5 Ways to Use Your Character’s Shadows to Power Your Story

5 Ways to Use Your Character’s Shadows to Power Your Story

Complex characters mirror real-life humans in their contradictions of inner light and dark. As writers, it is our job to create these contrasts in ways that become cohesive and thematically meaningful. One of the simplest—and most effective—ways to do this is to explore shadow theory.

In last week’s post, we talked about the concept of “the shadow,” a phrase originated by C.G. Jung. The shadow refers to the parts of the self that are not present in the conscious personality or ego, but instead are hidden away in the dark of the unconscious. The concept of the shadow suggests that the parts of ourselves that are repressed or neglected in the unconscious actually wield tremendous power over us.

Was That Really Me?  by Naomi Quenk

Was That Really Me? by Naomi L. Quenk (affiliate link)

Many different personality models offer tools for exploring these lost pieces of ourselves and doing “shadow work” to return them to our consciousness, so we can wield them consciously and reclaim their lost power. The MBTI system (based on Jung’s idea of cognitive function polarities) talks about how you might be “in the grip” of your shadow functions. This can even cause you to momentarily seem to have a completely opposite personality, as discussed in Naomi L. Quenk’s book Was That Really Me?

Additionally, the Enneagram‘s entire philosophy is built around recognizing that our personality type is “not us” and offers a map to expanding ourselves beyond the basic idea of our visible personalities.

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

Because good stories explore the human psyche and particularly catalysts of psychological change, writers can use any or all of these tools to write better character arcs. As we spoke about last week, “shadow theory” provides an incredibly simple and useful tool for immediately recognizing how a character’s surface personality always points to corresponding shadow characteristics that can be explored in the story.

A Quick Recap of Shadow Theory for Writers

In case you didn’t read last week’s post—or just want a refresher—here is a quick reminder of how shadow theory works.

Simply, shadow theory suggests that whatever is most prominent in your character’s conscious personality indicates that the exact opposite trait is probably lurking in the shadow.

Last week, we talked about such polarities as:

1. Strength/Weakness

E.g., Intelligence/stupidity; Athleticism/clumsiness; Self-sacrifice/selfishness, etc.

2. Fear/Power

E.g., Fear of commitment/loyalty; Fear of failure/ambition; Fear of death/courage, etc.

3. Conviction/Hypocrisy

E.g., Preaches the 7th Commandment/hides an affair; Blames big corporations’ greed/cheats boss, etc.

4. Projections of Hate or Love Onto Others

E.g., Believes women are weak/hides inner weakness; Idolizes powerful authority figure/ignores inner potential for empowerment, etc.

The great advantage of shadow theory is how easily it simplifies even complicated personalities by pointing to the inner dichotomies driving a person. However, it should go without saying you don’t want to over-simplify a character. Not every instance of these traits, or others like them, will point to corresponding shadow traits.

Writing for Your Life by Deena Metzger (affiliate link)

In Writing for Your Life, Deena Metzger notes:

Whether fictional or organic, the shadow never dies; we always cast a shadow. But how we relate to it and it to us depends on whether it is known. Once known, we have inevitably lost an innocence that can never be recovered. What replaces this innocence, however, is the knowledge of the complexity of our nature, of human nature. Sometimes we are fortunate, and this knowledge elicits a kindness and tolerance in us for others—even, perhaps, for ourselves.

Double-check by asking how much the character identifies with these traits. If he is fluid and willing to entertain other points of view, or if he is genuinely self-deprecating and can even laugh at himself when a trait is pointed out, he is likely to be well-rounded in this area of life. This indicates the corresponding shadow issue has already been integrated into the conscious personality.

A Little Book on the Human Shadow by Robert Bly (affiliate link)

However, if the personality seems particularly ossified around the trait in question, then you’ve probably stumbled upon the potential for shadow exploration. For example, if a character can’t stand to have her selflessness questioned, or if he refuses to brook any argument about why he might not actually be as dumb as he insists he is, or if she refuses to examine her own inconsistencies or hypocrisies, or if he insists on seeing certain people as “the other” rather than three-dimensional humans—these are all signs of what might be hanging out in the person’s shadow. As shadow-meister Robert Bly says,

Every part of our personality that we don’t love will become hostile to us.

5 Ways to Use Your Character’s Shadows in a Story

Now that you understand how to use shadow theory to quickly identify characters’ inner conflicts, let’s dive deeper. How can you practically apply this understanding of your characters’ shadows in your story? Here are five places in your story where you can use shadow theory to create amazing complexity and thematic resonance.

1. Add Realism and Depth to Your Characters’ Motivations

We often hear it said, “Conflict is story.” If we walk that back, we see that the conflict is driven by the characters’ goals—by what they desire. and desire is created by motive. So, really, we could just as easily say, “Motivation is story.”

A solid motivation can make or break your story. As long as readers believe in your characters’ reasons for doing what they’re doing, you can have your characters chasing after all kinds of bizarre goals and readers will happily suspend disbelief. But if the motives don’t make sense, then readers will scoff at at even otherwise sensible actions.

Motives are tricky, simply because they are often incredibly complex. We humans may want something for any number of reasons all at the same time. Sometimes we are conscious of those reasons; sometimes not. Sometimes we think we know why we’re doing something, when really we’re only partly conscious of our true motivations.

That’s where the shadow enters in. What lies in our unconscious is a powerful driver of our motivations. The reasons we desire a certain romantic relationship or a particular job or our independence or a popular status symbol—are often driven as much by what’s in the shadow as by the explanations offered by our conscious personalities.

Consider your characters’ desires: What do they want?

Now consider their motivations: Why do they say they want this thing?

Now flip that claim on its head: What does shadow theory say they want and why they want it?

For Example: I used this one in my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer, about a poor village lad determined to win the hand of an earl’s granddaughter. His conscious reason for pursuing her is that he thinks she’s beautiful and wonderful; but his unconscious reason, which he does not admit to until the end, is that marrying her would ease his insecurities about his own “low” status as a blacksmith’s apprentice.

Wayfarer by K.M. Weiland

Wayfarer (Amazon affiliate link)

2. Create Secrets and Suspense in Your Characters’ Backstories

Backstory exists mainly to explain a character’s motivations. We can create this via what John Truby calls “the Ghost” in the character’s past. The Ghost is a catalytic event that has molded the character into exactly the sort of person who would want to achieve the plot’s main goal. As its haunting name suggests, this motivating factor is often dramatic and even traumatic. It is also, almost inevitably, a signpost to when and why the character put some important part of her personality into the shadow.

In real life, shadow work revolves around learning to see what is in one’s own shadow. This often requires a bit in the way of forensics. What occurred to cause this piece to end up locked in the cellar of the psyche? Examining your character’s shadow can help you determine what backstory event might provide the best explanation for their main-story motivation. You can also flip this and consider what a known backstory event might reasonably cause to end up in the character’s shadow—where he doesn’t have to acknowledge or identify with it.

If you’re writing in a close or limited POV, then you know that one of the trickiest bits is finding ways to keep backstory secrets from readers even though your narrating character was there when the Ghost happened and therefore knows all about it. Understanding your character’s shadow can help with that too. After all, the whole point of the shadow is that it is unconscious. This doesn’t mean your character is necessarily repressing her memory of events; but she may not have full consciousness of the what, why, and how of this event.

Atonement revolves around an event in the protagonist’s childhood, in which her own misconstrual of events led her to wrongly accuse a young man of rape. She spends the rest of her life wrestling with her perceptions, trying to understand them and make them right.

3. Bring Subtext to Potentially Two-Dimensional Characters

In fiction, we usually want our protagonists to be good and our antagonists to be bad. However, these simple characterizations are almost always unsatisfying if that’s all these characters are. Savvy readers want to experience characters who mimic all the rainbowed complexity of real life. Exploring your characters’ shadows allows you to round them out.

When writing “good” characters, you can flip their best traits on their heads and explore the repressed shadow qualities that carry the opposite charge. Same goes for your “bad” characters; a quick application of shadow theory reveals how even their most wicked traits bring with them the shadow of the opposite virtue.

Rounding out your characters in this way does not mean they need to act out these opposite traits in the story (although one or two such actions will often bring depth). Simply by exploring the inner conflict your characters experience within themselves over these un-integrated traits, you can create a lasting effect of complexity.

In Blade Runner, the inhuman Batty exhibits more humanity in his appreciation of life as he dies in the rain than does the protagonist Deckard who heartlessly executes him as part of his job.

4. Deepen Theme by Adding Nuance

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

Theme arises from the contrast between a character’s actions in the external plot and his inner conflict and (potentially) growth. In other words, theme arises from the contrast between a character’s conscious and unconscious.

A Positive Change Arc is all about growing a character’s consciousness of her shadow traits—so she can integrate them into and thereby expand her conscious personality. Negative Change Arcs, on the other hand, highlight the character’s resistance to exploring the shadow and his ultimate failure to expand his consciousness as a result.

The best character arcs create deeply nuanced themes exactly because they delve into the polarities and dichotomies of the shadow. Good thematic explorations examine all sides of an issue (or at least four, as in Robert McKee’s thematic square). Understanding how to use shadow theory to plumb your characters’ unconscious motivations can help you figure out which topics are organic to your story’s plot and character arcs, so you can make sure you’re not missing out on any of the most important contrasting pairs.

In many ways Wuthering Heights is an exploration of the shadow made manifest, as the ruthless cruelty and prejudice that is acted out unconsciously (in the sense that they do not own their actions as such) by characters early in the story become consciously personified in the vengeance of the orphaned and unloved Heathcliff.

5. Create Thematically Resonant Minor Characters

Minor characters are particularly important for fleshing out the thematic depth of your story’s world. There are several ways you can use shadow theory to influence how you craft your supporting cast.

1. Examine Minor Characters’ Shadows

You don’t want your supporting characters to be two-dimensional anymore than you do your main players. In some ways, creating three-dimensional minor characters can be even trickier, since you must convince readers of their depth with much less explanation. Looking to your minor characters’ shadows to examine their inherent dichotomies is a quick and easy way to bring life to even a walk-on role.

2. Examine Minor Characters’ Thematic Roles

Your supporting cast is one of your most important tools in fleshing out your thematic argument. Choose characters who can act out various aspects of the theme your protagonist is wrestling with. Some characters should represent conscious personality aspects of the theme; others should represent shadow potentialities—both light and dark.

3. Examine How Your Protagonist Projects Shadow Traits Onto Minor Characters

Finally, use minor characters to exemplify how your protagonist may not be taking ownership of her own shadow traits. Because whatever is in the shadow is unconscious, the person will often project these traits onto others—believing, for instance, that others are stupid or angry or untrustworthy or perhaps even angelic or fearless or strong, when really these traits are arising from the person’s own unconscious. It is possible, of course, that the minor characters are embodying these traits to some degree, but this only enhances their ability within the story to mirror to the protagonist’s own unconscious proclivities or potentialities.

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Toy Story is built around the shadows of main character Woody, who projects onto cheerfully oblivious newcomer Buzz his own insecurities that he is “just a toy” to his beloved owner Andy as well as his need to be in charge.


In so many ways, story is primarily an exploration of humanity’s collective shadow. We uses stories as a way to express the contents of our own unconscious, but also as a tool to recognize our shared shadows and to do the “shadow work” of reclaiming all parts of ourselves. Understanding this important aspect of the psyche provides an incisive tool for rounding out our stories.

Previous Post in This Series: “How to Create Insanely Complex Characters Using “Shadow Theory’”

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Where and how do your characters’ shadows show up in your story? Tell me in the comments!

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