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The Shapeshifter Archetype
As the name says, the nature of the shapeshifter is to be shifting and unstable. When you look closely at the shapeshifter, the appearance and characteristics change. A shapeshifter is often the hero’s love interest or a romantic partner. Many of us will have experienced relationships with a two-faced or very changeable partner.
A shapeshifter can change in different ways, such as appearance or mood. They’re difficult for the hero to read, and the shifters can mislead the hero. Their loyalty or sincerity is also often questionable.
As before, characters can be more than one archetype. An Ally (which will be discussed in a later post) can also act as a shapeshifter. You see this, for instance, in a buddy comedy or adventure. Think about wizards, witches, and ogres.
So, here things get a bit gender-ish. But, originally, the shapeshifter functions as the ‘male’ energy in the female unconscious (and vice-versa). So it’s the combination of all the positive and negative views women have of masculinity. In psychology, it’s called the animus (you can forget this, though).
There’s also a counterpart of this: where the female ‘energy’ is in the male unconscious. So, the positive and negative views men have of femininity. That one is called anima (again, you don’t have to remember that).
Generally, people have a balance of both male and female qualities, so there’s an internal balance. At least, that’s what the theory portrays.
But, because of pressures from, for instance, society, the female qualities have been suppressed in men. Likewise, women are taught to play down their masculine qualities. This creates an imbalance in the energies, which can cause emotional and sometimes even physical problems. We can see a movement from both sexes, where men are reclaiming their more feminine qualities (e.g., sensitivity, expressing emotions), and women are striving to show more male qualities (e.g., power and assertiveness).
Okay, so: we have the repressed qualities within us. Still with me? These repressed qualities are manifested as characters. So, the shapeshifter is like an unconscious projection of the thing your hero represses.
For instance: the hero may project their ideal image of a romantic partner on a person. The hero may fall in love without having seen this person clearly. Say your hero is a female, and they have repressed their masculinity. They might project this masculinity on their romantic partner: they see this partner as powerful, assertive, muscular, tough, etc. But that doesn’t mean that the romantic partner actually possesses all these qualities.
Have you ever been in a relationship where you tried to fit your partner into your ideal? Or had a partner who tried to change you? Then you get what I mean.
So, the shapeshifter archetype is a catalyst of change, a symbol of the urge to transform. I think that much is clear. Whether it’s positive or negative depends on your story. The hero might change attitudes or come to terms with the repressed energies by dealing with a shapeshifter.
The shapeshifter archetype serve as the bringers of doubt and suspense. If you think, for instance, of a romantic story, the hero might question the shapeshifter: will he remain faithful to me? Does he really love me?
Or, more generally: is this person an ally or an enemy?
Types of Shapeshifters
A common shapeshifter type is the femme fatale. You’ve probably seen it in thrillers or detectives: a woman who is a temptress or a destroyer. This is an archetype we can trace back to one of the biggest stories ever: the Bible. Eve is a femme fatale, for instance. A more contemporary example would be a detective who gets betrayed by a killer woman.
Don’t let the name fool you, though: the femme fatale can also be a man—a hommes fatale. The big Greek guy Zeus is definitely one: literally changing shape to come to earth and do the dirty deed with human maidens. These maidens usually ended up suffering because of it.
The fatale aspect is not always necessary for this type of shapeshifter: they may only dazzle and confuse the hero. Killing is not necessary.
Shapeshifting can show up quite literally, where a character changes appearance. Like a change of costume or hairstyle (think about Sansa from Game of Thrones: she constantly shifted her allegiance/attitudes towards others, shown in her hairstyle). But changes can also be more subtle, such as in behavior or speech, like different accents, or telling a lot of lies.
As is always the case: the shapeshifter’s mask can be worn by multiple characters, and which characters are shapeshifter archetypes can also change. The hero may also wear the mask of a shapeshifter, for instance, in a romantic situation. Haven’t we all pretended we were a little bit better than we were to impress someone?
Sometimes it’s also necessary for the hero to become a shapeshifter to get past the Threshold Guardian. You can see this happening in Sister Act, where the hero disguises herself as a nun in a Catholic church.
Villains or their allies may also become shapeshifter if they want to try and seduce or confuse the hero. It’s also prevalent in the archetypes of Mentors and Tricksters. Merlin, from King Arthur, often changes shape to aid Arthur.
That’s it for the Shapeshifter archetype of the hero’s journey. It’s a bit of a difficult one to grasp, but it helps to try and spot it in other stories. Whatever you do, don’t get too caught up in the psychology behind it. It’s all just theory, after all.
What is neat about this archetype is that it’s incredibly flexible and can serve many different functions in your story. It is handy in romantic stories, but it has advantages in every type of story, as you can see in the above examples.
I hope this series has been helpful to your writing so far. If you’ve got any questions, I’m more than happy to answer them and help you along. What are your thoughts on the Hero’s journey archetypes? Do you recognize them in your writing? Let me know in the comments!