Over a cuppa one day with another writer, I raised the Jungian notion of character as parts of Self. He was struggling to get inside the head of his serial killer character, and my suggestion was to look within, at his ‘Shadow Self’, as Jungian’s would say. He was rather offended that I could think that he was like his serial killer in any way whatsoever - so offended, in fact, that he refused to continue with the conversation. His desire to ‘really get inside his character’s head’ was far outweighed by the possibility that some aspect of such behaviour might lay dormant inside him.
However, long after Carl Jung espoused his psychoanalytical theory of personality, his notions continue to be an accepted part of psychological theory, embedded in many aspects of current therapeutic practice. Myriad emotional processing techniques used by professionals today, including with children, are based on the application of Jungian theory. Sand Play Therapy, Narrative Therapy, Soul Collage, and Art Therapy are some which have come into popular use.
For a writer, if you don’t baulk that is, the Jungian notion of Self is a valuable tool with which to really grasp character, and make it real. It would involve the understanding and acceptance of the idea that exploration of your characters, foibles included, is really a process of truly understanding all aspects of your Self, including that Shadow side you’d probably rather deny. For the essence of this thinking is that every character comes from parts of you. If you’re not afraid to truly know yourself, you’ll know your characters.
Does this mean you have to become a serial killer? Or that you’re about to become one? Absolutely not! But the primal essence of that character is within you, somewhere, whether you like it or not. It’s a part of your human evolution, your remnant survival instincts. These instincts are within us all, but some so callous, so daunting, so impossible to accept that they rarely see the light of consciousness, but instead, linger in shadow.
Just think about it, for a moment. Think about something less offensive to accept, but on the same continuum – things we all do daily, as decent people. Think about that sister, or brother, that good friend or neighbour. They’re anxious to the eyeballs with money worries. Their car’s a bomb, and each day, several times a day, they stress about whether or not the damn thing’s going to start, get them to work, get the kids to school.
You’ve just bought a brand new SUV, so you’re thrilled to your eyeballs, and the first thing you do is share the intensity of your excitement with that brother or sister, friend or neighbour. Then you add that you’re taking 6 weeks off work, and going on an extended holiday in that new car.
Every day, we do this to others. Every day we accept that it’s okay that others around us are trying to cope on $300 a week, while we make five times that. Some callous part of us doesn’t flinch at such discrepancies in equality. Every day we watch absently as news reports flash images of another house fire, or bomb explosion, or earthquake - where someone, or perhaps, many, have lost everything. And we sip our tea, and check our social media for the latest meme, and we sleep well in our beds.
This is the place where writers can start to explore those shadow aspects of Self, and so, of character. This ordinary, everyday part of ourselves that we accept as acceptable, and yet, on closer examination is a playing out of that primal survival of the fittest. It isn't really so much of a leap from that kind of daily dispassion to that slayer within.