Writers, Know Your Archetypes: The Shadow


I will be participating in The Great Villain Blogathon next week, so what better way to set the tone than a post about the shadow archetype?

1. I’ve already done a post with tips for creating a great antagonist, but shadow characters don’t necessarily have to be antagonists or villains.

As I will demonstrate with examples, it’s perfectly possible for shadow characters to have functions in a story other than that of the antagonist.

2. That said, shadow characters make fantastic antagonists.

By giving your antagonist the qualities of a shadow character, it will help you avoid creating a two-dimensional villain. This is because heroes and shadows are deeply connected to each other in various ways.

Such as:

3. The shadow typically embodies qualities of the hero that he or she has repressed or rejected.

In Jungian psychology, the shadow is the negative part of the psyche. It embodies the repressed/rejected qualities of the Self. Shadow characters in stories personify these qualities.

Anything the hero sees as a negative impulse: rage, greed, particular sexual impulses, cruelty–may be something in their own personality that they repress.

The impulses don’t have to be that extreme–for instance, they may see ambition as a negative, or they may repress healthy anger.

Any or all of these repressed qualities may be present in the shadow character.

4. These repressed/rejected qualities don’t always have to be negative.

In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter has the charm and polish protagonist Clarice Starling lacks and thinks she can’t achieve because of her poor upbringing.

Even though Forest Gump is the hero of his story, he functions as a shadow character for Lieutenant Dan. Forest embodies all the innocence and optimism that Lt. Dan has rejected, and he strongly resents him for it.

5. Shadow and hero characters may also share positive/unique qualities the hero has not repressed/rejected.

Clarice and Lecter are both superb detectives. The Force is strong in both Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Harry Potter and Voldemort can both speak with snakes.

Most heroes and shadows share the ability to inspire people and convince them to help them accomplish their goals. Shadows may need to use force to get others to do what they want, but not always. Sometimes they use their charisma to charm others to do their bidding–something heroes may hesitate to do.

6. Heroes may become aware during the story that they share dark desires with their shadow.

Luke must constantly fight against giving into the dark side of The Force. Clarice is as intrigued by the dark side of humanity as Lecter. Harry Potter confesses to Dumbledore several times that he worries he will one day turn out evil like Voldemort.

7. The shadow character will often use those desires to tempt/try to defeat the hero.

Darth Vader encourages Luke to give into the dark side. Lecter pushes Clarice to skate along the edge of danger in her search for a killer.

8. It is not unusual for the hero’s mentor and shadow to be connected in some way.

Darth Vader, when he was young Anakin Skywalker, had Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda as his mentors, the same as Luke. Dumbledore was Tom Riddle’s teacher, long before he became Voldemort. Glinda and The Wicked Witch of the West were rivals before Dorothy ever showed up in Oz. (And, according to the novel and Broadway show Wicked, were also once good friends.)

9. Shadows may serve as the hero’s mentor.

This is the case with Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Rather than function as the primary antagonist, his function is actually to help her find and capture Buffalo Bill, a serial killer, before he kills another victim.

Another shadow/mentor would be Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street. As is the case with most shadows, Gekko embodies both suppressed and acknowledged qualities in Bud, the protagonist. Bud wants to pattern his life after Gekko’s. When Gekko’s ruthlessness hurts Bud’s father, he changes from Bud’s mentor to his antagonist, as Bud plots to bring him down, using what he has learned from Gekko to defeat him.

10. In fact, any archetypal character can also function as a shadow.

The obvious archetypes that also could be shadows are the trickster, shapeshifter and the threshold guardian. Besides mentors, heralds and even fools can also be shadow characters, but those won’t necessarily be antagonists.

A character can embody even more archetypes. I would argue Vizzini in The Princess Bride embodies qualities of the shadow, the threshold guardian, and the fool.

11. Heroes and shadow characters may join forces at some point.

Unlike the Lecter/Clarice example (where most of the story is the two characters working together to find a killer) in most cases shadows and heroes team up briefly.

In Game of Thrones, Arya Stark has been kidnapped by The Hound, a murderous soldier who escaped from his duties as a royal guard during the Battle of the Blackwater. Though she hates him and prays every night that he and her other enemies will die, there are times during their journey when they fight together against shared enemies.

This is also currently the case on the TV show Once Upon a Time. Regina, the Evil Queen, has teamed up with her enemies Snow White, Prince Charming, and their daughter Emma to fight off the Wicked Witch of the West.

In Star Trek Into Darkness, Kirk briefly teams with Khan to save his crew.

Arya has the ability to kill in cold blood, just like The Hound. Snow White killed Regina’s mother, causing darkness to creep into her heart. Both Kirk and Khan will do almost anything to save their crews. The shared darkness with their shadows makes them good teammates, even though they dislike and distrust them.

12. The hero can function as his or her own shadow.

Stories of people overcoming illness–physical or mental–or an addiction are examples of characters who function as their own shadow.

The most famous example, of course, is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll invents a potion that brings out all his repressed characteristics, turning a kind man into a murderer. Another example would be Bruce Banner, who turns into The Hulk when he’s angered.

The Forest Gump example shows how a hero can function as a shadow for a secondary character. Another example is Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther movies. He is the shadow for Chief Inspector Dreyfus, driving him mad with his destructive clumsiness and stupidity.

13. It helps to think of the hero and shadow as two sides of the same coin.

By making the hero and shadow character connected through similar qualities, both negative and positive, it personalizes the conflict, both internal and external. The hero has to deal with an external threat–usually personified by an antagonist–and an internal conflict.

The internal conflict can be the negative qualities he or she shares with the shadow character. By defeating the shadow, the hero is also dealing with his or her own internal issues. This is also a wonderful way to compose a compelling character arc.

Please check out my other posts about archetypes:

The Trickster

The Mentor

The Herald

The Fool

The Threshold Guardian

The Shapeshifter


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