Along the traditional hero’s journey, the hero often meets a Shapeshifter character archetype. Here’s how the Oxford Dictionary explains this character:
(chiefly in fiction) a person or being with the ability to change their physical form at will. (source)
Chiefly in fiction. Everyone got that?
*So you’re telling me there’s a chance.*
Shapeshifters can be cursed into a different form, like the Beast from Beauty and the Beast, or they can be born with transfiguring capabilities, like Mystique from X-Men.
Let’s examine the roles of the Shapeshifter character archetypes in Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.
The Shapeshifter represents a fantasy.
Shapeshifters embody a typical teenage desire to be able to change their looks and personalities on command.
- In Harry Potter, the students take a class on shapeshifting called Transfiguration. Who wouldn’t want to study transfiguration instead of calculus? On the first day of class, Prof. McGonagall tranforms her desk into a pig. “They were all very impressed and couldn’t wait to get started, but soon realized they weren’t going to be changing the furniture into animals for a long time. After taking a lot of complicated notes, they were each given a match and started trying to turn it into a needle.” (HP Ch.8).
- Edward transforms in the sunlight and becomes sparkly. To me this represents misplaced lust– instead of wanting a real man, Bella sees something shiny and wants that instead. The unusual description makes admiring Edward’s body (slightly) more appropriate for younger readers. “His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface.” (TW Ch.13).
The Shapeshifter represents trust (and mistrust).
Shapeshifters usually bring up issues of loyalty because they are literally two-faced. This is the more traditional role for shapeshifters to play across other genres.
- Bella is not sure whether she is crazy or whether Edward may be lying about his changing eye color. “Today, his eyes were a completely different color: a strange ocher, darker than butterscotch, but with the same golden tone. I didn’t understand how that could be, unless he was lying for some reason about the contacts.” (TW Ch.2).
- After Harry Potter’s parents are killed, Prof. McGonagall turns into cat to check on Harry’s new home with the muggles. She must sneak around because she can’t let the muggles know she is a witch. At the same time, she doesn’t really trust the muggles with whom Harry has been placed. “He turned to smile at the tabby, but it had gone. Instead he was smiling at a rather severe-looking woman who was wearing square glasses exactly the shape of the markings the cat had had around its eyes.” (HP Ch.1).
- When the Gamemakers release Muttations during the Hunger Games, Katniss is not sure whether have the minds of animals or of the other children. “Have they been programmed to hate our faces particularly because we have survived and they were so callously murdered? And the ones we actually killed . . . do they believe they’re avenging their own deaths?” (HG Ch.25).
The Shapeshifter represents a punishment.
Shapeshifters encompass another heavy presence in a young adult’s life: discipline. This provides big consequences for the high stakes action.
- In Panem, the Capitol forcefully “shapeshifts” traitors into Avoxes. This doesn’t really fit into the Oxford definition, but I think status as an Avox is certainly a huge shift (and a more “realistic” way to shapeshift). “What will they do to me now? Arrest me? Execute me? Cut my tongue and turn me into an Avox so I can wait on the future tributes of Panem?” (HG Ch.8).
- Prof. McGonagall uses her transfiguration expertise to shift the chessmen guarding the Sorcerer’s stone into live pieces. “The chessmen seemed to have been listening, because at these words a knight, a bishop, and a castle turned their backs on the white pieces and walked off the board, leaving three empty squares that Harry, Ron, and Hermione took.” (HP Ch.16).
- As previously mentioned, the Muttations are made to look like the dead tributes, and serve as a final obstacle in the Games. “And worst of all, the smallest mutt, with dark glossy fur, huge brown eyes and a collar that reads 11 in woven straw. Teeth bared in hatred. Rue . . .” (TW Ch.25).
Why it Works
Does the shapeshifting move the story forward? Not really. It works as a layering affect on characters who may otherwise be a little too normal.
As a fantasy, the Shapeshifter lets the reader escape the everyday world. As a “two-faced” mechanism, the Shapeshifter helps show the character’s inner conflict or unease about certain situations. And as a punishment, the Shapeshifter adds some much needed oomph to the stakes.
We know authors love the Shapeshifter archetype because the character appears in sequels too– think Polyjuice Potion in subsequent Harry Potter novels and the werewolves in the Twilight Saga. Shapeshifting also works really well to add intrigue for the sidekick in Ashley Carlson’s The Charismatics.
Let’s place the Shapeshifter index card in Chapter 8 and 14 of the master outline.
P.S. What do you think about Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, which we previously chalked up to a costume change? Is that an instance of shapeshifting too?