Writers, Know Your Archetypes: The Shapeshifter

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In Part 6 of my series about archetypes, I will examine the Shapeshifter:

1. As the name implies, a shapeshifter is a character who is not what he or she appears to be, either to the hero, the reader, or both.

2. Shapeshifting may be a literal part of the character. Obvious examples would be vampires, werewolves, magicians and wizards. The Harry Potter universe has several shapeshifting characters, including Professor McGonagall, Remus Lupin, and Sirius Black. Dr. Jekyll from Robert Louis Stevenson’s story The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde changes himself into a psychopath by taking a potion he invented.

3. The way to differentiate the shapeshifter from the trickter and fool archetypes: tricksters are up-front about what they are, and fools are usually oblivious to what they are. Shapeshifters are generally aware they are pretending to be something they’re not, and are careful to conceal it from the hero/other characters.

4. Shapeshifters may be antagonistic or benevolent. Someone who may appear to be a villain may actually turn out to be an ally. An ally may eventually reveal themselves as an antagonist.

5. It is not unusual for shapeshifters to switch allegiance multiple times during a story. An example would be Varys from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones, to TV viewers). Varys declares his interests align with what’s good for the realm at any given moment. Petyr Baelish from the same series is a schemer who changes sides several times, though his motives are always entirely selfish. Margaery Tyrell is yet another shapeshifting character from the series, who switches allegiances to whichever character(s) she thinks can make her Queen.

The TV series Lost also had several shapeshifter characters. Juliet seemed to be a malevolent character on the side of the “Others,” but turned out to hate the people who persuaded her to come to the island. In Ben Linus’ first appearance, he “shapeshifted” into a different person, Henry Gale, to infiltrate the main characters’ encampment. Over the course of the series, characters, as well as viewers, would go from hating, to liking, to feeling sympathy, then back to hating him. In the end, it turned out he did everything he did because he believed he was protecting the island.

6. Many stories have shapeshifter characters who are the opposite sex of the protagonist. If a romance is in the heroine’s point of view, the shapeshifter will frequently be the hero. An example would be Edward from the Twilight series, who is both literally and figuratively a shapeshifter.

In a mystery or film noir featuring a male protagonist, the shapeshifter will frequently be a female character–the notorious “femme fatale.” Classic examples would be Phyllis Dietrichson from the movie Double Indemnity and Matty Walker from Body Heat. A more recent example would be Mal from the movie Inception.

There is also the “homme fatale”–a male character who lures female characters into danger. These characters typically appear in “woman in jeopardy” stories. For instance, the husband in the movie Sleeping with the Enemy.

7. Femme and homme fatale characters don’t always have to be deadly characters. Their main function is to distract, dazzle and confuse the protagonist. This helps to add dramatic tension and mystery to the story. Sometimes, it can be a way to add humor–for instance, Marilyn Monroe often played a character who dazzled the male protagonist(s) in comedies such as Some Like It Hot, Bus Stop and The Seven Year Itch.

8. Some characters initially seem to be shapeshifters, but that turns out to be an erroneous perception by other characters. A perfect example would be Elizabeth Bennet’s perception of Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice. Mr. Darcy, though he keeps certain things private, is not trying to deceive Elizabeth. In fact, the first time he proposes to her, he’s shocked by her negative assessment of his character.

Another example would be Johnny Aysgarth in the classic Hitchcock movie, Suspicion. For much of the movie, his wife Lina suspects he may be a criminal and even a killer. Her perception of his true character is constantly changing throughout the story.

9. Any character–including the hero–may acquire shapeshifting characteristics to achieve their goal(s). This is especially true when characters must get past another archetype, the threshold guardian. Luke Skywalker disguises himself as an Imperial stormtrooper so he can rescue Princess Leia. Donkey in the movie Shrek helps them get past Dragon, who is guarding Fiona, by pretending to flirt with her.

10. It’s not unusual for shapeshifting to lead to something real. For instance, in the Donkey example, he eventually falls in love with Dragon. In the movie The Producers, Max Bialistock pretends to be Leo Bloom’s friend so he can manipulate him into pulling off a fraud. Later on, the two become genuine friends.

11. The ultimate use of the shapeshifter archetype is the unreliable narrator. This is a character–sometimes the protagonist, sometimes another character–who narrates a story but turns out to not be telling the truth about events. Examples would be the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, the novel and movie Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk and many stories by Edgar Allan Poe, most famously The Cask of Amontillado.

Please check out my other articles about archetypes:

The Trickter

The Mentor

The Herald

The Fool

The Threshold Guardian

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