You know what I’ve seen a time or two? Or five? Or a million times, perhaps?
When you have a person who is a good guy but then it turns out HE’S NOT A GOOD GUY! but then actually he IS a good guy and the guy who isn’t a good guy is just pretending to be the guy who is actually good.
I’m talking about shape-shifters and possession. (Note: not talking about shape-shifting into animals, because that’s just awesome.)
I personally hate the dramatic tension of knowing that Mystique is running around with the good guys pretending to be one of the good guys while really that good guy is, I don’t know, tied up in a broom closet somewhere or worse, waiting for the worst possible moment to make the guy she’s pretending to be to look like a traitor.
Maybe it’s just because I really hate dramatic irony in general, because I can’t handle the tension. I’m fairly certain that can’t be a blanket rule for me, but I do dislike most instances of poignant dramatic irony.
You know what’s just as bad to me as a shape-shifter in a dangerous position? Something that amounts to the same friggun thing.
Whenever anyone gets possessed, I spend the entire time wondering when the heroes are going to friggun finally figure it out, or when he’s finally not going to friggun be possessed anymore, or why they flipping keep trusting him. Sorry, Kain, but just…you’ve betrayed us like five times now, so I’m afraid that you can’t be in our party anymore (even though you’re probably my favorite male character in this game and I just got the strongest Eidolon in the game solely because of you and never mind whatever I can’t even be mad. Fine, you can join us for the final dungeon).
The point is, for me personally, possession and shape-shifting are kind of weak tactics. Or, not weak, no. Cheap. Really cheap. Really punching your villain in the face cheapshot tactics and I just want the tactic to be overrr already!
However, as it happens, I’m not against shape-shifting as a concept. I will admit here that one of my most prized and loved characters is actually a shape-shifter. And yes, he’s a villain. Alternately, I also am writing doppelgangers as shape-shifters in some of my stories as well. So I’ve grappled with this. What makes Vince (said character) different from Mystique in my eyes? Why don’t I like that dramatic irony? What bothers me so much about a person not being what I thought they were – or knowing they’re not but no matter how much I scream at the characters, they don’t hear me?
I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason I don’t tend to like shape-shifting/possession is twofold. One, I really don’t like dramatic irony. Like I said, there may be exceptions but… However, that’s my personal preference. I’m not about to tell you that you can’t use it. Like anything else, it’s all in how you use it. There will be people like me that will be driven up the wall screaming IT’S THE CHANGELING! unable to stand the drama but if dramatic irony were just plain bad, no one would ever use it. Except fledgling writers who don’t know better.
Two, it’s the cheap shot aspect. You have Mystique, and with a second-quick flip of her skin, she’s someone else, anyone else. You have the Changeling in Terry Brooks’ The Elfstones of Shannara who just shifts into whatever he wants. You give Loki his scepter with the friggun Mind Stone in it and he just has to tap you and he’s got it. No challenge. No work. You want an impostor of some highly specialized sort? No problem.
How IS Vince different from Mystique? He can’t take the cheap shot because his shape-shifting has prerequisites. If he wants to shape-shift into another person, he has to complete a task concerning that person first, a task that could range from easy to impossible depending on the person, Vince’s own skills, and a few other random factors. Mystique just has to know what the person looks like. What about my doppelgangers? They can only shape-shift into the last person they touched, once. If they shape-shift and then turn back, they can’t shift again until they touch someone else, and then they can only shift into THAT person. Additionally, there’s a challenge with their shifting into someone else; a doppelganger could lose himself in a new form. It’s dangerous for them.
Why does this make a difference? Because it feels less like just totally cheating. And sure, villains can cheat, who cares? They’re evil. But remember the principle that a hero’s feats of defeating the villain don’t mean anything if the hero doesn’t have to do much to defeat the villain? Well…that’s a common theme really. If something’s too easy, it doesn’t mean anything. If the prisoner escapes because a single guard stupidly ambled into his cell when the prisoner was hiding on the ceiling, his escape was nothing to brag about. If the prisoner escapes pretending to be a nearly dead guard via wearing the face of the dead guard while putting the actual dead guard on top of the elevator…that’s incredibly creepy, this is why I don’t watch R movies, gah who left that on the television!? I mean it’s a pretty epic escape. If the villain can just turn into anyone she wants any time…I don’t feel like she earned it and then I just bite my nails urging the heroes to find out it’s her already! Not at the worst moment when she reveals herself, guys, come on! Oh, too late. I love Mystique as a character, I do. I think she’s fantastic. But I’m not impressed with her mutant powers. Look, if nothing else, the shape-shifting could be seamless but not perfect.
If in possession, there’s not just some voodoo doll involved but an awful lot of work or, perhaps, it turns out that Kain wasn’t 100% possessed and that 10% of him did Golbez’ bidding anyway because Kain wanted to be with the kidnapped Rosa and kill her boyfriend of his own volition…the possession becomes a whole lot more interesting to me. The self-examination that can come with “Why was I able to be possessed?” is fantastic reflection for a character.
The thing about all this is that fear is a powerful tool, and we have a fear of something, someone presenting as one thing, and turning out to be another; we have a fear of a betrayal of our trust, and of misjudging another. Shape-shifting and possession capitalize on all of these things. But to me, when it’s so readily available at the villain’s hands, I lose the fear and become irate. Maybe I’m weird that way, maybe that wouldn’t be a problem for your audience at large. But for me, it’s much more scary when you don’t really know, exactly – limit that dramatic irony – and much more impressive when it wasn’t so easy to set up.
(PS – there’s two new flash fiction pieces, if you were enjoying those.)