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

What is your character’s personality type?

In my previous post, I suggested that the use of psychological typologies is a useful starting point for character creation or when you’re stuck in their development.
Today, we will have a closer look at the Myers-Briggs personality test (MBTI).

Personality tests are controversial to some people. Recently, I talked to a friend of mine about the MBTI. He questioned whether it is pseudoscience like horoscopes.
Or worse, like a Buzzfeed quiz about which Game of Thrones character you are.
(They are fun though, who are you? 😉 )

Not quite. 

The MBTI is based on Carl Gustav Jung’s extensive research around what he called the ‘self’. His work suggests there are different parts of ourselves. The Self, representative of your inside world, and a persona we put on for the outside world. Test your Self and Persona here.

No one is going to match a personality type 100%. Results depend on mood, experiences and concentration. Instead, they give us an impression or a tendency.

In character development, personality types give us an overview of a character who starts out on his journey. Who will he be at the end of it? That depends on what you put him through and whether you want his weaknesses to become heightened or to turn into his strengths. Being aware of your characters’ flaws and strong points will make it easier to decide how they respond to various problems.

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Problems like what?

Applied to fictional characters, tests like the MBTI can help us with a range of questions, such as:

How would a character approach a relationship problem? Would he openly talk about the issue with his significant other or dwell in silence until the small problem gets blown out of proportion?

How does your character act as a mom or dad? Does he play the good or bad cop when the little ones spread peanut butter all over mom’s new clothes?

Would the young woman in your story be able to manage a business, shoulder the responsibility with a charismatic smile, or would she buckle under the pressure?

Summary of Myers-Briggs personality types

Sourced from the 16 Personalities website.

Analysts 

INTJ – The Architect – strategy, planner, imaginative
INTP – The Logician – innovation, inventions, thirst for knowledge
ENTJ – The Commander – leadership, dominant, charisma
ENTP – The Debater – intellect, argumentative, rationality

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Diplomats 

INFJ – the Advocate – idealist, quiet, mystical
INFP – the Mediator – creativity, altruistic, secretive
ENFJ- the Protagonist- natural leaders, sensitive, reliable
ENFP- the Campaigner – communication, independent, popular

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Sentinels

ISTJ – the Logistician – factual, effective, dutiful
ISFJ – the Defender – hard-working, perfectionism, emotional
ESTJ – the Executive – management, traditional, direct
ESFJ- the Consul – loyalty, caring, selfless

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Explorers 

ISTP – the Virtuoso – energetic, practicality, stubborn
ISFP- the Adventurer- flexible, independent, passionate
ESTP- the Entrepreneur – energetic, original, perceptive
ESFP – the Entertainer – optimism, sensitive, dramatic

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Examples of Types in Practice

ENTJ – Grumpy business owner

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In one of my short stories, there is a business owner who could be identified as an ENTJ. He is ruthless and sickeningly confident to the point that he scares off everyone around him. His attitude problem lands him in troubled waters with his community. No one bothers to stand up for him. He is forced to either trust someone he doesn’t know or drown.

ISFJ – Soul of a community

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In the same short story, there is a young community leader. Her innate need to protect the people of her hometown makes her go up against the grumpy business owner. While she teaches him to become more patient with other people, he reprimands her for taking on the burden of an entire community without regard for her own health. Their contrasting personalities actually help the other grow.

ISFP – Crazy auntie 

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This character type is one of my favourites to write. My crazy auntie character excels in life by pushing the social boundaries and embracing her status as a free-spirit who drinks too much wine during boring family dinners. Her open-mindedness and ability to make everyone feel welcome is a basis for a much-loved character. However, her over-reliance on herself and hatred of everything ‘conventional’ causes her to keep serious health issues a secret.

You have the basis of your character. What now?  

Now comes the point where I tell you these personality types are archetypes, not real people. No one is 100% ISFP or 100% platinum blonde (congrats if you are!).

Traumatic events or challenges will force characters to face their core values and re-establish their personalities. Villains and antagonists will shatter the protagonist’s world view.

Your character may start out as a controlling ENTJ but, over time, and through many obstacles, he might learn that his focus on himself is hindering him from making true human connections. He will have to learn to trust people and respect their feelings. To make your characters progress, they will have to confront their weaknesses and deepest, gut-wrenching fears.

It takes time to create the perfect concoction of personality types, quirks and magic to make your character a three-dimensional person on the page.

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If you have a soft-spoken, timid INFJ who is faced by a big, bad monster, she will need to step up to protect those around her. She might take on leadership qualities that have been dormant inside of her but never dared tap into.

Give your readers the chance to follow her journey of self-discovery so they, too, can evolve and grow in their own lives.


© 2021 vic lejon

Putting characters into boxes

Sorting people into boxes or categories is not something I would usually encourage, but there can be an exception made if you are a writer who is looking for a starting point in character creation.

Most of the time, you won’t sit at your desk and think up a character. The best main characters just appear, materialise out of thin air and take over your brain. If you try to ignore them, they’ll flip you off or stomp their feet. Scribble down those quirks and mannerisms for later.

In the early stages of character creation, I like to analyse what personality the materialised gal or guy (or alien, animal, tree…whatever floats your boat) might have. For example, for my current protagonist, I knew right away that she was an INFJ from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. INFJ is also called the Advocate personality. In my story, she is an idealistic young lady, slightly neurotic and secretive, but with genuine care for her people. Her sense of morality, however, makes her life incredibly complicated in the face of her corrupt family.

Your characters will evolve and grow throughout your story. They might become completely different people with new tendencies and ideals, or they will become their own worst nightmare. Either way, you need a foundation before you can start building. Look at it like a skeleton that gives your character the ability to stand. Add tendons and muscles through physical features, quirks and mannerisms. Finally, never forget the flaws that make your heroes and villains human and relatable.

Not every character needs to be loved and admired, but even the bad guys have a reason for what they are doing. Often their motive stems from an even more intense feeling or ideal than that of the protagonist. It makes them such good villains in the first place. That creates a conflict that drives your plot. Be careful though too many heroic ideals can be overstimulating. The core of your character might get swept away in a creative tsunami. So decide on a foundation and stick to it. It steers your plot.

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Your secondary characters will probably fulfil more archetypal roles. That’s fine! It’s not to say they won’t change at all, but there is a reason they are behind-the-scenes.

Carl Gustav Jung’s typology gives an excellent overview of 12 common personalities. Jung’s work was actually the basis from which the Myers-Briggs Test was developed. So, while your protagonist will most likely break out of his original box, as he, she or it should, your secondary characters might be happy to stay ‘the mentor’ or ‘the caregiver’ to the end. This will help you keep focused on your main characters without being distracted by extensive character development at all levels. No one can keep up with a cast of twenty people that all go through different crises.

Over the next few weeks, I will look at some of these typologies more closely. For now, have a scroll through the ones listed below to get you started. If you haven’t done so, I’d recommend doing some tests yourself. The better you understand yourself, the easier it will be to understand others, including your own characters.

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
https://www.16personalities.com/

Jung’s Archetypes
http://www.soulcraft.co/essays/the_12_common_archetypes.html

The Ennaegram
https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/type-descriptions

Love Languages (requires you to create a profile)
https://www.5lovelanguages.com/profile/

© 2021 vic lejon