Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Archetypes: The Shapeshifter

I have to do an early post and then run today because I'm singing for a funeral this morning. And, no, I don't need any condolences. I don't even know whose funeral it is. They just wanted to put together a small choir for the service, and since my days are pretty flexible and my "boss" lets me out for these things, I agreed to do it.

I'm continuing the discussion of archetypes from the hero's journey, and this is a fun one: the shapeshifter. Put very simply, this is the character the hero can never be entirely sure of, which creates uncertainty and suspense in a plot, but there's a lot more to it than that.

The shapeshifting can be literal in fantasy or science fiction stories with characters who change form. I think a lot of the vampires fall into this category when they're portrayed as seeming very normal and human until the fangs come out and they become more like a monster. Angel in the early seasons of Buffy fit the shapeshifter archetype -- he was mysterious, and sometimes he seemed human and like the ideal boyfriend, but then was revealed to be a formerly really bad vampire, and then he really did go evil. Buffy could never be entirely sure what he really was. Then there are the characters who put on a lot of disguises or take on a variety of identities. Think of the Cary Grant character in the movie Charade, where the heroine could never be entirely sure of who he was because everyone in the movie seemed to know him by a different identity. Or there are the characters of dubious or shady morality who aren't entirely sure where they stand, themselves, so how is anyone else going to figure them out? I'd put Jack Sparrow of the Pirates movies in this category. He was impossible to figure out -- he was the worst pirate ever and the best pirate ever, all in the same scene. He could be so crooked that even being totally honest was crooked for him because people expected him to be crooked, so honesty was something of a doublecross. He was often both hero and villain, simultaneously. He'd turn on his allies and ally with his enemies.

The Shapeshifter is quite often the romantic interest because this archetype really represents the mystery of the opposite sex -- or even the mystery of sex itself. In a romantic story, the hero/heroine is never entirely sure of the other person's feelings until the happy ending, and often the relationship brings out a side of the other person that isn't usually seen by others. It's interesting, then, how many romantic comedies are based on a deception plot, where one (or both) of the main characters is pretending to be someone else. You've got the Shop Around the Corner/You've Got Mail plot where they're one way when they're pen pals and another way in person, and the various mistaken identity stories where the character is pretending to be something different than she really is. Even in non-deception stories, the romantic interest may show different faces in different situations. In When Harry Met Sally, Harry is a loyal, trusted friend to Sally, but to other women he's a love-'em-and -leave-'em jerk, which leaves Sally very confused and worried about what will happen when they become lovers. She can't be sure she won't become just another woman he leaves because their changed relationship means she doesn't know which side of him she'll see.

In my Star Wars example, I think Princess Leia is the shapeshifter -- when we first see her, she looks like a vulnerable, ethereal princess. Then she goes all regal and smarts off to Darth Vader. Then she turns out to be really good in a crisis, and for the rest of the series she goes back and forth between her public Princess persona and her gutsy chick Leia persona, and you're never entirely sure which you're going to get (and that's not just because, apparently, Carrie Fisher was both mentally ill and stoned out of her mind). She keeps both Han and Luke guessing. Luke expects her to be a certain way when he first sees her distress call, then is entirely unprepared for what she really is like. And then add the fact that she has a secret identity even she doesn't know about (Luke's sister/Darth Vader's daughter).

In mystery and noir type stories, the femme fatale is often a Shapeshifter -- the one who seems all innocent and vulnerable as she tearfully begs for the hero's help, and then lures him into darkness and danger when it turns out she's setting up the whole thing. Hitchcock loved Shapeshifter characters, both male and female, where you're never entirely sure where they stand -- what another writing book calls the "fake-ally enemy" and the "fake-enemy ally." That's the ally who turns on the hero, or the enemy who either turns out to be secretly working for the good guys or changes sides during the story.

You also see these in "buddy" stories, where there's usually the normal one and the crazy one who drives him mad -- the "good cop/crazy cop" pairing or the straight man/comic relief duos. The shapeshifting is a lot of what makes the crazy one so maddening for the more straightforward guy. Think about the Lethal Weapon films, where you've got straightforward ordinary guy Danny Glover, who never knows what to expect of Mel Gibson, who acts like an easygoing funny guy but who actually has deep-seated anger issues that make him borderline suicidal/homicidal, and no one can ever be sure which side will come out to play.

The psychological side of this gets pretty complex, with all kinds of Jungian analysis. Largely, it reflects the anima/animus balance of the psyche. The anima is the female element in the male unconscious -- all the positive and negative images of femininity that come out in male dreams. The animus is the male element in the female unconscious. Ideally, these are in balance, with all people having traits that are considered both "masculine" and "feminine," but our society tends to label certain of these traits as negative in each sex, so that they're repressed. So aggression is labeled masculine and repressed in women, while sensitivity is labeled feminine and repressed in men, for instance. As a result, these repressed qualities have to come out in dreams, fantasies or projection -- where the traits get mapped onto fantasy figures either in the form of crushes on real people or on fictional or mythological characters that represent the traits.

And that's where the shapeshifting comes in, because you often can't be sure if your feelings for the other person are truly about who that person is, or if you're just reacting to your projection of your repressed anima/animus. You may see the person one way, but in reality they're a different way, so they always surprise you.

That can get interesting with characters because it works on multiple levels. The author may be doing her own projecting in creating the characters, which can be negative if you get too much of an obvious Mary Sue, but if she taps into something truly universal that matches the same kind of projections that readers do, you get a character who triggers obsessions. The characters may be doing their own projecting that complicates their relationships within the story. And the readers will be doing their own projecting, subconsciously seeking a character to project their fantasies onto.

To get a really fascinating relationship between a Hero and a Shapeshifter, think about what aspects of his own personality the hero may be repressing, and build the Shapeshifter around that, but then give that character her own dimensions surrounding that. The result should be an intense attraction and an intense conflict. You can also play with the difference between the way the hero sees the shapeshifter and the way he/she really is, and use the revelations of the shapeshifter's true character as turning points in the story. It keeps the hero off-guard if every time he thinks he's figured out the shapeshifter, things change, and that escalates the conflict.


Angie said...

I love the movie Charade! The other day I was telling my boyfriend about it and I couldn't think of Cary Grant's name--I kept wanting to call him Clark Gable. Eek!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I would have cast Han Solo in the role of shapeshifter. Luke was never really sure whether or not to trust him, even though Obi Wan did.

I could use some more conflict in my current story and I've got a good candidate for a shapeshifter - thanks!

Thaddeus said...

This is great! I just finished reading Vogler's 'The Writer's Journey' and everything made pretty good sense. Stunningly good sense, I should say, about how a story works and what can make it work better. But the 'Shapeshifter' chapter was the only part I had trouble with. I went back and re-read it and still couldn't get a firm grasp on how a shapeshifter can function to improve a story (other than creating more mystery in a Film Noir). Your blog did a great job, not only of clarifying the role, but of showing some examples of how a Shapeshifter can increase dramatic tension for the Hero.