The shadow side of your character

Talking about darkness makes most people think of the villain but even the most heroic and ‘bright lights’ of protagonists have a dark side. If you want to write a convincing story, it’s probably a good idea to tap into it and see what you find.

The notion of a Shadow self was coined by Carl Jung to refer to the part of our unconscious mind that contains the repressed traits, needs or ideas we tend to hide away from everyone. Either, because society has deemed them unspeakably terrible or because we ourselves cannot accept the faults or weaknesses of our own character.
Today’s world pushes positivity and happiness down our throats, but can those concepts truly exist without their counterparts?

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Think of the shadow self like a twin. It’s a mirror of you, only it balances out all the light that you radiate into the world with darkness. In terms of a novel, you will have a hard time creating conflicts if you were to have all your characters at their best behaviour. The villain and protagonist would go out for ice-cream. The villain would offer to pay for both of them instead of poisoning the ice-cream to get revenge on the protagonist’s family.

We can’t have that!

We need our shadow selves, not just to create an entertaining drama but also to allow us to evolve. Conflict is necessary for change, that is to create a brilliant plot but also memorable characters who have gone through hell and back to get where they are.

Your characters will surely have a range of commendable traits.
Morality, honesty and mental resilience are awesome attributes to help beat the bad guy, but, like real-life humans, they will encounter moments of weakness. They might blame themselves for not standing up to the monster earlier, which could have prevented the apocalypse altogether. Damn, that laziness or escapism trait.

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All repressed ideas and traits wavering around in our darkness are not pure evil, some might be underdeveloped sources of potential too. Your character might harbour boundless creativity (in the questionable form of ways to murder his neighbour’s cat) that could be harvested to stop a homicidal lizard creature instead. It is easy to ignore faults to focus on happiness. It is even easier to be scared of our own dark sides. Ignoring them, however, will only feed them. They will become monsters too.

Think about the character you are building for your story, what irritates him in other people? Why does he hate the cops in his city with a passion? Why is his wife resentful towards her sister’s picture-perfect family? Their objects of hate have traits which are veiled in the depth of their own shadow, longing to jump out and revel in the spotlight of your page. Make your protagonist’s life miserable by exposing them!

Jung called these moments of repulsion our ‘projections’, everything that we suppress in ourselves we dislike in others.

Think about why your character dislikes the antagonist. What does he or she stand for, and how could that trait take form in your protagonist? How could you access your protagonist’s darkness and turn it into his power? Or what happens if he chooses to indulge the dark side? Would he become a villain?

It takes a certain kind of bravery to acknowledge the face a shadow self. They might not be the prettiest faces in the mirror but if your characters want to win the big battle (whether in space, underground or a perfectly trimmed backyard), they will have to face their own short-comings to become greater.

How can I make my character face his shadow self?

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There are probably a hundred different ways to confront your character’s dark side, but the ones below came to my mind as I sat and stared at myself in the mirror to find my own shadow self. 😉Villains and antagonists

This one is pretty obvious if your protagonist struggles with some ideal or trait, it is a brilliant idea to give that trait to the antagonist. Make the protagonist face off against his own worst nightmare. Either he will beat it, have a moment of self-awareness and grow even stronger… or he will join the dark side (secret love for those moments). Or maybe, there is a grey area where they could meet. If so, what would that look like?

Dreams, visions, prophecies

At night, our unconscious mind comes out to play. Of course, the shadow self will prowl about to exhibit your character’s darkest longings.
Dream sequences can be used to plant a seed that leads to a shocking plot-twist, whether during a maniac chase through a fantasy underworld or in the form of a vision that points out your protagonist’s weakness.

Mirrors or reflections

A scene where your character looks at herself in the mirror can subtly point out a duality or darkness that others fail to see.

Do her eyes have contrasting colours, or does her skin texture change in the light? It might just be a smile that sits too forced upon her face.
Give a clue in her reflection of what darkness might reside within. Or even more dramatically, give the mirror image its own personality.

A dark room

This is more of a metaphor that I first heard about in a youtube video but I thought it is a great way to incorporate someone’s dark side.

Imagine the house of a friendly family. There is a young boy, a cute dog and the parents have stable jobs and a thriving social life. Everything appears perfect but there is one room in the house no outsider has ever set foot in.
What’s inside of it? What could they be hiding?
It could be a literal representation of a collective shadow. A dark secret they don’t want anyone to know about. What happens when you open that door?

Personality disorder

The perfect example of someone’s dark side being revealed is probably Fight Club. What we first assume to be two completely different characters, is actually one person with a literal dark side in the form of a young Brad Pitt.
The dissociated personalities create one of the biggest plot twists in the story. There is a lot of literature out there that employs personality disorders to show a shadow self. I am not saying to glamourise mental health issues, but if you have experience with it and know what you’re doing, it might be an effective way to showcase a person’s darkness.

The annoyingly perfect person everyone loves

I mentioned this one above, but a simple way to introduce the dark side of anyone is to confront them with a person they hate.
Maybe it’s the girl from the office with the perfectly manicured hands and high-pitched laughter that gets their blood pressure up like no one else.
Maybe, it’s the villain who has a secret crush on the girl next door. He hates her because he hates his own ability to fall in love.
The annoyingly perfect person can take any form as long as it sketches out a side of your character that lurks in their unconsciousness.

Death or trauma

Nothing gets the dark side going like a loss of a loved one. Your character will be going through a tornado, volcano and tsunami of emotion. That’s a lot of natural disasters to handle!
Crying, laughing, feeling nothing… a phase of utter despair shifts and changes anyone. Your character, whether good or bad, will be no different. The Shadow self might use that moment to creep around and show-off its cunning face.

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There are many more ways to uncover the shadow self of a character, so if you can think of them let me know. I would love to be inspired. I hope this helped you to figure out what your characters might be harbouring in their unconscious minds and to shape them into even more kick-ass people.

© 2021 vic lejon

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