Working with The Shadow: A Writer’s Guide
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark.
Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
— Wendell Berry
The Shadow is multifaceted, amorphous and difficult to define exactly or specifically. It is a force, a concept, a construct, an archetype, existing both externally and internally, universally and individually within the human culture and within the human psyche. It is the opposite of light, love, “goodness” and life. Yet it also contains within it tremendous energy and wisdom. Like the concept of Yin and Yang, within Light and Shadow exists a seed of the other.
In order to understand The Shadow as a whole, we first have to look within the psyche. The unconscious is our perilous Dark Forest where both treasure and ogre exist. There is no light. No way. Adventures and trials await as do fell and foul beasties. Allies and enemies. Neuroses and Complexes. Daemon and Demon. Heaven and Hell. Gods and Goddesses, Mother and Father. Kings and Queens, Paladins and Princesses. Tricksters and Shape-shifters, Charlatans and Shamans. Were-wolves, Wild Wolves, and Wangdoodles.
For the writer, working with The Shadow can be a terrifying and transformative experience, both artistically and personally. In this article, we will explore different types of Shadow: Personal, Collective, External and Demonic, and how they are portrayed in various forms of writing including film/screenplays, stage plays, and fiction.
What Lies Beneath, Below, Within
How can I be substantial without casting a Shadow? I must have a dark side too if I am to be whole: and by becoming conscious of my Shadow, I remember once more that I am a human being like any other.
(Carl Jung, 1931. Quoted from Personality and Personal Growth, 2005 6th Edition, R. Frager & J. Fadiman).
In Jungian psychology, the Personal Shadow is the opposite to the Persona (our outer Ego mask). The Personal Shadow is described as being an “archetype” within the unconscious that holds all of the rejected material from the Ego and Persona of the conscious mind: tendencies, desires, emotions and impulses. The things we hate about ourselves. The Personal Shadow also contains underdeveloped qualities, positive as well as negative, and animal instincts. As we develop, this archetype becomes a “Shadow Self;” it is part of the human experience. We all have a Shadow.
If the Personal Shadow is integrated into the conscious mind, it makes for a strong, creative, well-adjusted human being. If the Personal Shadow is not successfully integrated, the results are that the Shadow is either projected outward or projected inward.
The Collective Shadow, according to the Jungian model, contains all of the repressed and rejected qualities that are learned and inherited: cultural, social and familial. It is here where Jung’s archetypes, the “animus” and “anima”, reside. If you are a woman, you have an animus which is male, and if you are a man, you have an anima which is female. The animus/anima archetype contains all that you reject of your self-image as a woman or a man. It also contains the material of what you learned about being a woman or a man from your mother and father, your culture, and your society. We tend to “project” our animus/anima onto the gender of our sexual attraction. If not properly integrated, the animus/anima can become pathologically dominating within the psyche and within relationships.
As with the Personal Shadow, if integrated, the animus/anima and their content can become allies, guides, and a source of wisdom. Jung refers to this integration as a “union of opposites.”Joseph Campbell points out that this “holy union” of the male and female is a universal theme in Hero Myths.
What Lies Above, Without, Around
The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it, when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes…unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is, you have to see it for yourself (Morpheus from the 1999 Film, The Matrix).
In addition to the Personal and Collective Shadow within the psyche, there is a universally accepted concept of an External Shadow. Perhaps not the computer generated prison by human – hating machines as depicted in The Matrix, but the External Shadow is a force that is “out there.” The External Shadow is not necessarily “Bad” or “Evil.” It can be portrayed as “Chaos”, “Dark Force”, or “Dark Energy” or “Chi.” In life it is the energy that fuels, surrounds and infuses conflict. It is “Murphy’s Law” “Fate”, “Karma” and “Nature.” While we interact with it, it is definitively an external, rather than internal, source of Shadow.
A second type of External Shadow, at least in phenomenal accounting, is “Demonic”, “Bad or Evil” Shadow. World-wide, human cultures express a belief in the personification of “Evil”: Monsters, the Devil, Demons, Bad Spirits, etc.. In this instance, The Shadow is its own entity, its own character. It has intention. Specifically, Evil Intentions.
On Shadow and the Writing Craft
Being is a mystery, being is concealment, but there is meaning beyond the mystery. The meaning beyond the mystery seeks to come to expression. The destiny of human beings is to articulate what is concealed. The divine seeks to be disclosed in the human. — Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who Is Man, 1965.
In writing story we know the protagonist needs an antagonist. And for the story to be interesting, the protagonist and antagonist need to compliment and conflict with each other in development, complexity and depth.
In fiction, when writers refer to “character flaw” they are really referring to a character’s Personal and Collective Shadow. The best “character flaws” are the ones that are natural to the character and their personality and psyche, not a fabricated adornment by the writer.
In dramatic writing — including screenplay writing — The Shadow is present in the inciting incident, conflict, obstacles, rising action and increasing stakes. The best in dramatic writing isn’t about the dialogue, it’s about the “subtext,” for it is subtext that we feel the presence of The Shadow: that which is below, hidden, unspoken, within, around but very present.
The following are some examples of how writers work with, express and illustrate various forms of The Shadow. Each example contains one or more Shadow element: Personal, Collective, External and Demonic as discussed above. In talking about writing and The Shadow, we will refer to whatever form of The Shadow analyzed in the work collectively as “Shadow Content.”
Welcome to the Dark Side
Behind the repressed darkness and the personal shadow – that which has been and is rotting and that which is not yet and is germinating – is the archetypal darkness, the principle of not-being, which has been named and described as the Devil, as Evil, as Original Sin, as Death, as Nothingness. — James Hillman
The 1960 film, Psycho, screenplay by Joseph Stefano, (based on the book by Robert Bloch) and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, though highly sensationalistic, is without a doubt the quintessential example of the expression of the Personal and Collective Shadow in character. Norman Bates has been taken over by his anima and it projects outward with horrific results. However, what is striking about this film in regards to writing, and in this instance to directing, is Hitchcock’s use of light and shadow in filming. He creates shadows in his scenes: a metaphorical reference to Norman’s Shadow, the Collective Shadow, and the matrix of the External Shadow that binds the story and its characters together creating the story’s Shadow Content and character arcs.
The Shadow Content in Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire, is created by its three main characters Stella, Blanche and Stanley. Stanley is an abusive, animalistic man, with a pathological need to dominate. His wife Stella is passive, co-dependent and finds Stanley’s abusive nature thrilling. Blanche, Stella’s sister, is an educated snob whose sexual addiction to young men results in her being fired and thrown out of town. At the beginning of the play ( the inciting incident) Blanche arrives at Stella and Stanley’s doorstep with no where else to go. From the natural interplay of each of these characters’ Personal and Collective Shadows comes the story and the play. Williams knows his characters intimately. He puts them in a small apartment with no doors and “character flaws” flow like wine. The result is a seamless and breathtaking drama with naturally Shadow-ridden character arcs.
In Stephen King’s 1977 novel, The Shining, King not only creates an incredibly Shadow-ridden character in the form of Jack Torrence, he creates a story in which the External — in this case Demonic — Shadow of the haunted Overlook Hotel interacts most intimately with Jack Torrence’s Personal and Collective Shadow to create the story’s epic Shadow Content. The character Jack Torrence is an abused abuser, alcoholic and failed writer. King, as writer, exploits both himself and Jack Torrence mercilessly. King’s ability to navigate his own Shadow and those of his characters is what makes the writing in The Shining effective, horrific and wonderful.
Stories like the the 1975 film Jaws, screenplay by Peter Benchly (based on his 1974 book, Jaws) and Carl Gottlieb, directed by Stephen Speilberg, is a typical and excellent example of the expression of the External Shadow as being “out there” and an entity unto itself. The shark and deep water are, of course, indicative, metaphorical and representative of phobic fears. The three main characters, Brody, Hooper and Quint, also bring elements of Personal Shadow into the story arc. Each experiences his own “Shadow Journey” so to speak, as a result of confronting the External Shadow personified by the shark. The story is also marvelous in that it expresses the traditional hero myth or fairy tale form in a modern way that allows us to experience the fear and find the courage and fortitude to confront and deal with The Shadow.
Comedy & Tragedy: The Yin &Yang of The Shadow
The sad truth is that man’s real life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites-day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battleground. It always has been, and always will be; and if it were not so, existence would come to an end. — Carl Jung
Comedy & Tragedy is in every dramatist’s vocabulary. It should also be in every writer’s. A working perspective of The Shadow, or Shadow Content, sheds a new light on the concept of Aristotelian Comedy & Tragedy. And vice versa.
According to Aristotle’s Poetics, Comedy is “the story of the rise in fortune of an ordinary sympathetic character” while Tragedy “depicts the downfall of a basically good person through some fatal error or misjudgment, producing suffering and insight on the part of the protagonist, arousing pity and fear on the part of the audience.”
In other words, Comedy is the story of a sympathetic character whose life goes from bad to good with the element of protagonist wish-fulfillment, while Tragedy is the story of a sympathetic character’s life that goes from good to bad usually with tragic collateral damage. Comedy often, but not always, has a happy ending. Tragedy does not. But Comedy does not always mean “funny.” A Comedy can have tragic elements and make us weep, think Titanic or Gladiator, while a Tragedy can be darkly humorous, think Seven Psychopaths. In regards to Shadow Content and Comedy & Tragedy, we can look at it this way: in Comedy, the protagonist triumphs over Shadow Content, in a Tragedy the protagonist (and those around them) is destroyed by Shadow Content.
A Streetcar Named Desire-Tragedy
Working with the Shadow as a Writer
The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues. — William Shakespeare
First and foremost, a writer’s best friend is their Shadow. Get to know it, make friends, or at least allies, with it. However, refrain from falling in love with it. No one wants to read a writer’s personal self-indulgent Shadow rant. A writer’s job is to serve a story. A writer’s Shadow can and should inform the story, but not take over.
Second, get to know your character’s Shadow. When a writer knows a character’s innermost and intimate feelings, thoughts and impulses, that’s where the magic happens.
Third, avoid gratuitous Shadow. Shadow content that’s mean, violent or psychotic purely for the sake of itself, is not only boring, it is destructive, self-indulgent and dishonest. Dishonest because gratuitous Shadow has far more to do about the Shadow content of the writer, film creators and audiences of the genre, than it is of the actual story and/or the story’s character(s). Example: pornography, gornography or splatter.
Fourth, in opposition to the previous tip, avoid being “nice.” There’s no such thing as “nice.” Nice is also dishonest. Nice is a mask of the persona that hides Shadow content. Nice– and nice writing — often cover up flaws: pain, fear, shame, guilt and anger. But it also covers up attributes: passion, truth, beauty and love. “Nice” in story –and in life– is boring because without conflict nothing can happen. Find out what is underneath the desire to be “nice.” Is it a fear of expressing some truth or experience through writing story and character? Is it a revulsion toward an impulse or tendency in yourself, in a character? Or is it just plain loathsome to “kill your darlings?” When writers dispense with being “nice”, they are able to”stick-it” to their characters and suffer right along with them. It’s an uncomfortable — but honest — place to be when writing.
Fifth, is the story Comedy or Tragedy? Does Shadow or Light triumph? Understand why. Serve your character and story: it will let you know. All the writer needs to do is to get out of the way and let it happen.
A Writing Exercise
In closing, here is a writing exercise that is useful in opening up Shadow: yours and your characters. Write down three things — attributes, issues, vices etc. — you find personally offensive or repulsive. Choose a character you know, like or admire, from your own writing, or from another story or situation. Write an internal or external monologue with your character talking lovingly, passionately or positively about one, or all of the three things you personally find offensive or repulsive. You can do the reverse as well: three things you find personally rewarding and a character you like and admire talks about how they find those three things repulsive or morally offensive. This exercise begs for variety. For example, try it with a character (or person) you despise. This exercise is particularly useful in generating ideas or a more intimate and paradoxical dynamic between protagonistic and antagonistic perspectives.
The use of the writer’s Personal and Collective Shadow in writing ensures that the writer is not playing “nice” or “safe” and therefore character and story become honest and real.
If it doesn’t move the writer, it won’t move the reader.
Works Cited and Resources for the Writer
Aristotle. Trns., Sachs, J. Poetics. Newburyport: Focus Publishing R. Pullins Co. 2006.
Frager, R., Fadiman, J. Personality and Personal Growth. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.
6th Edition. 2005.
Jung, C-G., Ed. Shamdasani, S. The Red Book Liber Novus. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2009.
King, S. On Writing. New York: Pocket Books. 2000.
Peck, S. People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. New York:Touchstone. 1998.
von Franz, M-L. Shadow and Evil in Fairytales. Dallas:Spring Publications, Inc. 1987.
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