Tag Archives: Tristan Brand

Shapeshifting: Mythical and Modern

Guest Post by Tristan Brand

As someone who spent seven years studying math, I’m interested in patterns. My favorite type of patterns are the unexpected ones. Seeing similarities emerge when previously you saw only differences is really neat.

Now, as much as I know you’re all hoping I’m going to spend the next thousand words discussing some very exciting developments in algebraic number theory, I’m going to apply this concept instead to myths.

One of the cool things about mythologies is how diverse they are, culture to culture. Though the Greeks, Norse, Egyptians, and Celtics all had their own pantheons of gods, each were different in their personalities, powers, and how they interacted with mortals.

From this diverse set of myths, we see patterns, similarities. Cultures whom never interacted with one another – who never even knew of the other’s existence! – came up with some of the exact same ideas. There’s a term for this; cultural universal. An idea that occurs in essentially every known human culture.

One of those cultural universals is shapeshifting.

Now, if I were to guess where these cultural universals come from, I’d conjecture they emerge from common human experiences. We’re all bipedal, two-armed, two-eyed omnivores. Surely that would have to lead to some similar developments. We all talk; we all walk; we all eat. What we don’t do is turn into wolves and run around in the night making trouble.

Yet, apparently, we all tell stories about exactly that.

Maybe this is less surprising than it seems.  Humans’ connection with animals in the real world is as ancient as our myth. We’ve depended on animals to survive; dogs protected our homes, horses carried us through terrain we’d never survive on our own while oxen hauled our belongings; cows gave us milk and chickens gave us eggs. Even when animals aren’t doing our work for us, we’ve always kept them around for companionship. They had pet cats in ancient Egypt,  who no doubt knocked over their fair share of cups of water and urns containing your ancestors organs.

This connection to animals seems to lead to a couple things. First, we begin to anthropomorphize the animals close to us. The trusty oxen you’ve used to haul your equipment for the past two years suddenly becomes Eddie. You start to ascribe moods to him as you would a human – happiness, sadness, boredom, anger. Maybe you even start talking to him,  something I may or may not do with my own pets.

Second, we look at the traits animals have and wonder: what would it be like to run like a wolf? Smell the scent of your prey in the night? To swim like a fish. People have looked up at birds and wondered what it was like to fly for centuries before we ever developed the technology to do so.

But as the universe did not grant us such traits, so we did the next best thing: we imagined. We thought of men and woman transformed to these animal shapes. What would they experience? What would they see? What would they do?

We imagined, and we told stories. The Greeks told of Circe turning Odysseus’s men into pigs. The Celtics told of Llwyd ap Cil Coed, who transformed his wife and attendants to mice to eat the crops of rival Dyfed. The Norse told of the god Loki, who took the form of a mare to sabotage a man building a wall.

Shapeshifting is still prevalent in modern stories. Though shapeshifting itself is a shared idea among every culture, the way each individual storyteller handles it is different.  It can impact a story in a thousand different ways.

One common approach is when then main character is unwillingly transformed into an animal. A classic example is in Roald Dahl’s novel The Witches, where the main character, a young boy, is turned into a mouse early on. Another, perhaps less known example, is The Dragon and the George by Gordon R. Dickson, where a man is transported to a fantasy world and transplanted into the body of a dragon.

Often in these stories, the main plot question becomes “How do they become human again?’ Additionally, we get to see the characters struggle with their new forms, learning new senses, new body parts. Other conflicts appear that would never matter to a human – like a mouse having to evade mouse traps, or a dragon having to deal with a new propensity toward freshly killed meat.

In other stories, the character controls when, and sometimes even what, they can change into. The wargs in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series can project their mind into that of animals at will. The were-wolves in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series control when and how they turn into wolves.

Usually when shapeshifting is a choice, it becomes less of a plot question and more of a tool that the characters use in chase of the rest of the plot.

Another way shapeshifting changes in a story is how other characters within the story view shapeshifting. Is it considered a gift or a curse? Is it something that can be done openly or must it be hidden? The answers to these questions will help shape the world around your story, and make shapeshifting a natural part of that world. A great example of this is in Robin Hobb’s Tawny Man trilogy, where people with a power called the Wit can bond with animals – and even inhabit their bodies. The disgust others in story-world have toward this practice motivates a number of important plot points.

These examples only shallowly explore how shapeshifting affects stories. Every author has a different take on it. Some of them will resonate more than others, and will be read by our children and our children’s children and so on. Today’s stories slowly become tomorrow’s myths. I bet a thousand years from now, when humanity has travelled to the stars,  they’ll still be telling stories about shapeshifting.

Maybe by then we’ll have even figured out how to shapeshift for real.


Tristan Brand is an aspiring fantasy author and technical writer. When he’s not obsessively checking the mail for his long-overdue invitation to wizarding school, he can be found playing StarCraft II, practicing classical piano, or reading a good book. He keeps a blog at www.TristanDBrand.com, does a web-show with his friend called Why We Like It (http://day9.tv/d/b/why-we-like-it/), and can be found on twitter as @TristanDBrand.

The Magic in Our Stories

Guest Post by Tristan Brand

wizardMagic has been a part of our stories since pretty much the beginning.

Homer wrote The Odyssey, a tale full of magical creatures, sorceresses, and vengeful gods, nearly three millennia ago. The Arthurian legend, featuring the great wizard Merlin and King Arthur’s magical sword Excalibur, originated in the dark ages. Five hundred years ago, Shakespeare incorporated magic into plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Magic made an appearance in Wagner’s famous opera Der rings des Nibelungen, a story of a magical ring that drew from the same sources which, a century later, inspired Tolkien to write his masterpiece Lord of the Rings.

Magic’s a powerful tool when it comes to storytelling. When a writer decides to include magic in his story, he needs to understand the implications of whatever type of magic they include. Of course, that’s easier said than done, as there are essentially infinite ways to approach magic.

We can make this infinite sea of possibility a bit more manageable by dividing magic into two categories. In the first category, the laws of magic are as well understood as the laws of physics. In the second category, magic is a mystery; its rules, laws, limitations are left unknown.

Both categories carry their own advantages and potential pitfalls. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent stories representing each category that can be used as examples of how the strongest storytellers use magic.

Brandon Sanderson is a great example of an author whose magic falls into the first category.  In his Mistborn series, people called allomancers burn metals within their bodies to give themselves abilities ranging from pulling their bodies towards pieces of metal to affecting the flow of time. Sanderson carefully weaves in information about allomancy into the narrative so that the reader learns its capabilities and limitations, while taking care not to bog the story down with excessive detail.

In crafting allomancy, Sanderson made use of a couple principles (which he often terms his first and second law of magic.) The first is that the author’s ability to use magic to solve conflicts is directly proportional to the reader’s understanding of said magic. The second is that magic must have significant draw-backs to those that use it.

The first law demonstrates the key advantage to using well-understood magic. It allows that magic to become a tool in the author’s tool-box. The second law offers a cautionary point. If the writer creates a magic system that’s too powerful, the reader may at some point wonder why the hero is going through all this trouble

Vin, the protagonist in Mistborn, is a powerful allomancy who routinely uses her ability to solve problems. If the reader didn’t understand allomancy, Vin’s constant use of it to escape danger would seem cheap. If allomancy did not have significant limitations, the reader might wonder why Vin was letting herself get into so much trouble in the first place.

The magic in George R. R. Martin’s epic series  A Song of Ice and Fire falls into the second category. Magic appears directly on the page far less than in most fantasy novels, though it’s always lurking in the edges. Undead monsters rise in the North.  A summoned shadow assassinates a would-be king. A crippled boy can project his mind into the body of his pet wolf.

If there’s an underlying logic, a set of principles governing what can and cannot happen, Martin keeps it well-hidden from the reader. A key reason this works is that Martin’s magic is just as mysterious to the viewpoint characters as it is to the reader. The mysteriousness of his magic is not an arbitrary choice but rather a consequence of the world he’s created. In this world, the characters fear magic – and the reader learns to fear it as well.

One pitfall to Martin’s approach is that he is far less able to use magic to solve conflicts, a consequence of Sanderson’s first law. But Martin doesn’t need to. The magic in his world serves a different purpose than the magic in Sanderson’s world.

The trait that both Sanderson and Martin’s approaches share is consistency. Magic might break the rules of nature, but it cannot escape logic and consequence entirely. Adding magic into a world irrevocably changes it. Cities, cultures, politics, wars, everything, will be affected in some way. Regardless which approach is chosen, its success will likely be determined by how consistent the author is with their magic’s effect on the world.

Most authors fall in between the two categories. Patrick Rothfuss uses magic called sympathy in his Kingkiller Chronicles, and though the reader is given some rules there are clearly parts left unexplained. The same is true of weaving in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time or the magic in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.wizard 2

Magic may exist only in our minds, but that doesn’t make it any less real. It’s in our stories, and our stories are part of who we are. They reflect our culture, our history. Through stories, even those about dragons and wizards and talking dogs, allomancers and undead hordes, we constantly explore what it means to be human. By allowing the impossible to play out on the page, we can find insights that considering only the possible would have left undiscovered.


Tristan Brand is an aspiring fantasy author and technical writer. When he’s not obsessively checking the mail for his long-overdue invitation to wizarding school, he can be found playing StarCraft II, practicing classical piano, or reading a good book. He keeps a blog at www.TristanDBrand.com, does a web-show with his friend called Why We Like It (http://day9.tv/d/b/why-we-like-it/), and can be found on twitter as @TristanDBrand.