The Villain and the Shadow

“Shadow” is a term used most commonly in Jungian therapy and inner work. It means that part of our psyche that we have repressed, usually out of shame and the refusal to admit that such elements (the regret that we had children, say, or the rage we carry against “good” or honorable entities) are part of us.

We’re ashamed of our shadow. We don’t want to see it.

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers”

We reject it. We deny its existence. We banish it from our self-conception.

“Shadow work” in the Jungian sense is the introspection that shines a light on these repressed parts of ourselves and allows us to see them, accept them, and integrate them into our greater consciousness.

Consider this definition of a hero in the narrative sense:

The hero is the individual who does his or her shadow work.

Have you ever read Richard Rohr? He’s a Franciscan monk and one of the writers and thinkers I respect most. I’m reading his book, Falling Upward, right now. The book’s subtitle is “A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.”

Shadow work, in Richard Rohr’s lexicon, is the interior labor of consciousness that we all must perform if we are to evolve successfully from what Rohr calls “first-half-of-life work” (constructing an identity, building a physical and financial personal establishment, defining boundaries, etc.) to that consciousness that should and does come to the fore in the second half of our time on earth (a sharing with others, generosity, contemplation, a “being” rather than a “doing.”)

Which brings us to our ongoing subject: villains.

Odysseus [writes Richard Rohr] learned from his shadow side too. Some call this pattern the discovery of the “golden shadow” because it carries so much enlightenment for the soul. The general pattern in story and novel is that heroes learn and grow from encountering their shadow, whereas villains never do. Invariably, the movies and novels that are most memorable show real “character development” and growing through shadow work. This inspires us all because it calls us all.

In John Ford’s 1956 Western, The Searchers, the John Wayne character, Ethan Edwards, carries his homicidal hatred of the Comanche Indians vividly in the forefront as he and his nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) search over years for Ethan’s abducted niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), who was kidnapped as a child by the war chief “Scar” (Henry Brandon). It’s clear throughout the story that Ethan cannot and will not forgive Debbie for becoming, even if totally against her will, a participant in and member of that (to him) savage society.

                                    ETHAN EDWARDS

Injun will chase a thing till he thinks he’s chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter that’ll just keep comin’ on. So we’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. We’ll find ’em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.

When Ethan does eventually catch up to Debbie, now a young woman and one of the wives of “Scar,” and chases her on foot as she flees, we in the audience are certain he intends to kill her, or at least exact some form of violent vengeance.

(Spoiler alert: he doesn’t.)

Natalie Wood as Debbie in the fatal confrontation in “The Searchers”

The hero has encountered his own shadow and learned from it. He has changed. Somewhere along the trail, Ethan has become aware of his demons and been altered by them. His consciousness has evolved beyond eye-for-an-eye savagery to something kinder and nobler.

The Searchers is one of the greatest Westerns ever. In 2008 the American Film Institute named it #1 (I’d put it at #2 behind Shane), partly because of its moral structure. For a good portion of the story (screenplay by Frank Nugent from a novel by Alan Le May), Ethan is, if not the literal villain, then certainly no better than the villains he pursues (he mutilates a slain Comanche and is brutal to virtually every character he encounters including his own kin) in the sense that he cannot and does not change.

He becomes the hero only at the very end, by his ultimate act of clemency.

Richard Rohr put his finger on it.

. . . heroes learn and grow from encountering their shadow, whereas villains never do.





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A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Mary Doyle on February 6, 2019 at 5:17 am

    “. . . heroes learn and grow from encountering their shadow, whereas villains never do.” Rohr indeed put his finger on it – thanks for sharing this, and for another spot-on illustration with The Searchers, a Western I’ve actually seen. This is pure gold Steven – as always thank you!

  2. Simon Townley on February 6, 2019 at 6:36 am

    Important to remember, I think, that ‘villain’ is a role, not a character. The role of villain can change from scene to scene, and certainly throughout a story. Earlier in this series you mentioned Darth Vader, who plays the villain in the first (of the classic) Star Wars movies. But by the second film he’s probably the chief henchman of the real villain – the emperor. And by the end of book 3 you could argue that he has become the hero / protagonist, as he sets up the meeting between Luke and the emperor, and when Luke fails, he strikes and kills the villain. He performs the decisive action at the climax.
    Of course, you could argue that the real villain in Star Wars is the Dark Side itself. And that certainly never changes.

  3. Joe Jansen on February 6, 2019 at 7:03 am

    That title sounded familiar, and I went to discover I had a copy on my shelf — yet unread. I flipped it open (somewhat at random) to see what it might want to say for itself. My eyes went to: “Ken Wilber described the later stages of life well when he said ‘the classical spiritual journey always begins elitist and ends egalitarian. Always.'”

    I see the connection. Ethan had been brutal, “elitist” in his perceived separateness from those around him. The “egalitarian” comes in with his clemency, overcoming that shadow that obscures our connectedness. That the “other” is an aspect of ourselves.

    Or something like that. Good springboard for a Wednesday. I suppose I should move Rohr up on my stack. Thankee.

  4. Lyn Blair on February 6, 2019 at 7:04 am

    The “shadow,’ what a great word to describe the dark side and this article makes it so clear. The crisis moment is when you wonder whether the protagonist will decide to make the shift, overcome the darkness by changing or turning away from his own. The Searchers provided such a great example. So true that the villain never makes the leap. Yet another perspective and clear way to understand the villain through the inner struggle. Great article! Thank you so much for sharing your insights!

  5. J. Hicks on February 6, 2019 at 7:37 am

    Fantastic insight, again, as always. Like the ‘Ins and Outs’ now I can’t think of a story without applying this insight. Thank you much!

  6. Laura Barnett on February 6, 2019 at 8:06 am

    Thank you for your clarity and perspective, as always. The last Rohr quote is quite powerful…and a perfect way to tell the good guys from the bad…be it prose or life.

  7. Renita on February 6, 2019 at 10:39 am

    I love that we are reading the same book with so much pleasure. It’s nice to be on the same wavelength. It seems to me that some of the best writers had the biggest shadows: I’m thinking of Raymond Chandler. Maybe the key is in feeling the shame and the inadequacy of one’s life and producing the art anyway. The ego has been shoved aside in favour of using time with great respect.
    I remember watching “the searchers” For the first time with a woman 92 years old. It was her favourite movie. There is nothing like entering into a story with someone who is fully present in following that story.

    • Curtis on March 3, 2019 at 7:46 pm

      Thank you. “The ego has been shoved aside in favor of using time with great respect.” That is my take away! Again thank you!

  8. Adam Abramowitz on February 6, 2019 at 12:12 pm

    Awesome stuff, the two halfs of spiritually by Richard Rohr remind me of an Alan Watts lecture I was listening to the other day.

    He described Confusciounism as being the main lifestyle of most Japanese, and when a person realizes their place in society (at an older age), they transition into a Daoist lifestyle.

    It makes a lot of sense, because we want to adhere to, and excel, in society based on the rules that have been “given”.

    But, a Taoist lifestyle seems to be more introspectively focused and realized externally on its own.

    As a recovered addict and alholic myself, I’ve found Taoist principles to be an excellent source of encouragement when conflicted with “my will” vs. “gods will” idealogy.

  9. Mindy on February 6, 2019 at 6:56 pm

    With that shadow, the heroine would never get her chance to shine. I, also, love Richard Rohr, and read him often.

    • Mindy on February 6, 2019 at 6:58 pm

      argh. WITHOUT that shadow, the heroine would never get her chance to shine. oops.

  10. Meems on February 7, 2019 at 10:33 am

    As usual, an excellent, thought-provoking, and super helpful post. Just a few days ago, I saw the following Jung quote posted on writer Jonathan Carroll’s social media, “What you most need to know is where you don’t want to look”, and then I see this article discussing Jung, too. Seems to me that I should be sitting up and taking extra notice of Jung these days. 🙂 Thank you for this.

  11. Gwen Abitz on February 7, 2019 at 11:05 am

    This Blog had me remember listening [in the early 1950’s] to the THE SHADOW on the radio and hearing “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow Knows and I feel always Knew. FROM GOOGLE: “A figure never seen, only heard, the Shadow was an invincible crime fighter. He possessed many gifts which enabled him to overcome any enemy. Besides his tremendous strength, he could defy gravity, speak any language, unravel any code, and become invisible with his famous ability to cloud men’s minds.” For me: My Shadow became “my hero” of and for “the story.”

  12. Ian Mathews on February 7, 2019 at 5:29 pm

    I felt like the end of El Camino had similar elements. Through the entire movie, Eastwood’s character battles his own shadow – a deep skepticism of his neighbors, other cultures, his family. He is clearly a man not to be messed with and handy with weapons. He has already beaten one of the gang members to within inches of his life. When he heads to the gang member’s house after the girl is beaten, it feels like a forgone conclusion that he is going to shoot up the entire house (like every other Eastwood western). When he pulls his hand with no gun and sacrifices his life, he does something completely selfless for people he used to disdain (Asians). He conquers his shadow racism and makes the ultimate sacrifice. Or maybe I am stretching because I love that movie, Steven.

    Regardless, great article. I love the way you break down narratives and enjoyed War of Art and No One Wants to Read Your Shit.

  13. Jay Cadmus on February 12, 2019 at 5:41 pm

    Thank you!
    In your path, I’ve been reading Father Rohr’s contemplations for years.
    Learning about this “shadow acceptance” has been very helpful in my writing.
    Your teachings go hand-in-hand with those of Richard Rohr.
    I wish I had discovered you both on my younger journey.
    Jay Cadmus

  14. Anusha Narayanan on February 13, 2019 at 4:51 am

    I got to your website and subscribed to you mini course. All this happened because I love Marie Forleo and she happened to interview you recently. I thank you from the core of my soul because your interview and your content-rich empathetic website has been like Aloe Vera to my creative being — soothing, healing and comforting. I now can identify the feelings I have been struggling to fight for days, perhaps weeks or months and call it by a name: Resistance. I now understand what that energy was that I could often feel like I was dissipating when the inner conflict between my negative self talk and my creative self would take place. After reading your words and listening to you and Marie, something in me has shifted. Of course, this is only ONE of the many situations in life where I will face resistance in some form or the other, but it’s brought me relief to know that after how I felt yesterday, today was different, positive and totally livable. That no matter how much exhaustion or pain I feel because of resistantance today, if I don’t give in, if I keep calm and keep chipping away at my dreams, if I take one little step forward, tomorrow will be totally livable.

    Thank you so much Steve.

  15. Julie Murray on February 15, 2019 at 3:16 pm

    Love, love, LOVE this insight! It’s true: the Hero isn’t the antithesis of the Villain. They are on the same energy spectrum, and the Hero has made his energy conscious. Thanks for sharing this.

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