Monday, November 5, 2012

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.

Recommended Reading:
Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson
A Song of Ice & Fire series by George R.R. Martin
It by Stephen King

Recommended Viewing:
The Thing (1982)
Terminator 2

Recommended Gaming:
Dragon Age: Origins
Mortal Kombat


  1. The creature in Carpenter's The Thing was the most frightening. (And it made for an excellent movie.)

    1. Absolutely! I think The Thing may be one of the greatest horror movies of all time.

  2. The Thing was one of my favorite of all time. The special effects back then (for its time) was outstanding. It's the very thing which prompted me to want to go into the Computer Science field. :)

    1. I'm with you, Diane! Sometimes I miss those old school special effects. The puppet/animatronics work of some of the films from that era were fantastic, and The Thing is a great example.

  3. My favorite shapeshifter from TV is Odo from DS9. He was a really serious and severe, kinda funny guy! And my favorite shape-shifting thing was the Terminator t1000. Oh that tech-monster was sweet!

    Though I like shapeshifters in movies and books, and certainly enjoy seeing them imitate beloved characters for malefic purposes, I'm not particularly tempted to write one. I'm more preoccupied with creatures and people who have difficulties adapting, and shapeshifters to me are the epitome of adaptability and versatility. It's their blessing and their curse, and makes them rather difficult to write well, especially in sci-fi where they need to be plausible. :)

    Thanks for a great post, James. This is definitely a chief trope in speculative fiction.

    1. Gee, something told me you of all people might just bring up Odo! ;)

      I agree with you on the shapeshifter front. If you're going to write a creature defined by its shapeshifting abilities, you have to really explore that territory in a compelling way if you're not going to just have another cookie cutter disguised bad guy. Actually, one of my favorite examples (which I now wish I had included on the recommended reading list) is a short story called "The Things" by Peter Watts, which is essentially a retelling of The Thing from the perspective of the alien creature.

      Thanks very much for the comment, Vero!

  4. Ooh, you're right about the Chandra in Mistborn. They're so unusual I didn't even think of them until you pointed them out at the bottom of the article. Mistborn is one of my fav series of all time.

    Nice article!

    1. Mistborn is a fantastic series. Everyone calls George R.R. Martin "the American Tolkien," but I think maybe that title should go to Brandon Sanderson. He's a fantastic writer.

      Thanks for stopping by, Camille!

  5. Everything we land-dwelling humans seem to think is just myth and speculation is fact under the sea! I swear there are some of the weirdest creatures down there, even some that haven't evolved since prehistoric times. I'm not even surprised there are shapeshifters down there, too, lol.

    1. Definitely! I wish more science fiction writers would take a look at the planet around them when they craft their aliens. There's no excuse for rubber-forehead aliens when there are so many truly fantastic examples of life right here on Earth that we can barely wrap our heads around.

  6. Okay, that octopus video blew my mind! And kind of makes me not want to eat squid ever again. But perhaps if I eat enough some of those camouflaging powers will transfer to me? Lol!

    1. Haha, I love calamari too much to be dissuaded by the fact that cephalopods are the most intelligent invertebrates on the planet. I refuse to cast aside my spot on the food chain. We earned it, damn it!

      But it's true--cephalopods continue to astound not only with their ingenious predatory defenses, but with their ability to reason and problem solve as well. They're teaching us a lot about the development of intelligence in other species, especially because theirs is a different kind of intelligence than our own due to the fundamental differences in the nervous systems of vertebrates and invertebrates.

      Okay, I'm sure your nerd alarm is going off, so I'll shut up now. Thanks for reading, Krystal!


Thanks for reading!