Twisted Characters: Shapeshifters

I just worked through the book, Memo from the Story Dept, (Michael Wise Prod, 2011) by Christopher Vogler and David McKenna. As you might expect, since Vogler is one of the authors, there is discussion about Joseph Campbell’s hero journey theories.

No, no, don’t eye-roll! It’s good to revisit the basics from time to time. As we mature in our craft, we understand things more deeply. I picked up a couple of gems from this reading, things about which I’d heard before but now make more sense.

Toward the end of the book, the authors recommend the reader to pull the script from Legally Blonde, which is said to be available on line, and do exercises based upon that story. The last thing I want to do is sit in front of the computer even more than I already do so I streamed it instead, taking notes as it went along and paying particular attention to the hero’s journey stages and the roles various characters played.

It was while I was working through this analysis that I realized “Aha! Plot twists occur organically when the shapeshifter changes shape!”

Definition: a shapeshifter is a character who changes archetypical roles: hero, mentor, gatekeeper, herald, shadow (enemy), ally, trickster; as opposed to someone who is lying.

Great big spoiler alert! I am now going to break down the movies Legally Blonde, Casablanca, and Lion in Winter, Harry Potter and just a little bit of the TV show Rebus specifically discussing shape shifting characters.

Legally Blonde opens with the day when “Malibu Barbie” Elle Woods is expecting a marriage proposal from Warner Huntington III. Instead, he breaks up with her. He is bound for Harvard law school and has political ambitions for which he needs a helpmate like a Jackie, not a Marilyn. After a week of eating chocolate and watching soap operas, Elle decides to go to Harvard Law School herself and prove that she is serious and good wife-material. “What, like its hard?” Elle exclaims.

At Harvard, Elle meets Warner’s new fiancée, Vivian, her rival and therefor a shadow character, and they bicker over Warner. The other students laugh and ridicule Elle; they too are shadows.

The professors are gatekeepers; Elle has to get past them to prove she’s smart. The civil procedure professor, Stromwell, is practically a gorgon and throws Elle out of her class for coming the first day unprepared. (FYI: if you go to law school, there is always a reading assignment before the first day of lecture and part of the rites of passage is that some poor student always gets dressed down by some professor for showing up unprepared.)

The criminal law professor, Callahan, is kinder to Elle and rewards her for an unusually creative argument about recklessly abandoned sperm, informing the class she bested Warner in the debate. Later Callahan gives Elle a summer internship. Thus he has changed from gatekeeper to mentor. And Elle’s on her way to proving to Warner she’s serious!

As the story progresses through the hero journey stages, the first plot twist is when Vivian and Elle become allies, bonding over what a dweeb Warner is.

Second plot twist: Callahan makes a pass at Elle. Not just a pass but he predicates her future success as an attorney with the demand that she must sleep with him. He’s a gatekeeper again, and a creepy one at that, and very much a shadow. Elle is ready to give up on her journey and go home.

Third plot twist: The gorgon Stromwell, upon learning of Callahan’s solicitation, switches from gatekeeper/shadow to ally and mentor declaring to Elle: “If you let one stupid [person] ruin your life, then you’re not the girl I think you are.”

Along the way, Elle wins over her classmates and they shift from shadows to allies as well.

Ultimately Elle succeeds in her journey. She passes “the ordeal” (wins a trial) and realizes that she is serious and has more to offer than just being wife-material to a politically ambitious dweeb. She graduates with honors, has a job offer and becomes engaged to the handsome Emmett Richmond, who had been her first ally at Harvard.

Casablanca: At the end of the movie, after Rick has given the letters of transit to Ilsa and Victor and they are safely on the plane, taxing down the runway, Rick shoots the Nazi who is trying to stop the plane so he can arrest Victor. At that moment, Capt. Renault, who up until then was a shadow (sleeping with refugees in exchange for transit letters and kissing up to the Nazis) decides to become an ally of Rick’s. Capt Renault has witnessed the murder but rather than arrest Rick, he dispatches his subordinate to round up the usual suspects. Whereupon Rick declares, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” One of the greatest endings in film history.

Lion in Winter: Henry II has gathered his family for Christmas because he wants them to negotiate an agreement by which the youngest surviving son, John Lackland, will succeed him as king instead of Richard the Lionheart. Eleanor champions Richard. That leaves the manipulative and self-pitying Geoffrey in an interesting spot. He can be an ally to either or none or a shadow to either or none. Then the reptilian Phillip II of France shows up and dives into the intrigue and the allegiances change with every scene.

Harry Potter: My favorite shapeshifter ever is Severus Snape. In my humble opinion, Severus is the best developed character of the series. His choices and actions make absolute sense to him at a very deep level; but because he is so enigmatic, his shapeshifting from gatekeeper to shadow to ally and then to weird shadowy/ally are major plot twists.

After I watched Legally Blonde, I fell asleep watching Rebus on Hulu. When I woke up to more Rebus this morning (there goes a bunch of data bites), I caught the last part of an episode where a witness turns out to be Special Branch and then turns out to be the murderer and then she is whisked away by Special Branch before she can meet justice. I’m still thinking about whether she was a shapeshifter (to Rebus she was), whether she was cloaked in secrets and lies and whether the distinction matters.

I think the distinction does matter for purposes of developing our stories. The character cloaked in secrets and lies provides material for plot twists but the character who is truly a shapeshifter is the plot twist. I get a bigger zing out of a shape shift than I do from a revelation of a secret and the shape shift seems to generate more momentum as the story is launched in a different direction.

What think you, Mysteristas? Secrets and lies are the currency of mystery, but is there room for shapeshifters as well?

And what about the unreliable narrator which has so recently become fashionable? Is she a shapeshifter or a liar? And does it matter?



15 thoughts on “Twisted Characters: Shapeshifters”

  1. I agree about Snape. I always found him the most interesting character, if not always the most likeable. His fate hit me harder than Dumbledore’s. I think having at least one of these characters enriches a story – if you can pull it off without being cliche.


  2. Love the idea of shapeshifters as twists, and what great examples! Legally Blonde is such a fun movie and I agree completely that Snape is arguably the best developed character in Harry Potter. Snape’s final reveal in book 7 was one of the biggest payoff moments of the entire series!


  3. EUREKA! Yes, I totally agree and never realized it – about the shapeshifters not about the agreement. Perfect–and thanks for the revisit with Legally Blonde. One of my favorite movies. The unreliable narrator…not so much a fan, but in a way, all our narrators are unreliable in that we are hiding clues like crazy and even though we play fair with the reader, it’s safe to say that when our characters travel down red herring paths, their reliability is in question. The difference is, our characters recover and take the high road. The classic unreliable narrator seems to play into the unreliability part. If I remember my psychology correctly (its been a while) isn’t that a hallmark of a narcissistic personality?


  4. Very interesting–especially loved the Legally Blonde analysis! (That’s one of those movies when, if I catch a glimpse of it on tv, I kind of want to watch the rest. Feel-good movie or something.) And Snape, yes. My goodness. One of the most interesting characters ever.


  5. I’ve gotten out of watching television series’ (that whole binging thing has gotten me hooked) but one show I would stop whatever I was doing to go watch was 24. The shapeshifters and related plot twists in that one were amazing. Evolutions of character can be quick or, long and gentle, like Mr. Barrow in Downton Abbey.

    Well done, Keenan!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a wonderful post. For me as a reader, it’s always about the characters. If I can’t imagine that I will run into the characters in the grocery store or at the mall, I have trouble finishing the book. Even the horrible characters have to be believable. To me, both the “shapeshifter” and the unreliable witness are people I see everyday everywhere I go. That is why I like reading “with” those characters. I think every one of us is really a shapeshifter throughout our own lives; that’s what makes us interesting people.

    As for the unreliable witness, well, I have also met them, at work, at school, at the mall, and at the grocery store. Sometimes I am not too thrilled with them, but since I recognize them, I can move on. I treat them cautiously when i meet them in life just as I do when I meet them in books. I enjoy books with an unreliable witnesses because, again, they can be realistic, sympathetic, conniving, scheming, and evil all at the same time. If there were no unreliable witnesses in mystery books, there would not be much mystery.

    And really, anyone who has ever told a “little white lie” is just a little an unreliable witness.

    Being a shapeshifter is something we embrace as we grow and mature, being an unreliable witness is something we are, but hide.

    Liked by 1 person

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