Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 8: Introduction to the 12 Shadow Archetypes

Where there is light, there is shadow. Where is there is a right way to do things, there are usually several ways to do it wrong. So it goes with archetypal character arcs and their potential shadow archetypes—of which there are two for every positive archetype.

Over the last few months, we have explored six successive “life arcs,” represented by the Positive-Change Arcs of six primary archetypes—the Maiden, the Hero, the Queen, the King, the Crone, and the Mage. Each of these positive archetypes represents a rising above the limitations of the previous archetype in the cycle. But they also inherently represent a struggle with related “shadow” or negative archetypes.

Specifically, there are twelve negative archetypes—two for each positive archetype. Each positive archetype sits at the top of a triangle that is completed by a potential negative polarity between the two negative archetypes—one representing an aggressive version of the shadow archetype and the other representing a passive version. In Sacred Contracts, Caroline Myss speaks of the inherent power dynamic within this archetypal triangle:

The shadow aspects of our archetypes are fed by our paradoxical relationship to power. We are as intimidated by being empowered as we are by being disempowered.

This is why one of the primary challenges within any of the six positive archetypal arcs is that of grappling with one’s conflicting desire for and fear of autonomy. Only in integrating and accepting the responsibility for this growing power is a character able to escape the beckoning shadow archetypes and instead level up into the next “life arc.”

12 Shadow or Negative Archetypes

More or less classically (and with a big nod to Kim Hudson’s The Virgin Promise and Douglas Gillette and Robert L. Moore’s King, Warrior, Magician, Lover), the corresponding archetypes can be viewed like this:

1. Positive: Maiden

Passive: Damsel

Aggressive: Vixen

 2. Positive: Hero

Passive: Coward

Aggressive: Bully

3. Positive: Queen

Passive: Snow Queen

Aggressive: Sorceress

4. Positive: King

Passive: Puppet

Aggressive: Tyrant

 5. Positive: Crone

Passive: Hermit

Aggressive: Wicked Witch

6. Positive: Mage

Passive: Miser

Aggressive: Sorcerer

Graphic created by Sydney Watkins.

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Just as the temptation and struggle against the shadow archetypes’ corruption is inherent within all of the archetypal Positive-Change Arcs, so too are the two negative archetypes inherent within each other. Although a character representing a negative archetype will usually manifest most obviously as one or the other—passive or aggressive—they are really just two sides of the same coin. For example, inherent within any Coward, there is usually a latent Bully, just as the Bully is often a Coward at heart.

There are many ways negative archetypes can arc:

  • From negative to positive (a Positive-Change Arc)
  • From positive to negative (a Corruption Arc)
  • From passive to aggressive (a Fall Arc)
  • From aggressive to passive (which is not exclusive to but can be seen in a Disillusionment Arc).
  • Not at all (a negative Flat Arc, in which the character is less likely to be the protagonist and more likely to be the antagonist in someone else’s Positive-Change Arc or a negative Impact Character in someone else’s Negative-Change Arc).

Graphic created by Sydney Watkins.

The Passive Counter-Archetypes

The passive archetypes represent a fatal immaturity. No matter at what stage characters find themselves within the life arcs, their first challenge will be to resist their own sense of complacency and safety—which would keep them where they’re at. But, in fact, they have little choice about whether or not they will be called into the journey of a subsequent archetype. They can only decide whether they will grow, or whether they will resist.

The passive shadow archetypes are the result of a refusal to grow into the next arc and instead an attempt to maintain power in its former guise. For example, someone who has successfully completed the Hero Arc and is now being challenged to grow into the Queen Arc may resist the call of leadership and responsibility—and hide away within the selfish passivity of the Snow Queen. Life is demanding this character change, but the character resists, cannot overcome fear, and fails to complete proper growth—ending emotionally stunted and unfit to take on the responsibilities that life has now given.

In Art and Artist, Otto Rank discusses the passive archetype as the “neurotic”:

If we compare the neurotic with the productive type, it is evident that the former suffers from an excessive check on his impulsive life…. Both are distinguished fundamentally from the average type, who accepts himself as he is, by their tendency to exercise their volition in reshaping themselves. There is, however, this difference: that the neurotic, in this voluntary remaking of his ego, does not get beyond the destructive preliminary work and is therefore unable to detach the whole creative process from his own person and transfer it to an ideological abstraction. The productive artist also begins … with that re-creation of himself which results in the ideologically constructed ego; [but in his case] this ego is then in a position to shift the creative will-power from his own person to ideological representations of that person and thus render it objective. It must be admitted that this process is in a measure limited to within the individual himself, and that not only in its constructive but also in its destructive aspects. This explains why hardly any productive work gets through without morbid crises of a “neurotic” nature.

In short, facing the passive archetype is one of the earliest steps in any positive archetype’s forward struggle. This fearful shadow aspect of one’s self represents what we often hear spoken of within the Hero’s Journey as the Hero’s “Refusal of the Call to Adventure.” Put simply: he’s scared. And considering the immensity of the journey before him, we all commiserate with exactly why that should be.

But if the Hero—or any other positive archetype—should succumb to this fearful part of himself, he will abort not just the journey but his own ability to grow and mature. He will get stuck as the Coward, and his own progress forward in life will become immeasurably more difficult.

The Aggressive Counter-Archetypes

By contrast, the aggressive polarity of the negative archetypes represents not so much the fear of reality but the desire to control it. Although the aggressive archetypes are literally the polar opposite of the passive archetypes, the passive archetypes are still often at the root of a character’s aggression. In many ways, the aggressive archetypes represent an overcompensation in response to the character’s inner fear of change and growth. In The Heroine’s Journey, Maureen Murdock quotes Edward Whitman:

Whether creative possibilities or regressive destruction shall prevail depends not upon the nature of the archetype or myth, but upon the attitude and degree of consciousness.

Even though the aggressive archetypes appear much more proactive and productive than do the passive archetypes, they too represent a stagnation. They may be “getting things done” within their realm of activity, but they are not moving forward.

For example, a Crone who has refused to take her journey into the Mage may get stuck in the aggressive polarity of the Wicked Witch—using the not-inconsiderable power she has gleaned throughout her long life to control others and manipulate outcomes. She looks powerful, but unlike the Crone, the Witch is not expanding. She represents not just a stillness within the character’s maturation, but a stagnation—she has gotten stuck through her own passivity and fear, has refused (however unconsciously) to continue growing, and has instead turned her energy outwards upon a world she resents.

How Archetypes Relate to the Thematic Truth/Lie

As we’ve already discussed, the six archetypal Positive-Change Arcs represent the character’s ability to transition away from a limiting life belief and into an acceptance of an inherent archetypal Truth.

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These same archetypal Lies/Truths are also inherent within the related negative shadow archetypes. The difference, of course, is that these negative archetypes resist the Truth. Through fear of change or desire for control, they cling to a broken version of reality. Depending on the specific type of Negative-Change Arc they are undergoing (Disillusionment, Corruption, Fall), they will encounter various opportunities to acknowledge and accept the Truth. In a legitimate Negative-Change Arc, they will fail to do so—and the metaphorical Kingdom will always suffer as a result.

How the Negative Archetypes Relate to the Positive Arcs

Within all types of archetypal stories—whether they feature protagonists with Positive or Negative Arcs—we always have the opportunity for a full cast. Just as the negative polarities are inherently present to some degree within the struggling protagonist of a Positive-Change Arc, so too is the positive archetype within the struggles of a protagonist in a Negative-Change Arc.

More than that though, we have the opportunity to externalize these struggles into the supporting cast. We can see this clearly—and have already touched on it in earlier posts—in the fact that the Hero’s Journey prominently features more advanced archetypal characters in supporting roles—-most notably the King and the Mage/Mentor.

Likewise, negative archetypes frequently show up in villain roles. I haven’t observed a hard-and-fast pattern, but it resonates that one of the powerful uses of negative archetypes within a positive-archetype story is that of presenting the protagonist with a version (usually aggressive) of the subsequent archetype. For example, a Queen almost always has to confront and overcome a Tyrant (the aggressive version of the subsequent arc of King).

Not only does this approach provide opportunities for a solid plot-theme connection, it also offers the always-brilliant chance to symbolically represent the antagonist as a shadow version of the protagonist’s potential self. As such, the antagonist can offer both temptation to the growing protagonist of the power she might wield, as well as a caution of what kind of monster she might turn into should she succumb to that temptation.

Same goes for the characters in a Negative-Change Arc story: if the protagonist is representing a negative archetype such as the Sorceress, then the rest of the cast can be used to represent supporting archetypes that deepen the thematic and symbolic narrative.

***

As you can already see—and as is always the case with negative character arcs—there are many possible variations that can arise when a character falls away from the health of the positive archetypes and into the unhealth of the negative archetypes.

This means there are many possible narratives for representing them in the protagonist of a Negative-Change Arc. As such, I won’t be offering a “mythic beat sheet” for each of the negative archetypes in the same way I have done for the positive archetypes.

Over the course of the next six posts, we will be diving a little more deeply into the partnership of each passive/aggressive polarity and talking about how you can recreate these important archetypes within your own stories.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will study the shadow archetypes of the Maiden.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Are you more drawn to writing about Positive or Negative Arcs? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Whoo hooo — the Shadows — the plot thickens… 🙂

  2. Vickiana Pizarro says

    are some of them similar to the redemption arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Any of them can be used as the beginning point in a redemption arc. I’ll be speaking to that potential in each of the shadow archetypes in upcoming posts.

    • I agree there doesn’t appear to be a shadow archetype that precludes redemption.

      If you’re asking how to execute the redemption of your shadow archetype character, you might look at the version of the heroine’s journey outlined by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. It’s based on the Maureen Murdock book mentioned here.

      That version of the heroine’s journey begins with a betrayal, which is why there’s no option to Refuse the Call. Betrayals usually prompt a hard re-think and a hard re-set in the victim. The neat thing about villains / antagonists is that they tend to hang around other villains and antagonists, who will betray them.

      Further, this version of the journey includes the heroine (or hero) losing their home and “heading into the labyrinth,” as it were. Together, both beats make an excellent jumping off point to get a villainous character to make a “heel face turn” (TV Tropes reference) and redeem themselves.

      Two cartoons I binged over the summer give great examples of this: Prince Zuko’s arc in “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” and Asajj Ventress in “The Clone Wars.”

      Throughout the series, Zuko is trying to capture Aang, the last avatar, so he can regain what he thinks is his lost honor. Doing so would let him return home and be welcomed back to his family. Zuko’s redemption arc requires him to recognize that he was abused (betrayed) by his father, who burned his face and exiled him from their country in the first place.

      But for his arc he must recognize that his father is wicked, and that as king (tyrant) his wickedness has corrupted their nation. Being exiled, and forced to live in the nations at war with his own, helps Zuko see what’s wrong with his father.

      Asajj is an antagonist who often fights Obi Wan, Anakin, and Ahsoka in the “Clone Wars.” Before she’s betrayed, she’s the right-hand henchwoman of an interstellar tyrant. After, she falls far from grace, into self-exile in a backwater part of the galaxy. Staying in her old life is not an option, a lesson she is brutally taught. This brings her to a fork in the path: hero or bully. In her own irascible way she chooses the former over the latter.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        “The neat thing about villains / antagonists is that they tend to hang around other villains and antagonists, who will betray them.”

        Good point.

  3. ESTER GONZALEZ BERTRAN says

    I am enjoying so much this serie about archetypes… Thank you!!!

  4. Aaron Blake says

    This article was very helpful by showing the framework and interrelationships of the different archetypes and sub-archetypes, and how characters can be influenced to evolve from one to another. I’ve had a hard time grasping this nebulous concept, so I my character arcs suffered. I think I’m a little better armed now to make my second draft, and I look forward to your upcoming articles. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, understanding the shadow forms can, ironically, be extremely helpful in writing really solid positive archetypes.

  5. Anton Teichmann says

    Hey Katie, can you please wrap that whole archetype topic in a book! It’s just awesome. Thank you for your work. Best Anton

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      We’ll see. Maybe next year! 😀

      • Anton Teichmann says

        I‘d love that 🙏

      • Jen Smith says

        Katie, your posts and books have truly blown my mind wide open! You make me want to re-read all my favourite books and re-watch all my favourite movies now that I’ve gained this ‘third eye’ of understanding character growth and behaviour! You are such a big help to me in struggling through writing my first book, and I look forward to your posts every week. Keep up the awesome, mind-blowing work!

  6. This must be where my weakness is because every post in this series has helped me deepen my characters. Reading about the idea of the triangle with positive/growing characters vs. negative/stagnating characters is showing me a way to approach my antagonists. I had thought two of the antagonists would be at the negative side of the queen level; but, in thinking about the fact that they have not put in the work to reach that level, I see they actually are stuck in the hero level, in the bully archetype. And I find that fascinating. Even one of the mentors has gotten stuck in the queen level. I had a vague idea of that, but having a label helps me really dig in. All the stories of the past they share I now see the need to reflect this reluctance to grow out of their various levels, and that their differing levels even create conflict and misunderstandings. What great tools these are. Looking forward to seeing how you develop the shadow archetypes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s great! And, yes, examining the relationship between the protagonist’s archetype and the antagonist’s can be a great way to deepen the thematic complexity.

  7. Dennis M. Montgomery says

    I’m in favor of the positive arcs. I feel that dwelling on the downfall of a rotten person is being mean to the reader. Why? Because it leaves the reader with negative feelings such as depression or anger. As a reader, I don’t want it or in most cases need it. The other downside to the negative arcs is that they may give the reader the idea that being rotten is okay or is even glamorous.

    Now this isn’t to say, I’m totally against negative arcs if they’re to teach the reader something. For instance: why greed is bad and how it may affect you or your love ones. Or why vengence is really more harmful to the person seeking revenge than the villain.

    If a writer wants to be or needs to be negative then he/she need to have a positive reason for it.

    By the way, your essay was enjoyable and insightful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I much prefer the positive arcs/archetypes myself. But stories that realistically portray the shadow archetypes and their pitfalls are also important, Mostly, this is because to leave them out would be to leave out a tremendously consequential aspect of reality, but also because they can provide both warning and catharsis. At the very least, understanding the shadow archetypes can help us write stronger positive arcs, as well as varied supporting characters.

      • I find this utterly fascinating, actually as a psychology study of the people around me as much as for writing! Suddenly the shadow archetypes I see in people in my life and past make sense…

    • Give your readers more credit than that. Consider the fall of Anakin Skywalker. Darth Vader was a known villain, and fans wanted to see how he went from the hero Obi Wan describes in Episode IV to the evil, planet-destroying monstrosity who was “more machine now than man.”

      Half the fun of watching the “Clone Wars” cartoon was a deeper exploration of Skywalker’s fall arc, which began in Episode II and was completed in Episode III. The cartoon took place in between. When they introduced the Ahsoka character, I wanted to see if Skywalker would corrupt, however unwittingly, his protégé on his way to becoming Vader. The possibility offered tension and suspense to their storyline.

      Entertain the reader first. If they’re bored, if they feel preached at, they don’t get around to your lessons because they’ve moved on from the story. They’ll never make “fan art” like the link above.

      Some bad guys will seem cool at first, because that’s true to life. Think of charismatic cult leaders such as Jim Jones. You delve into their stories, and you see how it came to pass that some people voluntarily drank the Kool-Aid (Flavor-Aid, actually) — and hundreds of others put themselves in a position to be forced into doing so.

      If your character is a Jones type, you do a disservice by failing to show why he enjoyed popularity with normal, sane, intelligent people. Or why such people flocked to him, and trusted him with government positions and such.

      But to me, the stories that glorify villains are the stories where the writer is not aware the protagonist is a villain. Often the character is written as a Mary Sue / Marty Stu. But that reflects a defect of the writer’s insight, and above our pay grade here 🙂

  8. M.L. Bull says

    It’s pretty obvious I’m drawn to writing more positive arcs than negative arcs, as the majority of my stories are about redemption and people making changes for the better in their lives. However, one of my other “historical stories” actually ends in an unfortunate tragedy. I’m not saying what happens, but it’s based on one of Langston Hughes poems.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Shadow archetypes often show up at the beginning of redemption or positive stories, and the character transforms out of them.

  9. Luci Tumas says

    Having just finished writing my first Middle Grade novel, I’ve only considered the Positive-Change Arcs. I’m looking forward to studying your posts and perhaps add aspects of a negative archetype to spice up the story without being too dark for the reader.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There are lots of different layers to shadow archetypes. We all manifest shades of them throughout our lives. Only people who are truly “possessed” by a negative archetype will go full-on villain. So there’s lots of opportunity to explore shadow archetypes, especially the early ones, without going too dark.

  10. I feel like this is an online college course. You gave really grown as a teacher over these years.

    Where I saw the last series describing six stages in a lifetime, I see these as how different personality types handle those stages of life.

    When you wrote “conflicting desire for and fear of autonomy” that is spot on the feelings I had as I was ending my teen years and being shoved out into the world, and the impetus for what I’ve written.

    This post helps my further clarify this in my own mind. While Hannah is definitely on her Maiden journey, she is looking for Joe to be her Hero, but because of his own fear and timidity, he’s still stuck between Maiden and Hero which turns him into a coward, and when he tries to overcome it, a bully at times, as he inadvertently causes her to suffer.

    I’d previously shared about the Kansas song ‘The Wall’ which is presented early in my book as a metaphor representing that inner struggle ” the symbol and the sum of all that’s me…a dark and silent barrier between all I am and all that I would ever want to be” It’s reprised near the end with the closing lines of “Shining true and smiling back at all who wait to cross, there is no loss”

    Having to overcome that fear and reconcile the damage done along the way.

    Yeah, yeah…it’s only partly autobiographical, but when thinking about it even now makes me cry, it’s something I have to get across to the readers. (and phrases constantly remind me of lyrics…”Even Now” by The Call…look it up)

  11. Of late I’ve been drawn toward stories of sacrifice and redemption, which generally follow the positive arcs, but I think I’ve got a lot to learn from the next twelve arcs. So let me express my attitude toward the coming articles as eloquently as I know how:

    Oh boy! Oh boy! Oh boy!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      We think of redemption arcs as positive (because, obviously, they are), but inherently for there to be a redemption, the character has to start in a comparatively dark place. The shadow archetypes are almost always present within the Lie the Character Believes in a Positive-Change Arc story.

  12. Peter Moore says

    Great introduction to the second half of the series. I have a couple questions.

    First, you wrote ‘…these negative archetypes resist the Truth. Through fear of change or desire for control, they cling to a broken version of reality.’ Could it also be that they see reality as it is, but react as they do because of where they are in their arc? Reality is the same for everyone — take just about any situation in Game of Thrones and watch how differently all the characters deal with it.

    Second, you said that the shadows are two sides of the same coin. Do each of the shadow archetypes view the other two points of the triangle negatively? For example, the bully disdains the coward and fears the hero. I say this for external characters, but it could be equally true as a different kind of internal conflict, right?

    I might be splitting hairs on each of these points.

    Thanks for everything you do for the rest of us.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Could it also be that they see reality as it is, but react as they do because of where they are in their arc?”

      Yes, absolutely. In fact, essential to the progressive of “life arcs” is the idea that different perspectives of reality are important and appropriate at different phases of life. A Maiden won’t see reality through as large a lens as a Mage. The perspective the Mage has gained by passing through all six arcs would be too much for the uninitiated Maiden to bear. People (and characters) are only called to move to the next arc when their experiences begin to demand a “bigger” perspective.

      The later arcs/archetypes are in no way “better” than the earlier ones; they are simply more adapted to deal with complex experiences of reality.

      “Do each of the shadow archetypes view the other two points of the triangle negatively?”

      I hadn’t really considered this, but it makes total sense. The essence of the “shadow” is that it contains the parts of ourselves we reject. Only once a Hero (or any other archetype) has acknowledged and integrated his own Coward/Bully will he have raised them from the shadow into consciousness. The same would apply if the Coward or Bully were the prominent archetype, with the Hero in the shadow.

  13. This is coming at an excellent time. I am learning an enormous amount from this section. I am writing a story that involves an Emperor who was effective but has become a puppet of invaders. I have a hero/ heroine team who become Emperor and Empress after they vanquish the tyrannical usurpers. Your account of the arcs is great.
    Please, pretty please talk slower on the blog. It was slower in part, but then speeded up again. I can’t keep up with you when you introduce concepts. I need time to digest as you go along. I miss a lot. I read the blogs, but I like to listen to them as it is otherwise dead time for any useful purpose; driving in the car or walking or at the gym.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I am trying to be more conscious about speaking slower. But I’m about four weeks ahead on recording the podcast right now, so changes won’t show up right away. Sorry about that!

  14. Oh these work exquisitely with the gem that are “Fall-Rise” arcs. As usual you have a way of putting into words and concepts things that intuitively seem to work 😀 The puppet-to-tyrant-to-king is my go-to arc for antagonists because the pathetic one realizing they have power and going mad with it and getting slapped in the face by the acknowledgment that they have become their own tormentor and they must be better? So satisfying. Can’t wait for that deep dive in shadow arcs, that’s always been my favorite part of wordcrafting. You’re the best!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, fulfilling the entire triangle of related archetypes (positive and both shadow archetypes) can offer a tremendous depth of complexity.

  15. Writing a “shadow story” (I like the sound of that) I feel would be difficult in any case other than the ones where we already know the villain (Like anakin or the Joker). I do love redemption arcs. I think they are especially popular in tv shows were you know more about the villain and want them to change. my favorites are Ben Linus from Lost and Black Siren from Arrow.

  16. This is great because I’ve been struggling with the antagonist in my current WIP. I’ve been thinking lately that the antagonist is a personification of the protagonist’s fears, and is actually there to help the protagonist to grow by creating conflict and blocks that force him to make the needed changes in his life. I like the sympathetic view of the shadow archetypes, in terms of understanding the antagonist’s purpose in the story. And I really like the triangular relationship of the positive and negative archetypes. That brought the whole thing into perspective. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series. We’re at the juicy part now!

  17. I like writing positive-change arcs, because I’m a sucker for redemption arcs. Also, I think I figured out where my Woodsman character is at: I think he’s stuck in his Hero arc as the Bully. And in regards to another WIP, I think the grandmother (one of them) is the Crone.

  18. Great podcast, as always!
    This helps me create a solid weakness for my antagonist.
    I look forward to next weeks podcast.
    Glenda

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, understanding shadow archetypes can be a great way to see how antagonists can still believe themselves the “heroes of their own stories.”

  19. The great thing about archetypes is that they are so natural it is easy to create characters that fall into them easily into them without thinking. The story I’m almost done editing right now follows a maiden arc and she faces the alternate temptations of retreating to the monastery were she was raised or using her powers in an evil way, basically killing with a thought.

    My observation is that in order to have a good positive change arc, the character must resist the temptation of the negative arcs, which represents the inner struggle for the character. The idea that the villain is often the negative arc of the next level is a brilliant observation that also is quite natural. My character faces off with what loosely fits into a bully type, though a well-motivated one, who wants to bind her and use her power.

    Things just seem to fit these patterns, but knowing the patterns can help to understand what is wrong if things aren’t working…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “My observation is that in order to have a good positive change arc, the character must resist the temptation of the negative arcs, which represents the inner struggle for the character. ”

      Absolutely. In many ways the protagonist’s shadow archetypes are the most important antagonists within the story, even (especially) if they are internalized within the protagonist.

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