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?