Character Archetypes: The Shapeshifter

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.

Obligatory traffic signal: The last post was about The Trickster, the next one is about The Guardian.

44 thoughts on “Character Archetypes: The Shapeshifter

  1. Pingback: The Three Acts: Act2, Part 1 | Story Empire

  2. Pingback: Character Archetypes: The Guardian | Story Empire

  3. Great post, Craig! My series has both shapeshifters and the shapeshifter archetype. In fact, one of my characters was both a shapeshifter and served to represent the archetype. Then, I had another character who just fit the archetype. I enjoy stories with twists and using this type of character is a great way to bring in that twist. 🙂

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  4. This series of posts is fun, makes me think about what kinds of characters I’ve used and haven’t used. I agree with Staci. Peter Pettigrew, to me, betrayed Harry’s parents, so he’d be a shapeshifter. And didn’t he bite Ron and run back to Voldemort at the end? If I remember right, he was just a cowardly shapeshifter. But McGonnagle never betrayed Harry, right? It’s been a long time since I read these stories. I can’t think of a time that I used a shapeshifter in my own writing. Something to try sometime.

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  5. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    It’s Craig’s turn on Story Empire today, and he’s continuing his excellent series of posts on character archetypes. Today, he’s featuring the Shapeshifter archetype, and I can pretty much guarantee it isn’t what you might be thinking. Check it out, and then pass it along so other writers can also learn yet another way to create interesting characters, and why we should all consider this one. Thanks, and thanks to Craig for a super post! 🙂

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  6. Very interesting post, Craig. I’ve never thought about it in this way before. I do believe I (unintentionally) wrote a shapeshifter into my 2nd book, Swamp Ghosts, though it’s a trickier call than I would have imagined. I’ll be looking at all my archetypes differently as a result of this series, and shapeshifters will be written with a whole new perspective. Thanks for an excellent explanation. 🙂 Lots of folks can learn from this one, for sure. Sharing! 🙂

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    • PS, is there such a thing as a reverse shapeshifter? Namely, going from a bad (or seemingly bad) character to a good one? I don’t mean by redemption. I mean by how the character is first perceived, versus how he’s perceived by book’s end? Just curious.

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      • I agree, and yes, I can see that Prof. Snape is just what I meant. I should have picked up on that being a bad to good thing from your original post! (I loved Snape, btw, but that’s largely due to loving Alan Rickman so much. He was brilliant. But I digress ……)

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  7. When I saw the title of this blog, I immediately thought of the physical shapeshifters – from humans to some sort of animal, etc. But, the way you laid it out, it’s basically someone who is deceiving and hiding their true agenda. I can’t think of a story where I’ve written that character, but you have me thinking. 🙂 Sometimes that’s good and sometimes… well, we shall see. Thanks, Craig!

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  8. Hmm. I see what you’re saying, but I think I disagree; I do think Peter was a shapeshifter, but for the exact reason you said. You have to consider his backstory. Otherwise, he has no role in the book. If he hadn’t been a literary shapeshifter when Harry was a baby, the series wouldn’t have happened. He was definitely (IMHO) a secret betrayer, and it was that very betrayal that became the catalyst for the whole series. Unless the betrayal (by archetype definition) has to take place in the story itself and not in the backstory. Something to think about. Anyway…

    I love your example of Jack Sparrow, as he’s the hero and a shapeshifter. That makes me wonder how many mashups one character can be, especially if one of the archetypes is hero. Might be a fun challenge to see how many archetypes one character can be. How many is too many? What’s the point of one character serving multiple purposes? What if it’s a single-character piece? (I’m actually working on a single-character work right now. But I’m not making him be a bunch of different archetypes.) Yeah, I think it would be fun to play around with. You know, if I ever have time to write for fun again.

    Really enjoying this series, Craig. Keep up the good work. Looking forward to the next one.

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    • I think Hannibal Lechter mashes a bunch of them together, and was fairly successful as a character. He’s a mentor (to Starling) a shapeshifter, a guardian, sometimes ally, etc. Maybe I should have picked another HP character, like McGonnagle. It isn’t the ability to change form that makes a character fit the archetype.

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      • I definitely agree that having physical shape-shifting abilities doesn’t make a shape-shifter archetype. I was just thinking about whether it has to be current story or if backstory counts.

        Hannibal Lecter is one of my favorite characters ever. I’d LOVE to someday create someone as deliciously twisted and infinitely memorable as he is.

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  9. Pingback: Character Archetypes: The Trickster | Story Empire

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