Hi gang, Craig with you today. This is post number six in the character archetypes series. In the Hero’s Journey, there are some common characters that are likely to show up in all stories. This doesn’t mean each archetype shows up in every story, and aside from the hero, the rest are kind of optional. Almost every story will have an assortment of them.
This series is to introduce you to them. Once you’re aware of them, you can decide if they can benefit the story you’re writing.
Today we have one of the more creative archetypes, and one that’s fun to play around with, The Shapeshifter.
This character is not what he/she seems, either to the other characters, or, in many cases, the reader. They differ from The Trickster in that tricksters are up front and honest about who they are. Shapeshifters, not so much.
This is the femme fatale, the double agent, the unreliable narrator, someone who has a secret agenda in the story.
One example that comes to mind is Boromir from the Lord of the Rings. He may have started off with the best intentions, but I doubt it. The ring poisoned him to the point that he tried to take it and that revealed his true loyalty, Gondor.
Others that come to mind are Catwoman, who waffles between being a hero or villain. That chick from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Stand by… Google time… Dr. Elsa Schneider. In the real world, General Benedict Arnold lent his name to an expression that basically means shapeshifter, turncoat, etc.
Dr. Schneider also brought a lot of sexual tension to the Crusade. This is frequently part of the Shapeshifter role. Bad boys and girls are a popular use for this character.
I remember a film based upon a graphic novel called Sin City. At one point a woman’s mother was kidnapped. She rallied the troops, then led them into a trap, because she cut a deal with the villains to free her mother… Shapeshifter.
This archetype gets used all the time in team-up stories. The soldiers have fought together, drank together, stitched each other’s wounds. Then one of them gets word of the Confederate gold, Nazi gold, drug lord money. He leads the troop on a mission under false pretenses to acquire those riches. Many times after succeeding, the shapeshifter tries to kill everyone. Dead men tell no tales, that kind of mentality.
There was an old film, and eventual remake, called The Italian Job. It involved a shapeshifter event early in the story, then the rest of the story was about getting revenge on him.
It all happened off the page, or screen, but Professor Snape was a shapeshifter to team Voldemort.
During my research, I came across a couple of examples that got described as shapeshifter issues that I disagree with here. One is the character who is literally a shapeshifter. Yes Peter Pettigrew can change into a rat, but he’s only a shapeshifter in the archetype context if you look at the high school chums that included James Potter, Professor Lupin, and Sirius Black. The archetype involves a character issue, not a physical issue.
The other one I disagree with is a moment of subterfuge that is not part of character. Putting on the Stormtrooper uniforms so Luke and Han could sneak around the Death Star does not make them shapeshifters. Their true character did not reveal itself in that moment.
Captain Jack Sparrow frequently has shapeshifter story lines. He isn’t trying to free Elizabeth, he’s trying to free himself from the clutches of Davy Jones. He makes for a fun example, because he’s a main character, and his subterfuge is known to the audience the entire time.
Revealing the shapeshifter’ s true nature is great for one of the turning points in the story. The prize is within reach, except you have a backstabber in your midst. The plan is ruined, and the heroes have to regroup. It’s also satisfying for readers to see the shapeshifter get a bit of Karma in the end.
Shapeshifters can also get a satisfying redemption. If they were forced into their role, maybe you can play it off as them having no choice. Probably more useful when there was some sexual tension involved.
There is a lot to work with here, and many directions you can take it. Readers like a surprise or two along the way, and the Shapeshifter can help with that. So how about it, gang? Would you ever consider writing a Shapeshifter into your story? Have you? Let me hear from you in the comments.