Speculative Fiction Tropes: Shapeshifters
It's the first Monday of the month, which means it's time for another entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. This month, the blog is morphing and changing forms as we talk about shapeshifters.
We've all encountered that familiar scene, be it horror, fantasy, or science fiction. You know the one. One of the protagonists finds himself in a ghastly predicament when he bursts into a room in hot pursuit of the bad guy and instead finds two identical versions of his best friend, fighting each other. "Don't shoot, it's me!" they both shout in unison. "He's lying, shoot him." "Not me, him!"
Thus are the perils of dealing with a shapeshifter. Should you find yourself at odds with a creature that can change its form at will, you'd better make sure you know every member of your party very well.
Like many tropes, shapeshifting is a very old concept with roots in the folklore and mythology of varied cultures around the world. Countless stories speak of creatures, beings, and deities that assume multiple forms at various times, either as an unwilling act of punishment or happenstance, or of their own volition. Examples include the manipulation of one's outward age or gender, becoming an animal of some kind, or even the envious ability to change into any form at will.
Many Native American tribes told tales of "skin-walkers," magicians who had the power to perfectly disguise themselves as any animal in the forest. Some Navajo even believed that these skin-walkers could take the form of another person if they were able to establish eye contact. Meanwhile, in Greek mythology, Proteus, one of the many gods of the sea, could take any form he desired. His legend says that he could foretell the future, but refused to portend anyone's fate unless they had the skill to capture him. He would then elude his adventurous pursuers by changing shape.
In modern fiction, shapeshifters often play an antagonistic role, especially in the horror genre. What could be more frightening than a predatory villain with the power to become a carnivorous beast? Or worse, a monster that takes the shape of your allies and infiltrates your group, picking you off one by one?
The latter is found in the John W. Campbell story Who Goes There?, thrice adapted to film. My favorite is the 1982 version, The Thing. John Carpenter's adaptation captures the escalating tension of Campbell's tale, as scientists in a research facility on Antarctica encounter an alien entity that takes the shape of its victims.
I've yet to write any shapeshifters into my own fiction (er, not explicitly anyway), but the idea is certainly a fascinating one. As history shows, it's also a versatile one, lending itself to just about every genre in speculative fiction depending on how you want to approach it. If you're writing sci-fi, make your shapeshifter an alien, or the wielder of advanced technology. Writing fantasy? A shapeshifting spell or magic potion will do the trick quite nicely.
And perhaps the most interesting part of the shapeshifter trope is that, like many concepts in mythology, it does have a basis in reality. Our own animal kingdom is possessed of some of the most incredible examples of life imaginable, including shapeshifters. There's nothing "magical" about a cephalopod's eerie ability to change its color and skin texture to avoid predators, but seeing it in action can be awe inspiring. So if we do indeed come into contact with alien life one day, don't be shocked if we end up running into some shapeshifters. After all, we already have them right here on Earth.
Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson
A Song of Ice & Fire series by George R.R. Martin
It by Stephen King
The Thing (1982)
Dragon Age: Origins