[This post oriignally appeared on Timothy Bateson’s blog, mid Oct 2019]
Let’s say someone wants to write about werewolves but nothing they’re coming up with fits “werewolf.” Probably they’re putting the hearse before the horse. Their interest is on the were, not the were’s purpose in the story.
Werecreatures are nothing new. Cave drawings frequently depict humanimals. Study any culture’s mythology and one wonders who wasn’t a werecreature. The concept of versipellics as evil is relatively new compared to human recorded history (about 800 years v 35,000 years).
A significant aspect of versipellic history is that skin-changing was a spiritual exercise, not a magical exercise. This spiritual aspect remains today in the concept of shapeshifting as evil. The Malleus Maleficarum provided details about all such “magickal” practices but the reason to hunt down practitioners was political; practitioners threatened the power and authority of Mother Church. What do you do when you’re a religious authority and you want to get rid of the opposition? You label it evil, demonic, satanic. You’ll find much the same propagandic reasoning in today’s political speeches. The US was The Great Satan to Ruhollah (Ayatollah) Khomeini. Reagan called Soviet Russia “The Evil Empire,” and Trump’s rhetoric…well, let’s not go there.
Culture makes a difference. Judeo-Christian teaching is that versipellics are evil; God and the Angels never change shape. Satan and the Fallen Angels do (they don’t want you to know who they are). Read religious dogma from other cultures and versipellism is good or evil depending on why it’s being done. It’s the individual’s reason for shapeshifting, not the fact that they can shapeshift, that determines the morality of the transmutation.
Modern scifi/fantasy may have versipellism caused by any number of reasons. Hank McCoy (Marvel’s Beast, genetic) owes much of existence to versipellism, as does Bruce Banner (The Hulk, radiation). Superheroes as a group owe a nod to versipellism; they have two identities, two personalities, one wears the skin of everyday clothing, the other the skin of their superhero costume, and like any good werewolf, the needs of each identity are at odds with the other. Only recently have superheroes walked among non-supers openly (The Incredibles, The Incredibles 2, Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark procliaming from the podium “I am IronMan,” Amazon’s “The Boys”).
And we come back to “Why this Were here, now?” The were in my Nebula recommended Cymodoce is a merman, literally a “sea man.” His purpose is to demonstrate the emotional isolation of the main character, Jenny Packwood. Her life up to finding him washed up on some rocks has been one of disappointment. Through him and because of his alieness, she can experience a real relationship. Maybe. In Cymodoce, the were affects a change in Jenny. His purpose is to cause growth, not show growth, and is a supporting character in the story.
Canis Major ’s protagonist, Ignatius Turner, is the were and again, his versipellism shows his isolation but more so, his shame at what he is. At one point he wonders “When his mother took him out of school, he thought it because all others could control their transformations, that he was inept, the fool, some metamorphic bed-wetter at whom all others laughed.” His versipellism functions to show his internal growth and awareness; what was a curse becomes a blessing.
Empty Sky’s Graywolf is a shapeshifter but only when it suits some greater need. He serves a compassionate Queen as her Herald. Sometimes he must travel in one form, sometimes another, and always to the benefit of others. He is chosen to be a shapeshifter due to an act of heroism, hence his versipellism is a gift, a boon. It must be used as such and, when the time is right, gifted to another.
In all cases, the wereness serves the story’s purpose, it is not the story’s purpose. So why this were here, now? What’s the were’s purpose in the story? Determine the were’s purpose, you’ll figure out what kind of were you need.