No human—or fictional character—is perfect. We all have our secrets, our faults, and our hidden weaknesses. In Jungian psychology, psychoanalyst Carl Jung called this hidden, unconscious, ego-driven weakness our “shadow selves”: a dark side of oneself that you may not understand or even recognize.
One of the Jungian archetypes, the shadow archetype shows up again and again in literature and other media, reflecting a character’s (or a group of people’s, via the collective unconscious) darkest true self. Here’s what you need to know and how to use this character archetype effectively in your own writing.
What is a shadow archetype?
The shadow archetype represents the dark side of the conscious mind. In literature, the shadow archetype can reflect the dark aspects of either an individual character or a larger group of characters. The shadow may be hidden within the main character or they may be another, separate character that fulfills this archetypal role.
The shadow archetype isn’t found in every single story, but it can really pull its weight when you have a main character or multiple main characters who need to face their inner demons. The shadow archetype character forces the other characters within the story to look inward and recognize their own flaws and how, just maybe, they’re not quite so different from the story’s villains. Even if they don’t admit it, the shadow archetype requires a character to eventually recognize, and make sense of, the evil within.
What makes a good shadow archetype character?
Shadow archetypes can take many forms. They can be internal to the main character, or may appear as something external: another character, an organization or group, animal, monster, etcetera. The main thing that makes a good shadow archetype a good shadow archetype is that it reflects the darker side of your hero or heroes.
Often, effective shadow archetypes are not, however, a story’s main villain. Your reader expects a villain to be evil; likewise, your main character will chalk up a villain’s evil behavior to the simple fact that they’re evil. This means there’s no room for self-reflection. The hero couldn’t possibly have anything in common with the villain. One’s good and the other’s evil!
But then, you introduce another character (or a hidden side of the main character). This figure has something in common with your hero, but they’re undeniably dark. This surprises your hero.
If this relatable character is dark, what’s to keep your hero from going to the dark side as well? In many stories that feature this archetype, your hero will be faced with a moral problem and need to make a firm choice—stay the path of righteousness or fall to the darkness, as the shadow character has done.
This is where the self-reflection comes in and the shadow archetype truly shines: helping your hero along their path of character development.
Developing your shadow archetype character
Before putting your shadow archetype character down on the page, take a few moments to really develop them and think about their purpose within the story. Don’t just throw a character into your fictional world and deem them the shadow character. Instead, craft the shadow character around your main character. What elements will make the strongest shadow for your hero?
Look at your hero’s traumatic past, existing flaws, deepest fears, most shameful moments, etc. What of these terrible parts of their psyche can you mine, in order to create a shadow character that will really challenge them?
Types of shadow archetypes
Beyond just the broad Jungian archetype, the shadow archetype includes a series of more specific types of shadows. Consider these sub-categories of shadow characters as you develop the right character for your story.
A tyrant makes a fitting shadow to contrast with a hero who’s either in a position of power, or someone who’s merely obsessed with control. The tyrant takes those (usually) benign qualities and makes them dark, going to malicious lengths to maintain power and control.
If your hero fits the rebel archetype, then you might give them an anarchist shadow. Unlike the rebel who typically has a just cause for their rebellion, the anarchist just wants chaos.
The seducer wants the shallow parts of a romantic relationship, but none of the deep intimacy. If you have a main character with a desire for true love (like in a romance novel, for example), the seducer might be a shadow that tempts them with all the surface-level benefits of romance.
While perfectionism can sometimes be viewed as a positive, when it comes to the shadow world, the perfectionist takes things to a next level. They’ll do anything for perfection, no matter how harmful to themselves or others.
A perfectionist would make a fitting foil character for a hero who is after a similar goal, allowing your hero to analyze their differences in approach and possibly leading them to wonder if they’re doing enough in contrast to the perfectionist.
The addict can be addicted to a variety of things, not just illicit substances. Maybe they’re addicted to attention, relationships, or power—for instance, a social media influencer addicted to external validation. Whatever the case may be, the addict is a good shadow character for a hero who can see the appeal of the addict’s addiction. Maybe the hero can recognize that they, too, would appreciate the numbing relief of substance abuse or, maybe, they’d like the distraction of an addiction to social media or fame.
How to show hero and shadow archetype parallels within your story
If the external shadow character represents your hero’s deepest, darkest flaws, how do you go about showing these flaws as you draft? After all, while readers do like relatable and flawed characters, they also want likable main characters that they can root for. Because of this, showing off how your hero relates to the shadow character without making them a dislikable jerk requires striking a fine balance.
There are a few ways you can do this.
Show how the darkness could fulfill your hero’s greatest needs
Every well-formed main character both wants and needs something. What they want and need will shape how your story progresses, and inform every action your main character takes. Consider presenting the shadow self as the answer to all your hero’s problems.
Take, for example, Walter White in the hit TV show Breaking Bad. At the start of the series, Walter and his family just need money. As an ordinary family man, he fulfills this need by producing and selling drugs. Walter recognizes this is wrong, but pushes this fact aside for the money.
However, as time goes on, Walter wants and/or needs more and more money—and the only way for him to get it is to fully dive into his internal shadow self, leaning into the previously hidden side of his psyche that’s ruthless, cold, and calculating.
Show your hero under stress
There’s nothing like a little bit of stress to really bring out someone’s bad side.
If you have a stand-alone shadow archetype character who’s impatient, angry, maybe even abusive on a regular basis, maybe those same traits begin to pop up gradually every time your main character is under stress. Similarly, if you shadow archetype character is an addict, you could show how your main character, when under stress, begins to lean a little too heavily on alcohol or recreational drugs.
Over time, though, as the plot continues and tensions rise, stress becomes greater and greater—meaning the similarities between the shadow archetype and the main character become more and more apparent.
Give the hero and shadow character similar goals
Taking this approach doesn’t necessarily mean that the two characters will be in conflict or competing against one another. Maybe they’re working toward individual goals that both can achieve without requiring the other to lose (like losing a certain amount of weight or kicking a bad habit).
Whatever the goal may be, if both the hero and the shadow character are working toward similar goals, then it’s just natural for your hero to begin wondering if they should adopt the shadow character’s methods if they want to win.
Examples of the shadow archetype in literature and popular culture
To best understand what the shadow archetype is, it’s easiest to look at a few examples from literature and similar media.
Gollum in The Lord of the Rings
In The Lord of the Rings, Gollum is a good example of a shadow character, contrasting against the assumed goodness of the hobbits.
Gollum (or, as he was previously known, Smeagol) was corrupted by the One Ring’s power and remains a visual representation of that corruption throughout the entire trilogy. As the story progresses, we, as readers, can draw parallels between Gollum and our main character and hero Frodo, as Gollum reflects the corruption that Frodo could easily fall prey to as well if he’s not careful.
Mr. Hyde in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde shows how a shadow archetype can be found even within your main character’s ego.
Yes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are the same person. However, because this character has two personalities living within them, we can designate one personality (the well respected scientist Dr. Jekyll) as the main character and hero, while recognizing that the other (Mr. Hyde) is the shadow archetype and darker version of the hero. Mr. Hyde represents all the suppressed villainy within Dr. Jekyll.
Hannibal Lector in Hannibal
While Hannibal Lector is, quite obviously, the villain in Silence of the Lambs, in a later book in the same series (simply titled Hannibal), Lector also takes on the role of a shadow archetype in juxtaposition to main character Clarice Starling.
Throughout the book, readers learn that both Starling and Lector have similarly bad pasts with traumatic childhood experiences. However, while Starling’s experiences have led her to a life fighting crime, Lector has turned into a serial killer. Over the course of this book, the common pasts and Starling’s obsession with Lector eventually draw out even more of their similarities, and consequences lead to Starling becoming completely consumed by her own shadow self and she goes over to the shadow archetype’s (Lector’s) side.
Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes universe
Like Mr. Hyde, Professor Moriarty is often considered a standard example of the shadow archetype within classic literature. In the Sherlock Holmes universe, Moriarty acts as Holmes’ equal adversary. Moriarty has the same intelligence and deductive skills, but uses them for criminal purposes rather than in pursuit of justice.
Scar in The Lion King
Scar’s shadow archetype characteristics can be particularly seen in the earlier parts of the movie, wherein Simba is proudly boastful and declares that he can do whatever he wants as lion royalty. He shares this flaw of pride and a love of power with his uncle, Scar; however, Scar takes this pride and love of power to a new level, overthrowing Mufasa.
Looking inward to find shadow archetype inspiration through shadow work
If you’re still having trouble deciding your shadow archetype character’s background, flaws, and relation to the hero, consider looking inward with some shadow work of your own. According to Jung, shadow selves exist in real life just as much as they do in fiction and we all have a dark shadow that embodies our own deepest secrets, fears, and flaws.
Shadow writing is often used in psychological or therapeutic exercises to help one address a personal shadow living beneath the conscious personality. However, this practice can also be used to inspire new story ideas or help you craft your story’s shadow archetype characters.
For help getting started, check out our list of more than 35 shadow writing prompts. You’ll learn more about your own autonomous shadow and maybe even discover some repressed ideas.
Expose your character’s internal struggle using the shadow archetype
Internal struggles are a big part of character development, but if you’re having difficulty highlighting your main character’s inner demons and personal growth, a shadow character can help.
From there, only one question remains: Will your hero fall to their inner demons, or rise victorious over their own psyche?