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How can I distinguish between the same character from different universe with the same age?

There's a similar question that was asked not too long ago, but it involved time-travel.

In this case, you have two Johns from the same time, but different universes. What are some ways to distinguish them? I was told that you can use prime marks and refer to them as John' and John'', but it looks really odd to me.

What are some other alternatives to this?

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  • What distinguishes them within your story? Like, what distinguishes the two universes? Aug 8 '21 at 22:16
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    Are both Jones POV characters? Or you need others who are "in the know" to distinguish between them?
    – Alexander
    Aug 9 '21 at 17:38
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So this is a "similar universes" thing where the people are almost, but not quite, identical, and one of them has come into the universe where your story is set?

There are two approaches. One is to call the one who has always been in this universe John and the other John'. (Using ' and '' as in your question doesn't make sense to me.) But you're the author, and you're choosing the differences between the universes. So you can do better than that. Perhaps one of them was Johnny as a small boy and never "graduated" to John, while the other did. (You're the author; give your characters names with lots of short forms if need be so you can have Rob and Bob or Liz and Beth, etc.) Or one of them goes by their middle name, or their initials. Have a reason for it - say John was named after his dad and in one universe the dad left the family so he switched to his middle name. Or in one universe the dad died young and John "took over" the name, but in the other the dad is still around and John switched to the middle name to avoid confusion as he became an adult.

Doing this not only removes awkwardness for your readers with punctuation, it lets you write scenes where someone greets Johnny, who explains that he's actually John thanks, or maybe he doesn't and he lets the person think it's Johnny, etc.

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Assuming that your characters are leading separate lives in these parallel universes and unaware of each other and are not interacting in the scenes in question, then you can use the technique of anchoring to differentiate them to the reader.

Anchor is often used when shifting storytelling into the future or the past in a character's life. The author establishes a distinct setting for each time frame and anchors it with unique elements -- a character in the past my be in their childhood bedroom with Howdy Dowdy dolls and in present time they are in a lux apartment on 5th avenue surrounded by paintings and sculpture. Once these elements are established the story can move between the frames by referencing a small object in the environment which serves to anchor the story in that place and time.

Similarly for multiverse stories, the environments and choice of clothing and details of the characters' lives are not likely to be totally identical. If each character is linked with setting elements that serve to differentiate them, then by alluding to that element the story can establish that this scene is told from the POV of John and not John'

If the characters are interacting in the same scene, the scene must still be told from a single POV. Then whose POV we are seeing the world from can be established by who they think of their doppelganger. The TV show Fringe did with by giving character names that supported subtle twists. Walter thought of his opposite as Walternate. Similarly, as has been suggested, they might use nicknames Johnny for John etc.

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  • I'm upvoting you because you reminded me of a story I wrote, I added it to my answer, and It touches on yours. Otherwise I don't usually upvote if I'm answering until after an answer is accepted to stay impartial.
    – DWKraus
    Aug 9 '21 at 19:36
  • @DWKraus, well, thank you. I will always upvote an answer if I think it is well presented and information, even when I've provided a different answer. Different Strokes.
    – EDL
    Aug 9 '21 at 20:06
  • In the movie Coherence, where there were multiples of the same person, they used different coloured glow-sticks as a very effective anchor.
    – Allan
    Aug 9 '21 at 22:17
  • @Allan, certainly, in visual media anchors can be used much more subtly and be effective effective. In prose, getting the same deftness of touch takes more effort for it to blend into the background as a change of clothing or color of props.
    – EDL
    Aug 9 '21 at 22:40
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Different Strokes for Different Folks:

Since you are going with parallel universes, the sky is the limit - which is to say, Apollo and Helios can be the same god in different cultural traditions. How similar are your worlds? Athena can become Minerva, or Kali can become Kalia, Or Callie. Use Actual different names but with the same meaning.

In a sci-fi multiverse of mine, the same child was raised by a Lesbian couple, and in the first universe the child has born of Mother 1, while in the alternate universe Mother 1 was abducted by her family and Mother 2 delivered the transplanted baby. So in one universe the child was named Diana, while in the second, she was Minerva. It was the same genetic person, but with differing names both inspired by Greco-Roman mythology. Diana lived an Idyllic life, while Minerva suffered childhood trauma.

Or use different spellings of the same name. Use tiny one-letter differences, even, and a reader can see even what an ear might not be able to distinguish. So you have John, Jon, Yohan, Juan, Johan Jonas, Johnathan etc.

Otherwise, middle names can be mixed up. Grandpa was more insistent in universe two about them using his name, so John Jacob Schmitt becomes John Terry Schmitt. You can call them John J and John T. Then they could BOTH go by their middle name and still be John Schmitt, but they are called Jacob and Terry for story reasons.

Or keep the names and maintain constant perspective. I had a universe a little like this, and one of the characters was the perspective character. He referred to his alternate selves with nick-names (going with the John theme, local John for the one from the current universe, bad-John for the one that stole his life and threw him into the parallel universe, stupid John for the one that didn't marry the girl they all loved).

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Different (even nearly identical parallel) universes may have different spelling traditions. I'm thinking J'n and John, or Jon and John, or even Dzohnn and John. (I am reminded of DC Comics' character J'onn J'onzz [pronounced John Jones], the Martian Manhunter.)

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