The Use Of The Shadow In Creative Writing

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)


About lynnefisher

Writer and visual artist living in Scotland, INFJ type Writer's blog: Art: Twitter @writeartblog Writers page Facebook Artists page Facebook
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27 Responses to The Use Of The Shadow In Creative Writing

  1. MomzillaNC says:

    If you’re in the Facebook group WE PAW Bloggers, I’d like for you to share this blog there. I think our family of writing creatives would be very interested in your breakdown of your character development. Thanks


  2. kcarr642 says:

    I literally just encountered the word “anima” for the first time last night when I was watching The Defenders, and here it is again! It must be a sign. This was a really useful post; I love that you pulled in outside resources to support your statements. I’ve always said that a hero is only as good as his villain (I’m usually cheering for the latter), and I’m always excited to read about new strategies to create them.


    • lynnefisher says:

      Thank you, so glad you found it interesting and potentially useful! Yes, I try to pull in other resources, usually ones I’ve come across in my reading, and I look on the net to see if there are any useful ones too. But I guess this one is mostly to be found inside us!


  3. I like the idea of a shadow. Mine is sarcasm. I should use it more often in my writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on SUSANNE LEIST and commented:
    The Shadow Knows


  5. misledgoddess says:

    This is such an insightful article! I’ve never before thought of our ‘inner selves’ in that light. It was truly eye-opening to read this post. Thank you for giving me some new ideas to toy with!! xD

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thank you so much. I’ve slowly come to spot my shadow side as I’m pretty analytical and self aware (sometimes, too self aware) and when I began creative writing I suddely had somewhere to channel it, though it needed coaxing out! I’m so pleased you have some new ideas to toy with…I love new ideas to ‘toy with’!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Idle Muser says:

    Such an informative article, Lynne. Thank you very much for sharing such a vast and important concept! 🙂

    PS- I am yet to check out the link that you shared of your first book. Will do that today and let you know if it works.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. MoJo says:

    I can be distinctly unlikable! Just ask my kids if you need tips. 😉 Aside from that, reading your approach to character development was very interesting. It’s thought provoking to see how people find their muse from all places (including within). Loved the share on how you do this. 🙂 Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Aphrolina says:

    Awesome read! Now I’m gonna try writing a story in the near future. I’m all too aware of my shadow side but like most people I keep it under wraps. Expressing my shadow side in a story sounds really fun actually..writing a story in general sounds really fun actually, ha. Thanks for the inspiration 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A.P. says:

    Bear with me if this comment is a bit lengthy. I just woke up, and find myself engaged in processing some very complex, but very critical, creative concepts.

    The Jungian concept of the Shadow Archetype reminds me of what Stephen Pressfield calls “resistance” in the book you recommended, *The War of Art.* At one point, he writes: “Resistance is directly proportional to love. If you’re feeling massive Resistance, the good news is that it means there’s tremendous love there too.” This seems to correspond nicely with Jung’s belief that “it is harmful to repress the shadow within us, because although it is a destructive force it is also the source of creativity.” (Your words.)

    In my own experience, I keep noticing that my “shadow self,” though it contains elements that I am loathe to express directly, nonetheless feeds my creative fire with a fury. It’s as though the ensuing burst of creative activity is a combative answer to the power of the shadow that preempted it. I’ve recently written a number of lengthy essays that seem to be the direct result of my having indulged my shadow internally, while at the same time shunning the idea of expressing it externally.

    I disdain to express it directly or externally, because it contains elements that fly in the face of societal norms at the least — if not absolute moral values. However, when its internal suggestions are matched up against those concepts and values that I have no trouble proclaiming openly, a part of me says: “There really is a war going on inside me, and it’s a war that I MUST WIN.”

    This also reminds me somewhat of James Joyce, and *A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” He eventually rectified through Art a seemingly irreconcilable conflict between divided halves of his being. Thank you for getting me thinking along these lines. There are certainly less stimulating things I could have read over a first cup of coffee. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thank you, Andy. People are probably a bit afraid of their shadow side because of it’s highly antisocial nature. It was only when I started writing that I found a used for mine – an outlet you could say, then I began noticing it more, and also seeing how it can easily be triggered off, in me and in others. I decided to accept it in myself, to at least acknowledge it as part of me and put it to use creatively where I can, though I suspect this part of us has untapped depths. Stephen King seems to be a master at using his! Yes, I can see how resistance could emanate from here too, because resistance can pull out some really nasty stuff. Glad you enjoyed the post with a cup of coffee, I’ll be having mine soon!

      Liked by 1 person

      • A.P. says:

        This is also reminding me of a conversation I once had with a man in a wheelchair who admitted to me that he was a thief who successfully would steal an expensive item from a large store twice a month. He would contemplate for two weeks how to get away with the theft, and then get away with it. I told him that the thought process he went through was remarkably similar to what I go through when I am in the midst of trying to create a work of Art, Music, or Literature. The end result is what differs.


      • lynnefisher says:

        Yes, coming up with inventive ways of getting something to work for whatever purpose sounds about right! And links to the quote from 2B or Not 2B about giving purpose to the shadow that follows us. Purpose can be for socially sanctioned ‘good’ or ‘ill’. Cheers, Andy

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Such a great article! I don’t remember exactly who it was, but a poet wrote, “I know I am a good person if I give purpose to the shadow that follows me.” Thank you for sharing. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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