to exist as normal members of society. They need alter egos to protect their identities and truly be able to help people—thus, in the cases of superheroes, alter egos are essential for the story to work. What’s more, the idea of an alter ego is simply intriguing and exciting for audiences. There’s nothing more gripping than a mystery, and with an alter ego there is always a secret begging to be discovered by others in the story.
V. Examples of Alter Ego in Literature
Perhaps the most well-known alter ego in literature belongs to Dr. Jekyll, a man who comes to hold the second personality of Mr. Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde explores the darker side of the human psyche, in which one person can simultaneously be both good and evil. Through scientific experiments, Dr. Jekyll accidentally unearths the evil side of himself, Mr. Hyde:
At that time my virtue slumbered; my evil, kept awake by ambition, was alert and swift to seize the occasion; and the thing that was projected was Edward Hyde. Hence, although I had now two characters as well as two appearances, one was wholly evil, and the other was still the old Henry Jekyll.
Here, Dr. Jekyll explains that the evil side of him was eager to seize control, and the result was the second personality of Mr. Hyde.
Nowadays, the phrase “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” has become synonymous with the idea of a split personality or mood swings. For instance, if your friend is being really nice, and the next minute is in a very bad mood, you may say, “it was like being around Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!”
In Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, the narrator and main character has the alter ego without initially being aware of it. The narrator, a simple man with a boring life, develops the alter ego Tyler Durden, an extremist and activist who leads people to do all kinds of things that the narrator himself would never be brave enough to do on his own. Throughout the novel, the narrator often asks,
If I could wake up in a different place, at a different time, could I wake up as a different person?
This quote is telling for the audience and for the narrator himself—in reality, his own question is answered by the existence of his alter ego. He does wake up in different places and different times as an entirely different person. But, he doesn’t realize it until the damage is done and he has unconsciously created a life of mayhem for himself through his own alter ego.
VI. Examples of Alter Ego in Popular Culture
Comic book superheroes are iconic manifestations of the alter ego. Often a superhero is a normal person with a secret identity, living a second life as a crime-fighting, humanity-saving hero. This usually happens because the character has somehow acquired supernatural powers, or certain technologies that allow them to perform in a superhuman way. In this scene from the new Batman vs. Superman, Clark Kent (Superman) and Bruce Wayne (Batman) meet as themselves, but each knows the other’s secret…
Each of these men live a normal life, but also lead a secondary secret life. There are hundreds or renditions of the stories about heroes with alter egos, from Batman, to Superman, to Spiderman, and many, many more. So, it can certainly be argued that the most popular alter egos in today’s film and comic book culture belong to superheroes like these.
Another modern rendition of the super hero alter ego is the recent film Kick-Ass, a story about regular people living alternate lives as crime-fighters, despite having no supernatural or extraordinary powers. It centers around the character Dave, a teenager who decides to take crime into his own hands by creating a superhero alter ego for himself:
In this scene, Dave’s girlfriend asks why he is dressed like newly famous hero “Kick-Ass,” to which he replies “I am Kick-Ass.” Until now, Dave has been hiding his alter-ego, living the double life of a high school student and a crime-fighter.
In the TV series Dexter, the main character Dexter has an interesting alter ego—in truth, he is a serial killer, but he covers it up with an alter ego, which most people believe to be his true self. So, his real identity is the one he embodies in secret, while carrying out his murders, but his alter ego is what he embodies in his daily life—that of a seemingly normal forensic specialist. In this character spotlight, Dexter explains his own double identity:
This clip captures Dexter’s understanding of himself—a killer who wears a “mask” in everyday life to hide his true self. The Dexter everyone knows is, in fact, his alter ego, and the real Dexter remains hidden to them for now.
VII. Related Terms
A split personality, formerly known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, is a psychological condition in which a person develops multiple distinct personalities. Often in literature and film, the terms alter ego and split personality are closely associated or thought of in the same way.
A pen name is when an author simply changes their name to hide their identity. Unlike an alter ego, it is not usually a representation of a personality. For instance, Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Clemens.
An alias or pseudonym is a name that someone uses for a specific purpose. Those purposes can vary—for example it can be to conceal an identity or used for an official title or position (like for a king or a pope). The term can also be applied to a huge range of things, from user names, to changed legal names, to official titles, to nicknames, and so on.
In conclusion, an alter ego can be an alluring and story-defining trait in works of literature. From the superheroes you know and love to authors who have represented themselves in their own work, the alter ego has been and will continue to be a popular trait across many types of fiction.