As recognizable and common as the hero, the Shadow is an archetype not to be trifled with.
You can also read about the Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, and Shapeshifter archetypes in my earlier posts.
The Shadow represents the energy of the dark side, the unknown or hidden aspects of the world. The dark side is home to monsters, villains, and dark secrets. The Shadow does not have to always be a character, expressed as a villain or antagonist; it can be the dark side of the hero, the qualities he renounces, or a growing darkness not attributable to any concrete thing.
Most of the time, the Shadow is projected onto villains, antagonists, and enemies. These villains are usually dedicated to the death, destruction, or defeat of the hero, like Sauron and his evil forces. Sometimes, they may not be so evil; they could merely be a competitor – think Gary from the original Pokémon series, competing against Ash for the glory of Pokémon Master.
The dramatic function of the Shadow is to challenge the hero and act as a worthy opponent in the struggle. Shadows create conflict and force the hero to rise above their former lives. The hero is only as good as the story’s villain, because a strong enemy forces a hero to rise to the challenge.
The Shadow could be a single character, such as Fire Lord Ozai from Avatar: The Last Airbender. The archetype can also be expressed in several characters, even temporarily. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, several characters embody the shadow archetype: Saruman, Grima, Theoden (for a short time), Denethor, Boromir (also for a short time), Gollum, the Palantír, and the Nazgûl… just to name a few.
Heroes themselves can manifest the Shadow. When the protagonist doubts himself, becomes self-destructive, falls victim to hubris, abuses his power, or loses the will to live, the Shadow has taken hold of him.
Like the other archetypes, the Shadow is merely a function and can be worn as a mask instead of rigidly entrenched in a single character. As I mentioned above, Theoden, King of Rohan, takes on the mask of Shadow when he is possessed by Saruman. Boromir, taken by his father’s greed and desire for glory, tries to take the One Ring from Frodo.
Shadows may also manage to redeem themselves in the course of a story and experience a change of heart, becoming heroes themselves. In Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader redeems himself by killing the Emperor to save Luke’s life. He becomes a hero, even though he is at the end of his life.
Just as the Shadow can redeem himself, he does not need to be entirely evil. The best villains are humanized by a touch of goodness or an explanation of their villainy. Voldemort was not born evil (this could be debated, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll say he turned evil by the time he could walk and talk). His past and upbringing manifested in him certain qualities that lent to a more evil path, one that eventually dehumanized him. Darth Vader is the same. He was once Anakin Skywalker, a young Jedi who lived and loved, but certain events turned him to the Dark Side.
Shadows can also be humanized by making them vulnerable, real people. Most villains do not see themselves that way. From the Shadow’s point of view, they are the hero of their own story, and what we perceive as the hero is their villain. Imagine if you will that the Harry Potter books were actually titled Voldemort and that Annoying Potter Kid. Arthas, in Warcraft III, believes his path is right, but it ultimately leads him to become the Lich King, the evil overlord of the Scourge.
For the hero of a story to succeed, the Shadow must be killed, vanquished, or converted.
Read the next post about the Ally.
Read the next post about the Ally.
[This interpretation of the archetypes comes from the Hero’s Journey, a universal structure found in mythology and organized by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with A Thousand Faces and Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.]