I have a real love for shape-shifting as a magical ability/superpower, and have two questions related to it, as I’m writing two stories that have it at the forefront.
1. How do I write transformation scenes without getting too gross/body horror-ish?
2. Since it’s such a diverse power with plenty of applications, what are some good weaknesses/limits to put in place?
You shouldn’t need to worry about body horror unless you get detailed and the transformation resembles injury or sickness. Like if you talk about bones cracking and shifting and skin stretching, that’s body horrorish. But sprouting wings, growing longer claws, or teeth sharpening into canines is generally not going to be an issue because that’s nothing like being injured; it’s just adding an extra thing. You can also stay vague about the specifics or focus on how the character’s perception of the world around them changes (such as the room getting bigger or smaller).
For limits, you have several options. First, you can limit what forms a shapeshifter can take.
- If they can shapeshift into an animal but they can’t change their mass, that actually eliminates tons of options because an animal of human mass can’t get small enough to slip in through little holes, light enough to fly very well, or big enough to massacre people. If that’s too far, you can say they can change their mass a little but not a lot, or they can get smaller but not bigger, etc.
- Changing into a specific person, like a doppelganger, is really powerful, so if they can do that, you might want to make that their only ability.
- Similarly, if you want them to change into powerful fantasy creatures like dragons, you might want to pick a specific creature and say that’s it, or it’ll get too powerful.
You can also use their mental state as a limit. How do they think as another creature? Do they have the same cognitive capabilities as a human? Do instincts tend to take over? In some stories, characters can’t spend too long as an animal because then they might forget who they are and not change back. Giving them some kind of animal mental characteristics can also add novelty.
Finally, you can use a lot of the types of limits that other spells have. How often can they do it? Do they have to recover afterward? Can they do it instantaneously or does it require some ritual? Can they change when they’re tired, sick, or drunk? Is it more difficult to change into some types of animals? Before they can change, maybe they need a hair from the person they’re changing into, or a scale from a dragon if they want to change into a dragon.
I hope that gives you some ideas. Happy writing!
Keep the answer engine fueled by becoming a patron today. Want to ask something? Submit your question here.
Comments on How Do I Limit Shape-Shifting Powers?
Limiting it to ‘same mass’ or ‘similar mass’ is already a good idea, I think. I especially do like that idea for werewolves – makes the human-wolf hybrid you sometimes see a little less bulky, plus wolves can have a similar weight to humans, so it fits.
Another limit could be that the shape shifter needs to know a lot about the anatomy of whatever creature they want to turn into (if they’re shifting into specific creatures) or that they have to be very familiar with another human they want to copy.
Anatomy knowledge being the barrier sounds great!
I can’t help but think of the consequences of not knowing enough before trying though, you could end up breaking your hand trying & failing to be a horse, or be the worst not-dog ever in public.
I know it’s gross, but bone cracking doesn’t get body horror vibes for me.
I just think, “oh, nice.” then crack my toes loudly.
Yeah, bone cracking just seems the standard for “shapeshifting that isn’t completely seamless”. Though I have read it being played for body horror when a Rubber Man-type shapeshifter has it.
It probably isn’t what Kayla is looking for, but I really liked how transformation was handled in the anime “Wolf’s Rain” – i.e. not at all. The main characters are mystical wolves. They have a human form so that they live in the human society, talk to people, buy stuff, (appear to) wear clothes and such, but this form is only a powerfull projection. If they are among themselves, or if the situation calls for it, they can drop the projection instantly “between frames” and become their true selves. For most onlookers it is like waking up from a dream as they realize that the person who they were talking to is (and all the time was) a huge wolf. The limitation is that this projection is only sensory – as shown in one episode, if the wolf wants to catch a kid who is about to fall from a building, he must catch the kid in his teeth, causing unexpected pain and injury.
In Animorphs, the protagonists with shape-shifting powers could only “morph” for two hours at a time or they would be permanently stuck in that form. They also had to touch an animal for about a minute before they could shift into that new form, so some of the books had dangerous quests to find and touch whichever animal the characters needed for their latest mission. Not to mention, some animals, like ants and bees, had mindsets so alien or primitive compared to humans that it would be impossible to hold that form for more than a few minutes at a time.
Ooh! This is a good one, and came at just the right time for me! I’ve been working on getting my main worlds’ magic system into proper shape, and one of the spells is a transformation spell, but I’ve decided that it can only be used by were-beings and shapeshifters to access one animal form that’s sort of linked to their…biological structure, I guess, and the longer they stay in that form, the harder it is to change back. [Running on Earthsea magic and Discworld Borrowing, it seems.]
Another limitation can be to change in shape only, that means that even if you change into a huge dragon, that dragon will have only your own abilities, being unable to fly or breath fire. And if you change into a stone wall it will be a wall that looks like stone but are made of flesh and vulnerable to harm.
For powers and other magical abilities (in fact any magic ability that works like a super power) i use the Ultimate Powers book from the nearly defunct Marvel Superheroes roleplaying game (aka FASERIP) it’s like an encyclopedia of all the powers Marvel have used up until mid 80s from Abnormal sensitivity to Zombie animation, extremelly useful.
Thank you for the excellent article!
I’ve had fun messing around with my shapeshifters.
-They have to memorise the anatomy/form of what they shift into, dramatically decreasing their power. They have photographic memories that they toggle on and off for short periods of time, but it still limits what they can shift into.
-They die if they can’t go back to their natural form (oku)
-Since they taste through their skin, they’re easy to find. All you have to do is release a certain dust they’re sensitive to into the surroundings, and they’ll reveal themselves.
And don’t forget to answer the most important question : is the character naked when he shift back to his human form ?
One option is always to just make your antagonist(s) a shifter as well. So no mater how strong or weak the powers are, the plot will not break completely.
For one of my settings:
Shifters have, at max, three forms (other than their human form), traditionally one for the land, one for the sea, one for the sky. For the protagonist, those are a bear, a sparrow, and a setting-specific seal-gator-tiger thing. A sparrow is really only useful for surveillance, and her sea form is obviously useless on land.
If there is not enough room, you can not transform. Not just ‘it woudl be dangrous to transform, so I will not’, no. The power has at least somewhat of a mind of its own, if you try, and the powers that be deem you to be in too small of a space, nothing will happen. Notably, the powers are not infallible, and can gauge ie dense foliage as being ‘an enclosed space’. The villains discover part way through that throwing chaff in the air will jam shifting powers on this principle.
If a shifter ‘dies’ in any of her forms (including her human one), than she loses access to it for a deliberately vague span of time, and is force-shifted into another. If they can not transform, they will die for real.
“One option is always to just make your antagonist(s) a shifter as well. So no mater how strong or weak the powers are, the plot will not break completely.”
I would not rely on this. I just finished reading a book in which both the protag and the antag had the same power suite (not specifically shapeshifting, but magical nonetheless), but since those powers were really ill defined and not well limited, it ended up even more broken.
In addition to same mass, perhaps getting tiny details right is difficult. Odo in Star Trek DS9 has this famously clumsy face, although his problem with details was extremely inconsistent since he could still shift into a perfect bird or dog, getting every hair in the fur or every little feather right. But if you both retain the same mass at all times, and the details are ALWAYS a little off if someone looks closely, that’s some serious limitations.
I mean, that could just be down to special effects in the 90’s not being capable of simulating full, photorealistic CGI animals on a tv show’s budget. Maybe, in universe, Odo as a bird or dog would look really weird to a member of those species, and we just can’t notice.
DS9 didn’t exactly shy away from ugly CGI effects… Still, they would have saved money by not doing CGI at all unless Odo’s head has to split to let a projectile run through or the like, so you have a point. Also, I think they just wanted to write plots where a) Odo is visibly different from the others in his regular form, but b) he can blend in PERFECTLY in many scenarios by shape-shifting (plus flying when in bird form, etc, even though this would require making perfect feathers).
I still love DS9 though! :-D
Not sure if this is technically shapeshifting but I recently finished reading the 13 Treasures trilogy. One of the protagonists can change into a fox using a magical fox-skin coat, the limit being that she needs the coat with her to transform.
The books have her bring the coat with her, hidden in a bag, when she knows she’s going to need it for a mission, but (if I recall correctly) there are a few times where something unexpected happens where it would have been invaluable, and she’s forced to get by without it. Evern when she does have it on her, there are also situations where she is separated from her bag for whatever reason, and cannot get to it when she needs to.
The most overpowered thing about shapeshifters (at least if they can’t turn into dragons or Kryptonians) might be if they can zip between different forms to adapt to any problem, especially in combination. Shrink down to something tiny to hide, surge up into bear-form for an ambush, then escape as a bird, drop down into the pond as a fish, and keep going the next minute…
So limiting the number of forms someone has is a major constraint. It gives the reader (and writer) a break and focuses the story on just a few options and what they can do. A variation would be if each form needs serious practice to use well, so the shifter only has a few *competent* forms.
Another is to limit the changes themselves: each change takes a toll on the shifter’s endurance (maybe the most versatile power limit there is), or it takes time to complete. Those limits force a shifter to do some real planning about what forms they want, and when.
And, one more vote for limiting changes in mass — especially about shrinking. In a world with other kinds of magic, or just guns, shapeshifting isn’t grossly strong because there are things that hit harder than elephant tusks, or at least are easier to get into play. Shifting’s best advantages tend to be stealth and infiltration, and how those combine with animal senses and mobility. So ruling out small forms might limit a shapeshifter a whole lot more than removing the big ones.
Oo, shapeshifting! My favorite superpower. : )
Here’re the limitations I tend to use:
• Mass conservation: If you’re 55kg you’re going to stay that way, meaning you’ll be a big bird or a foamy giant. If you want to be smaller you’re going to be dense.
• No chemical change: If you’re made out of meat you can’t change into the four elements. If you’re made out of living metal then you’ll need to change your game when sniffer dogs are on to you.
• You’re clothing doesn’t change: If you need a quick-change disguise you’ll need to be technically naked (kinky~). This isn’t a problem unless you’re in a role where you’re being watched changing clothes.
• Personal information required: You best know about the person you’re impersonating, especially if you bump into somebody who knows them. Mystique had this problem in her own comic series more than once. : p
• Not for the uneducated: You can only change what you can see unless you know enough bioscience to know what you’re doing. But you *will* know, which not only singles you out from other shapeshifters but also makes your powers come alive for the reader. : D
Other things to perhaps consider:
The greater the change, the harder it is to do. Change your skin color? No big deal; lots of animals have chromatophores. Tweak your facial features and adjust your height an inch or two for a disguise? One minute, tops. Turn yourself into a wolf? It’s going to take at least half an hour of pain, and you’ll be exhausted afterwards.
It takes a conscious effort to maintain a significant change. The body wants to go back to its normal state. If you’re not doing anything that requires you to be in the new form, there’s a chance you’ll start to revert back.
One thing I don’t think has been mentioned is that when someone changes into an animal, there’s this aura of “wrongness” that everyone and everything can sense. Other animals are openly hostile and back away, even otherwise docile and friendly animals like domesticated dogs. Even people get this “something is not right” feeling. That would limit the power’s usefulness when it comes to sneaking around. Maybe it’s a mix of scents or the animal version of the “uncanny valley” or just a magical/spiritual aura that says “the mind and the form do not match”.
Conserving mass is a very good limitation for a number of reasons: it is very constraining but gradual (on a spectrum that goes from a typical specimen, to a large or small one, to an unusually large or small one, to limits of plausibility or physiology; imagine persons turning into dogs, with common races practically limited to young children); it’s very easy to explain (no annoying exposure); and being an obvious natural law it has a negative cost as a fantasy premise to accept (partially compensating the high-fantasy taste of shapeshifting in general).
Mass conservation could expand to chemical conservation: no transmutations of chemical elements (e.g. arthropods are unlikely to contain as much calcium as large reptiles and mammals, unless the shapeshifter makes up some bones) or implausible chemical reactions (no, you can’t have diamond teeth, not enough pressure).
Another front that should offer good limitations and complications is the “software” side: how to use that new body. Without relevant instincts and without time to learn, how can the shapeshifter learn how to walk like a centipede, swim like a squid, or fly with four flexible wings like a butterfly? Some trick, like reading the mind of a creature, is clearly needed to make shapeshifting actually useful.
This isn’t really about limiting powers, but I really wish people writing animal shifters would research the animal. There are lots of werewolf stories where the shifter is given all sorts supposedly wolf-like traits. But it is obvious everything the author knows about wolves comes from reading other werewolf novels. Written by other authors that didn’t research wolves.
Incorporating actual animal behaviors and abilities has a lot of potential for creating novelty and a more immersive experience. But if that doesn’t interest you, please don’t describe your shifters as becoming actual animals. Mention that they become creatures that just look kind of like animals. Or give some other explanation for why your shifter has little in common with the animal they are looking like.
Shapeshifters are often depicted as instinctively knowing how to operate their new body as soon as they shift. But what if they have to learn how to move in it? Changing their coloring is no problem. But any change to their size will lead to clumsiness. They would have to relearn how to fight in the new body since all of their reflexes are based on a different strength, center of gravity and reach. If they go from two legs to four they stagger about tripping over their extra legs until they learn to walk with them.
A skilled and experienced shifter might become overpowered. But many shifters would stick to a few favorite shapes. And in new shapes they could have tells like awkwardness or excessive care in how they move. They might also maintain body language and speech patterns even as they change what they look like. Being a good actor isn’t necessarily linked with shapeshifting.
I actually have some of that in one of my “Loki Files” stories. Not with Loki himself who is adult and has had some centuries to learn how to use his shifting, but with a character who gains the ability to shift from human to wolf. He needs training and coaching to get things going, to understand the new input of his animal senses, to correctly use his body, that kind of thing.
In another story, I have a character who gains a different shape (permanently) and is overwhelmed by the new senses, dropping into an ‘instinctive mode’ which he can’t break out of alone.
Yes, getting used to a new shape should come with challenges and should need training. Small changes are not a problem (skin colour, eye colour, other more cosmetic changes), but as soon as your body changes enough for it to be felt, it should require some getting used to.
Two words: Uncanny Valley.
If you can turn into other people, you had better look EXACTLY like them (difficult to do from memory), or people will realize something is up. Without a reference, you’re making a realistic face from scratch, and nobody is that good of a sculptor.
Don’t forget the proportions of the body! This is a character creation interface on steroids. Unless you literally have the person you are turning into next to you, this probably isn’t happening without mistakes.
Similarly, if you turn into an animal, animals of your species WILL recognize you as an impostor. There is nothing to avoid that. You’ll have to change your sight, your sound, and your smell to accommodate a completely unfamiliar mindset. This can’t be fixed with just a photograph of the target.
Finally, size, weight, and mass are different things. The first can be easily changed, the second can be tricked a little (form of… a balloon animal filled with vacuum!), but the third might be a constant. So you can use your shapeshifting ability to get thin AND lose weight, but you still find it difficult to turn corners and you can never tell anyone why.
Also, if you’re big like a dragon, you’ll never be a featherweight boxer, because the amount your new weight can be changed by is bounded by the weight of atmosphere that you displace with your new volume. This works better if you’re underwater or something.
Remember: If you ever ACTUALLY see a mermaid, it’s probably a shapeshifting fish that wants to eat you.