How to Create Insanely Complex Characters Using “Shadow Theory”

Complex characters are the beating heart of good fiction. The simplest and most effective ways to engineer this complexity is to create contrast, and one of the most intuitive tools a writer can use for identifying which contrasting elements are organic to any given character or story situation is… shadow theory.

The “shadow” is a term coined by C.J. Jung to describe aspects of the personality that remain in the dark of the unconscious. These are aspects of the self that are repressed or perhaps even denied. They are aspects we often do not even recognize as part of our personalities. They may be aspects we think of as “bad” (such as anger), but may also be things we might generally consider to be “good” (such as power).

We start putting aspects of ourselves into the shadow when we are very young. As we instinctively decide—and are molded to choose by the world around us—which traits are valuable for our survival and success, we begin both to shape our conscious personalities and our correspondingly unconscious shadows. For example, we may learn early on that a quick temper doesn’t get us what we want in social situations, in which case our personality is molded around diplomacy while our rage goes into the shadow. However, we may also shape ourselves around less functional ideas. For example, if someone discovers their beauty attracts the wrong kind of attention, the personality may take on traits focused on blending in, while the person’s confidence in their attractiveness goes into the shadow. Emotions of all sorts, if we feel shame or fear of expressing them, often end up in the shadow.

Very often, we identify with our conscious personalities to the point that we believe this is all we are. As a result, we tend to experience our shadows rather like young children playing peekaboo. The children cover their eyes and giggle while the adults dutifully gasp, “Where did you go?!” The children believe that what they can’t see is, in fact, invisible. The shadow can sometimes feel like that. We can’t see it, so it must not be there. And yet, everything we stuff into our shadows is still a part of us. Often, it comes bursting out when we least expect, creating behaviors that “just aren’t like us.” Sometimes we might even say, “That’s not me.”

Shadow work is a deep practice designed to reacquaint us with these lost parts of ourselves and to reintegrate their hidden gifts and power.  (The Enneagram is a great tool for helping with this work.) Even seemingly negative traits such as anger, when banished to the shadow, take with them some of our innate power. Just as importantly, when we consciously reclaim these parts of ourselves, we bring them back into the light of our awareness where we can choose when and how to implement them in our lives, instead of being governed by them as unconscious impulses.

What Is Shadow Theory?

So how can this help you write complex characters? Simply in understanding the shadow as a psychological concept, you can use it to bring depth to your characters’ inner journeys. There’s a little trick I like to use that makes it quite simple to figure out exactly what is in the shadow—your characters’ or anyone else’s.

I call this trick shadow theory, and it’s simply this: whatever is visible in a person’s external personality is an indication that the exact opposite resides in the shadow.

For instance, let’s examine two potential characters. Let’s say one is obviously stoic, tough-as-nails, and acerbic. Shadow theory says that what this person is holding back in the unconscious is therefore emotion, fear, and tenderness. Another character may be obviously cheerful, self-sacrificing, and needy, indicating that what the person does not want to acknowledge in the shadow is sadness, selfishness, and independence.

In these instances, you can see right away why people usually want to identify with their conscious personalities and disassociate from the seemingly “negative” shadow that corresponds. However, apart from the fact that these “negative” shadow qualities are still there, no matter how repressed, it’s important to recognize they have also taken with them half the power and effectiveness of the idealized traits showcased in the external personality.

Creating Character Arcs

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

Because character arcs are usually explorations of how people may reclaim parts of themselves to become more whole, exploring the shadow is fertile ground for any story. You can leverage the polarity of any conscious personality trait and its unconscious shadow trait to create instant and deeply organic inner conflict for your characters.

The more characters identify with a conscious personality trait, the more the corresponding shadow looms large. It’s a simple fact: the bigger something is, the bigger the shadow it casts. In fact, the more “possessed” a character’s ego becomes by a personality trait, the more obviously the shadow will become the motivating factor—to the point that everyone around the character may recognize the shadow trait even if the character insistently denies it, as when a person screams, “I AM NOT ANGRY!”

I am reminded of Spencer Tracy’s line from Bad Day at Black Rock:

You’re not only wrong. You’re wrong at the top of your voice.

When that happens, that’s the shadow talking.

The Shadow Holds Good Stuff Too

Thanks to its name, the shadow is often correlated with negative traits. However, it bears repeating that the shadow is not an inherently negative aspect of the psyche. So much good stuff resides in the shadow—not just dangerous qualities that need to be rehabilitated, but also potentially such traits as self-esteem, empowerment, strength, gentleness, curiosity, vitality, even joy. Anything that felt unsafe to us early in our lives when our personalities were forming may have been banished, in part or in whole, to the shadow.

However, even the obviously good bits in the shadow can get cranky after being left in the dark for years, even decades. Learning to reintegrate all lost pieces of ourselves in a way that is safe for our own expression and respectful of others is a deeply rewarding journey, but one that often moves us into the cautionary spaces of our inner maps where “here be dragons.”

6 Questions to Help You Discover Your Character’s Shadows

Hopefully, you can already see the immediate applicability of shadow theory in sussing out your characters’ secrets, wounds, and potential growth arcs. To help you get started, here are six questions you can ask about your characters to hone in on their shadows. Remember: in asking about an obvious externalized trait, you will always find the hidden shadow trait in its polar opposite.

1. What Is Your Character’s Greatest Strength?

Functional personalities are built around a person’s strengths. This means you can look to your character’s corresponding weaknesses to discover what’s in the shadow.

For example, if a character identifies primarily as smart, athletic, helpful, funny, or dependable, then corresponding shadow weaknesses to explore would include fears or denials of the parts of the character that are ignorant, clumsy, dispensable, awkward, or selfish.

Pride and Prejudice 2005 Elizabeth and Darcy Pemberley

In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet identifies strongly with her own intelligence and keen perception—only to be blindsided by revelations of her mistaken presumptions about Mr. Darcy, as well as her hypocritical prejudice against him.

2. What Is Your Character’s Greatest Weakness?

Although we usually try to identify with our strengths, almost everyone is also hyper-conscious of several aspects of ourselves we consider to be weaknesses. However, these weaknesses can often shine a light on corresponding strengths we’ve banished to the shadow, usually out of fear of fully showing up in some way.

For example, a character who identifies with the weaknesses mentioned above—feeling unintelligent, clumsy, unneeded or easily overlooked, socially awkward, or selfish—might be hiding in their shadow their corresponding talents and capabilities.

In Nope, OJ’s social awkwardness makes him terrible at running his family’s business of supplying stunt horses to movie producers, but it hides the shadow strength of a deep intuitiveness and attention to the natural world—which becomes a superpower when pitted against a monster from space.

3. What Is Your Character’s Strongest Conviction?

What’s the one thing your character could go off on a rant about at a moment’s notice? Particularly take note of any topic about which the character will brook no argument. To the degree a character is open-minded or willing to consider another viewpoint, their convictions are likely not pointing to corresponding shadows. But if the character refuses to entertain the opposite view, this may point to a corresponding shadow within the character.

Sometimes this contrast can be utterly hypocritical (e.g., a minister preaching the 7th Commandment who keeps a secret mistress), but it may also be driven by a semi-conscious sense of shame or guilt (e.g., a veteran doing humanitarian work to “pay for” the lives he’s taken in war).

St. John Rivers, in Jane Eyre, is a passionately devoted missionary who wishes to spread God’s love—and yet he refuses to acknowledge his own capacity for love, instead proposing a loveless marriage to his cousin Jane to avoid any distractions from his holy mission.

4. What Is Your Character’s Biggest Fear?

The biggest bogey-man in anyone’s life is almost always the one who lives in that person’s own shadow. When we learn to face and conquer the shadow monsters, what we fear in the real world often turns out to be less capable of hurting us than we always thought. Often, this because what we thought was the monster in the shadows was, in fact, the very lost piece of ourselves we needed to face the outer antagonist. (Talk about the perfect opportunity to unite a story’s inner and outer conflict!)

Although you can, of course, go specific with this one (e.g., a character who fears commitment may, in fact, find a shadow capacity for tremendous loyalty), any fear will always indicate that what is in the shadow is personal empowerment. If a character is afraid, it is because they have put a piece of their own power into the shadow—and must reclaim it in order to face the fear.

In Secondhand Lions, untrusting Walter, who’s greatest fear is being abandoned by those who profess to love him, finds within himself the courage and loyalty to be the one to refuse to betray and abandon his great-uncles.

5. Who or What Is Your Character Most Likely to Vilify?

Who does your character hate? Who are they most likely to blame for everything wrong in the world? Although this hated person may be a specific person within the story, also consider the generalities this person may represent. What stereotype is your character hating in the other person? Very often a shadow of this same vilified trait will exist within your protagonist. This is the essence of the advice to “make your antagonist a mirror of your protagonist” in some way.

For example, if your antagonist is a school bully, your cowardly protagonist may discover in herself a latent desire to exert power over others. Indeed, all the archetypal shadow pairs I talk about in my book Writing Archetypal Character Arcs—including Coward and Bully as the shadows of the Hero—always indicate this latent tendency  of within one another. Therefore, the character who identifies as a bully may also, in fact, be hiding his own terrifying cowardice in his shadow.

In Schindler’s List, Oskar fights against the genocidal Nazis, and yet he himself is a businessman who starts out caring only about what functionality and profit he can grind out of his workers.

6. Who or What Is Your Character Most Likely to Revere?

Finally, flip the last question and examine who your character idolizes. Who does your character most want to be? Although your characters might not have the capacity to immediately fill their heroes’ shoes, they are likely already projecting many of their own strengths and good qualities out of their shadow and onto this person. Alternatively, they may realize the specific status symbols they admire about this person are representative of positive traits they already have access to within themselves—just in a different way.

For example, a character who longs to be beautiful and idealizes the school’s popularity queen may be either devaluing her own unique beauty or may realize the traits she truly values as beautiful are already latent within her.

In Ms. Marvel, Kamela Khan eats, sleeps, and breathes her idol Captain Marvel, until she follows her own growth arc to claim her own unique heritage of heroism and power.


Shadow work is important for writers; inevitably, this is the work we do upon our own characters in every story we write. Using the quick trick of “shadow theory” to identify the polarities within your characters and bring out the dramatic potential of these powerful contrasts is an incredible tool for deepening your characterizations.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we talk about “5 Ways to Use Your Character’s Shadows to Power Your Story.”

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What shadows are you exploring in your own complex characters? Tell me in the comments!

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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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  • May 22, 2023