Shades and Shadows

Shades and Shadows

This month’s topic is a fun and important one. With Halloween fast approaching (those little goblins will be tapping on your door before you know it) my first thoughts ran to ghosts. Shadows of those who were here before and haven’t quite figured out how to let go.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized shadows were deeper than that.

The words of Sr. Jeanne Adrienne, my high school art teacher, kept sounding in my ears. She would slap charcoal from my hand, take her finger and smudge something in my outline and mutter, “It’s a shadow. Make it a shadow. Shadows bring your pictures to life.” Shadows bring your pictures to life? How does that work? A darkened smear, the figure behind you that looks like you, but isn’t you. They bring you to life? It took a while to work out the details, but when I finally got it, I learned to cherish the shadow. It’s the dark that brings out the light. It defines, it gives depth. It’s the difference between bland and interesting.

Shadows are a wonderful metaphor for life and how to construct a character. The dark, in many ways, is more important than the light. Every character needs a backstory. That’s the stuff that never makes it to the page, but is essential to the writer. It’s the sum total of all that happened to that character before they appear on the page. If the writer doesn’t know the character, the reader knows it. The character is somehow flat. It may have a sparkling personality, be wonderfully likeable, and fun to be around, buy you won’t like her for a friend. And you probably won’t pick up the next book either. Why not? Something indefinable didn’t work. The character was all splash and no substance.

A character needs shadows to have depth. There has to be a tension. Not overt, the character doesn’t have to be struggling against a life/death problem or an addiction. No, quite the opposite. The character needs to have, well, a past. A well rounded life that just like  yours or mine had thumbprints of pain and hurt. Nothing that necessarily destroyed the character, but something that marked them. When they think about it now, a sadness touches their heart. Nothing to dwell on, but something to shade them. Having the shadow in the past allows the brilliant light to shine through and it gives insubstantial character to the character.

Light/dark, pain/pleasure, love/hate, hope/despair. Light and shadow. Can you see how it brings a character to life? The second Mrs. DeWinter. She didn’t trust herself to be enough. She’d been brought up to be second. The shadow of her insecurity allowed her character to blossom grow. Mrs. DeWinter goes from powerless to powerful and never loses her likability. Skeeter in The Help begins by being very much a character of her upbringing. As the story grows, so does she, until she understands that the story she is writing is her story. It’s the shadows in her past that lets her bring the story into the present, and give her the strength to do it well and right.

What characters can you name that have touches of shadow that make them that real?


Author: kaitcarson

I write mysteries set in South Florida. The Hayden Kent series is set in the Florida Keys. Hayden is a SCUBA diving paralegal who keeps finding bodies. Underwater, no one can hear you scream! Catherine Swope is a Miami Realtor with a penchant for finding bodies in the darndest places. I live in an airpark in Fort Denaud, FL with my husband, five cats, and a flock of conures. And oh yes, a Piper Cherokee 6 in the hangar!

19 thoughts on “Shades and Shadows”

  1. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing Sue Grafton talk about her creative process, you get into all sorts of good stuff about shadow and ego and how one protects the other. When I think of shadows, I think of the movie “Ghost,” and how the shadows came alive to take bad people to the underworld (or something like that). I haven’t viewed shadows the same way since.


  2. David Corbett is The Art of Character talks about the ghost, which can be a person or an idea that haunts the character and whom he must confront during the story. The test of his character will be how deals with it. In John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series, he is haunted by the death of a wife and child and of course is bonded to saving people. Great topic and insight! Thanks!


  3. Rochester and Darcy are both primo examples. It’s so satisfying to read a series because the secondary story line is usually about the character’s shadows. I love the tantalizing bits and pieces as I read from volume to volume.


  4. David Corbett, that is the name I was struggling with last night. It kept flitting around the edges of my thoughts like a … ghost. Charlie Parker is another great example. Puts me in mind of Adam Dalgliesh in the PD James books. Another who was shaped by loss.


  5. As a reader, I want all characters to “come to life,” the good, the bad, and the in-between. When I am really captivated by well-developed characters, I often feel that I might meet them in the grocery store. They might move into the house that is for sale down the street. I am not just thinking of the “good” personalities either – remember, when the media interviews the neighbors of horrible serial killers, people always comment on what nice people they seemed to be, friendly but reserved, quite, never causing any trouble. Well-developed characters make one re-evaluate the way one views people in general.

    One writer told me that even the best, most heroic, honorable person is just a breath away from “the dark side;” that the kind of character that makes for an edge-of-the-seat read, someone real, but with a “shadow.” Real people are never black-and-white, not even the best of us. If characters in books are not real, there is little to motivate me, as a reader, to read the next book with that character or even finish the first. There are lots of other books out there to occupy the time I have to read.

    A mystery story is all about shadows. If there weren’t shadows, the book would be a travelogue, a romance, or an historical novel, not a mystery. Keep writing about characters with shadows, and I’ll keep reading about them and looking for their shadows.


  6. Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole character is the best example of the shadow used to excellent effect. Harry is a cop, but beset by alcoholism, drug use, and an obsession with a woman he always ends up hurting. The construct worked really well –with plot elements affected by his wrong-doing–but it was a relief to have him pull himself together in the last book. Sometimes so much shadow can be exhausting!


    1. What fun. And I missed Walt Longmire. So ignorance showing, what book was that? I’ve not read Harry Potter, but I have the whole set and it’s earmarked for retirement. I want to start with One and binge read. Don’t know when that will be, hoping for sooner rather than later.


      1. If you love Walt Longmire books by Craig Johnson, you should binge-watch the Longmire series on Netflix. The new season was just posted, and on Netflix, you can watch them all one after another.


  7. This is a great post, Kait! I think one of the ultimate use of such shadows is Harry Potter. The loss of his parents before book one begins haunts him throughout the series (and shapes decisions he makes and the issues he must confront).


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