Shapeshifting, how real is too real or is it ever?

April 21, 2008 at 3:00 pm (General, Lori Devoti) (, , , )

Posted by: Lori Devoti
Man shifting into werewolf?

Bones popping, characters going into heat, females rolling over and exposing their bellies in an act of submission–all of these can be found in shapeshifter novels. How real is too real?

There are three basic types of shapeshifters in most novels.

  • Illusion: The person/god/being doesn’t “really” shift; they just project a shape different than their own.
  • Magical: The beings actually change form into another shape, but magic does all the work. One minute they are human, the next wolf/coyote/dragon/etc. (note: I’m putting shifters who need something like a selkie who needs his skin generally in this category.)
  • Scientific/Realistic: The beings actually change form, but some weight is given to keeping this realistic. Body mass stays the same, and usually it’s pretty darn painful.

In addition to variety in how “real” the change may be, authors vary on how “real” other aspects of the shifters’ senses, skills and instincts may be. Does a cat shifter see better at night? Are canine shifters color blind? Do both go into heat? How about life in the pack–is there one main alpha and other characters exhibit submissive tendencies? All of these things vary from book to book, author to author.

On the realistic end I’d put the Kitty books. In the first book Kitty shows some submissive behavior that can be a bit unsettling when looked at from our modern (human) female eyes, but it fits with what a submissive female wolf might do. I tend to keep my shifters somewhere in the middle. They shift magically (no groans or popping), but they have canine sight (especially in canine form) and tend to have some characteristics you would expect in pack animals. On the illusion end there are books like Jana Oliver’s Time Rover series . Her shifters don’t physically change, they, according to Jana, “alter the way you perceive them (as compared to actually altering their form).”

So, that all said, what do you prefer? How much reality can you stomach? Or how much magical convenience can you swallow?



  1. michelehauf said,

    Hey, Lori, great post! I love the picture that you found, which is a different pose, but the same guy on my Racing The Moon cover to the right.

    How much reality do I like? I like a few pops and bone cracks. 🙂 I can even go with a strange looking beast that’s half man, half whatever-kind-of-animal. I always think of the ‘altering the way you perceive them’ thing as being more like glamour. But it’s all good!


  2. Lori Devoti said,

    I forgot to mention the half change thing! That has become a bit of theme lately too–the ability to only change say the “paw” complete with claws so you look all innocently human then slash the villain’s throat…
    Not sure how I feel about that either…I’m kind of an all or nothing girl. (okay, not so much a girl anymore, but you get my drift.)

  3. teresadamario said,

    A great post.

    A fun note that not everyone knows. Everyone says canines are color blind, yet a dog can be taught to find the blue spot on the wall (Displayed using lights across the room) every single time as opposed to red and green. I have a feeling there’s more to the “Eye” than we imagine. I do know they’re severely nearsighted though, which is why our wolf friends rely so heavily on scent. Human dogs tend to rely on sight more than scent (Try sometime surprising your dog and showing up where you aren’t supposed to be, or wearing a uniform – chance are they won’t have a clue who you are until you speak!

    I do a half magick, half real shift. LOL wierd, I know. But the scientist in me wouldn’t let me go all magick.

  4. teresadamario said,

    Human dogs… Wow, where did that come from. YOu get the drift though. LOL.

  5. Lori Devoti said,

    Yes, canines can see blue/purple, but not red. In Unbound my hellhound can see the color of the heroine’s eyes. They are purple which (in my world) only someone untainted by the search for power can have.
    They also (along with my hellhounds and garm) see better in the dark than humans.

  6. Jennybrat said,

    The bone popping shift sounds painful to me but the animal side can be very primitive and sensual. I guess I prefer something midway.

  7. Sarah Mäkelä said,

    I think I’m of the mindset of I like it as scientific/realistic as you can get. All painful and bone snapping. With that being said, I love all kinds of shapeshifting creatures and books about them, so if an author did something more magickal, I wouldn’t toss the book down. *g*

    I agree with Michele that I’d picture being able to project an image would be glamour. 🙂 I love it when hero/heroine’s can turn only partly into a half-(wo)man/half-animal. Shapeshifters are extraordinary creatures, so I think anything they set their minds to can potentially be done, e.g. partial shapeshifting.

    Great blog post! I really liked reading it. Love the picture!

  8. Kate Douglas said,

    Lori, I really enjoyed your post. My shifters in the Wolf Tales series are still trying to figure out how it happens…and so am I. I figure it’ll come to me once they find the answer, but that’s part of the mystery within the series. It happens so quickly they can’t even photograph the process, and in trying to reconstruct their own history, they don’t know if they evolved or might have been planted by an alien culture. For me, half the fun of writing the stories is learning the answers–and hoping like heck they come to me at some point!

  9. shreela said,

    I like to know details on how they came to be shapeshifters:

    Hereditary – Do the genes need to come from both parents, or just one?

    Curse – Background story about why the curse was cast, and can it be reversed? Do they even want it reversed?

    Bite from a shapeshifter – This sounds to me like it could be an infection spread by body fluids. Maybe the ‘infection’ can only be spread when they’re in animal form, otherwise it could spread to someone they kissed, or any of the other ways infection can spread.

    Magical device – What if they lost it, and someone else found it. Maybe it would only work if it were a direct family member, or given as a gift with a magic spell.

    Alien – I love scifi too, so as long as a story made sense, I’d enjoy it.

    Demon possession – Maybe, but I think unless it was written very clearly, it might get confusing. Plus it would probably make the story a lot darker.

    I’d hope that however or whatever caused them to shift, it would cost them something, like a painful transformation, drain on their magic, being exhausted after shifting back into human form, or even having to spend money on a potion. If it’s too easy to shift, it’s not as interesting.

    I enjoy pack mentality. Humans still do it, although we try to hide it. I once had a domineering female dog that thought she should be the leader of our small pack. The vet assistant instructed me to pin her on her back, put my mouth near her neck while applying pressure on her neck with my fingers to simulate me holding her neck with my teeth, and growling during that time. She told me I had to hold her in this position until she stopped squirming to get up, indicating submission. And I’d probably have to do it a few times until she fully accepted my dominance. I did it when no one was around, and it worked (and she did challenge me a few more times).

    Oh, and I love it when their human form retains some of their animal characteristics, like being able to see or smell better, or crave meat, whatever applies.

  10. AJ said,

    Amazing post!! I really love the aspects you’ve delved into. I enjoy all types of shape shifting novels, from the traditional and untraditional.

    When I write, I enjoy mixing it up. I like the idea of my animals only shifting certain portions at a time. Like they can feel it, one finger at a time as their beast breaks from the surface.

    I do agree, sometimes reading about submission is difficult because I tend to like very strong willed characters, but when I read about it, it doesn’t turn me off.

    I take each book I read and delve into the authors idea of what they think is sexy, erotic, mind bending. Magic, or traditional, I enjoy what the author paints for me. I try not to compare books because each individual has their own interpretation.

  11. Darla said,

    To me its not how much is too much, its “does it fit the story”!

  12. Rebecca York said,

    My answer is, “It depends.”
    I didn’t want shapeshifting to be easy for the Marshall men in my Berkley Moon Books. So there is some bone popping. The change is always painful for them. And it’s especially painful when they have to change to worlf form–then change back in a hurry. I came up with a genetic reason for their werewolf trait. They have an extra chromosome. It’s sex linked, so only males have it. (Girl babies die at birth, although I’ve solved the problem by having Ross Marshall marry a woman who is a genetics specialist.)

    But I just wrote a story for an anthology called THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF VAMPIRE ROMANCE. My hero is a vampire who shape shifts into a dragon, and anything else he wants to be. And it’s no sweat for him. He just does it. Of course, I wrote the story kind of like a fairy tale. So it’s much less focused on realism than my Berkley Moon Books. It was a fun change of pace for me.

    Rebecca York

  13. Robin Snodgrass said,

    I think the amount of “realism” in a shifter’s transformation should be based on the story. Some plots are enhanced by more realism while others are more interesting with the ability to magically transform without pain or stress to the body. When the amount of realism combines in the proper proportions with the rest of the plot, that’s one of the marks of a great book and one that will wind up on my keeper shelf in all probability.

  14. hawke said,

    i like all of them… honestly, what i don’t like is when the transformation takes over the storyline. when an author forgets the heart of the character and becomes all about the act of becoming… something else, THAT is when i lose interest. luckily, i never have that problem with your books. i love your hellhounds, and i can not wait for the next one. okay i have to wait… but i do NOT have to like it, damn it. my favorite title for a shape shifter novel is a tie between “kitty and the midnight hour”(well, she is a wolf after all… ah. irony) and “full moon rising” (soooo obvious a title…. but such an enjoyable book)
    consider me a fan, ms. d.
    keep unleashin’ the hounds…. please?

  15. Chris said,

    I really enjoyed todays question and reading all of ya’lls comments!
    My favorite shapeshifting title is sooo hard but it would definetly be Embraced by Darkness. I love the Riley character and how she is growing as a character, plus she’s a female shapeshifter who kicks butt!

  16. Loretta W said,

    When I am readin about a shiftshaper and he or she is getting ready to change I picture and hear the bones popping during the change. And about the other shiftshapers I think it is neat that they can go from one form to another without it hurting them.

  17. terryspear said,

    I like to read different kinds of worlds for different stories. That’s what’s fun–is the originality. If all were bone-poppers, I’d find it boring. If all were painless, same thing. It’s that some are one way, some are another, and the worlds are nice and unique. When I was writing vampires, which I still do, I’d invariably get, “But this isn’t what a real vampire would do.”
    Huh? I didn’t think they were really real! 🙂 So creating the world is what’s fun.

  18. Passion influenced by the moon? « Shape Shifter Romance said,

    […] Recently Lori Devoti wrote an amazing post describing some of the different “types” of shape shifters. (To read that post, click this link). […]

  19. Magical, mystical shapeshifters…do we share the love? « Shape Shifter Romance said,

    […] mystical shapeshifters…do we share the love? My first post here I talked about the three types of shifters as I see them…the realist (bones a popping), […]

  20. Brigette said,

    Awesome post! But personally, I prefer the whole full-wolf transformation. Bones cracking and spines bending sound more realistic, but I think it always make sit sound better if instead of pain the lycanthrope goes through, an episode of esctasy during the Change. XP 😀

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