Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey #6: The Shapeshifter
In part six, we talk about the role of the Shapeshifter in the Hero’s Journey. The Shapeshifter role can be two-faced, changeable, and mysterious. This transformational power brings tension and doubt into the story. The transformation can be literal and physical. It can be spiritual or emotional. It can encompass both the seen and unseen nature of the Shapeshifter character. In romance and subplotting, the love interest of the hero often takes on this role. The femme fatale is an example of this role.
Additionally, a character may switch roles throughout the narrative. A character may be the herald, then the mentor, then the shapeshifter, and finally reveal himself to be the shadow. There’s no rule against one character playing multiple roles in the journey.
The shapeshifter hides their true nature from the hero. The shapeshifter keeps the hero and reader wondering whose side they’re really on. Usually, the shapeshifter is on the shapeshifter’s side. Because the reader isn’t sure about the shapeshifter’s loyalties and motives, this character brings tension, frustration, and intrigue to the story.
According to Carl Jung, inside each human being there’s an alternate gender-force. For men this is the feminine side or “anima”, for women, we have the masculine side or “animus”. Society has taught women to hide masculine traits such as ambition, boldness, and power. It’s also taught men to shove down traits that are traditionally viewed as feminine, such as intuition and emotional sensitivity. In the shapeshifter, we see these traits of our own being. We impose this on the role and in this fashion, safely explore it. This isn’t just true of exploring in a romantic context; we also explore our wild side in the primal nature of the werewolf, our dark side in the cursed werewolf who can’t control his killing. Through the shapeshifter role, we are able to relate to hidden pieces of ourselves that we usually don’t explore from day to day. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we compartmentalize and wear masks around others every day. The shapeshifter role shows us masks; and at some point, reveals what’s behind them.
A wonderful example of projection of the anima occurs in the Hitchcock classic 1958 movie, Vertigo. (This also happens to be one of my favorite films!) In Vertigo, private detective Scottie Ferguson takes a job watching the suicidal wife of an old friend. He falls madly in love with her and tries to save her from a family curse, ultimately failing because of his vertigo. After he’s released from an institution six months later, he happens to see a woman-Judy- who bears a striking resemblance to his dear yet dead Madeleine. Obsessed, Scottie takes care of her, buys her things, and ultimately changes her appearance until she looks exactly like Madeleine. Here are a couple of videos that capture this transformation:
Who is Judy? Why does she look like Madeleine? What’s scarier, the fact she looks exactly like her, or how far Scottie’s obsession drives him in transforming her? Can he trust his lover?
What happens when we can’t trust our lover? Will the shapeshifter betray us? Love us? Save us? Destroy us? Both? This tension brings vital suspense to the tale.
The femme fatale is a classic, if overused, example of the archetype. Who can forget Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, or in Total Recall:
While some femme fatale try to murder the hero or lead him into fatal danger, this is not needed for the character to be a shapeshifter. Both the shapeshifter and femme fatale criteria can be met by confusing, distracting, or tempting the hero away from his true quest.
Shapeshifters don’t have to be femme fatale, or femme at all. Male characters can easily serve in this dramatic role. One example is Han Solo from Star Wars. When we first meet Han, we learn that Han is all about himself. He’s in it for Han. It’s only as the movies progress that Han’s character arc changes and he reveals that yes, he’s the shapeshifter, and man, can he ever change. He saves lives, both of friends and strangers, and starts to be in it for more than just Han. He cares and starts putting others first. I believe this rehabilitation of his shapeshifter nature is one of the reasons for the “Who shot first?” debate that rages on. (It wasn’t Greedo. Han wasn’t always the good guy we come to adore, he was a shapeshifter before he transformed).
And finally, here is a classic example of a literal shapeshifter. Powerful. Mysterious. Potentially deadly. Maybe friend, maybe foe, maybe our true love.
The source for this material is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition.
If interested in purchasing any of these wonderful films, they can be found at:
Here are the articles in this series: