I could write a rant about how boring angst is and how much prettier joy is, but instead I choose to write about non-angsty werewolves.
Because I can.
1) Make them happy about living as wolves. Werewolves are not, after all, either completely normal, non-shape-shifting humans, or wolves who are not intelligent. That is, indeed, the whole point. But they spend most of their time in many stories moaning about not being one or the other, which rather misses the point. (See also point 2, which is tired of being ignored and will now beat angsty-werewolf-authors with a large pointy stick. *clears out of the way*).
Consider this: Many humans admire animals. Beauty, speed, strength, grace, power—there’s even a variety of psychological theories saying that we get freaked out by certain animals, such as snakes, and admire others, such as horses, because of the way they move, of all things. Take that admiration and apply it to wolves. Now you’re cooking with charcoal.
Relatively little body-centered description comes through in most werewolf stories; indeed, I’ve read authors who spend more time describing the full moon than they do the sensation of running on four legs, or how a werewolf judges which prey animal is weak and which isn’t, or what it feels like, instead of sounds like, to howl. Maybe you assume that you can’t describe that. Piffle. Fantasy is supposed to include plenty of things that you’ll never experience. Write it anyway. Then write it again, until you’re good at it.
Wolves are not inherently admirable animals, and they may seem inherently evil, depending on the viewpoint of the human culture involved. But they can seem inherently admirable, too. Nothing says they can’t. The likelihood becomes even stronger when the person doing the admiring is not one who has to fight wolves for her livelihood, such as a farmer. Of course, then you have the possibilities of someone who does fear them, and has to confront, not becoming a monster, but fighting through to the harder realization: that she’s not a monster at all just because she’s changed from an ordinary human being.
Now I want to write one.
2) Shapeshifting can lead to themes of transgression, in-betweenness, crossing boundaries. It often doesn’t. Why? Because the werewolf spends the entire story moping about not being human—this is angst of the “Woe! I am a monster!” variety—or “embracing the wolf” and sneering about how much better she is than those dirty, nasty humans who pollute the environment.
And sure, the theme of being between two worlds can lead authors to write characters who really, really hate being stuck there, and who end up making a choice. Why there are so few characters who are flexible and adaptable enough to accept their stuckness, to be both instead of either/or, baffles me.
It’s not as though themes of peace and reconciliation are really less common than ones of conflict. (They show up at different places in the story, maybe, usually at the end, but they’re not less common). Perhaps they are harder to write, because many authors end the story once they’re introduced, rather than working with them in the main plot? Maybe.
But non-angsty werewolves should not brood on their differences from both species, because that way lies angst. Let them exult in their differences, in how humans can’t change shape and run nine miles an hour for hours on end, or in how wolves can’t change shape and walk into a grocery store to buy ice cream. Or, if both species persist in rejecting them, as many authors choose to show—because the werewolves are so often helpless victims—then let them form their own communities that don’t care about the other species’ opinions. Let a few generations pass, and such communities would probably produce werewolves who’ve never known anything other than acceptance and confidence in who they are, and react to rejection from “their parent species” with the appropriate snorts of scorn.
There’s something deep and rich here, something that saddens me when authors turn their backs and refuse to explore it. I don’t mind richly-done conflicts with richly-drawn antagonists and heroes, but helpless suffering werewolves, snapped at by wolves because they smell wrong and hated by humans for something they can’t help, aren’t it.
3) “Oh, the full moon controls me.” “So?” If you want to stick to the full moon mythology, then I respect that decision (even as part of me is really, really hoping that the wolves get described more often than the moon). But there is no reason for moon angst, wherein the werewolf watches fearfully out the windows and moans when the moon crests the horizon. Moon angst is infinitely more annoying than the most crudely-described PMS. PMS is at least, often, bitchy anger. Moon angst is—well, look at the second word.
People, people, people. If you assume that the moon’s cycle in your world is the same as Earth’s, or if you’re writing urban fantasy, and that the werewolf is taken out of commission three nights in a row while the full moon shines, then that’s still—*does math*—only 39 days out of 365 or 366 days a year.
What the hell is the werewolf doing those other 326 or 327 days a year? You’d think all the angsting would chafe.
Yes, becoming a werewolf with no control over your body, regular as clockwork, would suck. But it’s still a small portion of the character’s whole life, and the side effects on days when the moon isn’t full are usually minor (to avoid revealing the secret. See point 4 for what I think about that). There are characters who can’t at all escape their conditions, such as those with chronic illnesses or missing limbs, and they often do better than healthy, able-bodied werewolves who only have to take precautions 39 times a year. Fantasy women who menstruate seven days every month, on a less predictable cycle than the full moon’s coming, do better (when the authors bother to mention the menstrual cycle, of course).
I see no reason for sitting around and doing all the angsting. It’s silly.
4) There is life after someone finds out you’re a werewolf. The most tiresome—not bothersome, because that’s the angst, but tiresome—part of an angsty-werewolf story for me is often the lengths to which the werewolf goes to keep the secret from anyone else. It doesn’t work from either viewpoint. If you’re writing from the shapeshifter’s viewpoint, then the audience already knows, and the other characters begin to seem idiotic for not figuring it out. If you’re writing from another character’s viewpoint, you still have a chance of making them look like an idiot, because there’s very, very little in the way of clues that will not either give away the secret at once to a werewolf-savvy audience or be so obscure as to make the secret a bolt from the blue.
And then there’s the fact that the need to keep this “problem” a secret is usually because of a Random Angst Factor, such as all humans in the world hating werewolves for being ravening monsters when they are not, in fact, ravening monsters.
So explode the secret at once. And then write about what happens after.
What? What is this, you say? Do that? And give the whole game away?
Well, yes. As I think I’ve shown, it’s not really that much of a game.
Have a werewolf trust his lover enough to confess his secret. Have a werewolf befriend someone who’s shown that she can look past boundaries and the skin, and have that friend stay true instead of crying out in horror and running off—since that cues the angst. Have a relationship between a werewolf and a human, or a werewolf and a wolf, that doesn’t rest on one betraying the other, where the difference is open and accepted.
Secrets will get you into trouble, in many stories, since so often there’s not a good reason for either keeping or revealing them. And in this case, it’s a particularly clichéd secret. Dare the cliché. Have the werewolf walk out in the sunlight, or moonlight as the case may be, and smile at everybody, and accept what comes. It’s a lot harder to angst when you’re smiling.
5) Show what werewolves define themselves by. This is related to point 2, but as point 2 is still up there beating authors with the large pointy stick, I can ramble on about this some more.
Werewolves get defined in many stories by what they can’t do: can’t resist the change at full moon, can’t wear or be around silver, can’t tell normal humans what they are, can’t run with a normal wolf pack, can’t lead any semblance of a normal life. It’s tiring. And, once again, it’s conducive to angst. Thinking about what restrains us and stands in our way—as opposed to, you know, doing something about it—usually is.
So, what do werewolves do? Do they wear gold, instead of silver? Do they go dancing when they’re wolves and run around on all fours as humans, to prove that they can? Do they play limbo, with two wolves holding the stick in their teeth and people trying to go as low as they can in either form, until everybody explodes in laughter or yips and the game is over? Do they play chicken with normal wolves, until the normal wolves lay back their ears in confusion and run away?
Their cultures can be a mishmash, unique—as strongly suggested by point 2—or just the mingled normal lives of mingled normal people, whose strongest similarity is that they happen to change shape once a month, or all the time.
6) Can we get rid of the “lone wolf” stereotype, please? Yes, there are lone wolves. They’re usually older cubs, especially males, who have left the pack in order to seek out a mate and territory elsewhere, since, as long as they remain under the dominion of an alpha pair, their breeding is controlled and they won’t have pups. So they’re lone wolves until they gather or join a pack, and only until then. And even then, they don’t automatically travel alone; it’s not unheard of for siblings of the same age to depart a pack together, and travel in company for a time, or even form the kernel of a new pack.
I’m also sure that I don’t need to tell you that humans are social creatures, and that many interesting stories can be written with them behaving that way. Loner humans are often regarded suspiciously in fantasy. They don’t need to be. On the other hand, I don’t think that loners treated always as recipients of horrible, unfair judgment are good, either, because—yes, here comes the angst again! Record time!
So why would werewolves, with both their shapes being social creatures, spend so much of their time brooding and alone?
*Limyaael replays sentence*
Oh, yes, I forgot. There’s that brooding thing that so many authors believe is so attractive again. Arggh. If you have a werewolf who’s not mistreated, or has been mistreated but has recovered from and is not angsty about it, then you don’t have to write lone wolves. It would make more sense not to, and to show them acting in concert, whether it’s with others of their kind, or with others of one of the “parent” species, or even with shapeshifters of different kinds. (What about a werewolf who lives with a family of werecoyotes?)
Society is not always harsh and cruel. There are plenty, both humans and wolves, who travel in it and revel in it. And there could be more werewolves who do the same.
See? Aren’t smiling werewolves pretty?