Shadow Artists

Deftly wielded, the artist’s charcoal adds depth and breadth, softness and hard edges, gentle blending and abrupt transitions. The drawing moves from lying flat on the page to leaping into the lap of the viewer, the difference only a few bold strokes added or removed, changing the position, the expanse of the shadows on the page. The writer, too, must wield her tools, in order to provide the reader with characters and settings that do more than lie flat; instead, they must gently tug the reader into the story, bowl him over with intensity, or simply invite the reader in–doing so by adding important shadows to contrast the light, darkness to balance the bright.

Some characters step boldly off the page, their darkness seeping, dripping out of them into puddles of hissing ooze that make a reader shudder, recoil, and then. . .read on, caught in the delicious knowledge that these character aren’t real, and that following this character’s journey is relatively safe. The overwhelming evil serves as foil, balance to another character’s goodness. Some characters carry only hints of darkness, their shadows hidden, peeking out occasionally, slyly clinging to the edges of the character in places where only the careful reader spots them. Subtle yet important, these shadows provide the reader with important clues as to the character’s possible journey, likely decisions, and ultimate outcomes.

A character’s shadows can also provide shade to another character. Shade, with it’s cooling darkness, provides a break from the sometimes overwhelming heat of a brightly lit character, one with an unrelenting intensity or goodness that can exhaust the reader. Much like when a sunbather takes a moment to dip into the shade of an umbrella, the reader’s eyes can widen, the mind can clear, when introduced to the character with a stronger shadow.  A story without shadows would lack the necessary depth to sustain reader interest; the drawing would remain flat on the page.

There’s a definition of shadow, a less common one, that represents a critical tool in the writer’s toolbox: “a slight suggestion; a trace” ( Isn’t that lovely? Much like the drawing with nothing but harsh lines and sharp corners, or nothing but smudges, a story without shadows would be boring. Writers layer in depth and dimension by creating both bold shadows and mere traces of shadow; balancing, to a certain degree, darkness and light. The juicy part is realizing that darkness is not all bad, any more than light is all good. Shade provides welcome respite from heat, while unrelenting sun can result in a sunburn. Shadows can hide the madman, or provide shelter for the heroine escaping the madman’s chase; the charismatic cult leader who shines ever so brightly does not provide safety to his flock, while the detective whose light comes from within and keeps her constantly moving forward, can provide a beacon to those whose belief in justice is flagging.

The skillful writers whose stories, both characters and settings, demonstrate a deft application of shadow and shade to balance the light, whose subtle application of smudges and harsh lines keep the reader wondering, “who is good? bad? what will happen next?” are true masters of the craft.

Readers, what’s your favorite shadow-filled story? Any favorite shadow artists? Let us know in the comments!

Pamela A Oberg | @stonecreekwrite


Author: Pamela A. Oberg

Pamela is a portfolio manager at an educational assessment company by day, writer by night. Founder of Writers on Words (a discussion and critique group), Pamela enjoys spinning tales of murder and mayhem, with an occasional foray into the world of the paranormal.

6 thoughts on “Shadow Artists”

  1. Wow. And yes, I do have one: Stuart Neville, the writer of Belfast Noir. The protagonist of his first book, Ghosts of Belfast, was a complicated and troubled man living in a complicated and troubled place. Neville has matched, if not exceeded, that book in his ability to create characters of that nature in every book he’s written. Highly recommend.


  2. Nice post. When I think “shadow writer” I go back to Poe. Sometimes it was the merest hint of the shadow – or the trickle of light peeping out – that made the story really take on a tone of terror.


  3. Neville is a great example! Noir especially lends itself well to shadows. I also love the shadows of police procedurals, where the detectives are caught between the pursuit of justice and the procedure itself.


  4. Great post. Silence of the Lambs had wonderful shadow play. Lecter’s shadow is all encompassing, but at times, there is a hit of softness as he takes Clarissa under his wing and feeds her clues to the other serial killer whose name I cannot remember. Oy. Clarissa herself begins as a shadow character bursting into the light and then, as the book goes on, Clarissa’s shadows grow and lengthen until they seem to eclipse her and begin to pass over so by the end of the book, she is emerging into the light and transformed by the shadows that encompassed her. Quick, someone tell me the name of that killer – I’m at work and can’t search…


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