Now this one, I can do!
Once again, I’m taking a cue from Nathan over at Fantasy Review Barn and babbling about one of the tropes in my writing, as identified in Diana Wynne Jones’ satiric take on fantasy worlds. This time, the topic is near and dear to my heart — and, in fact, the entire basis of my War of Memory world. Which happens to be (with just the pertinent parts)…
Shapeshifting is frequent among both Weres and Magic Users. The usual form taken is that of a Wolf (see Werewolves), but lions, eagles, serpents, owls, and cats are common too. In all cases the Rule is that the Shapeshifter can not stay too long in Animal form without actually becoming that Animal and losing touch with his/her human thoughts. There are two schools of Shapeshifting:
1) Illusory. …
2) Actual. Here you really are the Animal or thing. In this case it is better not to become furniture. You will end up being an armchair for the rest of your life. There are two methods here:
a) Change on land from human to Animal. This is usually swift and painless, though some Weres seem to suffer rather as their faces turn inside out. However, the most you will feel is discomfort and disorientation, shortly replaced by a wonderful sense of Smell or the realization you can fly. The problem here is your clothes. They will not Shift with you and must be discarded. When you change back you will be naked.
b) Change at sea. …
There is an absolute Rule that any wounds sustained in another form go back with you into human form.
Ah yes, that absolute Rule. Which is entirely broken on my world.
But let’s start at the beginning. As you can see, most fantasy worlds assume that shapeshifting is only used by certain classes of people. On mine, though, it used to be that every mortal creature was a shapeshifter. There was a single ‘native race’, and its members could mold themselves at will to whatever form they desired, whether it be flying or swimming or tunneling or walking. They were also interconnected by their patron, the Great Spirit, into a sort of hive-mind, meaning that there was very little conflict.
However, the native race eventually overtaxed its environment, triggering a schism between the starving pacifists and a sect that believed the only way to save the race was to cull it through murder and cannibalism. And when that first murder occurred, the Great Spirit split in two.
It was a sort of biological Tower-of-Babel moment. Suddenly there were predators and prey, with the Ravager presiding over one and the Guardian over the other. Both sides could still shapeshift freely, but aeons of specialization for various biomes meant that most didn’t even try; they just refined their current selves into versions that could better catch–or escape–their new foes.
And as they continued these refinements, they started to split pieces off of the Ravager and Guardian themselves. Type-specific patrons were ‘born’, like Athalarr the Lion and Tan the Stag, still attached to the two Great Spirits but creating a division between the subraces. Lion-types forgot that they had the ability to become stags, and vice versa, though they retained some control over their individual physiology.
Then came the wraiths and their wars, and the backlash as the skinchangers finally tried to work together against them. At first to infiltrate the wraiths, and then to fight side-by-side without wanting to kill each other, the skinchangers created a form known as the Mask: bipedal, mostly hairless, looking nothing like any of the beasts, with limited senses yet significant manual dexterity and physical stamina.
The human form.
Many skinchangers adopted this form in the wraith wars and used it during the Ogre Dominion afterward, a time of relative peace, civilization and prosperity for everyone. And because of it, some skinchangers found themselves falling in love — or just having sex — with their former enemies. Predator-folk with prey, bird-folk with beasts, all under the guise of the Mask.
Because they had all once been a single race, they could still interbreed — but because of the schism of the spirits, those hybrid children could not attach to any patron. They became the first real humans, permanently trapped in the Mask form.
And so shapeshifting ceased to be a universal trait. As time went by, the hybrid/human population grew, forcing more skinchangers to don the Mask or else retreat into the wild lands. Also, the deaths of many patron spirits locked their subraces into non-shifting forms, giving rise to various races of beastfolk and also to non-sentient animals.
Just a point of emphasis here: before some of the patron spirits were killed, every animal was a shapeshifting person.
In the current age of the world, humans may dominate the plains and coastlines but there are still skinchangers everywhere. Book 1 features three named skinchangers in minor roles — Arik and Haurah of the wolves and Radha of the foxes — plus a brief appearance from some crowfolk, and Books 2 and 3 expand upon that with bears and cats and hogfolk and lots more wolves. So many wolves.
But to address the Tough Traveling entry: those Rules do not apply here. Skinchangers can stay in any form as long as they like without suffering any loss of intellect or personality. Their natural from-birth form is either the animal or what we would consider the ‘were-creature’ one, and even when they’re in Mask form, they are still connected to their patron spirit.
This connection also gives them the ability to ignore the second Rule about injuries. A skinchanger can heal any wound, even an amputation, by changing form, because the act of changing synchronizes them with their patron spirit and draws energy from that spirit to refresh and regrow the flesh. This isn’t necessarily instantaneous — a lost leg will take a few shifts to regrow fully — but it does make them extremely hard to kill. One must either deal them an instantly mortal wound or prevent them from changing long enough for them to die from lesser injuries.
The other side of this coin, though, is that what happens to the patron spirit also happens to all of its people. If the Wolf Spirit loses a leg, every wolf-person will lose the use of that leg. If the Wolf Spirit is killed, every wolf-person will instantly become either an animal, an unshifting beastperson, or a plain human — depending on what form they were in at the time.
If the Wolf Spirit has a psychotic break, so does its entire subrace.
However, that rule about not being able to shift your clothes and ending up naked is entirely true.