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?