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Specs & The City: The Shadow Archetype and 'Inception'

The second most important character in any story (and sometimes even THE most important) is the antagonist, or in terms of archetypes, the Shadow. And while this character is often referred to as the villain, it’s important to remember that they aren’t necessarily a bad person. They’re simply the person, or force, whose goals are in direct opposition to the Hero.

For example, in Toy Story, while Buzz is the Shadow to our Hero, Woody, he certainly isn’t a bad character. In most disaster films, the Shadow is whatever natural disaster is destroying the planet that week at the cineplex. And in character driven films, like Forrest Gump, there is no personified antagonist. Forrest’s Shadow is the perception of the world around him that his limited intelligence also limits his ability to lead a meaningful life.

The most effective Shadow is one that is fully integrated in both the plot and theme of your script. They bring conflict and intrigue to the story and, as such, they are vital to the successful completion of your hero’s journey.

To illustrate, let’s take a look at an example that fills the role better than any other in recent memory.

Archetypes: The Shadow and Inception

The Shadow Archetype, Mal

It starts with a name. Mal, which is Latin for ‘evil,' is the dead wife of our protagonist, Cobb (Leonardo Di’Caprio), and she is without a doubt the Shade in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The story opens with Mal already dead, having killed herself after Cobb performed inception on her and rendered her incapable of discerning our real world from the world of the dream.

Mal is almost literally Cobb’s shadow, a physical manifestation of his guilt that actively works to thwart his actions and keep him from achieving his goal of getting back to his children.

Part of what makes Mal such a successful Shadow is the fact that she impacts both Cobb’s internal and external journey. From an external viewpoint, Cobb needs to successfully perform inception on Fischer (Cillian Murphy) in order for Saito (Ken Watanabe) to get his record cleared so he can get back home. When Mal shoots Fischer, she puts Cobb at his lowest point, and forces him to formulate another plan in order to succeed.

But, as we’ve come to learn, the image of Mal that we see interfering in the external story is really just a manifestation of the guilt Cobb feels over the role he played in the real Mal’s death. When he attempts to retrieve Fischer and complete his mission, he also faces a final confrontation with Shade. Cobb must accept the guilt he feels, and move past it, in order to complete his journey.

With one scene, the Hero reaches the climax of both his external and internal struggle, and they’re both represented by the manifestation of Mal. It’s a powerful tool that Nolan uses to ratchet up the emotional impact of the moment for the audience.

If you would like to catch up, you can find the archetypes already covered here:

Until next time , keep dreaming that dream, within a dream, within a dream, and keep writing.

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