Michaeline: Shapeshifters, Part Two

The femme fatale is a typical shapeshifter -- powerful, yet vulnerable if someone sees past the illusion. Via Wikimedia Commons

The femme fatale is a typical shapeshifter — powerful, yet vulnerable if someone sees past the illusion. Via Wikimedia Commons

Oh, how the time flies by! Two weeks ago, I was exploring what a shapeshifter was. A week ago, I sent you all down the magical rabbit hole known as TV Tropes, and I hope you have returned by now, clutching at least some small prize. Today, I’m still wrestling with the shapeshifter. I know what it IS in the context of the story. Now, I’m going to explore what it does.

Fortunately, I can count on the internet to shape my unformed instincts into clearer ideas. In general, “the shapeshifter’s job is usually to dazzle, confuse, lie to, occasionally help and delay a protagonist,” according to Melinda Goodin. There are two kinds of shapeshifter: the natural-born changer, and the one who is cursed (by magic or disease). Traditionally, they play different functions.

The natural-born shapeshifter is often a trickster character, like Loki (Norse transvestite and general merry man) or Anansi (spider god). They generally don’t mean harm, but self-interest or pride cause them to lash back and create conflict in a story. The change is voluntary, and “are means of escape and liberation”. In other words, with their powers under control, shapeshifters can save themselves through their powers.

The cursed shapeshifter, on the other hand, often changes involuntarily. “(T)he thematic effect is one of constraint and confinement.” Think of the unhappy werewolves who go into solitary once a month so they don’t destroy their families, friends and societies. Others in this genre are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or the Incredible Hulk. Being out of control causes problems; the conflict often comes up when the “normal” form of the person tries to clean up the mess, or when the person tries to sequester themselves and their secret.

The femme fatale could fall in either or both categories. Sometimes she’s born that way (beautiful with a overly-active sense of self-preservation), and sometimes she’s been twisted that way by bad experiences (going to get the bastards before they get her).

Now we get into territory that I don’t really want to prod too closely. I’m afraid to jinx the process. But, the thing is, transformation is very important in my book. My first big set piece is at a masquerade ball. The were-cheetah was the seed of the story. Bunny is a transformational New Woman – she’s always been coming from a state of poverty into a state of self-sufficiency (and will eventually be wildly successful, I think). Things are not what they see.

But I’m balanced on a knife-edge here – it makes sense to look at the other characters and wonder, “well, how are *they* not what they seem?” But on the other hand, I could go overboard and force traits on them (“oh, Michael James is mild-mannered publisher by day, but turns into a Krypotonite-eating alien by night! No, no, no.”) all in the name of “I’ve got this theme!”

I do think I’m going to have to figure out how to get the plot transformative. Nothing is as it seems, until it all suddenly makes sense.

Do you know of any movies, books or short stories that do this? The obvious answer is the mystery. And this month, a couple of dead bodies have shown up on the edge of my mind, but I’m not quite sure I want to go that way. Dead people are really high stakes, but I’m not sure I want to kill people just to prove my point. I wonder if there are other high stakes for this kind of plot.

6 thoughts on “Michaeline: Shapeshifters, Part Two

  1. The most spectacular example I can think of is a film: The Usual Suspects. Nothing is as it seems, and when you get to the end of the movie you have to replay the whole thing in your head and re-assemble the pieces. It’s very clever, and brilliantly acted.

    For books, I love The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner. It is clever and well-written and the shifts in reader perspective are so naturally done that they sneak up on you until you say ‘oh, of course!’ I think you’d really enjoy them – fantastic world-building, fascinating characters, real problems, intelligent writing. The following two books The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia are excellent and surprising too, which is a hard feat to pull off once the reader has The Thief in their mental library.

    • I’ll have to see if that’s in my video store — I’ve heard of The Usual Suspects, but can’t remember what I’ve heard (-:. I think everyone tries to avoid spoilers, so it’s just the name that’s out there . . . .

      I have The Thief; maybe I should re-read that.

      A writer really needs to juggle a lot of stuff in order to pull off a mystery. It’s got to be entertaining enough in the paragraphs and sentences to keep the reader satisfied, and it still has to drop hints and get the bigger mystery set up . . . . (Not sure if I’m up to all that . . . . But I could give it try. Better to have a failed story than a story that just floats around in the space between my ears. We can fix a failed story. Rah-rah-rah. ((That’s my invisible cheerleader, who has to show up when I’m being too pessimistic and letting pessimism paralyze me.)))

  2. If you’ve never watched the television show 24, the first season is shocking in terms of how the characters are not who they seem. They don’t really transform, however, as much as they are playing parts. And once a trigger happens, or the time is right, they assume a different role. After the first season, you come to expect that, so it’s less of a surprise. And, yes, the body counts are super high and Jack Bauer gets in a lot of fights. I loved that show.

    • (-: That is a hugely popular show in my video store. I have been afraid to start because I’m not a fan of dead bodies, and because . . . well, you know. 11 hours of commitment for one season. (Wait, that’s an hour-long show, so it’s more, isn’t it?)

      My goodness, I’m such a fearful, timorous wee beastie this month. Afraid to start a TV series? It sounds great; I’ve got some holidays coming up, too. I could start it. Sounds like it works with a lot of conflicts, so it’d be great research, aside from the transformation angle.

  3. Although I haven’t seen it in years and years, I loved the movie Deathtrap with Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine. IIRC, there comes a point in the movie where it seems every few minutes something we thought we knew about a character is turned on its head. And if it doesn’t help you with the idea of shapeshifters, you’ll still have spent an enjoyable few hours. I think I’ll talk hubby into rewatching it with me on our next stay-at-home movie date.

    • I wonder why I’m confusing this with Mousetrap? (-: OK, another one on the list.

      BTW, several weeks ago I talked about an old Sandra Dee/Bobby Darin movie called “If a Man Answers.” I ordered it from Amazon and watched it with much trepidation — would it live up to the old movie I must have seen on the old Turner Broadcasting System? Oh, my, yes. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I’m sure, but it was rather good. Lots of stereotypical roles, but still, a basic respect for people’s humanity. And I hear echoes of the Dog Whisperer when I watched it — some people don’t get the same kindness you’d pay to a dog.

      (This was the movie about a woman who was told by her mother to “train” her husband using a dog manual, BTW.)

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