November 22, 2010

archetypes - shapeshifter

After an enjoyable weekend in the backwoods, today let’s go into the Shapeshifter archetype.

You can also read the earlier archetypes posts about the Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, and Herald.

The Shapeshifter is an interesting archetype because, as its name suggests, it is shifting and unstable. Heroes frequently encounter this archetype in characters of the opposite sex, who appear to change constantly from the hero’s point of view. Oftentimes, this is the hero’s love interest. The Shapeshifter can also be embodied in the literal sense, as a character that changes shape.

Shapeshifters change appearance or mood, and are difficult for the hero and the audience to pin down. They may mislead the hero or keep them guessing, and the Shapeshifter’s loyalty or sincerity is often in question. The Shapeshifter’s purpose is to bring doubt and suspense into the story. They may dazzle and confuse the hero, or they may try to kill the hero. Shapeshifting can be manifested in stories through changes in appearance. It could be a change of costume or hairstyle, or a change in behavior or speech. Think characters that disguise themselves, or tell lies to get out of a sticky situation.

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix, Cho Chang could be considered a Shapeshifter because Harry doesn’t understand their relationship due to the whole Cedric dying thing. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Wizard Howl is rumored to be an evil heart-eating sorcerer, but he is everything but. However, it’s difficult to label his true intentions until the very end of the story, making him a Shapeshifter.

As with the other archetypes, Shapeshifting is a function or a mask that may be worn by any character in a story. The hero may take on the mask of the Shapeshifter by disguising themselves to get past an enemy, such as in The Wizard of Oz, when Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion overcome a band of flying monkeys and steal their uniforms in order to get into the witch’s castle to save Dorothy. Villains may take on the Shapeshifter archetype to seduce or confuse a hero, such as in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Death Eater Barty Crouch transforms into Mad-Eye Moody using Polyjuice Potion.

The Shapeshifter archetype is usually found in male-female relationshipse, but it may also be useful in other situations to portray characters whose appearance or behavior changes to meet the needs of the story.

Read the next post about the Shadow.

[This interpretation of the archetypes comes from the Hero’s Journey, a universal structure found in mythology and organized by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with A Thousand Faces and Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.]


  1. Wow, you can shoot with a bow! Now that's a skill I covet :D

    I love HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, too. I think it's the only book/movie where I love both equally.

    Thanks so much for the "re-award"! And for this series, of course. I'm really enjoying it.

  2. Brooke, seriously, those are some awesome facts! I'm with Kat (and probably anyone else who's read THE HUNGER GAMES) I would SO like to be able to shoot with a bow.
    Thanks for the nice mention in this post. *blushes* Can't wait to check out all your other "awardees!"