Next on the list in my “…in Fiction” series is shapeshifters! These are less commonly used, though most of these supernatural/magical creatures are shapeshifters in some way. Therefore, I will discuss them as their own entity as well as in a subcategory of another creature (ex. Vampire “bat”, Werewolf, and Shapeshifting Magic).
To begin, I’ll list a few examples of these from popular fiction. The first I can think of is actually from a book series I read called the Shadow Falls series by C.C. Hunter. In her novels, shapeshifters are one of the multiple supernatural creatures who attend a camp for their kind. (The other creatures are werewolves, vampires, and fae, if I recall correctly.) The shapeshifters have the ability to transform into anything. They have no other magic but have been known to transform into animals and be able to change their human appearance as well.
Another example of shape-changers is the Skrulls from Marvel. The Skrulls are an alien race capable of changing their appearance to anything they see, be it humans or objects (though in Captain Marvel, it’s explained why they wouldn’t normally disguise themselves as inanimate objects; ex. a filing cabinet). Being able to perfectly replicate another living thing takes a combination of skill, practice, and natural talent, as explained by Talos.
The Skrull’s powers are similar to Mystique, who is one of the mutants from X-Men. I include her because even though she is not part of a larger group of “shapeshifters”, shapeshifting her is sole power and is not derived from anything else. I’m not sure how exactly this power works for her, but it is portrayed in the movies as her natural blue skin/scales rippling and adapting. She can mimic any person, even from a photograph, and can perhaps even choose her attributes (to create a human identity, as seen in the prequels). It seems that she can also increase or decrease the amount of matter she is made of (to become a larger person or a smaller person), which is consistent with other shapeshifters. Unlike the Skrulls, though, she cannot access any memories of the people she mimics, and this is usually what breaks her cover.
Another example I have of “shapeshifter” shapeshifters is actually due to other powers, but I’ll include them all the same. The Greek Gods, from mythology. I include them here because they are using natural powers to do so, and they are not limited to one alternative form, unlike the creatures I will mention below. Zeus, in the myths, is especially famous for doing this and has seduced many a maiden (or hides from his wife because of said escapades) with this ability.
Next—because of course I can’t leave him out—is Camilo from Encanto. He is given his shapeshifting powers from the magic candle. He is on this list similar to Mystique because his powers were granted by other means, but it is his singular power. He can perfectly mimic any other person. He has not been shown to mimic animals or objects, so it’s assumed that he can only transform into other people.
On the flip side from Camilo is Beast Boy, or Garfield Logan, from DC. Because of a childhood illness/experimental medicine, he gains the ability to shapeshift into any animal. He cannot mimic people or objects (though in one episode of Teen Titans 2003–06, he is affected by magic and can only transform into inanimate objects). Another downside of his power is that he is green; likewise, any animal he transforms into is also green.
Alternative Creature Shapeshifters
This category encompasses all other shapeshifters, those who are typically limited to a specific form or have gained their shapeshifting abilities by being a known supernatural creature. This includes werewolves, vampires, witches/wizards, and the like.
First, werewolves, also known as lycanthropes (from lycan meaning “wolf” and –thrope meaning “that which turns”. These are the most well-known shape-changers, though with the suffix –thrope it can mean any creature who changes into another creature. This ability as a whole is known as therianthropy is the mythological ability of human beings to metamorphose into other animals by means of shapeshifting. To be honest, I think you could take the Greek name for any animal and combine it with –thrope for the ability to be created. After a few Google searches, I found also werecats (ailurantropes), kitsunes, selkies, and kelpies. Each of these creatures has its own mythos and origins and is really interesting, so I highly recommend a deep dive.
Vampires are a different sort of creature, as not all fiction portrays them with the ability to change forms. In the classic Dracula by Bram Stoker (a book I’m currently reading!), Count Dracula is shown with the ability to transform into a bat, but also into fog and into a wolf. In The Mortal Instruments (a series I just finished reading), vampires are able to transform into rats and other animals.
As for witches/wizards or other magical means of transformation, look no further than the Harry Potter series, which has many different methods of such. There are animagi like Sirius Black, who performed a long, painstaking ritual to be able to transform into an animal. He can transform into a single animal. There is transfiguration, which allows a witch or wizard to transform things (also themselves, but this is not recommended) into other things. The closer the original object is to the new object, the easier the change (ex. a match into a needle). The third method of transformation has a genetic component. A Metamorphmagus is a witch and wizard born with the innate ability to transform their own features, such as Tonks, who takes great pride and pleasure in changing her features, such as her hair colour—or even changing her nose into a pig snout.
Writing Shapeshifters Well
In my opinion, shapeshifters can be written really well or really poorly. Sometimes it’s a fact that the author has given these characters powers but forgets that they have them in moments of dire need, or they use it as a plot convenience because they haven’t introduced the necessary limitations of power.
The main tips I have for writing shapeshifters are:
- Make a list of all shapeshifting characters
- Make a profile of each “brand” of shapeshifter (include what they can do, their limitations, etc.)
- Know what this ability can be used for, how it can be helpful, how it can be a hindrance, and how the world might react to them (ex. magical regulations, registration, etc.)
This will allow them to add the magical element you want to the story. It’ll be easier to remember what they can add to any problem your characters face without making them overpowered.
A quick sidenote about what I mean when I say “overpowered”: This happens a lot with magical items and such, but I will use The Marauders’ Map from Harry Potter as my example. Many of the plot holes in the books come from magical items such as this map—either because it should’ve shown things to the characters, or it had to be removed from play so that characters remained in the dark. For example, the Weasley twins had the map and therefore should’ve noticed that Ron was sleeping in the same bed as Peter Pettigrew. On the opposite side of things, the map was taken from Harry in the fourth book so that he wouldn’t notice Barty Crouch Jr. on it.
Set the powers, set the limitations, and stick with them. Your readers will thank you because there is nothing worse than reading a book with inconsistent power sets.
Polyjuice Potion Case Study
The way this is done with Polyjuice potion is written into the limitations of the potion. It is difficult to brew, takes a long time to brew, and uses uncommon ingredients. Getting it wrong has dire consequences. This is an immediate diffuser for the “why don’t they just use Polyjuice?” question. If they need the potion on short notice, it doesn’t work because it has to be prepared a month in advance. On top of that, I don’t believe it can be made well in advance either because Barty Crouch Jr. still has to steal ingredients from Snape so he can continue brewing more.
On top of that, you must already have a piece of DNA from the person you want to transform into, and the potion has a time limit. If you want to be disguised for more than an hour, you have to keep topping up the potion in your system, and you also have to maintain access to the person (or access to the DNA of the person) you want to become. It only changes the appearance, so with the world knowing about the potion, someone can easily be discovered if they don’t act according to the person they’ve become.
Some people still complain that Polyjuice potion is an overused plot device, and others point out scenes where the potion could be used when it wasn’t. Still, the set powers and limitations of the potion remain consistent, and they don’t give the user godlike abilities which could be abused.
Keeping Powers Consistent & Realistic
Dragonia Series Case Study
Another example I would like to point out is the book series I just finished reading, the Dragonia series by Craig A. Price Jr. (see my book reviews here). They are decent stories, but something that bothered me throughout the reading experience was the convenience of the powers, especially when mages are introduced, and their powers keep evolving. At first, only the dragons/wyverns/etc. can use the magic. Then a character who was blessed with elemental magic showed up, and soon, they have a group of about a hundred of them. If it stopped here, I would’ve been fine with it. They all have the same powers, but some are better than others depending on natural skill and level of practice.
However, book 3 introduces an item that enhances magical ability, and different characters each begin inventing new ways to use magic—seemingly for the purpose of the plot. The advancement doesn’t seem realistic, and they somewhat challenge the established rules of magic for the sake of the plot. Every time something new is needed to explain why the good guys keep winning, it shows up. On the other hand, every time they invent something new, the antagonist (who can also use magic) already knows how to do it.
I think it bothers me so much because they’ve just introduced the concept of magic in book 2, and by book 4 it seems they’ve progressed hundreds of years into the study of magic, rather than a couple of months. It also gives very specific characters their own unique powers instead of taking what is already shared by them all and using that to fight back. Instead of working at the shared powers and using them uniquely, there are so many “firsts” introduced all at once, and it’s hard to keep track of.
The same thing can be applied to shapeshifters. You shouldn’t introduce shapeshifters into a piece of writing only to give the main character a bunch of attributes that make them unique from every other shapeshifter. It’s just bad writing because this method almost always leads to the dreaded “Mary Sue” character who is great at everything.
As the author, it’s tempting to just try to fix everything by introducing something new. It’s so easy; you have control of everything. But a great author will only throw problems at the characters that they can solve with what they have. This being said, as the protagonists evolve, the antagonist must evolve to match them. It is this struggle of both hero and villain getting the upper hand that makes the rising power and tension exciting.
Let me know if you’re using shapeshifters in your work and if this article helped you adjust anything about the way you’re writing them!