Shadows in Life and Fiction
Just about everything casts a shadow, and it’s not a bad thing. Shadows help us perceive a third dimension in two-dimensional images like paintings and photographs. The length of a shadow tells us how tall something is, or perhaps the time of day. We learn early in life that shadows can provide a lot of information. I remember playing marbles during afternoon recess in first grade and then suddenly planning my escape when a long, wide shadow came up from behind me. I just knew it was the loudest boy in class, who took great joy in chasing little girls and making them scream. Of course I ran and screamed.
Shadowy scenes set dark, intense moods, as in scary movies and suspense novels. “It was a dark and stormy night” might be the biggest cliché in literature, but it still evokes ominous portents. In a less melodramatic way, shadows also suggest depth of some sort, an emotional or intellectual third dimension, and not just a physical one. Since shadows are darker areas, they also reduce clarity of whatever is within them, and words like “obscure” and “hidden” are often used in the same sentence with the word “shadow.” Thus writings about dreams and memory are also fraught with shadows, and realizations are often described as things that come out of the shadows and into the light, becoming clear and known.
I have been immersed in writing fiction–a mystery, no less–developing the story and the characters as I go, and then doing it over and over again. Each time, more comes to light, whether it is the nature of the characters, or even the way I need to go about writing a novel. Not only are there literally shadows to lend the portent of threat or doom in a scene, but there are shadows from the past which cause the characters to do what they do, just like shadows from our own pasts may color, hide, or control our actions in the present.
In writing, the backstory of a character is something that needs to be worked out in order to know how that character will react in various circumstances. Let’s say you have a shady character, and he’s considering various ways to make some quick money: steal some copper from a construction site, pawn his guitar and amps, or swipe some jewelry from his mean old mother. The choice he makes will tell the reader a ton about this character, but no choice will ring true unless the writer knows the reason for the choice. The reason won’t necessarily be in the novel itself. Instead, it’ll be in the writer’s planning notes, which include the backstories of the main characters. The more developed the backstory–the shadows of the past–the more depth and plausibility the character will have. It’s a good way to keep a character from being a mere cliché–and if your characters aren’t clichés, it increases the likelihood that your story isn’t, either.
Shadows can perform the same service in real life. As the authors of our own lives, we can step out of the realm of clichés and use what we know to be true about ourselves in order to live more authentically. That last sentence itself is a cliché, but you know what I mean. Our backstories–the stuff that’s in the shadows for those who know us in the present–might hold the solutions we are searching for, or the way out of a rut, or for coming to terms with who and what we really are. Shadows can be horrific or beatific, sad or wondrous. Human nature being what it is, we tend to hide the negative, and thus shadows have negative connotations more often than not. But we all have them, even if it is only the story of a broken heart, or the long-lost joy of performing music.
Every single one of us has a backstory, and all those backstories are at play at the same time in our circle of family, friends, and co-workers, and in the various people working around us, the checkout clerks, the stockboys, the meter reader, the mayor, the state cop, etc. Imagine society as layer upon layer of backstories.
A novel is like that, too, layer upon layer of backstories that at some point cross paths with one another, sometimes to good effect, and sometimes to the character’s detriment. Learning how to develop those layers, to select which elements to bring out of the shadows and into the light, has been a fascinating process. I’m amazed at how much isn’t going to appear in the novel itself, but was essential to think about while writing it.
I got to do an author interview at The Sweater Curse, a blog written/curated by author and knitter Leanne Dyck. Leanne has one of the most extensive collection of authors and knitters I’ve ever come across, and if you are interested in either topic, check it out and all the archives. My own interview blathers on and on (totally my fault), but in doing it, I recalled a lot of very ancient memories and got to see how I ended up being a writer. So check it out if you want to know some of my backstory, as it were.
Fans of my husband Steve Johnson’s photography, which illustrates–and often inspires–my blog posts, will be pleased to know his latest book, The Minimalist Photographer, is being printed. More info will appear in a post later this week.