The Shadow in Fiction (Part I)

Carl Jung theorized that the archetypal Shadow is the reservoir for human darkness. It is also the seat of creativity. Fiction writers: are you paying attention? Getting to know the Shadow can help us create and understand our protagonists, ramp up conflict and dramatic tension, and generally make our stories more compelling by imbuing them with depth, resonance, and meaning.

So, what is the Shadow?

Jung theorized three levels of the Shadow complex:

1. The Personal Shadow
2. The Cultural Shadow
3. The Archetypal Shadow

The Personal Shadow is flipside of the “persona,” which is the public fa├žade we use to hide the nasty or shameful parts of ourselves. The Shadow is the thing you have no wish to be. It’s often the first thing that comes up in therapy. Our Shadow characteristics are stowed away in the dark places of our being: the “despised quarter.” 

Until we come to terms with our Personal Shadow, we’re at great risk of “projecting” it onto others, or unknowingly acting it out. The psyche gives us a hint about where our Personal Shadow lies by picking out people whom we despise with irrational force. Think of someone you don’t know that well, that disgusts you. What aspects of this person’s being do you despise, specifically? 

Yes? Well, these are most likely your own Shadow characteristics projected onto that person.

Another nifty human behavior related to the Personal Shadow is enactment: think of homophobic preachers or politicians who rail against homosexuality, then get caught acting out the very behavior they’ve been railing against in the most blatant and outrageous ways imaginable. 

Crazy, right? Well, this is deep, powerful stuff.

The more conscious we are of our own Shadow, the less likely we are to unknowingly project or enact it. Jung believed that coming to terms with your own Shadow is key step in becoming a whole person. He called the process of confronting and incorporating our Personal Shadow individuation

The Cultural Shadow is the dark side of the society you grew up in. America the Beautiful, land of liberty, freedom, and opportunity, right? Well, what about the extermination of Indians? Slavery? McCarthyism? Unnecessary preemptive wars fought for oil or ideology? Fracking, strip-mining, oil spills, the wholesale decimation of natural environment? These are examples of our very own Cultural Shadow.

The Archetypal Shadow is even more powerful than the previous two, and it’s really the part of the complex that is most interesting for writers. It’s the deep resonance of the dark side. Our most profound, primal fears.

Does everyone know about the collective unconscious? It’s an ENORMOUS field of energy, much greater and more powerful than the ego. The ego is like a cork bobbing on the collective unconcious. And it’s all inside us. We feel like it’s outside us, but it’s not.

The Archetypal Shadow dwells within this field: unspoken, unspeakable, indescribably bad. It’s Satan, the Dark Side, serial killers, the banality of evil, Hitler, Stalin. It doesn’t have to have a name. It’s the monster in the closet. 

To be continued . . . 
Click here to read Part II of this post, where we examine the powerful ways the Shadow can be made manifest in fiction -- with a focus on novels intended for younger readers: Lord of the Rings, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Hunger Games, and The Golden Compass
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