Character Archetypes: The Shadow

They say all good things must come to an end, and here we are at #8 of the Character Archetypes. This series is (was, small tear here) a breakdown of the main Character Archetypes of basic story structure.

Our character today is a fun one, but I find them difficult to write. He’s known as The Shadow. (Dun, dun, DUNNNN!)

This is almost always your antagonist, but there’s a lot more that goes into him than simply making him thwart the hero at every turn. He’s called the shadow for a reason. He is a reflection of the weaknesses and darker parts of the hero himself. This makes the mission of your hero much more difficult.

One of the things to consider when crafting this character is that with a few different turns along the way, your hero could become the shadow himself. It’s likely that your hero might have to embrace a few of these traits before overcoming the shadow and completing his quest.

I cover things better with examples, so here we go. The oldest one I could think of at 6:00am while I’m writing this is Aesop’s The Grasshopper and The Ant. There are many similarities. They’re both insects, the story takes place in a virtual Garden of Eden, and they both enjoy nature’s bounty. However, the grasshopper likes to have a good time. He fiddles and dances all summer long after filling his belly wherever it’s convenient. The ant tucks away everything he can like a character from Game of Thrones, because Winter is Coming.

Another older, but wonderful example is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The similarities are that they’re the same person. (If this was a spoiler, I don’t know what to tell you.) Everyone has multiple faces they show the world, and this book dives deep into that. Hyde is the grasshopper to Jekyll’s ant.

Lisa Burton

This angle really came to the forefront in Star Wars. They hit it with a ten-pound sledgehammer, to be honest. The Force has its Dark Side. Luke could easily be seduced by the Dark Side, becoming the next Darth Vader. And just in case anyone in the audience missed it, Vader was Luke’s father. (Seriously, if these are spoilers you need to get out more.)

Nazi propaganda worked on the flip-side of this Shadow concept. Maybe the villain can become the hero. If the war had gone differently, what perspective would we have today?

Star Wars tried to touch on this, too, but I don’t think they did it all that well. Vader is the one who saves Luke’s bacon at the end of the day. (Oh yeah, it might be a spoiler.)

You can still be creative here. This isn’t a recipe card. Rowling made Harry and Voldemort extremely similar. Then she pulled off some kind of triple-lutz move and it was Voldemort who planted those traits inside Harry in the first place. (Seriously, the last movie came out in 2011, and the books are even older than that.)

One of the fun things you can do is take a sheet of paper, then draw a line down the middle. On the left side write down some traits of your hero. On the right side jot down the shadow, or opposing trait. After you’ve done this you might have a pretty good idea of what your antagonist is going to be like. You might even turn the page and jot down a few notes about how these two could clash in some vignettes that may, or may not, actually happen in your story.

Your hero should have a few flaws, and it’s okay if the antagonist has some good points that also reflect these flaws. It makes them both more believable. Maybe your street savvy hero picks up the occasional street walker. Your villain has sent several working girls to college, even if he’s recruiting them to work within his organization.

Some of you might be saying, “Oh, but Craig, we remember Staci’s excellent series about basic plots. What do you do about Man vs. Monster, or those stories about survival in the wilderness?”

In these stories you explore the shadow from a psychological standpoint of your main character. You’ll find yourself dealing with mental twists and turns that might involve depression, rage, fear, and other concepts. Giving up, giving in, going back, are all possibilities to explore. Your hero is a good guy, but that velociraptor bite has put him off his game for a while.

I love characters, and this was a good series for me to present. It ties in with the earlier series I wrote called That Hero’s Journey Monomyth Thingie. It also ties in with Staci’s series about Basic Plots. Rather than turn everything into a huge obnoxious page of links, I’m going to encourage you to use our search tool at the bottom of the page. Type in “Monomyth” or “Basic Plots,” even “Character Archetypes.” They’re all available whenever you need them.

I hope you enjoyed the series, maybe thought about how you can use it to develop your characters a little. Now I’m going to ask all of you a question. What do you want to see next?

44 thoughts on “Character Archetypes: The Shadow

  1. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 3: Character | Story Empire

  2. Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:

    There are so many examples of this character archetype. It makes for a great discussion. Head over to Story Empire to read this fascinating post by C. S. Boyack. Here’s some of my examples: Gollum and Frodo (the former on his own too), Two-face, Joker and Batman, Spiderman and Anti-Venom just to name a few. I’ve got a main character who struggles with this at some level.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You know, Craig, I believe I created a shadow just like this in my new book and I didn’t even know there was such a concept. Well, I am sure I have read it in plenty of books, but I was consciously aware of it. Now I shall re-read this post before my next writing session and see if I can make any improving tweaks to my characters. A great series.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This was a great series with a great close. Have to say I really enjoyed your “spoiler” asides, LOL.
    I agree with Joan that my favorite hero and shadow characters are those who cross traits….a bit of good and bad in each of them makes for excellently flawed and believable characters!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A great ending to your series. A neat idea to draw a line and list the hero’s good qualities then list the flip side of those for the antagonist. I’ve never tried that. I know you asked for ideas for what I’d like next, but those are hard to come by. Sorry. I’m no help here:)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I honestly think working with the shadow side of characters is my favorite part, and it’s the most challenging. It’s my personality to see the good in everyone and I have to dig a little deeper to discover the dark side. This has been a GREAT series, and thank you for presenting it. You gave us a lot to chew on!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Sounds like foil characters, but with a specifically dark element. Bilbo and Gollum came to mind for me…which later becomes more like Frodo and Gollum. The shadow that changes who it is shadowing…

    Thanks for the interesting post! I’ll have to check out the rest of this series.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There was shadowing in those stories. Gollum was a creature much like a hobbit. Good wizard/bad wizard. Orcs were elves once, etc. Hope you enjoy the rest of the series, and thanks for commenting today.


  8. This series was fantastic! I’ve enjoyed every post. You cracked me up with this one. And I agree with you – if anyone hasn’t read those stories, then they seriously need to pick up more books. Lol! The book that I have with my editors has a small shadow archetype in it. I may go back and flush it out a bit more now that I’ve read this. Thanks for this great series, Craig. I can’t wait to see what you share with us next. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thanks for the shout out, Craig. I was going to complain that you ruined Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for me, but after you said such nice things about my Basic Plot posts, I can’t do it. (BTW, your Game of Thrones/ant/Winter is Coming analogy was brilliant.)

    I loved this post and this series. You really have a handle on character archetypes, and you explained them all clearly and gave excellent examples. I think the Shadow might be my favorite of them, simply because the juxtapositioning of two strong characters who in some ways mirror each other yet have polarizing paths or goals is a fascinating one to me.

    Great job. Sorry to see this series end.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Start the week off right with a stop by Story Empire to check out Craig Boyack’s last post in his fabulous Character Archetype series. Today, he talks about the Shadow, and it’s well worth the visit to learn more about this intriguing character. Hope you’ll enjoy the post as much as I did, and will consider passing it along far and wide, so others can find out more, too. Thanks, and thanks to Craig for this excellent post in a truly interesting series! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I have thoroughly enjoyed this series on archetypes, Craig. I think you’ve done an excellent job of describing the traits of each one and how we can best utilize them in our writing. It’s a topic I never thought about before but I’ve saved the links to each of these posts, because I’m sure thinking about it now! I’m definitely going to miss the series, but I look forward to whatever you’ll come up with next. Well done! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  12. I enjoyed this series. Of course, I’m thinking now. “The shadow knows…” I do like the idea of the antagonist having a few good points as well as the hero having some negative traits. No one is perfect, so neither should your hero be. And having an antagonist with some good points keeps readers guessing.

    Liked by 3 people

    • “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men…” I looked for a graphic that I could use for free, but The Shadow wasn’t available. Lisa Burton said I could count on her, so there we are. I tried some of this with Nootropic Faber. He doesn’t reflect the protagonists quite so much, but he has a few good traits, even if he twists them up a bit.

      Liked by 2 people

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