When I think of shapeshifters, I think of television shows like Supernatural, and the liquid metal android assassin T-1000 from the Terminator movies. I also think of the mythology I read when I was a younger. Stories of Zeus shifting his godly form to seduce women and sow chaos for us mere mortals.
A shapeshifter is a form of archetype (if you are unfamiliar with archetypes you can go here for more information). While the ones I mentioned above are literally shapeshifters, they can even be more subtle in the context of fiction. A shapeshifter can be a chaotic character who constantly switches sides, opinions, and appearance.
Christopher Vogler explains in The Writer’s Journey that, “Shapeshifters change appearance or mood, and are difficult for the hero and the audience to pin down. They may mislead the hero or keep her guessing, and their loyalty or sincerity is often in question” (p. 75).
There is an interesting psychological component to shapeshifters. Carl Gustav Jung, the psychologist who developed Jungian Archetypes, believed that on a basic subconscious level we all identify with certain types of characters. The shapeshifter taps into our human need to categorize people. When we are unable to do this successfully, this adds another dimension in how we think of the character.
I think we have all met someone who we found to be very attractive, or very repulsive. It is a shallow way of thinking, but on a certain level, we all do it. In that moment, we make a snap judgement about the person before we know anything about them. Often times, our judgments are flawed.
This is one reason why shapeshifters are such a powerful tool. The ability to cause the reader to make snap judgement allows you the opportunity to surprise them.
Here are a couple concepts to play with and toss into your creative whirlpools.
Physical observation clashes with emotional understanding. This is classically revealed in fiction as the femme fatale. These are the beautiful and enchanting sirens singing songs and luring sailors to their dooms. Or the damsel in distress who is actually a spider weaving a dangerous web.
This is obviously not gender dependent. I think of the television show Dexter. The socially awkward, and seemingly harmless, blood spatter analyst who moonlights as a serial killer.
Regardless of gender, the shapeshifter wears their disguise just as well as they hide their intentions.
These examples don’t just challenge your heroes and add interesting twists to you story, they also impact the readers understanding of the world around them. It alters the way they look at it. It enforces the idea that things aren’t always as they seem.
The convenient shapeshifter. These are the characters who don personalities and disguises to navigate troublesome situations. This ability for a character to change who they are adds a level of complexity to the writing. It can also cause the reader to look at your characters in a different light.
There is something inspiring about the daring hero who uses a disguise to sneak into a enemy hideout and delve out justice. Or the hero who pretends to be a bad guy just long enough to take out their enemies.
On the flip-side, there is something cowardly and nefarious about the person who changes their personality to make those around them happy, or for the purposes of manipulation. What makes this sort of character appealing is we all know one.
That’s it for shapeshifters. If you run into a literal one, you should probably try to kill them with silver (according to Supernatural). If they are a liquid metal android assassin just run – that’s a complex beast to kill.
I will touch on other archetypes in the future as I become more educated about them. What are some examples of shapeshifters you have found appealing? What was it about them that stands out to you? I would love to know – it’ll help me build my own creations!
Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!