I’ve been mulling over this lately, as I’m getting stuck back into my second novel about a dark, embittered woman with a past, and I’ve had to make her distinctly unlikeable from the very start. This changes as the story progresses, as unfolding events compel her to develop as a person, but initially I was forced to come up with some unpleasant opinions, inner thoughts, behaviours and driving forces for my main character, which of course went against my own very sweet nature ;>). So this is where using my shadow side came in handy. She hasn’t quite ‘turned’ yet, so I have a little bit more fun to come.
I’d previously read a very useful article in Myslexia magazine, on writing villains in crime fiction, by psychological crime writer, Laura Wilson. This related to my main character somewhat, so I took note of the fact, as Laura pointed out, that you can write a ‘villain’ who the reader can still have sympathy for. They can be a well-balanced and moral person who is driven by circumstance to go over to the dark side, but who certainly don’t need to be ‘a moustache-twirling embodiment of evil or a psychopath’. And so I developed my character consciously giving her good points, as well as bad points, to make her more feasible as a human being. I found I could give her some good character traits easily enough, but where was I to get her bad behaviour and inner compulsions from?
This is where the shadow within us as individuals and within society itself comes in. Jung described the shadow as being one of our four collective unconscious archetypes, the others being: persona, anima/animus, and the self. Jung described the shadow as the inferior being within us which is primitive and animal, prone to recklessness and lacking in control. The emotions and desires contained in the shadow are incompatible with civilised expectations, so people tend to hide their shadows as much as possible. And this is where things get interesting. Jung maintained it is harmful to repress the shadow within us, because although it is a destructive force it is also the source of creativity, and it’s positively healthy to get to know it and hold it up to the light to encourage new directions and new energies within us.
Psychologist, James Hollis, in The Middle Passage, describes the shadow as containing the wounding of our own nature in the interests of collective social values. It’s where we store away our anger and our hurt, our perceived injustices, our jealousies, our vanities, our selfishness, and a host of other nasties, which we are culturally trained not to express openly. So instead, we project these onto other people in a warped unconscious recognition, or act them out in other ways. But our shadow is also where we store our spontaneity and our creative impulses… ‘it shouldn’t be equated with evil, only with life that has been suppressed. As such, the shadow is rich in potential’, and in our case, as writers, that means we can get to know our shadow side and use our dark impulses in our writing, as well as spot the same in others, where their dark side suddenly emerges, unguarded. We can channel it to give all too human flaws to our heroes, and to create a realistically human dark side for our more troubled characters who may be weighted more towards the category of a villain.
So you can tap into that inner voice, being quietly sarcastic, bitchy, arrogant…thinking things and generating comebacks that you’d never dare say out loud and have your character doing just this. You can listen to that little devil sitting on one of your shoulders, urging you to feed your impulses and knock that stuck-up, ever-so-righteous angel on the other shoulder right off her perch, because she’s just stopped you getting yourself that big fat chocolate éclair that looked so tempting. You can portray these inner conflicts in your characters and express other ‘nasties’ to reflect your characters’ shadow sides. You can listen in for angles that shock you, embarrass you, or make you laugh…it can be as little as having one character criticise the appearance of another. For example, my dark character outwardly comments disparagingly upon the bobbles on a colleague’s cardigan, telling her she should do something about them. The colleague cringes with embarrassment, showing her distinct lack of confidence and vulnerability, which my dark character is preying upon. Or it can be more sinister, such as a character’s dark side having a day dream, imagining the killing or dying of someone they hate, thinking up lots of gruesome possibilities for their ‘victim’. In other words using our shadow side in our creative writing can help in developing realistic psychological intensity in our characters, which the readers will recognise and be able to engage with.
If you’re interested in reading in depth about this, here is an article I found, entitled ‘Working with the Shadow: A Writer’s Guide’ by author, Joslyn Robinson. Interestingly, she points out that it’s in the subtext (what is not said, but implied) ‘we feel the presence of The Shadow: that which is below, hidden, unspoken, within, around but very present.’
So when we use our own shadows in getting to know ourselves, and thereby fuelling our creativity, we can more easily write our characters’ shadows, and portray their innermost thoughts and impulses, their darkest fears and desires – we can have some fun, we can also indulge our naughty inner child and get some magic going on in our writing.
So bring it on!
(pic from pixabay)