How to Create Insanely Complex Characters Using "Shadow Theory"

How to Create Insanely Complex Characters Using “Shadow Theory”

How to Create Insanely Complex Characters Using "Shadow Theory" shadow theoryComplex characters are the beating coronary heart of fine fiction. The easiest and only methods to engineer this complexity is to create distinction, and probably the most intuitive instruments a author can use for figuring out which contrasting components are natural to any given character or story scenario is… shadow idea.

The “shadow” is a time period coined by C.J. Jung to describe features of the persona that stay in the dead of night of the unconscious. These are features of the self which can be repressed or even perhaps denied. They are features we regularly don’t even acknowledge as a part of our personalities. They could also be features we consider as “bad” (reminiscent of anger), however may additionally be issues we’d typically take into account to be “good” (reminiscent of energy).

We begin placing features of ourselves into the shadow after we are very younger. As we instinctively resolve—and are molded to select by the world round us—which traits are useful for our survival and success, we start each to form our acutely aware personalities and our correspondingly unconscious shadows. For instance, we could study early on {that a} fast mood doesn’t get us what we wish in social conditions, by which case our persona is molded round diplomacy whereas our rage goes into the shadow. However, we may additionally form ourselves round much less purposeful concepts. For instance, if somebody discovers their magnificence attracts the incorrect sort of consideration, the persona could tackle traits centered on mixing in, whereas the individual’s confidence of their attractiveness goes into the shadow. Emotions of all kinds, if we really feel disgrace or concern of expressing them, typically find yourself within the shadow.

Very typically, we establish with our acutely aware personalities to the purpose that we consider that is all we’re. As a consequence, we have a tendency to expertise our shadows slightly like younger youngsters enjoying peekaboo. The youngsters cowl their eyes and giggle whereas the adults dutifully gasp, “Where did you go?!” The youngsters consider that what they will’t see is, in truth, invisible. The shadow can typically really feel like that. We can’t see it, so it should not be there. And but, every part we stuff into our shadows remains to be part of us. Often, it comes bursting out after we least count on, creating behaviors that “just aren’t like us.” Sometimes we’d even say, “That’s not me.”

Shadow work is a deep observe designed to reacquaint us with these misplaced components of ourselves and to reintegrate their hidden presents and energy.  (The Enneagram is a superb software for serving to with this work.) Even seemingly detrimental traits reminiscent of anger, when banished to the shadow, take with them a few of our innate energy. Just as importantly, after we consciously reclaim these components of ourselves, we convey them again into the sunshine of our consciousness the place we are able to select when and the way to implement them in our lives, as a substitute of being ruled by them as unconscious impulses.

What Is Shadow Theory?

So how can this assist you to write advanced characters? Simply in understanding the shadow as a psychological idea, you need to use it to convey depth to your characters’ inside journeys. There’s a bit trick I like to use that makes it fairly easy to work out precisely what’s within the shadow—your characters’ or anybody else’s.

I name this trick shadow idea, and it’s merely this: no matter is seen in an individual’s exterior persona is a sign that the precise reverse resides within the shadow.

For occasion, let’s look at two potential characters. Let’s say one is clearly stoic, tough-as-nails, and acerbic. Shadow idea says that what this individual is holding again within the unconscious is due to this fact emotion, concern, and tenderness. Another character could also be clearly cheerful, self-sacrificing, and needy, indicating that what the individual doesn’t need to acknowledge within the shadow is unhappiness, selfishness, and independence.

In these situations, you may see straight away why individuals normally need to establish with their acutely aware personalities and disassociate from the seemingly “negative” shadow that corresponds. However, other than the truth that these “negative” shadow qualities are nonetheless there, irrespective of how repressed, it’s essential to acknowledge they’ve additionally taken with them half the ability and effectiveness of the idealized traits showcased within the exterior persona.

Creating Character Arcs

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate hyperlink)

Because character arcs are normally explorations of how individuals could reclaim components of themselves to develop into extra entire, exploring the shadow is fertile floor for any story. You can leverage the polarity of any acutely aware persona trait and its unconscious shadow trait to create immediate and deeply natural inside battle on your characters.

The extra characters establish with a acutely aware persona trait, the extra the corresponding shadow looms giant. It’s a easy truth: the larger one thing is, the larger the shadow it casts. In truth, the extra “possessed” a personality’s ego turns into by a persona trait, the extra clearly the shadow will develop into the motivating issue—to the purpose that everybody across the character could acknowledge the shadow trait even when the character insistently denies it, as when an individual screams, “I AM NOT ANGRY!”

I’m reminded of Spencer Tracy’s line from Bad Day at Black Rock:

You’re not solely incorrect. You’re incorrect on the prime of your voice.

When that occurs, that’s the shadow speaking.

The Shadow Holds Good Stuff Too

Thanks to its title, the shadow is usually correlated with detrimental traits. However, it bears repeating that the shadow is not an inherently detrimental facet of the psyche. So a lot great things resides within the shadow—not simply harmful qualities that want to be rehabilitated, but additionally probably such traits as shallowness, empowerment, power, gentleness, curiosity, vitality, even pleasure. Anything that felt unsafe to us early in our lives when our personalities had been forming could have been banished, partly or in entire, to the shadow.

However, even the clearly good bits within the shadow can get cranky after being left in the dead of night for years, even many years. Learning to reintegrate all misplaced items of ourselves in a approach that’s secure for our personal expression and respectful of others is a deeply rewarding journey, however one that usually strikes us into the cautionary areas of our inside maps the place “here be dragons.”

6 Questions to Help You Discover Your Character’s Shadows

Hopefully, you may already see the speedy applicability of shadow idea in sussing out your characters’ secrets and techniques, wounds, and potential development arcs. To assist you to get began, listed below are six questions you may ask about your characters to hone in on their shadows. Remember: in asking about an apparent externalized trait, you’ll at all times discover the hidden shadow trait in its polar reverse.

1. What Is Your Character’s Greatest Strength?

Functional personalities are constructed round an individual’s strengths. This means you may look to your character’s corresponding weaknesses to uncover what’s within the shadow.

For instance, if a personality identifies primarily as good, athletic, useful, humorous, or reliable, then corresponding shadow weaknesses to discover would come with fears or denials of the components of the character which can be ignorant, clumsy, dispensable, awkward, or egocentric.

Pride and Prejudice 2005 Elizabeth and Darcy Pemberley

In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet identifies strongly together with her personal intelligence and eager notion—solely to be blindsided by revelations of her mistaken presumptions about Mr. Darcy, in addition to her hypocritical prejudice towards him.

2. What Is Your Character’s Greatest Weakness?

Although we normally attempt to establish with our strengths, virtually everybody can also be hyper-conscious of a number of features of ourselves we take into account to be weaknesses. However, these weaknesses can typically shine a lightweight on corresponding strengths we’ve banished to the shadow, normally out of concern of absolutely displaying up not directly.

For instance, a personality who identifies with the weaknesses talked about above—feeling unintelligent, clumsy, unneeded or simply neglected, socially awkward, or egocentric—is likely to be hiding of their shadow their corresponding skills and capabilities.

How to Create Insanely Complex Characters Using "Shadow Theory" Nope Jordan Peele OJ Haywood Daniel Kaluuya

In Nope, OJ’s social awkwardness makes him horrible at operating his household’s enterprise of supplying stunt horses to film producers, nevertheless it hides the shadow power of a deep intuitiveness and a focus to the pure world—which turns into a superpower when pitted towards a monster from house.

3. What Is Your Character’s Strongest Conviction?

What’s the one factor your character might go off on a rant about at a second’s discover? Particularly be aware of any matter about which the character will brook no argument. To the diploma a personality is open-minded or prepared to take into account one other viewpoint, their convictions are seemingly not pointing to corresponding shadows. But if the character refuses to entertain the alternative view, this will likely level to a corresponding shadow throughout the character.

Sometimes this distinction will be totally hypocritical (e.g., a minister preaching the seventh Commandment who retains a secret mistress), however it could even be pushed by a semi-conscious sense of disgrace or guilt (e.g., a veteran doing humanitarian work to “pay for” the lives he’s taken in struggle).

How to Create Insanely Complex Characters Using "Shadow Theory" St. John Rivers Jane Eyre Mia Wasikowska Jamie Belle

St. John Rivers, in Jane Eyre, is a passionately devoted missionary who needs to unfold God’s love—and but he refuses to acknowledge his personal capability for love, as a substitute proposing a loveless marriage to his cousin Jane to keep away from any distractions from his holy mission.

4. What Is Your Character’s Biggest Fear?

The largest bogey-man in anybody’s life is sort of at all times the one who lives in that individual’s personal shadow. When we study to face and conquer the shadow monsters, what we concern in the actual world typically seems to be much less able to hurting us than we at all times thought. Often, this as a result of what we thought was the monster within the shadows was, in truth, the very misplaced piece of ourselves we wanted to face the outer antagonist. (Talk in regards to the good alternative to unite a narrative’s inside and outer battle!)

Although you may, after all, go particular with this one (e.g., a personality who fears dedication could, in truth, discover a shadow capability for great loyalty), any concern will at all times point out that what’s within the shadow is private empowerment. If a personality is afraid, it’s as a result of they’ve put a chunk of their very own energy into the shadow—and should reclaim it so as to face the concern.

How to Create Insanely Complex Characters Using "Shadow Theory" SecondhandLions Image 012 1

In Secondhand Lions, untrusting Walter, who’s best concern is being deserted by those that profess to love him, finds inside himself the braveness and loyalty to be the one to refuse to betray and abandon his great-uncles.

5. Who or What Is Your Character Most Likely to Vilify?

Who does your character hate? Who are they most definitely to blame for every part incorrect on the planet? Although this hated individual could also be a selected individual throughout the story, additionally take into account the generalities this individual could characterize. What stereotype is your character hating within the different individual? Very typically a shadow of this similar vilified trait will exist inside your protagonist. This is the essence of the recommendation to “make your antagonist a mirror of your protagonist” not directly.

How to Create Insanely Complex Characters Using "Shadow Theory" Writing Archetypal Character Arcs 165

Writing Archetypal Character Arcs (affiliate hyperlink)

For instance, in case your antagonist is a college bully, your cowardly protagonist could uncover in herself a latent need to exert energy over others. Indeed, all of the archetypal shadow pairs I speak about in my guide Writing Archetypal Character Arcs—together with Coward and Bully because the shadows of the Hero—at all times point out this latent tendency  of inside each other. Therefore, the character who identifies as a bully may additionally, in truth, be hiding his personal terrifying cowardice in his shadow.

How to Create Insanely Complex Characters Using "Shadow Theory" Schindlers List Liam Neeson

In Schindler’s List, Oskar fights towards the genocidal Nazis, and but he himself is a businessman who begins out caring solely about what performance and revenue he can grind out of his staff.

6. Who or What Is Your Character Most Likely to Revere?

Finally, flip the final query and look at who your character idolizes. Who does your character most need to be? Although your characters may not have the capability to instantly fill their heroes’ footwear, they’re seemingly already projecting a lot of their very own strengths and good qualities out of their shadow and onto this individual. Alternatively, they could notice the precise standing symbols they admire about this individual are consultant of constructive traits they have already got entry to inside themselves—simply otherwise.

For instance, a personality who longs to be lovely and idealizes the college’s recognition queen could also be both devaluing her personal distinctive magnificence or could notice the traits she actually values as lovely are already latent inside her.

How to Create Insanely Complex Characters Using "Shadow Theory" ms marvel episode 6 kamala khan

In Ms. Marvel, Kamela Khan eats, sleeps, and breathes her idol Captain Marvel, till she follows her personal development arc to declare her personal distinctive heritage of heroism and energy.


Shadow work is essential for writers; inevitably, that is the work we do upon our personal characters in each story we write. Using the short trick of “shadow theory” to establish the polarities inside your characters and produce out the dramatic potential of those highly effective contrasts is an unimaginable software for deepening your characterizations.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we speak about “5 Ways to Use Your Character’s Shadows to Power Your Story.”

Wordplayers, inform me your opinions! What shadows are you exploring in your personal advanced characters? Tell me within the feedback!

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