5 Ways to Use Your Character’s Shadows to Power Your Story

Complex characters mirror real-life humans in their contradictions of inner light and dark. As writers, it is our job to create these contrasts in ways that become cohesive and thematically meaningful. One of the simplest—and most effective—ways to do this is to explore shadow theory.

In last week’s post, we talked about the concept of “the shadow,” a phrase originated by C.G. Jung. The shadow refers to the parts of the self that are not present in the conscious personality or ego, but instead are hidden away in the dark of the unconscious. The concept of the shadow suggests that the parts of ourselves that are repressed or neglected in the unconscious actually wield tremendous power over us.

Many different personality models offer tools for exploring these lost pieces of ourselves and doing “shadow work” to return them to our consciousness, so we can wield them consciously and reclaim their lost power. The MBTI system (based on Jung’s idea of cognitive function polarities) talks about how you might be “in the grip” of your shadow functions. This can even cause you to momentarily seem to have a completely opposite personality, as discussed in Naomi L. Quenk’s book Was That Really Me?

Additionally, the Enneagram‘s entire philosophy is built around recognizing that our personality type is “not us” and offers a map to expanding ourselves beyond the basic idea of our visible personalities.

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Because good stories explore the human psyche and particularly catalysts of psychological change, writers can use any or all of these tools to write better character arcs. As we spoke about last week, “shadow theory” provides an incredibly simple and useful tool for immediately recognizing how a character’s surface personality always points to corresponding shadow characteristics that can be explored in the story.

A Quick Recap of Shadow Theory for Writers

In case you didn’t read last week’s post—or just want a refresher—here is a quick reminder of how shadow theory works.

Simply, shadow theory suggests that whatever is most prominent in your character’s conscious personality indicates that the exact opposite trait is probably lurking in the shadow.

Last week, we talked about such polarities as:

1. Strength/Weakness

E.g., Intelligence/stupidity; Athleticism/clumsiness; Self-sacrifice/selfishness, etc.

2. Fear/Power

E.g., Fear of commitment/loyalty; Fear of failure/ambition; Fear of death/courage, etc.

3. Conviction/Hypocrisy

E.g., Preaches the 7th Commandment/hides an affair; Blames big corporations’ greed/cheats boss, etc.

4. Projections of Hate or Love Onto Others

E.g., Believes women are weak/hides inner weakness; Idolizes powerful authority figure/ignores inner potential for empowerment, etc.

 

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The great advantage of shadow theory is how easily it simplifies even complicated personalities by pointing to the inner dichotomies driving a person. However, it should go without saying you don’t want to over-simplify a character. Not every instance of these traits, or others like them, will point to corresponding shadow traits.

In Writing for Your Life, Deena Metzger notes:

Whether fictional or organic, the shadow never dies; we always cast a shadow. But how we relate to it and it to us depends on whether it is known. Once known, we have inevitably lost an innocence that can never be recovered. What replaces this innocence, however, is the knowledge of the complexity of our nature, of human nature. Sometimes we are fortunate, and this knowledge elicits a kindness and tolerance in us for others—even, perhaps, for ourselves.

Double-check by asking how much the character identifies with these traits. If he is fluid and willing to entertain other points of view, or if he is genuinely self-deprecating and can even laugh at himself when a trait is pointed out, he is likely to be well-rounded in this area of life. This indicates the corresponding shadow issue has already been integrated into the conscious personality.

However, if the personality seems particularly ossified around the trait in question, then you’ve probably stumbled upon the potential for shadow exploration. For example, if a character can’t stand to have her selflessness questioned, or if he refuses to brook any argument about why he might not actually be as dumb as he insists he is, or if she refuses to examine her own inconsistencies or hypocrisies, or if he insists on seeing certain people as “the other” rather than three-dimensional humans—these are all signs of what might be hanging out in the person’s shadow. As shadow-meister Robert Bly says,

Every part of our personality that we don’t love will become hostile to us.

5 Ways to Use Your Character’s Shadows in a Story

Now that you understand how to use shadow theory to quickly identify characters’ inner conflicts, let’s dive deeper. How can you practically apply this understanding of your characters’ shadows in your story? Here are five places in your story where you can use shadow theory to create amazing complexity and thematic resonance.

1. Add Realism and Depth to Your Characters’ Motivations

We often hear it said, “Conflict is story.” If we walk that back, we see that the conflict is driven by the characters’ goals—by what they desire. And desire is created by motive. So, really, we could just as easily say, “Motivation is story.”

A solid motivation can make or break your story. As long as readers believe in your characters’ reasons for doing what they’re doing, you can have your characters chasing after all kinds of bizarre goals and readers will happily suspend disbelief. But if the motives don’t make sense, then readers will scoff at at even otherwise sensible actions.

Motives are tricky, simply because they are often incredibly complex. We humans may want something for any number of reasons all at the same time. Sometimes we are conscious of those reasons; sometimes not. Sometimes we think we know why we’re doing something, when really we’re only partly conscious of our true motivations.

That’s where the shadow enters in. What lies in our unconscious is a powerful driver of our motivations. The reasons we desire a certain romantic relationship or a particular job or our independence or a popular status symbol—are often driven as much by what’s in the shadow as by the explanations offered by our conscious personalities.

Consider your characters’ desires: What do they want?

Now consider their motivations: Why do they say they want this thing?

Now flip that claim on its head: What does shadow theory say they want and why they want it?

For Example: I used this one in my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer, about a poor village lad determined to win the hand of an earl’s granddaughter. His conscious reason for pursuing her is that he thinks she’s beautiful and wonderful; but his unconscious reason, which he does not admit to until the end, is that marrying her would ease his insecurities about his own “low” status as a blacksmith’s apprentice.

Wayfarer by K.M. Weiland

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2. Create Secrets and Suspense in Your Characters’ Backstories

Backstory exists mainly to explain a character’s motivations. We can create this via what John Truby calls “the Ghost” in the character’s past. The Ghost is a catalytic event that has molded the character into exactly the sort of person who would want to achieve the plot’s main goal. As its haunting name suggests, this motivating factor is often dramatic and even traumatic. It is also, almost inevitably, a signpost to when and why the character put some important part of her personality into the shadow.

In real life, shadow work revolves around learning to see what is in one’s own shadow. This often requires a bit in the way of forensics. What occurred to cause this piece to end up locked in the cellar of the psyche? Examining your character’s shadow can help you determine what backstory event might provide the best explanation for their main-story motivation. You can also flip this and consider what a known backstory event might reasonably cause to end up in the character’s shadow—where he doesn’t have to acknowledge or identify with it.

If you’re writing in a close or limited POV, then you know that one of the trickiest bits is finding ways to keep backstory secrets from readers even though your narrating character was there when the Ghost happened and therefore knows all about it. Understanding your character’s shadow can help with that too. After all, the whole point of the shadow is that it is unconscious. This doesn’t mean your character is necessarily repressing her memory of events; but she may not have full consciousness of the whatwhy, and how of this event.

Atonement revolves around an event in the protagonist’s childhood, in which her own misconstrual of events led her to wrongly accuse a young man of rape. She spends the rest of her life wrestling with her perceptions, trying to understand them and make them right. (Atonement (2007), Universal Pictures.)

3. Bring Subtext to Potentially Two-Dimensional Characters

In fiction, we usually want our protagonists to be good and our antagonists to be bad. However, these simple characterizations are almost always unsatisfying if that’s all these characters are. Savvy readers want to experience characters who mimic all the rainbowed complexity of real life. Exploring your characters’ shadows allows you to round them out.

When writing “good” characters, you can flip their best traits on their heads and explore the repressed shadow qualities that carry the opposite charge. Same goes for your “bad” characters; a quick application of shadow theory reveals how even their most wicked traits bring with them the shadow of the opposite virtue.

Rounding out your characters in this way does not mean they need to act out these opposite traits in the story (although one or two such actions will often bring depth). Simply by exploring the inner conflict your characters experience within themselves over these un-integrated traits, you can create a lasting effect of complexity.

In Blade Runner, the inhuman Batty exhibits more humanity in his appreciation of life as he dies in the rain than does the protagonist Deckard who heartlessly executes him as part of his job. (Blade Runner (1982), Warner Bros.)

4. Deepen Theme by Adding Nuance

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Theme arises from the contrast between a character’s actions in the external plot and his inner conflict and (potentially) growth. In other words, theme arises from the contrast between a character’s conscious and unconscious.

A Positive Change Arc is all about growing a character’s consciousness of her shadow traits—so she can integrate them into and thereby expand her conscious personality. Negative Change Arcs, on the other hand, highlight the character’s resistance to exploring the shadow and his ultimate failure to expand his consciousness as a result.

The best character arcs create deeply nuanced themes exactly because they delve into the polarities and dichotomies of the shadow. Good thematic explorations examine all sides of an issue (or at least four, as in Robert McKee’s thematic square). Understanding how to use shadow theory to plumb your characters’ unconscious motivations can help you figure out which topics are organic to your story’s plot and character arcs, so you can make sure you’re not missing out on any of the most important contrasting pairs.

In many ways Wuthering Heights is an exploration of the shadow made manifest, as the ruthless cruelty and prejudice that is acted out unconsciously (in the sense that they do not own their actions as such) by characters early in the story become consciously personified in the vengeance of the orphaned and unloved Heathcliff. (Wuthering Heights (2009), ITV.)

5. Create Thematically Resonant Minor Characters

Minor characters are particularly important for fleshing out the thematic depth of your story’s world. There are several ways you can use shadow theory to influence how you craft your supporting cast.

1. Examine Minor Characters’ Shadows

You don’t want your supporting characters to be two-dimensional anymore than you do your main players. In some ways, creating three-dimensional minor characters can be even trickier, since you must convince readers of their depth with much less explanation. Looking to your minor characters’ shadows to examine their inherent dichotomies is a quick and easy way to bring life to even a walk-on role.

2. Examine Minor Characters’ Thematic Roles

Your supporting cast is one of your most important tools in fleshing out your thematic argument. Choose characters who can act out various aspects of the theme your protagonist is wrestling with. Some characters should represent conscious personality aspects of the theme; others should represent shadow potentialities—both light and dark.

3. Examine How Your Protagonist Projects Shadow Traits Onto Minor Characters

Finally, use minor characters to exemplify how your protagonist may not be taking ownership of her own shadow traits. Because whatever is in the shadow is unconscious, the person will often project these traits onto others—believing, for instance, that others are stupid or angry or untrustworthy or perhaps even angelic or fearless or strong, when really these traits are arising from the person’s own unconscious. It is possible, of course, that the minor characters are embodying these traits to some degree, but this only enhances their ability within the story to mirror to the protagonist’s own unconscious proclivities or potentialities.

Toy Story is built around the shadows of main character Woody, who projects onto cheerfully oblivious newcomer Buzz his own insecurities that he is “just a toy” to his beloved owner Andy as well as his need to be in charge. (Toy Story (1995), Walt Disney Pictures.)

***

In so many ways, story is primarily an exploration of humanity’s collective shadow. We uses stories as a way to express the contents of our own unconscious, but also as a tool to recognize our shared shadows and to do the “shadow work” of reclaiming all parts of ourselves. Understanding this important aspect of the psyche provides an incisive tool for rounding out our stories.

Previous Post in This Series:How to Create Insanely Complex Characters Using “Shadow Theory’

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Where and how do your characters’ shadows show up in your story? Tell me in the comments!

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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. Thea T. Kelley says

    Hi Katie. I’m wondering, what’s the relationship bwtween the Shadow and the Lie the Character Believes?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good question. The correlation isn’t necessarily black and white, but since the Lie is a limited perspective that is challenged over the course of the story, it definitely ties in with the shadow. Often, the character will be more consciously identified with the Lie, while the Truth arises from the shadow and needs to be integrated into the conscious personality. This doesn’t mean the Truth itself was in the character’s shadow, more just the pieces of the personality needed to understand and utilize the larger Truth. Either way, the Truth challenging the Lie is definitely a process of bringing consciousness to a part of of the self that previously lacked it.

  2. Menaha Ganesh says

    I’m working on a manuscript based on Indian mythology and the Hells. The events in the Hells are linked to a prisoner’s karma. Your posts on shadow theory are very helpful. Much appreciated. Thank you.

  3. Another great post!

    I’ve seen theories like this before, and the funny thing is, I sometimes see the people who share these ideas become very judgemental/narrowminded on certain subjects themselves (note: this does NOT include you, Katie). Just goes to show that being aware of these concepts of personality doesn’t mean someone has fully ‘integrated’ their own shadows.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I do think this is a danger with seemingly simplistic theories or systems. The important thing to remember is that we’re only using them as a lens to allow us to synthetize bite-sized bits of information out of complex realities. The realities don’t simplify in this process; they remain just as complex. Therefore, if we’re not using the tool to *increase* the complexity of our understanding (versus trying to simplify the field of study down to the current limitations of our understandings), then we’re likely not utilizing it in a holistic or integrated way.

  4. I think this is a very fractal concept, in that it can be applied to all layers of your story from the overarching society norms of your world building down through all layers of relationships. Heck, you could even work it into your magic system by putting some thought into the price of magic. Of course, to do all oft his you would likely need to write a very long book…

  5. Just a wee point of order. Deckard didn’t kill Blatty, Blatty expired of…natural causes? Anyway, one of the things I enjoy is when a character does something totally unexpected, such as when Blatty saves Deckard. Why would he do that? I have my theory, but I find it is these moments that deepen a character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I knew I should have rewatched that bit. :p It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it.

  6. Sometimes your posts teach me about writing and other times (perhaps even more valuable times) they teach me about myself

  7. To walk without shadow is to transcend one’s ego. Or is it eggo? The hash on these waffles is frigging me up.

  8. C. O. Merp says

    In many ways, my protagonist’s sidekick represents all the protag’s shadow traits. Protag always expects to be betrayed; sidekick has a strong capacity for loyalty that protag also has to embrace by the end; protag cultivates the image that he is unstoppable to hide his own insecurities; sidekick acts very dumb but is powerful when he puts his mind to it. I didn’t know anything about shadow theory when I wrote them – love it when writing instincts don’t let me down!
    Is shadow theory an explanation for why foils work as well as they do? One character represents the traits another is not showing right now but might someday?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Absolutely. You may have heard me mention the perspective that *every* element in a story is representative of a single psyche. Therefore, every minor character is really representing something about the protagonist, who is representative of the larger psyche the author is projecting into the story and into which the reader will interpolate himself, at least while reading.

  9. As usual, you have given my so much to think about. My new characters and WIP is complex. I thought it was when I was planning it, but this has given me even more to ponder. This is why I add you to my acknowledgments. Best,

  10. I love the notes on the minor characters, which are always interesting characters to me. In my current WIP, one showed up fully formed, so now I’m having fun unpacking all of that!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Minor characters are so much fun. Always one of my favorite parts of a story to play with.

  11. I may be overcomplicating this, but I’ve found my characters seem to be doing things because of motivations they are aware of, motivations they’re not aware of but others who know them are, and motivations neither side is consciously aware of. I do tend to see the third set of motivations (the shadow motivations) an important part of character arcs, as you’ve said. It’s the second set of motivations, what I can only think of as the parts of character’s conscious personality they are blind to, that I’m struggling to understand.

    In one example I can think of, this second set held the character’s blind devotion to those she loved, ultimately forcing her to be split between the multiple world views she was trying to accept from those she loved, and in the process, recognize the insecurity she was hiding in her shadow. Ultimately, while she completed a positive character arc of facing her insecurities and becoming stronger, the blind devotion has remained unchanged.

    I’m not sure if I’m simply misclassifying this second group, but I do like it separate from personality, because it makes it easier for me to think in terms of what the character is aware of—we’re all unreliable narrators in some way! But it also feels too visible to be considered part a shadow. Any ideas, or am I just overthinking this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The second grouping still sounds like shadow motivations to me, just ones that are perhaps closer to the surface and closer to being ready to transform and integrate into the conscious personality—more in the subconscious rather than the unconscious perhaps.

  12. Wow! Just what helped determine how the character will relate to his hobby. Like, he initially would like to play the piano without notes, without “instructions”, but he is scared. In fact, he must realize that “perfect” piano playing cannot be something that is connected with him personally, that excites the heart, that makes his playing “alive”, not intimidated.
    …Actually, I’m wondering if the piano can become something for which he will change. I mean, some kind of “relationship character”, but I still doubt, eh… I would like to hear advice, can an inanimate object become one?
    P.S I am writing from Russia out of all my love for writing, through automatic translation in the browser (mm Google translator) because your blog is too masterpiece hehe
    Sending you all kinds of hugs and gratitude for what you are doing!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s great! And, yes, in some stories inanimate objects or beings can function an symbolic relationship characters. “Wilson” the soccer ball in the movie Castaway comes to mind.

  13. Sudakshina Piercy says

    Hello Kate. I am a huge fan of yours.

    I understand you well, and I was wondering if you could do a post with tips on how to determine “the lie the character believes” from a character profile. Should we determine that first before we flesh out the character?

    Thanks in advance!

    Su Piercy

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