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7 Aspects of a Shadow Protagonist


How well do you know your protagonist?

If your central characters are like many, you may have developed ideas about their desires, values, beliefs, and opinions. You may have even drawn up personal codes for them that dictate to some degree whether they are being ‘good’ people. If there is any one thing you can do as a writer, surely it is to establish who your main characters are, you might think.

The truth is, although this is common practice amongst writers, most of this is extraneous. You don’t need much of any of this kind of thing. What interests readers more than any fleshed-out code of conduct or value system for any invented character is how the character violates their own codes.

If you want to spend time working on this kind of thing, though, you can use it in an unexpected way to understand how your characters work and to progress your story along different lines entirely.

What do I mean? Well, ponder this for a second: have you ever been able to perfectly follow a moral code yourself? After the damage was done and the other people involved were hurt, you probably suffered some pain yourself. ‘Why did I say that?’ you might have asked yourself in frustration and incomprehension. If you look back over your life, you’ll probably find that the ‘plot twists’ or sudden changes that have occurred have much to do with either your violation of a moral code or another person’s violation of theirs.

It’s the same for protagonists. Stories are largely composed of moments when a protagonist does something which they would not normally have done and which in fact is the opposite of or destructive to their usual pattern of behaviour. From there, we get a plot going forward in a completely different direction to the one we might have been led to expect from the outward circumstances of a character’s life. You will probably have thought of a dozen examples by now, but just to take one: Pip, the main character in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, has his life very much laid out for him as the apprentice of a blacksmith in the desolate marsh country outside London. When a mysterious figure arrives to give him a strange choice about his future, he makes a decision which will totally alter his destiny, and one which provides us with a story.

Stories, then, are in part composed of violations of normal codes and expectations. Had Pip, or any other main character, decided to stick with the fate laid out for them at the beginning of the tale, there would be no tale.

But then it gets more interesting.

Just beneath the surface of this protagonist figure lies another character altogether. This is the shadow protagonist. This invented individual is very much like the protagonist but is someone who has made darker choices, either lacking the control of the main character upon whom he or she is modelled, or decidedly warping that character’s basic make-up. It is as though the protagonist had a different person lurking beneath the carefully constructed idea of who they are. This is quite Jungian, if we want to get philosophical about it. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote about the equivalent of this figure in human psychology:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognising the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.

— Carl Jung, Aion (1951)

Jung first coined the concept of the shadow to describe those aspects of the personality that we choose to reject and repress. For one reason or another, we all have parts of ourselves that we try to push down into our unconscious psyches.These repressed aspects of our identity Jung referred to as our shadow.

We are not necessarily aware of those parts of our personalities that we reject. According to Jung, we distance ourselves psychologically from those patterns of behaviour, those ‘dark’ emotions and ‘dangerous’ thoughts, and pretend that they do not exist. Destructive impulses, disturbing mental images, shameful experiences, unethical urges, odd fears, irrational desires and so on are a few examples of these psychological shadow aspects. As far as fiction is concerned, these are exactly the aspects portrayed by the shadow protagonists.

Great Expectations, for example, has two: the ugly, hulking and potentially murderous Orlick, who is taken on by Joe Gargery as an apprentice at the forge where Pip was expected to stay, who eventually attacks and maims Pip’s older sister, and the bullying, abusive Bentley Drummle, a ‘gentleman’, like the one Pip becomes after his training on London, but one who undermines the moral code of gentlemen and maltreats Estella, whom Pip loves.

We find the shadow protagonist often in other successful fiction: Gollum and Saruman, in The Lord of the Rings, Malfoy in the Harry Potter stories, Mordred in the tales of King Arthur. They are usually brutal, disaffected figures who align themselves with the antagonist in the story. They have the following characteristics in common, more often than not:

1. Harsh impulsive judgement of others.

2. A tendency to point out insecurities as flaws in others.

3. A quick temper and tendency to exercise power over another.

4. Portrayal of themselves as the ‘victim’ in any given situation, rather than admitting wrongdoing.

5. A lack of morality about achieving their own ends.

6. Hidden prejudices.

7. A messiah complex, whereby they try to ‘save’ others.

So a protagonist’s moral code, violated a little, instigates action in a story by creating a vacuum or gap between what we might have expected and what actually happens; violated a lot, it creates a separate identity, a character whose responses and motives are almost the opposite of the protagonist.

If we flip the moral code entirely upside down, and draw up its reverse, we have the outline of an antagonist.

Fiction enables these factors to be considered imaginatively. It is not as though Pip physically splits into Orlick or Bentley Drummle in the story, but on a psychic level having these characters interact, we are witness to a psychological drama which in reality plays out in our own hearts:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


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