Shadow Characters – Part I

Psychiatrist Carl Jung, like Freud, defined the subconscious by breaking it down into separate “parts”.  In Jung’s breakdown, the Shadow self is the part of ourselves that we hide (or hope to hide) from others – things we’re ashamed of about ourselves, flaws, weaknesses, vulnerabilities – things we may not even want to admit to ourselves are the case.

In literature, it’s common to find characters who represent the shadow self of the protagonist, even when the author wasn’t consciously writing with that intent.  In high school, I took an awesome elective class on Shadow Literature, in which, essentially, we spent a semester psychoanalyzing books – not authors, books.  Ever since then, I’ve been finding shadow characters everywhere, and I notice the parallels and contrasts in my own characters and their experiences in a way I never did prior to that class.  At times, it’s just been fun to note, but sometimes it’s been extremely helpful in fleshing out characters, drawing out interesting dynamics between the characters, and/or providing intriguing role reversals in the storyline.

I’ve written here before about the importance of giving character traits a little balance – making it clear that your good guys aren’t perfect, bad guys aren’t pure evil, and keeping in mind that we’ve all got a little of our opposite within us.  It’s essential to making interesting characters.

What makes shadow so fun to play with is, you can externalize some of that opposite within and let it out.  Let me illustrate using Batman (hah!  I KNEW I’d get Batman into my blog somehow, someday!) and the Joker.  The thing that makes Batman my favorite superhero ever is the fact that he walks a razor’s edge between complete diabolical insanity and self-sacrificing heroism.  He’s a hero, but he’s always struggling to hold back his own demons, as well as the various super villains he comes up against in Gotham City.  Toward the innocent, he’s compassionate and philanthropic, but he’s a vigilante, using his own judgement as to who deserves punishment – and man, if Batman thinks somebody needs punishing, there is no compassion about him anymore.  He may manage to force himself to play by the rules of justice most of the time, but it’s often a struggle for him not to deal out retribution as he sees fit.  So you see, as a character, he already has an internal shadow clearly laid out (particularly in the graphic novels and the most recent wave of movies).

Now, where does the Joker come in?  The Joker’s favorite game to play with Batman is to point out how much alike he and Batman are, which, of course, Batman hates.  But in a way, the Joker’s right.  Batman is crazy.  He’s maladjusted, incapable of resolving his issues with the world, prefers to strive for his goals in an unconventional and unsanctioned way to actually working with the system that we “normal” people have to deal with….  Depending on what version of the Joker’s background you read (every graphic novel writer seems to have his own), there are often parallels or intersections of Batman’s back story and the Joker’s back story.  The Joker is a clear-cut shadow character – he represents everything Batman is afraid he might be, or might become, and everything Batman doesn’t want to admit about himself.  The thing is, Batman chooses not to become his shadow self, and the Joker revels in being what he is.  That choice is what makes them different.

It’s also important to note that Batman is also the Joker‘s shadow self.  The Joker mocks Batman’s heroism, and (again, depending whose version of the Joker’s back story you read) has spent so long ignoring his better instincts that they’ve essentially vanished.  The Joker does not want to be Batman, any more than Batman wants to be the Joker.  That’s why he loves to mess with Batman’s head every chance he gets.

Okay, I promise I’m done talking about Batman now.

There are lots of storylines in which the protagonist’s shadow character is his/her adversary (or at least is the antagonist).  There are others in which the shadow character is a friend or ally, or the relationship between the two shadow characters changes.  It’s crucial that shadow characters are connected through important similarities, such as strategic thinking, a parallel grief, a core tendency toward anger – deeply ingrained elements of personality.  If they have nothing in common, they aren’t shadow characters – they’re just opposites.  Anytime a character says, “No!  I’m not like you!” to his/her adversary, you probably have a case of shadow on your hands.

Long story short, there is a lot to be said about shadow characters, which is why I’m breaking this topic up into multiple posts.  More about shadow characters, and with different dynamics, next time!

For now, I’ll leave you with some pretty clear examples of shadow antagonist/protagonist teams:

  • Batman and the Joker, particularly in the graphic novel Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween and Haunted Knight, and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Probably the easiest and most clear-cut example of the shadow in all of literature
  • Gollum and Frodo in The Two Towers, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series – I say The Two Towers in particular because that’s where the two characters interact directly for the first time
  • Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books
  • FBI agent Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter in the film of Red Dragon (based on Thomas Harris’s novel, which is too gory and graphic for me to be able to read it, although I’ve tried)


On Tuesday, June 15th (this coming Tuesday), I’ll be guest blogging at Marian Allen’s Weblahg.  Marian Allen has three novels published for electronic format through Echelon Press, many short stories published in magazines and anthologies – some of which are available at Amazon.  She is also, I’m proud to say, my mom.  I’ll be posting about giving and getting critiques, and how to get the most out of your feedback, on her blog this Tuesday, so be there or be square!