Michaeline: Shapeshifters, part one

Something so odd about this picture -- not a woman, not a cheetah . . . needs some tweaking. I've got to get Kitty's cheetah side working with her woman side to form a whole character. Fernand Khnopff, via Wikimedia Commons

Something so odd about this picture — not a woman, not a cheetah . . . needs some tweaking. I’ve got to get Kitty’s cheetah side working with her woman side to form a whole character. Fernand Khnopff, via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever gotten half way through a first draft and realized that one of your main characters is a cardboard cutout? A two-dimensional stereotype?

When our minds are first blocking out story, it’s sometimes easier to use stereotypes as a rough tool. The Bad Girl with a Heart of Gold, the Uncommunicative Alpha Hero, the Evil Genius in her Lair . . . . But there comes a point where you are ready to focus on some of the details, and these fuzzy pom-pom characters aren’t sharp enough to shape your plot.

I’m at that point with . . . well, to be honest, all of my characters. But this month, I’m going to concentrate on Kitty Van Texel, the antagonist to what looks like my main plot.

She’s a were-cheetah, which sounds super-cool, and it also sounds like a very specific type of the general archetype of “shapeshifter.” But looking a little deeper, she still needs more definition. What exactly is a shapeshifter? Where do they get their powers?

Off the top of my head, I can think of three types of shapeshifter.

The first is the werewolf, which works on the disease model, somewhat like vampires. You turn into a werewolf by drinking the water from a werewolf’s footprint, or you get bitten. You were something else, and now, this outside force has infected you, and you are a werewolf (traditionally – you can also become a werewolf by birth in modern stories). In general, you are discovering your new powers like a child, and sometimes you don’t even know you are a werewolf. You don’t have much control over the situation, but modern stories have work-arounds, like getting your friends to imprison you during the full moon. Traditionally, you are a nuisance to be eradicated. There’s no cure.

You can also be cursed into shifting your shape, along the beauty and the beast model. You make a witch angry, and s/he forces a change upon you. Your goal is to get back to the body you once had – often, the catch is that you must make a fundamental shift to your soul. You learn to value people for things other than their shapes – and then the beast returns to being a man. The frog becomes a prince when he realizes his actions and words have more power than his physical appearance.

In my original backstory, Kitty was a little bit of both – cursed by the mother of her jilted (then murdered) lover, she turns into a were-cheetah when she’s very angry. She didn’t care much about turning back into a full human. To tell the truth, I think she enjoys the untamed power.

However, I got to thinking about a third type of shapeshifter. In the Japanese model, shapeshifters are not made, but born. They are not humans transformed into beasts, but foxes and raccoon-dogs (tanuki) who choose to turn into humans (or teapots) for their own economic needs. And a bit of a joke. What if I made Kitty a foundling? A were-cheetah taken in by humans, and raised as a human child? That changes her quite a bit. Being a beast is part of her nature, and we lose some of the tension of her fighting against that. Her anger might stem from being steered away from her true nature. Also, if she was born a were-cheetah, that’s not something she can escape. She can’t gain redemption by having the curse lifted. In fact, redemption kind of fades into the background.

Anyway, outside of paranormals, you won’t write a lot of shapeshifters. But you will have certain types – the abusive father, the ditzy girl, the angry matron of a certain age, the giddy boy. It’s worth exploring the types, and figuring out just what kind of character you have in the story.

I haven’t quite decided what to do about Kitty yet. If you‘ve got any suggestions, please brainstorm with me!

Next week, I hope to tackle how an archetype works in a story. Why exactly *is* there a shapeshifter in my story, and how can I boost her actions to highlight those themes?

5 thoughts on “Michaeline: Shapeshifters, part one

  1. Part of the reason I’m in the middle of major rewrites for Cheyenne is because my antagonist, Hawk, was a two-dimensional, predictable-in-every-way bad guy. Beside the fact that I didn’t want to write that story, River McConnell loved him. That meant he couldn’t be completely unredeemable. When I sketched out Hawk’s goals and motivations (as well as looked at the culture from which he came) I realized that Hawk (like Kitty) is who he is partly because of genetics but also because of the culture in which he was raised.

    Hawk is Navajo and culturally they have a strong sense of family and place, but they also love and cherish their stories and pass them down. When I recognized this, I saw what Hawk really wanted from Cheyenne. Even better Hawk turned 3 dimensional in a big way.

    I love your third option, Michaeline.

    • (-: All the writing I’ve done so far on the book is all discovery. I found a few things that have tweaked the characters, and I need to go back and make sure these things are hinted at or foreshadowed. I was kind of shocked when I went back to the original short I wrote, and Bunny had magic of her own. She was actually a much richer character in 700 words than she’s been in the several thousand words I’ve written in the book.

      Very cool that you found Hawk’s depth! (and sympathies on the rewrite, but we all know it’ll be better after the rewrite.)

  2. Anne Bishop’s Others sound like your third option, Michaeline. They are ancient, powerful versions of the animals we know and we are annoying newcomers in their world. There are Wolves (not wolves), Bears, Crows, Coyotes and so on. They assume human form sometimes to interact with humans, but they are not at all human. Which makes the novels a lot of fun to read as the Others try to understand the human characters and vice-versa. There’s a fabulous exchange between the heroine and hero – he’s taken to sleeping with her, nicely curled up in his furry form, and it feels safe and comforting. Then she has a nightmare and he changes to his hot naked man form so he can talk to her and ask her what’s wrong. She freaks out and he’s totally unable to understand why – he’s always the same Wolf, furry or not.

    Anne Bishop’s model makes for a different dynamic compared to the traditional werewolf model. I like Patricia Briggs’ take on that, where you see two souls (wolf and man) inhabiting the same body, sometimes human and sometimes wolf. The human and wolf have different priorities and one or other may be in charge at any one time. They have to find a way to live together. I thought about this when I was reading Steve Peters’ Chimp Paradox book. There are some strong similarities between the Patricia Briggs’ wolf and Dr. Peters’ Chimp.

    I guess you have to decide who you want Kitty to be and then choose the model that gives you the most oomph for her character – or invent a new one 😉

    • I love that! We treat our naked animals a lot different than our naked people — maybe the fur just reads as “clothes” to us so strongly.

      I wish I could just choose who Kitty wants to be. I feel like I’m always offering up dishes to my characters, and they are like picky cats — turning their noses up at this, devouring that, surprising me by choosing to like lettuce . . . . The blog’s been very helpful for delicately presenting a few options for Kitty to choose from. I’m waiting rather passively for her to figure out who she wants to be.

  3. Pingback: Michaeline: TV Tropes, A Public Service Announcement | Eight Ladies Writing

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