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.