Shapeshifters: When It's Time to Shift the Story's Shape
by Paula Fleming

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Stories about people who assume animal form, and animals who assume human form, have probably been around since protohumans gathered around fires. From the bloodthirsty werewolf of Europe to the guiding spirits of American Indians, from gods to devils to misunderstood human outcasts, thousands of such stories have been published.

A popular trope offers opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, if we haven't gotten tired of shapeshifters yet, we probably won't ever get tired of them. Shapeshifter stories will always find an avid audience. On the other hand, readers experienced in the genre are familiar with the trope in all its many varieties, and the chance you'll do something new with it is slim to none. Moreover, editors are usually very familiar with these stories, seeing a lot of them come through their slush piles (they're as popular to write as they are to read). Unless you can do something new, your chances of a sale are also slim to none.

So what's a writer to do?

Well first, if a market's guidelines specifically say, "Do not send werewolf stories," don't send a werewolf story, no matter how stunning you think it is. The editor is tired of them and doesn't want to see yours. Likewise, if the guidelines say, "Don't send any stories about pagan gods," then don't send your tale about the Mayan jaguar god. Respect editors' guidelines.

With that out of the way . . . write a powerful story. These never go out of style. If you take the reader someplace they've never been -- into a well- drawn character's life toward a complicated problem -- then the tried-and-true shapeshifter will feel fresh. Whether horror, science fiction, or fantasy; whether folktale, contemporary adventure, or bioengineering speculation; whether angst-ridden, mythic, or humorous -- good shapeshifter stories are about interesting "people" (in whatever form) doing interesting things. Just like any other kind of story.

When writing about shapeshifters, we should first ask ourselves, "Why is my character a shapeshifter?" If the story's theme -- a young person's coming of age, the price of sexual transgression, a murder mystery -- would unroll the same way if the character was not a shapeshifter, then chances are we don't need to add another shapeshifter story to the slush piles. Just because we like them (and I love shapeshifters) and they're really cool (they are) is not a good reason to pop one into a story that doesn't need one.

Assuming that our tale passes the "necessity test" -- it needs one or more shapeshifter characters to explore its thematic territory the way we want to -- let's take a look at some of the common reasons writers use shapeshifters. Chances are, our story falls into one (or more) of these categories.

Types of Shapeshifter Stories

The above categories may not be all-inclusive; they're what I've been able to come up with by way of a little brain-scratching. If you've written a story that doesn't fit any of the above descriptions, feel free to describe another category for it. The point is that shapeshifter characters tend to work well to tell certain kinds of stories. We don't need to fight this truth by telling a hard SF story about poor shoreline erosion management via alien weresharks. (Well, maybe you could make it work, but I'm bored already.) We do need to understand that our readers, and editors, have probably seen shapeshifters before in whatever context we've given them. We're not going to hold readers' attention by describing vividly the hair breaking out on knuckles or by giving our crow spirit magical powers of farseeing. We will write a story worth reading if it explores its theme with genuine insight, if the shapeshifter is integral to the plot, and if the setting and characters are well developed.

In summary, lots of great shapeshifter tales have been published, and many will be published in the future. When dealing with oft-written tropes, don't try to startle the reader with some new twist . It's simply unlikely that you'll write anything new. Instead, feel free to run wild in previously explored territory -- there's strong thematic stuff in those categories -- but try to get deeper, and deeper yet, into your story elements until you've written a tale we can't put down.

Find Out More...

Do Werewolves Wear Shoes? Building Successful Horror Characters, by Shaunna Privratsky

Writing the Modern Vampire: An Interview with Susan Sizemore, by Moira Allen

Copyright © 2003 Paula Fleming
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Paula L. Fleming's science fiction and fantasy have appeared in a variety of publications, including; Tales of the Unanticipated #20, #22, and #24; Meisha Merlin's Such a Pretty Face anthology; and Lone Wolf Publishing's Extremes 3: Terror on the High Seas anthology. By day, she's a human resources generalist at the Wedge Community Co-op. To help her, she has three big dogs, two cats, and one husband. Visit her home page at or her blog at


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