Shape Shifting

The character Zane lived in my head for years before he became the hero of my book Shape of Secrets. I knew exactly what he could do. He could control the muscles of his body, and particularly his face, well enough to alter his appearance at will. It seemed theoretically possible to me, and it sounded like an ability that would make for a fun story.

One problem was what to call it. It was shape shifting in my mind, but in the world of fantasy shape-shifting often describes taking on the form of an animal, with the change brought on by a full moon or by a bite from another shape shifter. These are magical changes. The physics and biology don’t have to make sense, because reader and writer have agreed to pretend that a 120 pound girl can turn into a 400 pound lioness, behave as an animal, and turn human again. This is all great fun if you are into stories like that, but it wasn’t the kind of story I was writing.

My favorite shape shifter of all time took the process a step further.  Actor René Murat Auberjonoi’s wonderful character Odo on Star Trek Deep Space Nine could actually turn into a silver liquid at will, slither under a door or through a crack in the walls, and emerge on the other side as a solid of any shape. Shape shifting doesn’t get much more versatile than that. In fairness, Robert Patrick’s Terminator T-1000 in Terminator 2 could do much the same thing, but with a decidedly more villainous twist. Both were fabulous to watch, but Zane had to stay solid and keep his human body.

normal 1Lucky for me, the Earth we live on is full of creatures who really can do some variation of what I wanted for Zane.  Cuttlefish, octopi and chameleons head this list, as this wonderful TED video on shapeshifters in the real world shows. My version of shape shifting was destined to be less eye-popping, but I hoped that the trade off would be that my reader might wonder if maybe, just maybe, a real life Zane could exist.

Here is an excerpt from Shape of Secrets which explains much about Zane’s unique talents:

Zane had never tried out for a school play. Lack of time was one reason but there were others as well. Theater people tended to be a flamboyant bunch, and Zane preferred a low profile. He liked to blend in. It was why, in his own way, he was a rather good actor even if his style was not particularly suited to the stage.

He sounded more Texan in Texas, more East Coast at school, more educated on campus, and less educated in a bar. He could carry himself like a preppie, gesture and stand like a rodeo kid, walk like he was from the inner city. He never consciously mimicked people; it just happened. He’d known from early on his mind was a precious thing, and his body’s main job was to protect it from harm. He figured his body had found and developed all the skills it could.

He knew there was nothing magical about him. He had a better mind-to-body link than most and was gifted with particularly adept fine muscle control, which he’d improved over the years. There had been a lot of time spent in front of mirrors playing around to be able to do what he could do. Yet, the results would have astounded his friends and family.

Zane knew there was one peculiarity about his skills. When the male cuttlefish turns its skin from brown to white to warn approaching males it is going to fight, that cuttlefish, as far as we know, does not give the process a lot of thought. Perhaps no more so than the man who places his hands on his hips defiantly. The difference is the man can choose to do something else with his arms while no one is sure whether the cuttlefish chooses anything. This was where it got confusing.

Zane did, after all, have a human brain, and making choices was one of the things his brain had evolved to do. So while his abilities in biological mimicry would often occur without his conscious choice, like a reflex, other times he could and would choose to control them. He could stop changes he felt starting to happen, undo changes which had already happened, and, over the last few years, he had gotten better at learning how to instigate changes of his own conscious choosing. That last ability turned this into way more than a reflex, way more than what the octopus or chameleon could do. It was no longer a quirk. The things Zane’s mind could make his body do were a gift.


For more information on this subject see:

Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine M. Benyus
Chameleon changing colors
TED’s David Gallo