1) KILL THE CUTE. For the love of whatever gods you believe in, kill the cutie-pies, slaughter the big fluffy plot devices, get rid of the “shapeshifters” who are humans with a few enhanced senses, and stop telling me that your heroine’s a werecat with a soft white coat, I don’t want to hear it.
Just as with telcoms, or telepathic companions, the advent of the cute too often signals the death of whatever personality the shapeshifter has. The fluffiness of her coat and the fact that she chases a ball of string becomes the point, not the fact that a werecat, say, might produce shit smelling strongly of ammonia, and what is she going to do with that in a public restroom? The shapeshifter is there for giggles or to play the sidekick, and sometimes to die a tear-jerking death, not to add any depth to the plot.
This is unfair to the whole idea of shapeshifters (as is point 5, which see). It doesn’t produce a character who is truly a blending of human and animal traits. It makes a human and baby hybrid. In fact, children in fantasy are often used in the exact same way as shapeshifters and telcoms, for cheap giggles or equally cheap angst (see point 3). It’s stupid to do this.
A good cure for something like this is to look up the habits of the animal species you’re basing your shapeshifter on. Yes, all the habits. Some are deeply nasty by human morality codes. For example:
-sea-mews will eat each other. Gull parents might lay multiple eggs but only have one chick in the end, because the strongest devours its brothers and sisters.
-red foxes will commit incest. A dog fox might well mate with a vixen he sired.
-male dolphins and male horses do not treat the females of their species well or gently, and are likely to herd them with blows and bites.
-lions and eagles will steal food from other animals if they can—in the case of lions, leopards; in the case of eagles, ospreys. They are very far from being noble hunters all the time.
-a number of fish will eat their young, one way of getting rid of the thousands of eggs.
(Wolves have a whole set of these, addressed in point 2).
Now, are any of these “problems?” Not really. They can be used to make the shapeshifter problematic in interesting ways, and closer to the animal. But adopting only the cute and ignoring the more fascinating, deep, or disquieting ways that animals behave is stupid, and leads to nauseating pink sugar shapeshifters.
2) Go beyond werewolves, I beg you. I usually don’t read books with werewolf characters anymore. The chances that the writer will do something new with them is extremely slim.
I blame this on the one common source for most of the werewolves in the fantasy genre, as I see it: horror movies. (There may also be a leak over from big fluffy telepathic wolf companions). Those werewolves are usually man-wolf hybrids, not true wolf shapeshifters; they are horrifying figures, or ones to regard with pity; they overemphasize aspects of the werewolf legend that don’t need to be considered in a fantasy setting, like the vulnerability to full moons and silver. They fit a very specific context, and they might do it well there, but it causes problems when the author tries to take them out of that context and plop them down in a fantasy novel.
Want your werewolf characters to change into wolves and live in a society that mixes lupine aspects with human? Right, then. Some things about wolves you need to know:
a) Their social order is hierarchical. Below the alphas is often a beta male—sometimes female—and the rest of the pack ranked in rigid order beneath them, down to the runt or low-ranker who gets picked on by everyone. Alphas eat first, eat best, lead in the hunt, receive special fawning from the other wolves, and defend their privileges. The only way to rise in the social hierarchy is by challenging the wolf above you, and for a wolf who’s small, injured, sick, or not very strong, this is hard to do. So, please, if you’re considering a lupine democracy, forget it. You’ll have to have a society with more human aspects for that.
b) Wolves are not exclusively monogamous to the point where they have one mate for the rest of their lives. If the alpha female gets toppled by a stronger female, then the alpha male will mate with the new alpha.
c) Wolves have no incest taboo, either. Fathers will mate with daughters, mothers with sons, etc. Wolves striking out for new packs, as many younglings do, can avoid this, but if they can’t leave or don’t want to leave for whatever reason, then incest is not something that they avoid out of instinct.
d) They are not superhuman, or superanimal. They can run about forty miles per hour, but only for very short periods, usually in the last stages of a hunt. They’re more creatures of stamina, and may well keep up a steady pace for eight or nine hours at a time without lagging.
e) Wolves are not violent all the time. The social signals like baring their bellies, snarling when a low-ranker steps over the line, licking the nose and jaws of the alpha, etc., are meant to set up boundaries so they can avoid conflict.
f) If your werewolf character is not the alpha male or female in a pack, the chance that he or she will be breeding is slim to nonexistent. Alpha females can and will harass other fertile females during the breeding season, so that they don’t get a chance to mate if they go into heat.
g) Wolves don’t have a cozy family life from the moment they’re born. The pups are born blind and deaf, and the mother keeps them in the den for the first six to eight weeks of their lives. The male is permitted to bring food in, but not to come too close, in case he eats them.
h) Oh, yes, and about feeding the pups once they’re weaned? Adult wolves will eat from a kill, then trot back to the den and regurgitate food for the pups. No, it’s not romantic.
Know these things before you write with seriousness about werewolf packs that “are just like real wolves!” and are democracies where all the men and women mate for life and have children all the time.
3) I am werecreature! Listen to me whine! Don’t authors ever get tired of having their shapeshifters angst? Specifically, do they ever get tired of having them angst about changing shape?
No! They do not!! He is a werewolf, and he is not whiny, he is noble and tormented!!! She’s a weretiger, and she’s not angsty, she’s suffering!!!!
*Limyaael gets out the axe again*
Look. Yes, there are contexts where a shapeshifter might feel uncomfortable about shapeshifting, if there are legends of his people’s cruelty (why? What are they? Don’t just copy Earth’s), or he’s been reared among humans and not his own kind (why? What happened to his parents? Why doesn’t he leave to go somewhere else if he’s that torn up about it?). But when that context becomes the whole of the shapeshifter’s reason for being, once again you haven’t got a complete character. You’ve got a Poster Child for Angst, the same way you do when you have a gay character who’s always angsting about his sexuality.
Stop it. Make your character a person, not a whiny werewolf.
4) Where does the mass go? This is not actually something I have a problem with all the time. If the author provides a completely magical explanation for the shapeshifter’s change, like the character’s mind leaping between two separate human and wolf bodies, or the character using an animal skin to change, a la Celtic selkies, no, I have no problem. There are certain rules fantasy has got to accept, and a well-defined system of magic is one of them. (If it’s not well-defined, on the other hand…)
Most fantasy authors, however, don’t take advantage of the completely magical explanation. Oh, sure, it’s magic. But what happens is the character’s body literally growing fur, a tail, wolf ears, or whatever.
I want to know where the mass goes.
If the creature is relatively near human size, say a dolphin or a leopard, I could accept that the mass is small enough not to matter. But what happens when you have the character somehow “rearranging his bones” into a small cat? Or a mouse? Or, to take the other end of the scale, a dragon?
Give this system some rules, please. It’s to the point that I just roll my eyes at the refusal of the authors to explain anything, because it’s so predictable. Magic in other systems in the book often does have rules. Yet shapeshifting is somehow to be exempted from this.
Quite often, that leads shapeshifting in the direction of deus ex machina. Oops, they kicked the character off a roof, but that’s all right, she can change into a dragon and fly!
Really? In midair? While falling, perhaps head-down? Can she do it in the few seconds it will take her to fall thirty feet?
Also, take some of the other practical aspects into consideration. A favorite trick of authors with shapeshifter characters is to ignore clothes altogether. They just vanish with the character, and then come back again when the character transforms into human, so that she’s never naked. (Terry Pratchett’s portrayal of the werewolf Angua is commendable here, because she does have to worry about where the clothes are going to go). Also, enemies who know the person is a shapeshifter are still incredibly stupid, because they continue to confine the shapeshifter in cells she can get out of it. Give them some credit, and have them put her in a cage, which should hold both humans and most animals.
5) Don’t over-valorize either the human or the animal. Fantasy shapeshifters are often shown to be more “noble” than those fucked-up humans, with their wars and stuff. Shapeshifters don’t care about that. They aren’t prejudiced, they don’t have wars, they concentrate on the simple realities of love and family, they kill only to eat, and so on. This is because they have the wonderful attributes of animals!
You might also want to consider that most animals don’t create, don’t have sex any time they want, don’t care about saving the world, don’t angst, don’t have concepts of courage or honor, don’t admire the sunset, don’t notice social injustice, and don’t make cross-species alliances.
Be honest here. The shapeshifter conception is fascinating because of its blending of human and animal. It can be terrifying, as in the picture of a wolf who can think like a human hunting you through the forests, or it can be interesting, like the idea that someone tries to balance her social life as a human with her social life as a dolphin, or it can be frustrating, in that some species, like leopards, don’t have anything like the social cohesion that humans have and trying to write about a wereleopard “society” presents challenges. But where in all that is throwing out the human and embracing the animal as pure and good and wonderful? That leaves just animals, not shapeshifters.
It’s also a dishonest compromise, because most of the time authors writing characters like this don’t actually give up the more “human” things. Their shapeshifters still have art, and a human society with concepts like justice and mercy and fairness. They don’t eat or abandon their young. They don’t practice anything that most humans would find repugnant, like theft or murder or incest. They just happen to lack all those bad traits the nasty humans have.
Come on. I’m no more interested in being lectured by perfect shapeshifters than I am in being lectured by perfect elves.
Embrace both the human and animal. It’s a lot more entertaining.
Next rant is on shapeshifter societies, I think.