The Shapeshifter Archetype

For our presentation we split up the chapters within the presentation between us, with Jack focusing on the Threshold Guardian, Gianni looking at the Herald, Cliodhna looking at the Shadow and myself looking at the Shapeshifter. Today I read through the chapters our group were given so that I had a rough idea of what the others were looking at and then took notes on the key points in the chapter that I was looking at for our presentation.

The Shapeshifter.

The shape-shifter is naturally ambiguous and therefore hard for both the audience and hero to identify within the story.

Shapeshifters are catalyst for change in stories, showing the psychological urge to transform, and their role is to create tension and add suspense to the story by changing the mood and their behaviour, attitude or appearance.

Characters can be shapeshifters regardless of their gender, the gender of the character is largely dependent on the hero’s gender and sexuality as well as the genre.

Traditional examples include; witches, wizards and ogres

Shapeshifters in modern stories include Han Solo from Star Wars, Hans from Frozen, Gill from Finding Nemo, Boromir from Lord of the Rings and Snape in Harry Potter

Psychological Function.

This archetype is based on Carl Jung’s concept of the anima (the female element in the male subconscious) and the animus (the male element in the female subconscious) which are necessary for internal balance and help us to survive.

Historically society has encouraged us to repress our animus/ anima which leads to emotional/physical problems and inhibits our ability to interact with each other, but recently society has began to change and people are learning to accept these other aspects of themselves.

Regardless of whether or not we repress these aspects of ourselves they are part of us and manifest in dreams and fantasies as a way for us to express this part of ourselves and this is considered important for psychological growth.


We tend to look for people who match our internal image of the opposite sex based on our animus/ anima, because of this we project our ideals on to unsuspecting people. This often causes people to rush in to relationships without seeing who their partner really is and then force their partner to match this idea. (Example: in Vertigo James Stewart’s character forces Kim Nowak’s character to change her hair and clothing to match his internal image of femininity)

Because of this shapeshifting is a natural part of relationships and friendships as most people don’t understand their own sexuality and psychology, let alone other’s, and so people seem mysterious and changeable.

Dealing with the anima or animus can be either helpful or destructive fro the hero, it may cause them to change their attitude about others or help them come to terms with the repressed energies within themselves that this archetype brings to the surface.

The shapeshifter archetype is formed by these projections of our hidden opposite sides and ideas about sexuality and relationships.

Dramatic Function

The shapeshifter brings suspense to stories and causes bother the hero and audience to doubt their judgements. We can tell there is a shapeshifter when we’re questioning if  a character is really an ally or not, or questioning their faithfulness.

This archetype is particularly common in thrillers and film noir and a common type of shapeshifter is the femme fatale, where the woman is seen as a temptress. This portrayal of women can be seen in stories all through time, for example Eve in the Garden of Eden, and Delilah cutting off Samson’s hair. It is also much more common than it’s counterpart the homme fatale (examples of the homme fatale include Zues)

It’s also important to remember that the ‘fatale’ aspect of the shapeshifter isn’t always necessary, the goal of the shapeshifter may just be to confuse the hero or audience.

Shapeshifting is also a natural part of romance and is therefore a very common archetype  in this genre as characters are often blinded by love or can’t see past the masks that these people are wearing and the qualities that they are projecting on to them.

In movies, changes of appearance can also be a manifestation of the shapeshifter archetype, for example, if a character changes their hair and/or wardrobe, there is likely to be a shift in their identity, bringing their loyalty in to question.

Generally in stories if the hero is patient they will eventually discover the truth in regard to the shapeshifter, especially when a series of lies has been told throughout the film.

Mask of the Shapeshifter

Any character within a story can wear the mask of the shapeshifter, including the hero.

The hero generally will wear the mask of a shapeshifter to escape traps or pass a threshold guardian, for example in Sister Act when Whoopi Goldberg’s character disguises herself as a nun. Another example of this would be in Shrek when Donkey pretends to flirt with Dragon in order to distract her,  in this example however it leads to something real between Donkey and Dragon as can be the case quite often when the hero wears this mask.

Villains and their allies are one of the most common characters to wear the mask. They most often wear it in order to confuse the hero or seduce/gain the hero’s trust in order to find out information that they can use against them. An example of this is the Wicked Queen in Snow White when she changes form so that Snow White will eat the poisoned apple.

End Note.

This archetype is extremely flexible and serves a lot of different functions in all genres of movies. It is most common in male-female relationships but is not exclusive to this and can be used in many other ways to move along a plot line.

After reading this I went on to look at other people’s interpretations of the archetypes within this book and found some really helpful things:

Archetypes In the Hero’s Journey by Melinda Goodin which summarises all the archetypes spoken about by Vogler with examples and shows how characters can cycle between archetypes over the course of the plot.

3 Roles of the Shapeshifter Character Archetype by Christine Frazier which talks about the idea of the shapeshifter in both a literal and metaphorical sense within modern movies such as Harry Potter, X-Men and the Hunger Games.

Writers, Know Your Archetypes: The Shapeshifter by Debra Vega. What I found most helpful about this post was how it was broken down and that it looked at differentiating the shapeshifter archetype from other archetypes such as the trickster and how we often presume characters are shapeshifters when it is really just an error on other characters behalves. The examples given in this post were also very helpful.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s