June 24, 2008 at 6:20 am (Deborah Cooke) (, , , )

I’ve been thinking this past weekend about how (as well as when and why) shapeshifters change shape, as well as the whole beastly qualities thing. This is partly because I was wrestling with the graphics in Cathy Clamp’s guest blog, which you’ll have to wait until Thursday to read.

But it seems to me that there can be three different reasons for a shapeshifter to change. Depending on the author’s worldbuilding, the shifter will change because of one of them, or maybe more than one of them. And it also seems to me that there’s a progression over the three types of changes from most animal-like to most human. I don’t have a favourite amongst them – in fact, I’ve written all three kinds.

• The first trigger that comes to mind is an external stimulus. So, when the moon is full, the man becomes a wolf. This is similar to the vampire’s inability to be touched by daylight. It’s a force the shifter has to acknowledge because of its power over him/her and a force that he/she can’t control. Because of that, this kind of trigger seems most animal to me, maybe because it’s more of a force of nature (or driven by an element of nature.)

This kind of character is less human to me and less controlled, less civilized as a result. He/she may enjoy being a beast or indulging in those beastly qualities. I think it’s because of the lack of moral choice in the shift and its repercussions. Angela Carter writes shifters like this – there is no moral judgement in their becoming jaguars and killing as jaguars do, for example. They are what they are and they do what they do, maybe to survive, maybe because it’s inconceivable that they should do anything else.

I’m going to include shifters who are compelled to shift because of a spell or miscellaneous magic in this category, because that curse is also an external force. They have more angst for me, though, because they seldom choose the shifter half of their existence – it’s something they have to endure and possibly overcome. By defeating the curse, they banish the shifter bit and become fully human again – they are healed by their choices. I wrote this kind of hero in my Harlequin Historical ENCHANTED – the hero was cursed to become a wolf for half of each day. It seriously interfered with his ability to win the heroine’s heart, but did give him the power to defend her!

• The second type of trigger is that of an internal stimulus. The Incredible Hulk makes his transformation when he gets angry – similarly, shifters that change shape due to passion or anger are of this kind. With these kinds of shifters, “controlling the beast within” is often the internal conflict, because the human side of the shifter not only wants to control the animal side but believes it’s possible to do so. It’s just a matter of controlling emotions to remain in command of the body.

I wrote this type of hero in my Harlequin Historical THE MAGICIAN’S QUEST. Yusuf changed to a panther when he was enraged or impassioned – the heroine, who was both irritating and sexy, had a predictable effect upon him. Together they learned that his shifting was part of a powerful gift – not a curse – and he was healed by accepting his own truth. (And by falling in love with a good woman too!)

• The third trigger is voluntary. The first is entirely involuntary and the second was somewhat susceptible to control, but the third type is entirely under the control of the shifter. This is like Clark Kent deciding to become Superman (where is a phone booth when you need one?) or Batman leaping for the Bat Cave to fight on the side of justice. These kinds of shifters choose to change into their alter egos, often to defend someone or fight for the good guys. There’s always a moral element to the choice – they don’t just shift to annoy someone, or if they do, it’s a lesson learned. (Remember Spiderman’s big lesson: “With great power comes great responsibility.”)

My Dragonfire shapeshifter dudes choose to shift. Their dragon form is a fighting pose, but they know that seeing them shift is dangerous for humans. They keep their beastly side restrained, but begin to shimmer when they’re angry or impassioned. Some of them can change slowly, managing the actual transformation, but there becomes a point when it’s unstoppable. Because the decision is theirs – and because they fight for justice etc. – this makes the Pyr seem noble and heroic to me. I fall in love with each and every one of them, and I suspect it might be because of that.

So, how about you? Can you think of other triggers that make shifters shift? Did I miss anything? And what kind of shifters do you like best – the ones who are in control or the ones who can’t keep their bodies from doing what they do?

Posted by Deborah Cooke



  1. Michele Hauf said,

    I like the shifters that have no choice, it’s that time of the month or whatever trigger, and they shift, but I also like those who can shift at will.
    Just rewatched Blood & Chocolate last night. I loved how they showed those wolves shifting, very soulful, I thought. As a human, they are running, and they just take a leap and soar through the air, and they ‘wish’ it to happen and it does. They land the ground as a wolf. So cool.

  2. *lizzie starr said,

    I believe there’s a time and place for each of these types of shifts–and I enjoy them all. I like, though, with voluntary and internal cause shifting, that there’s always the chance there will be the loss of control–like the hulk. Or something that’s never happened before 😉 will spark an involuntary shift, giving someone or something else control over the shifter. Now that’ll up the stakes.

  3. Colleen said,

    Great blog! I love ENCHANTED, it is one of my all time fav books!!! As for my favorite triggers… As long as the author makes the story a great one and I enjoy reading it, I am not picky about the shapeshifter’s reason for his/her transformation!!! 😀

  4. Cathy said,

    We actually did a take on “reality” in our Thrall vampire series and had the shapeshifting be hereditary and based on adrenaline. It was akin to having Down’s Syndrome and the lycanthropes were terribly discriminated against because, well…let’s face it, would YOU want to be driving on the freeway in a snowstorm and have the driver next to you shift forms because they freaked out at the wheel? Our wolves couldn’t get driver’s licenses, couldn’t teach school and couldn’t be cops (our hero WAS able to be a fireman, because he turned into the team’s “search and rescue dog” when he shifted. He kept his fireman mind and in his animal form, could still breathe in smoky buildings.

    So, involuntary, but not “magical” or moon-based. A little different, I guess. 🙂


  5. Lou Gagliardi said,

    “This is similar to the vampire’s inability to be touched by daylight.”

    This just, like the moon is a Hollywood myth and it bothers me how much modern society follows it. As for what type shifter, for me, it depends on the author’s style in the story that makes it enjoyable.

  6. Savanna Kougar said,

    I kinda like both in a story, meaning a ability to voluntarily shift, as well as there could be triggers to cause a specific kind of shift. Sun Rocket, my heroine, can shift to pure lioness form, to pure human form and to her half-lioness, half-woman form. The last being triggered by strong sexual desire.
    Although, really, it comes down to the story itself. I think it all works. And I love all the variety only limited or unlimited by the author’s imagination.

  7. Becky said,

    Hi Deborah!
    I just love shifters period!! But let me say how incredibly hot the Dragon Shifters are in Kiss of Fire and Kiss of Fury!! I have loved most of the shifter stories I’ve read, it really doesn’t matter to me why they shift as long as it’s in a good story. I do like it when somebody throws out a new way of thinking about the shifts and shifters etd! Thanks for the fabulous post!!

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