Everyone seems to lean towards playing certain characters. Some people are well known for their descriptions of swordplay, others are brilliant at playing magical characters. I seem to speciallise in playing shapeshifters, so I’m writing this to share a little of what I’ve learnt. Why do I think I can do this? I seem to range widely for my creatures; I’m equally comfortable with mammals, birds and reptiles. Fish are a pain and I’ve never played an invertibrate or an amphibian, but the principal is the same.
1. Know Your Creature
Every animal is slightly different to play. If you wish to play as a character who is also that creature, and not just a character which can occasionally gain the features of that creature, you need to know a little about them. For example, know what your creature looks like. A lion is stockier than a leopard, a cheetah cannot retract its claws, a polar bear has fur on the bottom of its feet and a cobra has hinged fangs. Basic information about what an animal eats and how it moves are nessassary to play an animal realistically.
2. Observe Quirks
The more you know, the better you can add in little quirks, both to your character in their ‘human’ form and as an animal. If you watch a big cat, they turn their front paws inwards when they walk, and when they are stalking their shoulder blades are the highest point. A gecko will lift their foot with a distinct curling of their toes while a monitior lizard will splay theirs. A hawk or an eagle will come in to land with their legs brought well forwards and at a roughly 45 degree angle and a parrot will come from straight above the perch. A crow will not walk short distances on the ground but move with a hopping motion. A shark will swim straight at an object and swerve at the last moment. A wolf will tuck their paws under when they are curling up to sleep but won’t if they are just resting. It is these little descriptive quirks that will bring your character to life and make it appear that they really are the animal, and not just in the animal’s shape.
On the flip side, if your character is unfamilar with the animal and does not have access to that animal’s instincts (perhaps because of a curse has changed their form) then it can be realistic to have them make mistakes. They might find it hard to walk with a different number of legs and fall over repeatedly, not know what to eat and give themselves stomach pains or otherwise have trouble existing. To get this to work, you do need a basic knowledge of anatomy of the animal so you can guess what will happen when your character takes certain actions.
If your character is known for shifting to a certain animal form, or even a narrow group of animals, you will want to add aspects to that animal to your character’s ‘human’ form. One way of doing this is physical changes. A feline shifter may have elongated pupils or a rough tongue, a monkey shifter might have opposable toes. A subtler method is behavioural quirks. A vulture shifter might hunch their shoulders while a reptile shifter will stretch out and sunbake. Predators will generally show their teeth when threatened while herbavors tend to shy away.
3. The Two Kinds of Shifter
In essence, there are two kinds of shapeshifter. They can be roughly described as ‘one person, two skins’ or ‘two beings, one body’. The latter is the stereotypical werewolf. The human and wolf might at some level be the same being, but in mind, shape and personality they are completely different. It is a curse. Play it as such. Transforming into the other form is a horrible thing that means loss of control and dealing with the aftermath (this goes both ways. The wolf isn’t going to be happy about being locked helpless in a cage in someone’s mind most of the month and probably lashes out more because of that).
Don’t have it be a smooth ‘oh, but x has learnt to control it!’ thing. If it is a full control without having two sides, it fits in the ‘one person two skins’ catagory. If the setting treats lycanthropy as a curse then it might be possible for each side to embrace the other until the personalities merge. You aren’t getting away with a nice civilised being out of this: humans are not nice creatures, and predatory impulses on top of that won’t encourage compassion to all living things. (Family and close friends are often a valid exception. They may not be pleased with that.) If the animal is a herbivour then you’re going to have the skittish prey response and be more likely to headbutt than bite but still many social issues.
The ‘one person two skins’ approach is different. As described, it is the same person, morals and attitude that happens to take the shape of more than one creature. This does NOT mean you can take your ‘normal’ character and claim they can turn into an animal and be done with it. To completely change yourself, to adjust your senses and how you move and what you can do is such a massive thing that it needs to be either the core of your character or one of the key things about them.
In essence, you want a character that can go ‘I am the wolf and the wolf is me’. Instincts should be shared. To use the wolf example, you’d have a wolf that lunges to catch dropped objects and a human that snaps after flies, both being done completely without thought (grimacing at the taste of successfully caught fly is fine and amusing). There is likely to be some odd or inappropriate social behaviour going both ways. Clothing can be a touchy issue, but frequently as a human the shifter has less concern about showing a little (or a lot) of skin: if it is fine furry why is it a fuss when pink?
It should be pointed out that none of these are solid rules, only tips and guidelines. Just like anything else you can ignore or outright break them… but just like anything else it can be very helpful to know how to play a more ‘normal’ shifter before throwing the book out.