Shadows in Story Structure

I was fortunate to have as a mentor a story editor who was a Jungian. We had a number of discussions about the Jungian concept of the shadow and its importance to writers, which I hope to capture here. But first let me just point out the Shadows that feature in my Healer’s Shadow trilogy are not Jungian shadows. Are you sometimes surprised and ashamed by your own behaviour? Do you say “I don’t know what came over me. It was so unlike me…”? Do you sometimes take an immediate dislike to a complete stranger? Now don’t lie – of course you do, we all do.

So what’s happening? And how is this relevant to the storyteller’s art? What is happening is that your shadow is showing itself. According to Carl Jung, who coined the phrase: Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. As children we learn (and are taught by our parents and society) that certain behaviours are unacceptable and these we repress – jealousy, prejudice, anger, greed, certain sexual fantasies. They haven’t gone away, they have been thrust into the subconscious and form our shadows. They stay in the dark waiting to burst forth. They do this in our dreams, at times of stress and as projections on to others. So when we say, “It was so unlike me,” alas that isn’t true, it is like us, because our shadow is part of us, but we are blind to it.

Firstly the tension between the subconscious shadow and our conscious projected selves is at the heart of drama. The shadow could be said to be the hero’s fatal flaw. Remember that the shadow emerges at times of stress and inevitably that means that it will appear when our protagonists are under pressure. These outbursts put the protagonist in danger, as it does for example, with a heroine who keeps falling for dangerous men. Or at the very least they will result in the protagonist hurting those who love her. An understanding of the shadow helps us to create fully formed characters and to place them in danger. In some books the conflict between the shadow and the conscious self is externalized – most obviously in Jekyll and Hyde and The Wizard of Earthsea.

Secondly the encounter with the shadow is part of the story structure. Jung’s analysis of myths and fairytales, which informed his development of the shadow, was further developed by Joseph Campbell in his seminal book The Hero With A Thousand Faces and this in turn was popularized in Christopher Vogler’s. The Hero’s Journey is divided into a series of key stages, in which the encounter with the hero’s shadow is core. The reasons for this are various. Maturity requires an acknowledgement of the shadow within us, so facing the shadow is part of the hero’s maturation. The shadow can contain not only negative aspects but also one’s true potential and so the hero gains the treasure that he seeks. Furthermore our antagonist and our protagonist are linked psychologically. As one can project on to others elements of one’s own shadow, so an antagonist is likely to display elements of the protagonist’s shadow, and when the hero confronts the antagonist he is confronting his own shadow at least in part.

Thirdly I have spoken so far only about the individual’s shadow, but civilizations also have shadows. These collective shadows express themselves through wars and persecutions of minorities. We carry within us a mix of our personal shadow and the collective darkness. It is the reason why we can behave so out of character when in a group. If your novel is concerned with such matters, it helps to understand this. The shadow then is central to conflict in any story. I was hugely excited when I discovered this truth and I hope this post helps you understand the shadow better.

A version of this article first appeared on the now defunct Indie Exchange website.