I have always been fascinated with the Chinese philosophy of the Yin and Yang, which is rooted in the idea of contraries. For example, with light, there is darkness, which are complete opposites. But rather than being opposing forces, they are actually intertwined. You can’t have one without the other. Killer Nashville guest blogger Marielena Zuniga touches on a similar concept: the shadow side, or that part of you that is your complete opposite. Awareness of this darker side can be illuminating and a touchstone for writing.
By Marielena Zuniga
Ever write a book you never intended? I did. Let me explain.
By nature, I’m a quiet, introspective, spiritual person. So naturally I thought my first novel would be much like my persona, the face I put out to the world. I would write in the style of Sue Monk Kidd, who is one of my favorite authors.
Who did I get instead? Sassy, in-your-face Loreen, a convict who has a history of making bad choices. Her worst choice is escaping from a Texas prison by stealing the tour bus of a famous country music singer so she can get home to her dying mama in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee. Welcome to Loreen on the Lam: A Tennessee Mystery.
Welcome to the shadow side of writing. It’s a side you’ll want to befriend because, as some psychologists will tell you, it’s the seat of creativity.
What’s the shadow? According to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, the shadow side is the unknown “dark side” of our personality. It consists of the primitive or negative aspects of ourselves that are hidden, or that we want to repress or suppress, and can include such emotions as lust, power, selfishness, greed, envy, anger and more.
In books — as in real life — villains are often driven by their shadow sides. But good characters have them as well. Take my heroine, Loreen, who basically has a good heart, but has had a hard life. Growing up poor in Red Boiling Springs, she’s never known her father and starts getting into trouble around age 14.
Loreen is a master at repressing “deep thoughts” or any kind of awareness. She has one such insight about her shadow side when she realizes she has been verbally abusing Tilly Davis, one of her unwanted passengers, a woman who has been battered by her husband.
“Then Loreen had another insight. She was abusing Tilly just as men had done. Dang. She didn’t want to do that. These awarenesses were coming too fast and she wanted them to go away.”
During her journey, however, Loreen starts to get in touch with her shadow side. She becomes aware of her selfishness, the bad choices she’s made, and her desire to escape life and responsibility. And, she begins to have “aha moments”.
While I might be prone to selfishness or any other dark part of myself, this doesn’t mean I – or anyone – acts on those traits. It doesn’t make us “bad” people. But when we can acknowledge them, we become more integrated and whole.
Is it terrifying as a writer to examine our dark side? You bet. But when we get to know our own shadow and, as a result, channel it through our characters’ innermost feelings and thoughts, that’s where the magic happens. If Stephen King had hidden from his shadow, The Shining would never have been written, and the same can be said for many other novels, from The Exorcist to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Loreen on the Lam: A Tennessee Mystery does not fall into the horror genre, nor is it necessary to go there to tackle a character’s hidden side. You can channel your own shadow into your characters with a few caveats:
- The writer’s shadow should inform the story, but never take it over. This isn’t therapy in writing, nor is it a self-serving shadow rant. It’s about drawing from that “hidden” and creative reservoir within you that will give your characters depth and texture.
- Along those lines, don’t be gratuitous with your shadow. Shadow material that’s violent or psychotic for its own sake is boring and self-indulgent. This is dishonest writing and serves no one.
Good characters have shadow sides and your characters’ shadows should repel them as much as yours do you. Readers need to see what your characters want to hide – and then how your characters come to peace with those hidden aspects of themselves, or not.
When I started writing Loreen on the Lam, I had no idea where she would take me. What I wasn’t expecting was a character who surprised me with those parts of myself I often keep hidden. So don’t be afraid to go digging into that shadow side of yourself and your writing. It knows.
Marielena Zuniga is an award-winning journalist and creative writer of more than 35 years. She holds a M.S. in counseling psychology.
(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks to Tom Wood, Maria Giordano, Will Chessor, Clay Janeway, and publisher/editor-in-chief Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s blog. And for more writer resources, visit us at www.KillerNashville.com, www.KillerNashvilleMagazine.com, and www.KillerNashvilleBookCon.com.)