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 str