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

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

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

  • Estrangement from family: Usually in this story, a child or teenager is disowned by their family because they are different, or they fear discovery and banishment. This theme can play off of any number of real-life situations; e.g., the son who is scorned because he'd rather read than play baseball, the daughter who would rather train for a marathon than go to the mall, the child who is gay, etc. One of the most affecting shapeshifter stories I've read is The Werefox by Elizabeth Coatsworth. It's about a boy who is a werefox and whose unsympathetic father is hunting the werefox, with no idea it is his son.

  • Alienation from society: As in an "estrangement from family" story, the werecritter fears discovery and its consequences. The werecritter may live far from the village or be a recent arrival, so that suspicion naturally falls on them; or the werecritter may live a very normal life and seek to misdirect suspicion toward "odd" people. This theme lends itself to detective/mystery plots, and it often crosses over with the "Alien Among Us" and "Beast Within" themes. An excellent example of this form, "Truthseeker" by Moira Allen -- and, no, I'm not just saying it's good because she happens to pay me to write this! -- appeared in Rogue's World #8 January 2003 (sadly, this piece is no longer available online).

  • The beast within: Related to the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde theme, these stories use shapeshifter characters to explore the duality of human nature, the good and evil angels sitting on our shoulders or, to put it another way, the battle between ego and id. Frequently in such stories, the werecritter kills as a were but feels remorse as a human and may seek some way to remove the curse permanently. In contemporary settings, the werecritter may appear to suffer from a split personality disorder or psychosis.

  • Aliens among us: A recent example of this common science fiction theme is Odo and his shapeshifting kin in Star Trek: Deep Space 9. How does society react if our chairs and our generals might be murderous aliens? How do we retain civil liberties, especially with regard to our chairs :-), when we can't tell civilian from enemy combatant (as in many parts of the contemporary world). To what tests do we put suspects to cull real people from aliens, and what do these tests say about how we define "humanness"? The 1938 short story by John W. Campbell, Jr., "Who Goes There?", which has been made into several films and inspired an early X-Files episode, tells a chilling tale about scientists in an Arctic outpost and the doppelganger alien they thaw.

  • Transgressive eroticism: Sex between humans and animals can find very few markets. Even explicitly erotic markets don't want it. (I wish the spammers would get a clue that I'm not interested, either. I do sleep with my dogs but not that way, ya know?) Werecritter stories offer a way for humans to have sex with animals without actually having sex with animals. 'Nuff said. On another note entirely, the traditional lunar cycle of a werewolf's change corresponds neatly with the supposedly lunar cycle of a woman's menstrual cycle, suggesting many possibilities for exploring a girl's coming of age, feminist menstrual magick, pre-menstrual cramps and crabbiness, and social taboos around menstruation (in some societies, women must go live apart when they bleed -- maybe they change into werewolves when no one's looking?).

  • Romantic comedy: So how do you make a relationship work with a partner who sheds in the bed? What do you make for dinner when the in-laws come over? Does a big, sloppy kiss mean that all is forgiven?

  • Societal change: Industrialization and urbanization make life harder for werecritters. Just as Anna Sewell's novel Black Beauty was about a horse, but also about working-class people struggling for survival and dignity in 19th-century England, stories about werecritters can be about how people adapt to environmental and/or cultural destruction. For example, Pat Murphy's novel, Nadya, deals with this theme in an American frontier setting, where the werecritter has to journey west to find a community where she belongs. In a different way, Charles de Lint's Native American spirits struggle to protect their own in a decaying, urban future; for a very short story written in his Newford universe, read "The Crow Girls".

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 gothic.net; 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 http://home.comcast.net/~paulafleming/index.html or her blog at http://paulaleafleming.blogspot.com/.


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