Lights and Shadows: How Archetype Cards Can Strengthen Characterization and Conflict

Lights and Shadows:  How Archetype Cards Can Strengthen Characterization and Conflict

 ImageIn my novel, HOPE YOU GUESS MY NAME, I knew who my characters were, and, thanks to the sage advice from a graduate school instructor, even knew what their feet looked like.  When the array of choices my characters could make were daunting, I looked for help in a deck of Caroline Myss’ Archetype Cards.

Several years earlier, a friend told me she had used the cards to understand her personality traits and how she could harness her archetypes for her benefit. Intrigued, I asked her to teach me about them. My friend opened the heavy, red  box and spread the cards across her glass coffee table. Each card was titled with an archetype name, the light attributes, a bold and beautiful drawing of the archetype, and the shadow attributes.

I sifted through the cards and she explained how to use them.  Basically, we all supposedly possess certain archetypes (Child, Victim, Prostitute, Saboteur) in some capacity, but have to suss out what other archetypes resonate with us. In the cards’ guide, Myss writes, “Keep in mind that your attraction may be positive or negative – that is, an archetype may represent qualities that are important to you as well as some that you wish you had in greater abundance, or qualities you would rather not have.” My friend would then spend time at night sorting the cards that fit and didn’t her life.

By now, you might be thinking this is a bunch of New Age flim-flam hoo-ha, but stay with me. I pinky promise there’s cool stuff here for you.

I bought my own set the next day and began my personal archetype journey.  Some resonated immediately (Student, Teacher).  Others, like Destroyer, shocked me.  It explained my love of rearranging rooms and having no fear about joining the Peace Corps (light attribute) and sometimes abandoning projects or relationships when I shouldn’t have (shadow attribute).  I now work on the shadow attribute, which has prevented me from saying, “Whatever! Forget about it!” many times.

Whatever my archetypes were, I was determining how the light and shadow attributes manifested themselves in my life and how to learn from them. One of my favorite new ways to understand myself and other people is, “Our light is our shadow.”  For example, I’m by nature and through the example of my mother, a giving person.  This is gratifying most of the time, but there have been times in my life when, to quote a line from Gone Girl, I “Giving-Treed myself out of existence.” Light, meet shadow.

If understanding these light and shadow attributes could help me as a person, I was curious to see how they could help me with my novel; so, I spread them out on the floor and started sorting.  The archetype exercise was a guide, not an instruction manual.  It also helped pinpoint my characters’ main motivations and fine-tune plot issues that had been clanking around my brain.  They helped shape my thinking but were not the definitive guide to Marina Koneyesha’s world.

I made color copies of the cards I felt best fit each character. Here’s what I thought were Gilly’s main archetypes:


Gilly is smart, informed and dependable. His work as a civil rights/education lawyer has him advocating for those who need it most. He’s also hiding a big secret from his parents. Liberator is consistent with what Gilly wants to be and what he wants to do; but Companion affirms his loyalty to friends and family, with the shadow attribute of “loss of personal identity” hurting him since he feels he can’t come out yet.  Narrowing one of his archetypes to Companion helped me shape Gilly’s decisions and actions in his misadventures with Marina.

The shadow attributes were especially helpful in creating conflict and planning for the sequel.  For example, there will be a huge disagreement between two Slaves and a Healer because their light and shadow attributes will clash.  I inherently knew about these conflicts, but looking at them through an archetype lens was fun and gave me more direction.  I don’t know about you, but I’m always looking for fun and direction.  Pick up a box and see what happens for you and your story.

Please add comments with your ideas about conflict and characterization:

One response »

  1. Pingback: Reclaiming Our Teacher Voice: How Staff Writing Can Combat Demoralization | Heather Harlen

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