Writing, Character development and the ‘Human Shadow’.

‘The gems of our personality lie trapped  within our Shadow.’ 

Robert Bly – ‘Iron John’

Before we begin to address the powerful dynamic that prevents the majority of people from venturing into careers or ‘callings’ we need to take a look at that elusive Jungian archetype known as the ‘Shadow’.

 The shadow is possibly the most powerful and pervasive aspects of the human psyche and, as the term implies, it is a part of us all that lies hidden in the depths of the subconscious. Ignored, unexplored and often totally unknown, yet capable of disrupting our lives in sudden, destructive outbursts of energy that leave us and those around us baffled.

Sometimes this powerful archetype works on a more subtle level, poisoning friendships and negating opportunities with its ability to undermine our reason, confidence and self-esteem. The shadow often harbors all those barely conscious aspects of ourselves that we dislike and find impossible to accept, the murky secrets we cannot admit to, even to ourselves. It may comprise of qualities that we hate in ourselves and have tried to root out, only to see them come back with a vengeance when we least expect it.

When we are young we may have been forced to suppress many of our normal, healthy emotions and feelings. If our parents or care-takers refused to allow us our anger, grief, spontaneity, joy or sexuality, then much of these natural energies may be distorted, repressed and locked within the shadow.

These powerful energies may be repressed and controlled for long periods of time but if they are suppressed indefinitely they can take on a life of their own and ultimately work against us. They can lie dormant and festering for years before exploding outwards in self-destructive behaviors that can ruin friendships, destroy careers and leave us wondering who we actually are. If we continue to ignore or reject these natural instincts, we may inevitably be forced to pay a costly penalty.

Compulsive obsessive behaviors, all kinds of addictions, irrational rages, loss of energy, depressions, suicidal thoughts, dependencies and chronic despair are all symptoms of an out of control shadow.

But what is less well known about this powerful archetype is that it also contains and conceals many of our most positive qualities, often relegated to the unconscious in confrontations with authority figures in childhood. These suppressed parts frequently hold the joy, spontaneity and childlike nature of what Sigmund Freud referred to as – ‘das wunderkind’ – the wonder child – which in turn holds the key to our innate creativity, our authentic selves, our soul, our purpose in life, our ‘calling’.

In the movie world, one of the most dramatic personifications of the shadow was Darth Vader (a pun on Dark Father) of the Star Wars Trilogy.  An extreme, archetypal figure representing the dark or shadow side of patriarchy. Remorseless, unforgiving and unreachable as he urges his only son to join him on the dark path of unfeeling, demonic intellectual control, in the service of the evil Empire.

Who can forget the scene where Darth Vader urged his own son, “Come over to our side Luke, the power is incredible!” But Luke Skywalker refused. He was a Jedi warrior engaged in his own heroic journey and committed to the transcendent side of the Life Force. Therefore he chose the power of the heart, the classical hero’s choice.

In the third episode – The Return of the Jedi – Darth Vader himself is redeemed when, realizing the error of his ways, he returns to his heart and his humanity when he sacrifices his own life to save that of his son.

We last see him as a ghostly figure, reunited with the other Jedi warriors, hovering over Luke, guiding and protecting him from beyond the grave for in finally rejecting the dark path by sacrificing his life he has transcended both life and death.

Another classic tale of the shadow is Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which depicts a good man struggling with the darkest aspects of his own psyche. In this case however, Dr. Jekyll, whilst tinkering with forces beyond his ken is led by Mr. Hyde down an ever darker path, until eventually he is taken over completely and destroyed by the evil excesses of his alter ego. The message here is clear, the shadow needs to be exposed but it also needs to be tamed and disciplined. Our shadows are vital forces that must be brought out into the light of day or they can destroy us.

People who act out in compulsive obsessive behaviors such as alcoholism, drug addiction or compulsive over eating, are clear examples of an out of control shadow and obviously have major problems.  But there are many others who are less visible, people who are crippled by doubt, fear or shame, suffer endless depressions or talk of suicide.  Or others who get carried away by monetary success, abuse their power or becomes totally self-centered or self-seeking whilst ignoring the needs of others, have also been overwhelmed by their own shadows.

Character development depends as much, if not more, on the writer’s understanding of this powerful yet hidden dynamic, and every writer worth their salt must be prepared to examine their own hidden drives and yearnings if they are to successfully convey the power that this archetypal energy generates in their protagonists consciousness.

But it is also vital to remember that the shadow also contains and conceals our greatest talents and abilities, gifts that we will finally be able to integrate and harness as we unearth and explore what Robert Bly referred to as the ‘Gold of the Shadow’.

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Author: Books by Brian O'Raleigh

Brian O’Raleigh's family hailed from Inis Mór and he's had a lifelong love of the island. He is a published author and poet. His first book 'The Boy in the Boat received critical acclaim and his new work 'The Storyteller of Inis Mór' has been praised by the Irish Press in Australia. ""O’Raleigh’s book - ‘The Storyteller of Inis Mor’ - reminds me of the great Irish writers such as Sean O’Faolain and Benedict Kiely.” Frank O’Shea. Literary critic. Australian Irish Echo.

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