How to write: The Power of Shadows

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Brother and Sister, acrylic on canvas, 30×26″,

I’ve been working for the past two days in my studio on the above painting. I still have a lot to learn about visual art. Where you place the shadows can make or break a painting. You can have a moody powerful piece or a face that looks like it’s caving in.

Particularly on this painting, I found the placement and gradation of shadows, too dark here or too light there, had a profound affect on the success of the work.

As I was in my studio today, I thought about shadows, specifically writing and shadows. I sometimes work with writing clients who want their characters to be “nice”. I cannot tell you what a buzz kill “nice” characters are.

We all have shadows. A character without shadows is not a character at all. In fact, I sometimes suggest clients START with the character’s shadow (and this is what I do with painting, start with the shadows) and from that shadow see what develops in the light.

Here’s an example: Your character has a violent streak. Let’s say, she was around a lot of animal butchering when she was a child, and it embedded in her psyche. She’s not cruel to animals, but every once in a while she loses her temper and breaks things. How would that shadow translate into light? What if the character loves flowers, delicate and gentle and the opposite of violence. Or what if another character happens to find out that your protagonist givs a hefty chunk of her paycheck to an animal shelter? Or what if the character saves broken animals, and when a new boyfriend visits her apartment, he finds cages of animals with broken wings and frail legs. I like this last one the best because it’s a direct reflection of her early childhood brutality where first the shadow embedded itself.

This is how you’ll know your character is too nice: in sections on dialogue she will have nothing to say. You can use the “nice” as the shadow too. Perhaps your character is too nice, and it drives the other characters crazy. What if her boyfriend breaks up with her because she refuses to be anything but “nice”?

I can tell you from all my years as a writing coach that the killer to any novel is a cardboard cut-out nice character. Have you developed the shadows of all of your characters? If you’re not writing a dark novel, you don’t have to have characters always act out of their shadow, but let the darkness rear its ugly head upon occassion. Find the light in the character as a direct relation to this shadow — you’ll find your character gains dimension and texture and has a lot more to say.

I’m a writing coach and offer a free initial consultation.


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