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Monday, October 31, 2011

Your Hero's Dark Side: Looking into the Abyss

People’s fascination with Halloween fascinates me. Why do we get so excited about a day that focuses on spooks, scares, and monsters?

Maybe because that creepy stuff calls to the dark side that resides in each of us.

Psychologist Carl Jung argued that everyone has a dark, repressed side, which he called the Shadow. More modern theorists claim that this Shadow is a reservoir for creativity. And when I look at the overwhelming popularity of a writer like Stephen King, I believe it.

A King fan myself, I am fascinated by the way the author doesn’t just graze elbows with the Dark Side – he plunges head-first into the scariest situations he can think of.

And his fans are riveted.

One of the things I like about King is that his heroes are not knights in tarnished – let alone shining – armor. They are flawed human beings, most of whom fall prey to their own dark sides. King realizes that, as Nietzsche claimed, “When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” In other words, one cannot interact with or fight monsters without awakening the monster that lies within. Like calls to like.

Perhaps realizing that humankind is vulnerable to that dark side, Nietzsche also exhorted, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster."

Years ago, someone else once gave me the same advice in different words. He said, “When we fight evil, we must take care not to become the very thing we hate.”

Let me give you an example.

Not quite two weeks ago, a man in Zanesville, Ohio released 56 exotic animals from their cages and then committed suicide. Unfortunately, because it’s very hard to safely re-capture such animals, 49 of those animals were killed. Many people were outraged, and the authorities dealing with the situation began receiving death threats.

Stop and think about this for a moment, folks. These people are threatening to kill people (and sometimes they do kill people) because they disagree with the authorities killing (animals). In other words, in their hatred, these “activists” are becoming the very monsters they claim to be fighting. Their hatred has consumed their reason.

So on this Halloween, think about your Shadow, and your main character's Shadow. What does your main character hate and fear more than anything? What is he willing to do to exterminate the hated and feared thing? How can you make his interactions with the hated thing taint him? In other words, each time your character looks into the abyss, how can the abyss claim a little more of him?

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook or Google+


Stina said...

Awesome post, Carolyn. And perfect timing for my next project. :D

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

"how can the abyss claim a little more of them" *gasp* Perfect timing for me. Thanks for a fascinating post.

Teri Anne Stanley said...

It's my goal to find the thing that my characters are the most afraid of, and really smoosh it in their faces, then let them wallow around in it for a little while before assimilating a little of that darkness and crawling out of it. That's my goal, anyway. I have a few characters that have been abandoned in that pit...

John Sankovich said...

Great post. I haven't really thought this way about my main character in my current book, but will have to take a look in my edits.

Also, love the Stephen King mention, I'm a big fan myself.

Marsha Sigman said...

Absolutely thoughtful and perfect post. I've always said Stephen King isn't just your average horror writer, he's an expert on humanity.

The incident in Ohio was horribly sad but those officials did what they thought necessary to save human lives.

Tasha Seegmiller said...

I think a character has to have a dark side, to some point, in order to be well-rounded. If they are a sunshine and lollipops character, they are flat (and quite frankly annoying).

Great post - thanks!

Suzanne Pitner said...

I think all writers should know as much as possible about psychology. It's amazing what the human psyche can do, and your example of the man with the exotic animals is a perfect demonstration of dark behavior disguised as good. Now I'm off to find your book!

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Thanks to everybody that commented -- it always makes me feel good to know something was helpful to you!

Tricia -- I loved your *gasp* :)

Suzanne -- Yay! Having someone seek out my book is always an enormous compliment!

Thanks again, everybody!

Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban said...

I loved this post and your quotes.

Often I find the "bad guy" in a story more interesting that the "hero". I wonder what that says about me.