Crafting Your Story’s Shadow

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Joseph Campbell identified the monomyth in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In his research, Campbell found that it didn’t matter what culture or religion he looked at, there was a specific pattern of events that unfolded and seemed to come up again and again and again. This structure is seen in the story of Odysseus, of Beowulf, of Percival, of The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and many others.

The hero’s journey is iconic, but certain archetypes seem to appear throughout literature. One of these archetypes is the Shadow archetype. In this article, I am going to go over the Shadow Archetype, what it is, how it relates to not only your hero but also to your villain, and how to craft one in use it in the Story Grid Genres. Let’s get started!

What is the Shadow Archetype?

At its most basic level, the shadow archetype has been seen throughout literature and culture for generations after generations. Throughout storytelling, the hero must battle the forces of evil in order to achieve his or her quest. Now the forces of evil can take on many different forms. These forces can be hunting down a murderer, and you have multiple bodies. It can also take on an adversary for your one true love. It can take on maybe a fall you might have. From a psychological viewpoint, it is somewhat different.

According to Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, everyone must struggle with their own Shadow their inner demons. Now the Shadow is our unconscious self. It’s all the parts of ourselves that we refuse to acknowledge and might even be ashamed of.

When a character embodies the shadow archetype in fiction, the Shadow archetype often takes on a villain. For example, Sauron is the Dark Lord of Mordor, and he represents the Shadow of the good of middle earth. Another example in The Lord of the Rings trilogy is Gollum. Gollum is the shadow archetype of not only of Frodo Baggins but also of Bilbo Baggins. Gollum represents the fallen hobbits. Even though Gollum was not a hobbit, to begin with, he was a cousin of the hobbits. Gollum was a Stoor Hobbit of the Riverfolk who lived near the Gladden Fields. He was initially known as Smeagol, but then he became corrupted by the One Ring of Power and was later named Gollum. When Gollum and his friend Deagol were off on a fishing trip, they found the Ring. Gollum (then Smeagol) wanted the Ring so much that he murdered his cousin for it. Gollum represents what Bilbo and Frodo could have quickly become through the One Ring’s corruption, and he is manifested physically on the page.

We all have darkness inside of us, and so do our characters. Your characters have things in their lives that they aren’t proud of. They are ashamed of things that have been done to them or of the things they have done.

We will discuss how to craft a Shadow Archetype for your story later on in this article. For now, let’s look at some other examples in literature and films.

The Shadow in Dr. Jekyll and the Matrix

Other examples of the Shadow in literature is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Dr. Jekyll is a kind, well-respected scientist. He has a fiancé, and he is very, very well known in the community highly respected man thoughts he chooses to explore the darker side of science to bring out his second nature because of this flaw, Jekyll experiences his ultimate downfall. He transforms into his evil alter ego, Mr. Hyde. Hyde doesn’t repent or accept responsibilities for crimes and misdeeds like Jekyll does this by Jekyll’s best efforts to control Hyde, for maybe a very brief moment might be triumphant. Eventually, Hyde takes over, and the consequences lead to their deaths. Another example in recent television series of the shadow archetype is the character of Walter White in Breaking Bad. An ordinary family man at the start of the series, the darker aspects of his personality gradually take over until he becomes Heisenberg, a man prepared to murder to achieve his own goals.

In the 1999 film the Matrix, the Shadow is the sentinel program and the agents. Morpheus, a character in the Matrix, tells Neo (who is the hero), “The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it, when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes… Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is, you have to see it for yourself.”

Morpheus, The Matrix

The Shadow is everywhere, and like Sauron’s eye in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it sees everything and watches over all within its dominion. Isn’t that frightful? The Shadow is frightful and designed both externally and internally to drive your character to their breaking point and grow as a result. In many ways, the Shadow is the mirror that highlights the darkness within.

Let’s look at some of the characteristics of the Shadow.

Shadow Archetype Characteristics and Traits

“The sad truth is that man’s real-life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites-day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that goodwill overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battleground. It always has been, and always will be, and if it were not so, existence would come to an end.”

Carl Jung

So, what are some of the traits of the shadow archetype? Frequently, the Shadow Archetype is often associated with chaos, mystery, wilderness, and the unknown. The Shadow can also appear to your hero/protagonist in a variety of forms. Carl Jung believed that dreams were very indicative of what people’s inner Shadow was. On a superficial level, the Shadow Archetype might also take on the form of a human or an animal. For example, the Shadow could manifest itself as a snake, a monster, a demon, or even a dragon.

The dragon form was seen in The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. In The Hobbit, the dragon Smaug has stolen the mountain of Erebor. He has also seized the dwarves’ treasures and drove the dwarves from their homeland. Smaug is an external representation of the greed of the dwarves when they mined Erebor.

In many ways, Smaug represents externally what is going on internally inside Thorin Oakenshield, who is the leader of the Company of Dwarves who aim to reclaim the Lonely Mountain. Both Smaug and Thorin are guilty of greed. At the very end of the novel, Thorin is able to confront his Shadow (greed) both externally as well as internally and overcome it before he is killed in The Battle of the Five Armies.

Do your characters defeat their Shadow? Is your character even aware of their Shadow? How is it expressed on an external level vs. an internal level?

Let’s look at why some people might be afraid of their Shadow!

Why are We and Our Characters Afraid of the Shadow?

According to Jung, most people are afraid to confront their dark side and instead blame other people for their faults. This can lead to a lot of exciting conflicts within your novel or screenplay. If your character is flawed (which more than likely it is), what are their faults? Do they blame others for their shortcomings? Are they even aware that they are flawed?

In many ways, the Shadow is a struggle with the inner self. Jung believed that this represented our repression of our inner selves of our true self is extremely dangerous. The tighter the rein a person keeps on his or her Shadow and on their shame of who they really and try to suppress the parts of their personality they really don’t like, the more unhealthy on a psychological note they will be.

So, How Do I Use the Shadow in My Stories?

Let’s face it, we all want to level up in our writing skills and resonate with readers. That’s why we follow the story grid and work on the macro (the global story) and the micro story (scene writing).

Readers want real characters. We all want to read characters that we can identify with, and characters who confront or are overcome by their Shadow can be universal.

For example, let’s say you are writing a Crime Genre story with a Serial Killer Subgenre. In order for your detective to solve the heinous crimes that are taking place on their streets, he/she has to get inside your villain’s mind and think like them. This can bring up disturbing personality traits for your detective.

  • Do they become angry easier?
  • Do they lash out?
  • How does thinking like the killer affect them? Do they have a breaking point?
  • What will bring out your character’s dark side?
  • What inner demons are they harboring?
  • Do the murders remind them of something that happened in their childhood?
  • Do the victims remind them of someone they loved and lost?

Let’s look at some examples, shall we?

Examples of the Shadow in Literature and Film

 Clarice Starling is the protagonist of Thomas Harriss’s The Silence of the Lambs. In that book, she is given the assignment to interview a notorious cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lector. She’s looking for information on the kidnapping and trying to find the girl before it’s too late.

Clarice’s story doesn’t end with The Silence of the Lambs. It continues in Hannibal, and it gets disturbing. In the next book, Harris takes even a darker turn. Seven years after the Buffalo Bill case, Clarice Starling is watching her career crumble around her. Hannibal Lector is on the loose, and Starling has just killed a meth dealer who had been holding a baby.

It was a drug raid gone very bad.

By the end of the novel, Starling and Lector’s relationship becomes even more complicated than the movie version. At first, Lector tries to brainwash Starling into thinking that she is Misha, Lector’s younger sister. When Lector was a child, Misha was killed in Russia and was eaten during a harsh winter. This was the catalyst that drove Lector into madness and revenge. Starling resists Lector and tells him that Misha is never coming back. Later on, Lector captures Justice Department agent Paul Krendler, who is Starling’s nemesis. Lector disables Krendler, and Starling and Lector eat his prefrontal cortex. Clarice finds the brain delicious. Then, Lector kills him. After, Clarice undresses and the two become lovers and disappear together.

Three years later, Barney (who had made problems for Lector and Starling before this) sees Lector and Starling at the opera as if waiting for him. It is interpreted that the two are there to eat him.

By the end of Hannibal, Clarice Starling has fully embraced her Shadow self and has stepped into a world very different than the one she has lived in before. Before this happened, Clarice was about law and order and bringing people to justice. Now, she is living outside of the law and has formed a new “law” with Lector.

Lector is Clarice’s Shadow personified.

Some critics have commented that it is unclear whether Clarice has entirely gone to dark or she is just pretending to be because she is trying a different tactic to try and curtail Lector’s apatite. Some have argued that with Clarice in a relationship with Hannibal Lector, she can monitor Lector and make sure he is not going entirely “insane.” Others have stated that Clarice has fully transitioned from FBI agent to serial killer. Either way, Clarice embraces a fate worse than death, which is on the negative Horror value scale.

Horror Genre Global Value

While you don’t need to have as dramatic as a change like Harris does in his books, playing with the Shadow archetype of your character will help you with your story. By playing with the Shadow, you are going to take your characters to their breaking point.

Their Breaking Point

What is going to make them confront their Shadow? For Frodo, he has to face his growing attachment to the One Ring of Power. Every time Frodo looks at Gollum, he sees what he could become if he gives in to the power of the One Ring.

Gollum is his Shadow.

Every time Dr. Jeckyll feels the change coming on, he knows someone is about to be killed, and he has to try and figure out how to his Hyde personality from taking over.

 What will drive your character to their dark side? For Walter White, in Breaking Bad, he had terminal cancer and wanted to get money quickly to secure his family’s future. However, the result ended in his demise. He cannot wholly conquer his Shadow, although he does return to a somewhat lesser degree of insanity at the very end.

How to Use the Shadow in Story Grid

Once you figure out your Story Grid Genre, and you have your main character(s), you should figure out how to heighten the value shifts through the Shadow archetype.

For example, the 2016 Passengers movie, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, has a Love Courtship story running through it. However, you could easily rewrite it as a dark Love Obsession movie by manipulating the Shadow archetype. Let’s take a look:

The Avalon is a sleeper ship transporting 5,000 colonists and 258 crew members in hibernation pods from Earth to a distant planet named Homestead II. During the flight, Chris Pratt’s character James “Jim” Preston’s hibernation pod malfunctions, and he wakes up 90 years too early. Jim has no way to get his hibernation pod working again and must confront a grim fate: living the rest of the life alone on the Avalon.

 In the movie, Jim becomes suicidal over the course of lonely a year until he sees Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and ends up wanting to learn more about her, and he convinces himself he is in love with her. Eventually, Jim wakes Aurora up and tells her that pod “accidentally” malfunctioned. After a series of events, the two fall in love, become lovers, and then Aurora learns the truth that Jim woke her on purpose.

At this point in the movie, Aurora realizes that she has been lied to, and Jim has a moment where he realizes that what he did was wrong and that he had chosen to take her life. Eventually, everything works out, and the two fix the sleeper ship from malfunctioning, and they live a life together on Avalon.

This story has a Love courtship genre woven into it. However, you make it another way. Here’s how: Jim is obsessive and has lost his mind due to isolation when he decides to wake up Aurora. Jim thinks he has fallen in love with Aurora. However, he doesn’t even know her. Not really.

Yet, he becomes so obsessed with her that he decides to take away the life she had dreamt of and condemn her to a different life. When Aurora finds out, she doesn’t forgive Jim like she does in the movie, and instead, it becomes a cat and mouse game where Jim’s character has fully embraced his dark side and begins stalking her on the claustrophobic ship. Now, Aurora must figure out to survive on a ship drifting off into space.

You get the point.

You can twist the Shadow Archetype according to each genre. For the internal genres (love, worldview, and morality), the Shadow might be representative of an internal struggle going inside of the character. For the external genres, you might have the Shadow be visibly seen like Sauron’s eye or Smaug.

In order to craft the Shadow, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is your character afraid of?
  • What are they ashamed of?
  • What does your character not want to remember?
  • What is the Shadow of your character?

So, What’s Next?

As always, read widely and deeply. Read in multiple genres and try to dissect the stories both on a Story Grid genre level and watch out for the hero’s journey and Jung’s archetypes. Try and figure out how to show your story’s Shadow both externally as well as internally. I hope all is well. Take care and happy writing! – Tory

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Victoria Girmonde