Using Your Shadow Self to Become a Better Writer

What if I told you that you could be a better writer by accepting all the “unacceptable” parts of yourself? That by doing so, you could write better rounded characters, utilize settings, develop your voice, and tap into a bottomless pool of creativity.

To start this blog post, I want to give you a writing exercise. This will be self work, so it’s important to ground yourself before you start this. If you meditate, you’ll know a little about how to ground yourself, but it can be as simple as lighting a candle and breathing for a few minutes.

I like to imagine cords digging into the earth from my root chakra. I imagine tree roots spreading from me and holding me fast to the earth. Depending on the self work I’m about to undergo, sometimes I imagine little grappling hooks extending from each root to secure me. As I take on this self work exercise with you, I’m going to use those grappling hooks.

We’re about to dip into our shadow self.

*Note: It’s extremely important to go into this with self compassion. Remember, you are only human. You are worthy of compassion and forgiveness. We ALL have a shadow. Do your best not to judge yourself and you’ll come out of this with a better understanding of yourself. You’ll come out of this with more self love. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re a writer. One thing we writers have in common is our inner critic. While this is only a small exercise, your inner critic can make this a huge thing. Don’t be afraid to seek support afterward if you need it.

*Think about what qualities irritate you about others.

For me, a big one is attention seekers. The way they’ll do anything to get attention, even at the expense of someone else. How they lie and exaggerate circumstances to get the spot light. How they fish for compliments even if it means provoking. How they pretend to not know how to do something so someone will pay attention. How they use their bodies and words as suggestions for attention.

*Do you see these characteristics in yourself? Be honest. Dig deep.

Yes. I can get extremely uncomfortable when I want attention I’m not getting. I get jealous and depressed. I get angry when my achievements are not recognized or someone else tries to take even the slightest credit for them. I want the world to know when something bad or good as happens right away. I’m not this way all of the time, mainly when my self esteem is feeling low.

*How has this trait affected your life?

For me, I’ve begun to face this specific trait. There are others I have yet to explore, but this one in particular, I’ve traced back to the beginning. Before I faced it, it affected every aspect of my life. The way I shaped my persona, the way I wrote, the way I interacted in friendships. It’s easy to feel shame with my actions, but like I said, self compassion is important. Attention seeking is a trait of children. we expect it from them. To face why I acted like this was to grow up. Do I still see this trait in myself? Of course. I’m human. Growing up meant I could pin point when I felt this trait bubbling to the surface. It meant I could analyze why I felt like this and stop any reactions. As a human, I still make mistakes.

As a human, you still make mistakes. Emotions will still get the better of you, like it does me. Like it does the Pope.

Welcome to The Shadows

Now that we’ve done a small exercise and dipped our toes in murky water, lets take a look at the shadows.

We were born a clean slate. As we grew, we were shaped by our society, our family. As children, we felt and displayed all the emotions of being human. Happiness, rage, greed, empathy. The people around us, the media we were subjected to, taught us what was acceptable and what wasn’t. As a result, we began to suppress all the emotions that were deemed “bad”.

Note: Each society is different, so what’s labeled “bad” in one, could be labeled “good” in another.

All of these “bad” traits formed our shadow selves. They are mostly in our unconscious, but the more we try to suppress them, the more they come out. We don’t always know when it comes out but when we catch it, it can be startling. When we say things we didn’t mean to say, or do something that is so out of character we find ourselves thinking, “Where did that come from?”. Even our facial expressions reveal our shadow selves.

The reason for the writing exercise in the beginning was to show you how the shadow self can materialize. We actually begin to see these traits we suppress in others. We judge people for these “bad” traits because we’ve ignored our own actions. The attention seeking for me? It bothers me much less now than before I owned up to it. I understand why people do it on a level that allows me to not only forgive them, but forgive myself, too.

Seeing these traits, the ones we deny in ourselves,has a term. Projection. We project onto others the things we’ve buried deep inside us. This doesn’t happen with effort. We do it automatically. All humans do. The problem with it, though, is we end up distorting reality. We can’t see how we behave because our personas (the way we view our self and the way we want the world to view us) have veiled our perception of reality.

Facing Our Shadow

Believe it or not, facing all the “bad” parts of us can help. It creates a more well rounded person. This doesn’t mean you need to indulge your shadow self. You don’t have to become bad people. You just have to be self aware. You get to be more understanding. You get to have deeper relationships. You get to forgive mistakes easier. You get to be healthier, because you’ve faced all the baggage.

You liberate yourself.

You do this by doing the exercise above numerous times. You watch how you react in emotionally charged events. You pay attention to yourself and you shine light on the shadow.

When we project onto other people, it doesn’t mean that these people aren’t doing the things we’re seeing. They most certainly are in most circumstances. The trick is, we wouldn’t wouldn’t notice them so much if we weren’t suppressing the same traits within us. It wouldn’t bother us so much if we weren’t in denial about our own similar actions.

I’ll post some resources below to help you uncover your shadow self.

Tapping Into Your Creativity

Writing is one of the healthy outlets to our darker sides. As I’ve said, everyone has a darker side, so your reader will empathize with your characters who have flaws.

Now, lets talk about your ego. You do have an ego, and it’s a big one. If saying that got to you…guess what? Yep–you’ve got an ego. We’ve all got egos. It comes with being human. Writers, though, we writers tend to have a BIG ego. And that’s okay. We need it to survive our writing journeys. If we don’t believe we have worth, that our words have worth, we won’t make it.

The good news is, by accepting your you have an ego, you just made that “bad” part of you work for you. Now that you’ve gotten it our of the way, you feel…better? Right? Freed? You just confirmed that your words have worth. It’s a lot easier to write and draw from your creative well when you have faith in yourself. When you admit you have skill. You can’t admit you have skill if you can’t admit to your ego.

Now, another “bad” trait we were taught to repress is play. Play is for children. As adults, we can’t waste the time for play. we have important adult things to do. Yet…without play, we can’t tap into our creative well. We get so caught up in the serious things that it drains us. We need play to get our juices flowing again. Accepting that, getting it out of the way, frees you up. When you accept you need it, the guilt goes away. Do the things people told you were bad at. Waste the time, another “bad” trait. Paint, draw, create. No matter the outcome, because what people have labeled as “wasting time” is essential to your creativity.

Well Rounded Characters

The flaws we give to our characters are the traits we’ve talked about. The ones we suppress. our character will suppress them, too. It’s human nature. It’s their shadows. Now, they do need to be authentic to your character. To make it authentic, you’ll need to comb their childhoods, the society they grew up in, the way their parents raised them. What is deemed as “bad” for them? How does it affect their lives now? How does it manifest subconsciously?

You hear about subtext a lot. Subtext isn’t what we tell the reader out right, or even what your character tells the cast out right. t’s what you don’t say. It’s body language, or settings, pr or internal dialogue. It’s conflict. IT’s even the antagonist. Antagonists and protagonists needs to compliment each other. Not in the sense that they flatter one another (though, what a twist), but rather be ying and yang. Light and dark. They can share qualities, even if one (protag) represses it, and one (antag) redeems them.

The shadow has a lot to do with your character arcs. It is what you character needs to learn by the end of the novel (or not).

Interestingly enough, writers tend to infuse their shadow selves and fears into their characters. We have common fears, so that means our readers will relate to our characters. That’s exactly what you want. No reader will connect to a story where they can’t relate to the characters. The same goes with our shadow selves. Infusing your shadow self into your character is a tool used to get your reader to relate to your character.

Much of what we read, we relate to because we understand the main characters. We understand because we feel the same way. Their society mimics our own on the deeper levels. What is taboo there is most likely taboo in our own lives.

When you hear a writer talking about how their character is an alter ego of them, it’s their shadow self their talking about. The part of them they don’t show in their “real” life. Use your shadow self in your work. Create your character’s persona, their voice, using this shadow. Use setting as another way to mimic their flaws, feelings, and fears. (Check out my post on Setting to help with that). It not only makes for richer fiction, but it’s a healthy outlet for you.

Resources

Shadow Self: How to Embrace Your Inner Darkness (3 Techniques)

Working with The Shadow: A Writer’s Guide

4 Carl Jung Theories Explained: Persona, Shadow, Anima/Animus, The Self

5 Writer Challenges

Have you ever questioned the old proverb “misery loves company”? How in the world do you feel better when someone else feels as poorly as you do?

Because you’re human.

Humans have an innate need for social connection and often seek what is familiar. We seek ways to alleviate our feelings, and the best way to do that is by finding people who understand.

Writing is a lonely business. For the most part, writers spend hours on end by themselves. We seek other writers who understand our challenges relating to our writing process.

All writers have their strengths and weaknesses. Let’s take a look at 5 ways writers struggle with their work, and the solutions.

5 Writer Challenges

  • Plot Development
  • Time Management
  • Characters
  • Dialogue
  • Perfectionism

Plot Development

Photo by You X Ventures

Writers are finding several issues accompanying their plots. Some find their entire books happening in the first few pages. They have no idea how to slow it down enough to fill up the rest of their books. Some struggle with certain parts of the story, such as a dragging middle. Some find their entire book is dragging.

Solution:

If you struggle with Dramatic Structure, pick a structure and get familiar with it. Plot your points and base the rest of your work around those. You don’t have to get detailed with plotting, but even I, a pantser, do minimal plotting. My work is better for it.

If you find episodic narrative in your work, cut it. That means unless the day-to-day small stuff is important to plot, delete it from your story. This usually helps with an entire book dragging. What also helps is looking at how many subplots you have. While there is no exact formula for how many subplots you can have, if it doesn’t enhance your plot, cut it. You’ll find there may be things your characters do that don’t enhance your plot. Cut those, too, no matter how much you love them.

If you find your middle dragging, divide it into two sections, making your 3-act structure a 4-act structure. It’ll help you see things more clearly. This is another place where you can cut what doesn’t enhance the plot.

If you find your entire book happening in a few scenes, consider making it a short story or flash fiction piece. Some work isn’t meant to be a full-length novel. Nothing wrong with that.

Time Management

Photo by NeONBRAND

Perhaps you, like many writers, find yourself surfing the web while it’s product time. Maybe you’re on day 20 of research without having written a single word. Or, maybe you can’t stop editing what you do write, getting you very, very, very slowly to the end of your work. Then, you have straight-up procrastination.

Solution

The best solutions I can offer you for time management comes as a three-fold. One: Limit your distractions. Turn off the internet if you have to.

Two: When you’re supposed to be writing, then write. I know, if it were that easy, time management wouldn’t be a thing. Even if you only can fit in ten minutes, trust that the world won’t (probably) fall apart in that time, and everything else can wait. Tell your brain there is a time and place for all other thoughts, but this isn’t that time. Yes, this takes practice.

Three: Forgive yourself for wasting time. If you’re hard on yourself, you’ll feel guilty. Guilt turns off your creative brain. You literally have no time for guilt. Just get yourself back on track.

As for too much editing and research, know that your story won’t be perfect the first couple drafts. Try to relax and just tell the story you’d tell your friends. Research is super fun, and for me, it lasts the entire writing process. How I navigate seemingly endless research is to use placeholders and leave comments to myself while focused on writing.

Procrastinating…it’s truly an art. It doesn’t make you lazy to procrastinate. It makes you human. Usually, procrastination stems from fear of the thing you’re procrastinating. Dig deep into this and figure out what you’re afraid of. Then #ffear and get writing.

Characters

Photo by GMax Studios

Characters are important to your story, especially if it’s character-driven. Find that you have perfect characters? Flat characters? Too many of the same characters? Not enough of a cast? Too much of a cast?

Solutions:

Give your characters real flaws. These flaws should get in their way constantly. The flaws don’t always have to relate to the lie your character believes, but at least one should. Look back at their childhoods and see what traumatic events could shape a flaw. Then use the hell out of it to create conflict. This goes for both perfect and flat characters. Dig deep into their psyche to figure out who they are. Make a list of possible flaws and choose some.

When you find that you have too many of the same characters, it helps to combine some of them into one or two characters. That also goes for too much cast. Remember that the more characters you have, the more chances you have of confusing a reader. A confused reader is not a good thing. Don’t do it.

If you think you don’t have enough cast, think hard about it. There is no formula for how many characters you need. You can have one character if it means your story gets told. If you think it’s important to add some, think of character types that help advance your plot or main characters. Don’t add random ones.

Check out the posts on character building.

Dialogue

Photo by Toa Heftiba

A lot of writers find they are either really good at dialogue, or pretty bad at it. It’s definitely something easy to get wrong. Dialogue is one of the best tools you have in your writing arsenal, and if not used carefully, it can ruin your work.

Writers find they have flat dialogue or a simple exchange bit. Too realistic dialogue is also a huge problem. Other problems include: being formal all the time, glaring dialogue tags, no dialogue tags, phonetic spelling, too much or no narrative, using names too often, summarizing important dialogue, and the opposite, writing out everything.

Solutions

Use silence to create conflict. If your character asks a difficult question or gives a difficult statement, either have the other character use silence or try to change the subject. This also ties into the simple exchange bit (on the nose). Don’t have characters ask questions and then give an answer right away. People don’t talk like that.

Speaking of how people talk, skip the interrupters. The “um” “ers” and stutters, for the most part. Some exchanges call for them but cut when possible. Try not to have your characters be too formal, though, unless it’s part of that character’s personality. Keep in mind that people also speak differently based on who they are talking to. Talking to a spouse will be different than talking to an officer who has just pulled you over.

Using the tag “said” is best for most cases, though feel free to mix it up from time to time. Readers will skip the word said, and that’s what you want. You don’t want them to be pulled from the story because of an obtrusive dialogue tag.

For instance, don’t say:

“I hate you!” she screamed.

The exclamation point says it all. Even better than ‘said’ is using action tags instead of dialogue tags. Example:

John lit his cigarette, his gaze level on Steph,. “I hate you.”

In most cases, you’d never place an action in the same paragraph as someone else’s dialogue so this wouldn’t confuse the reader.

Phonic spelling gets to be a problem when it draws your reader from your work. Use it sparingly. Use narrative to enhance your dialogue, and dialogue to enhance your narrative. It’s all about balance. Skip characters using other character’s names unless it’s for emphasis.

Check out more dialogue tips.

Perfectionism

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN

Going back to what I said in the plot section. Your first few drafts won’t be perfect. Train your brain to have a switch. There is a time for editing, and it’s not during your first few drafts.

Save your neurotic tendencies for your last draft, and even then, remember the goal is to move forward, not be stuck.

Characters: Getting in their head: Part One

Photo by Yeshi Kangrang

What makes you who you are?

The simple answer: your experiences. Every little thing you’ve done or been through shaped you into who you are. The complicated answer…well, that’s a story full of chemicals, synaptic transmissions, and science.

Why is this important? Authentic characters create believable plot. Well-rounded characters keeps the plot moving in a direction true to the actions and reactions of those characters. Your characters, even your antagonist, must be relatable. We don’t have to like them, but we do need to have empathy for them.

We, as readers, want to get lost in your work. We want to forget that these people don’t exist.

To do this, your characters can’t be mechanical. They have to make mistakes. They must be contradictive in their beliefs and actions. They must have flaws, and goals.

Real life is crazy. We want to read about that crazy. We want to know that we are not alone is our unpredictable reactions to unpredictable circumstances.

So, the big question then is: how do we create authentic characters?

Personalities

To get to the core of your character’s personality, you need to go back to the beginning. Sometimes this means going back generations, especially when we’re looking at core values and story goals.

What are core values? Some examples are:

  • Religious views
  • Family views
  • Gender roles (or lack of)
  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Loyalty
  • Compassion

What are story goals? We have our major story goal, which is the main plot. What do your characters want and why do they want it? Your characters are going to want different things throughout the story, and many of them cause conflicts with other characters (hint: subplots).

Every upbringing is going to influence your characters traits and personality. No upbringing is the same, not even to siblings. Even if parents treat their children the same, no two people are alike. Even identical twins will have different experiences with the same event because they have different perspectives.

According to Vanessa Van Edwards (who is an idol to me) everyone has five core personality traits. Depending on which end of the spectrum you end up at depends on your personality. She even has a personality test you can take here for yourself or for your characters.

Let’s take a look at her five core personality traits.

  • Openness- how easily a person adapts to change, how someone takes in experiences, and how someone reacts to new ideas.
  • Agreeableness- how easily a person cooperates with others and gets along with them.
  • Conscientiousness- how well a person desires to complete tasks and whether or not they focus on the big picture rather than smaller details.
  • Neuroticism- how emotionally stable someone is.
  • Extroversion- how people react emotionally around others. Do they get energy around others or are they drained?

Your character’s upbringing, again, will influence each of these traits. These are the positive sides of the traits but negatives can certainly be instilled. This is not to say that new experiences after childhood and their teenage years won’t influence a change in their personality, but the early years of your character’s life is going to be the foundation for the building blocks of their core beliefs.

Changing their personality is going to take emotional work on their part, so don’t have your characters start off one way and change to another without showing the work they put in. Chances are, you’re going to have to dig deep into their childhoods to explain their beliefs.

For instance, my personality has changed since I started therapy. Simple things such as making phone calls give me anxiety because my mind would go to the worst possible outcome in ten seconds.

I had to call the IRS for a copy of my tax return. My fear of asking for my copy of my tax return turned into fear that I could end up in jail. So, yeah, that escalated quickly and quite illogically. I eventually got the nerve up to make the call. I’d never been more happy for an automated machine to answer or felt sillier because it was so easy to get a copy.

But my work with facing my fear of asking for things for myself led me to getting a job I’ve wanted for a long time. My therapist and I made a small goal after the tax situation for me to go into my local bookstore and ask for an application. Turns out I can do stuff like that when I don’t think too hard about it and just go for it. I start working at the bookstore next week.

The point is, without making that call (which made me almost throw up due to panic), I would have never had the confidence to seek that job application. I would have never realized the key to face my fear was to not think too hard. If I’d never identified that core belief (that I expected the worst to happen) I could never have recognized when my thoughts were leading me astray.

I had to go back to the beginning to understand that belief. My dad gave me up for adoption when I was 10. I had no control over the circumstance, and there my need to take outcomes to extremes was born.

Awareness was the answer.

Hanan Parvez says on his site that, “Because of the experiences that people go through in life, they develop certain deep-seated beliefs, needs and ways of thinking. In order to fulfill their needs, they develop certain personality traits. They might not be aware of the reason why they have certain personality traits, but their mind is working in the background continually seeking ways to satisfy its needs.”

Understanding is key

I mentioned my current WIP, a novel called Kit. I wrote draft upon draft trying to figure out who she was. I couldn’t seem to get her personality quite right. I couldn’t make her pop on the page. Looking back at it, I see that while I knew her, I didn’t understand her.

I went back to the beginning. I knew a few things already, such as where Kit spent the last 15 years, including some early childhood. But I didn’t know how she spent it. How she was raised. I knew her life wasn’t easy. She was abused and terrorized by a man who kidnapped her when she was 4.

That kidnapper is the antagonist. In order to understand how Kit was raised, I had to understand how he “parented”. That meant going back to see how he was raised. I knew his story goal, so I had to figure out what led him to that story goal.

Though Kit is science fiction, it’s also an urban fantasy. Werewolves, shape-shifters, magic, and the like. The antag, an old werewolf, wants children, and Kit is his ticket, being a shape-shifter. He was born in a time where women were viewed as property, so even though it’s the 21st century now, that’s how he treated Kit. That’s how he was raised.

Though I dug deeper into his past to understand both him and Kit, his need for children who would not die in a human life span makes him relatable. Everyone wants a family. Old, crazy werewolves are no different.

Digging deep

I have many ways to get to know my characters. One is the simple backstory file or questionnaire. But I don’t feel as if that makes me know my characters. I know about them, but they are still just words on a page. Two dimensional.

My three favorite ways to get to know them are free writing scenes to see how they act in odd situations, journal entries, and interviewing them.

Free writing scenes entails putting my characters into situations to see how they react. I don’t force them to react the way I would, but instead I just let them be. If something doesn’t feel right, it means that I influenced them. I learn a lot about my characters by letting them react in free writing scenes.

I plan to include some varying journal entries in the beginning of each chapter (that relates to the chapter) in my novel Kit. Writing them helped me understand why Kit later reacts the way she does to events.

For instance, she hates parties. They make her anxious because the antag would throw her a party every year in celebration of her captivity. He’d lace the cake with drugs as a way to terrify her more when he forced her to eat it. She’d wake later with no recollection of what had taken place. She uses a party as a way to draw him out later in the novel, but a willing party is one of the hardest things she’s ever done.

Interviews are probably my favorite. I clear my mind and then envision I’m sitting across from my character. This is helpful especially when I feel stuck. I literally ask them what happened and they (mostly) fill in the blanks for me. I ask multiple characters the same questions, getting it from different perspectives, and come up with some great plot that way.

Stay tuned for part two.

What are some ways you get to know your characters? Comment below to share any tips or odd ways you dig deep to get into their heads.