Shop Talk: Paranormal Fantasy’s Ever-Changing Shapeshifters

Welcome to Shop Talk, where every Wednesday we chat about some aspect of books or writing or publishing or all that jazz. Leave a comment and take part in the chat for a chance to win a $10 gift card to Amazon or your other favorite online retailer.

Before I start, thanks to Miki over at Lecture toute une Aventure, who’s featuring Storm Force today. Get an extra entry in the contest if you hop over and leave a comment (even if you aren’t reading the book). Here’s the question: how far would you go to follow orders from a commanding officer if you’re in the military, or your boss at work? What if a direct order went against your personal moral code? What lines would you cross? What would it take for you to cross that line? Go over and join the discussion!

Today, I want to talk about shapeshifters! As paranormal fantasy has matured, vampires and werewolves have become the go-to mainstays of the genre. (I’m using “paranormal fantasy” to gather urban fantasy and paranormal romance under a single umbrella, and I’ll give credit where it’s due–I first heard the term used by veteran book reviewer Paul Goat Allen, who was kind enough to include Royal Street on his list of top paranormal fantasies of 2012. But I like the term, as it seems more accurate now that “urban” fantasy can take place out in the sticks, or at different points in history.)

So, if vampires were the first paranormals to come out of the closet, when did werewolves become popular? The first “modern” werewolf I remember is probably Richard from Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. I loved me some Richard until he got so whiny and petulant that I just wanted to belt him upside his sexy head and finally, like Anita, wanted him to just go away. Who was your first wolf? Patricia Briggs brings on the wolves in her Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega series. There are some werewolves in Kim Harrison’s Hollows series.

Dresden….Dresden…Yep, there are wolves in the Dresdenverse. In fact, in one of the early Dresden books, I was introduced to my first skinwalker, as Harry takes on a variety of wolfy types.

So, lots of wolves. Once authors got tired of wolves, we all began to cast around for new types of shifters. Anita, of course, has a virtual menagerie, including some I have to admit are just bizarre–I mean, swan shifters? Big cat shifters got very popular, and still are. The Sookie series has an interesting distinction between the weres, who change to a specific form, and a shifter like Sam Merlotte, who can change into any animal.

In my Sentinels of New Orleans series, I’ve played around with blending the idea of shifters (born, not made) and were-creatures (made, not born) with the culture and legends of South Louisiana. So Jake isn’t a normal werewolf but loup-garou. The loup-garou (or, sometimes, rougarou) is an old, old legend in Louisiana. I decided to make my merpeople, like Rene Delachaise, Cajun aquatic shapeshifters. In one of my short stories, I introduced weregators, although they have yet to make it into the books. In my current book Storm Force (written as Susannah Sandlin), I’ve stretched the shapeshifter world further with a golden eagle shifter named Robin (ha!), some jaguarundi shifters (a breed of cat in the puma family that’s now extinct in the US) and black-cougar shifters. Also species that are born, not made.

I’m not yet tired of shifters, and I think there are enough variations and interest in the wild things within all of us to sustain them even when the genre seems to be slowing down a bit. Are you still interested in shifters? What do you like about them, and what type are your favorites? Is there a type of shifter (like me with the swan-shifter) that you thought took it a step too far?

Let’s chat about shifters!

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

46 thoughts on “Shop Talk: Paranormal Fantasy’s Ever-Changing Shapeshifters

  1. The first werewolf book I remember reading was back in the 1970s. I found a used copy of Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris in a bookstore and the title caught my eye. I believe it was originally published in the 1930s. And the Howling movies came out in the early 80s. But I think that shifters have only really taken off in popularity in the last 15 years or so with the increased popularity of PNR and UF.

    I still enjoy reading books featuring werewolves but also enjoy seeing all of the other varieties of shifters that authors come up with. So far I haven’t read about any type of shifter that’s too far out there for me. Even Laurell Hamilton’s swan shifters since there are fairytales about people being turned into swans.

    • LOL. I think if Anita hadn’t had SEX with the swan shifter…in the back of a car, as I recall, and there hadn’t been tufts of features involved…..well, you know. I kinda got squicked out about it. I want my shifters shifted to human before any sex gets involved!

    • I agree about them shifting back to human first although I don’t think it’d bother me too much if it was say two werewolves in wolf form as long as the author didn’t try to go into any detail.

    • Nah, she wanted to eat him in the back of the car, on the way to the Lupar. She had sex with him while in the hospital, because she needed to heal and fight the bad guys. The Harlequin book I think.

    • LOL.…you know. Easy to confuse those things! You’re absolutely right. i remember the hospital scene now. Seems like she was a little squicked out about it too, now that i’m thinking about it 🙂

  2. I like the shifters. The golden eagle and jaguarundi in Storm Front are very different. and so far fun. Robin shifts very easy and can understand how much of an advantage being in the air can be. Great twist to the standard. Still learning about the Jaguarundi. Jane Yellowrock in Faith Hunter’s book can shift to several things. Like the big cat. Never heard of swan-shifter. Like Kitty in Carrie Vaughn’s series.

    • I like Kitty as well, although I kind of run hot and cold with that series. I would like to read more of the Jane Yellowrock series (need more time!). I thought Faith Hunter’s ability to get inside the animal’s head was really excellent.

  3. I think my first werewolf was Adam Hauptman in the Mercy Thompson series. I don’t know that I’ve seen any shapeshifters that go too far, although I’ve read a book by Eve Langlais that has a bunny shifter, lol. That worked, in main part because her books are so funny and the bunny shifter joke ran throughout the book.

    I find Seanan McGuire’s fey shifter characters really intriguing in her October Daye series. I think there are some mer-men, and the storyline between selkies/roane is fascinating.

    • That’s another author I want to read. Nicole Peeler also has selkies in her Jane True series, and the Mercy Thompson series has selkies in….I’m wanting to say the second book but can’t remember for certain. Bunny shifters! Now, that makes me laugh 🙂

    • Merry Gentry first book, also Laurell K. Hamilton has a selkie in it. Also a selkie in Yasmine Galenorn Otherworld series.

  4. I do love shifters and i love to see a variety of them not only wolves ( though they are dear to my heart like Adam hauptman), it’s one thing io love in teh kate daniels series there are so many different kind, all with their own behaviour and rules i love it… now since i’ve discovered teh october daye series i must amit like Rebe that i’m intrigued and i’ve become a real fan of Tybalt ^^ a cait sidhe ( look like a feline shifter but with faerie powers)
    i really love shifters ( more than angel or vampires)

    • I like both shifters and vampires, and would hate to have to choose between them! I do think shifters are more versatile. It’s harder to come up with a different spin on vampires these days.

  5. I am not yet tired of shifters. I still love them and love exploring their worlds. I don’t really have a favorite or anything but I love Jaguar or werewolf shifters. I don’t think you can get tired of shifters or any other creatures really till you keep mixing up what’s on you reading pile.

    • LOL. That’s a good point. Even with the vampires, if they’re memorable I can keep them straight. A good character is a good character regardless of “species.”

  6. It’s fun to read a good shifter book and I like to see when an author has some new ideas. I don’t have a fav special shifter in mind but if the story is good I don’t care. But I’m not tired of them and I look forward to read more great books about them!

    • I think there’s been some vampire “fatigue,” but that doesn’t seem to have spread to the shifter world. It might be that, overall, the shifters are more versatile and there are more directions an author can go with them.

  7. I love shifters as often the animal tends to reflect the personality of the character. It makes thes supernatural world feel more textured with different animals rather than just wolves. The first ones I read about was actually in my first UF book – Elena and Clay in Bitten by Kelley Armstrong. The book was full on werewolf story – no vampires, few humans and completely driven by pack dynamics.

    I personally quite like different types of shifters particularly the predators. While I haven’t come across swan or bunny (yet!), James R Tuck recently had a were T-Rex in his Deacon Chalk series which was very cool and I read a short story in wolfsbane and mistletoe which had a were-coral in – although that was played for comedy more. Wish I could remember the author though!

    • That’s a really good point–the animals will vary as their human personalities vary, which does add a lot of texture. Same with vampires, I think–a lot of what makes one stand out from another is not their “vampireness,” but how their experiences and human lives shape what kind of vampire they become.

  8. I like shifters. Mostly I seem to read about werewolves. And I enjoy them!

    I’m trying to recall if I’ve read any books that have gone too far. Can’t think of any.

    One of my fav series in this genre is Mercy Thompson!

  9. Shifter stories still interest me and partly that’s because they are so new to me. I’ve mainly stuck to vampire stories. I think one of the first shifters I read about weren’t main heroes or heroines but secondary characters but I still found them interesting. I really like the shifters in the Fever series. That is a world I enjoy.

    • That was my intro to shifters to, with the Anita Blake books, which I was reading for the uber-sexy Jean Claude. Richard wasn’t such a major character when he was first introduced and his role grew and we learned more about the pack dynamics as the series progressed.

  10. Great topic Suzanne, thank you. I think my first shifters are the psy-changeling by Nalini Singh. Still one of the best series out there. Of course the Anita Blake books are in that list, and for vampires Lara Adrian and Alyssa Day and Christine Feehan.

    Jean Johnson has shifters who can become multiple animals. The more forms you have, the higher in the tribe you are. I really do love that concept.
    Sara Humphreys writes the Amoveo series, which also features some unique animals. And how about Shelly Laurenston? Those are fun as well. Nalini Singh has some non-predator shifters, like deer, and shifters who live in the ocean. Looking forward to learning more about them, there was talk about a treaty between them and Dark River / Snow Dancer.

    Thea Harrison also has a unique collection of shifters, how about a tiny cameleon female who hooks up with a big dog shifter? Or a dragon with a unicorn?

    Then there are the many series with Dragon Shifters, which is also something I adore. Jennifer Ashley / Allyson James is one of the best writers in my opinion in a lot of genres.

    • Nalini Singh is another author I haven’t read, but want to. Have heard so many great things about the psy-changeling series. Thea Harrison is yet another. I do like dragon shifters.

      One of my favorite recent series that I didn’t think got near the attention it deserved is Rosalie Lario’s Demons of Infernum series. There’s a half-dragon, half-demon in there.

  11. Anne Bishop is one of my favorite authors, and she just released the first book in a new series, Written in Red (HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT!). It is set in a reimagined world where humans coexist with the fae (generically called Others) and humans are definitely the food portion of the food chain. Her terra indigene (original inhabitants of her version of America–I imagine some are loosely based on Native American mythology) are all shifters of some sort, and they really retain their animal qualities and they DO eat people. They run the show and allow humans to live with them because they like the technology the humans produce. It’s a nice change of pace from most of the books out there where the shifters are humans who struggle with their animalistic side. These Others embrace their animal side and have to play at being human. So it’s less romanticized and more real, IMO.

    Also, if you’re looking for a “high fantasy” with shifters, I highly recommend Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier – it’s the first in 2 sets of trilogies set in an Ireland-like land where the fae really exist. DotF incorporates the the Six Swans fairy tale, and the MC’s brothers are cursed into swans and she has to break the curse. I really love this series and can’t recommend it enough! But it is not an urban paranormal OR a paranormal romance, just to be clear.

    • I loved this book, it is amazing. But where do you get the notion they are Fae? Nor are they native americans, she mentioned the whole world. And there are more than shifters (animals who can look human, meaning they are animals and totally not humans struggling with their animalistic side!), and vampires, and elementals, and then there is Tess. I don’t know what Tess is. And I want to know.

    • LOL, well that really piques my interest in Written in Red! Another more traditional fantasy that has a really cool bit of worldbuilding with shifters is Boone Brux’s Bringer and the Bane series. First book is Shield of Fire.

  12. In my reading I think it was Briggs that introduced me to ‘modern’ werewolves, but I’ve been playing table top rpgs since the early 90s that involved vampires, werewolves and what not.
    I like all the different shifters and as long ad there’s a solid world building behind it I don’t mind unusual shifters. Still waiting for a wereboar or pigshifter though 😉

    • I’ve never been a gamer, but have some writer friends who were into the RPGs back in the day–it seems to have made them really good at plotting, I guess from thinking through game strategy. Uses the same brain “muscles.”

  13. I like shifters. I still can’t get used to the idea of some of the weirder ones though. I don’t think I would want them to be main characters.

    • Yes, seems like the books I’ve read with the odd shifters have mostly relegated them to subordinate roles. There’s just no way I could figure out how to make a were-rhino a romantic hero!

  14. I love shifter stories! I think it works best when the shifter is a predator of some type. I really like your golden eagle shifter as birds are not commonly used as a shifter. Although I did read a story by Eve Langlais that had a were bunny that was about 7 feet tall and with fangs when she shifted. It was a very funny story!

    • The best shifters are predators, I think. I’m enjoying my eagle shifter–I live in a town where the Southeastern Raptor Center is located, so I’ve had a chance to be around eagles and falcons and hawks and owls. They’re fascinating birds. When I was thinking about who’d be valuable to have on an undercover ops team, I came up with the eagle-shifter to be their tracker because it would be so advantageous for her to be able to track from the air. I LOVE the bunny-shifter!

  15. I’ve always loved books with dragons & that definitely includes dragon shifters. Thea Harrison’s Dragon Bound is one of my favs!

    I definitely wouldn’t want the protagonists of a story to be a shifter to an animal that may have traits that wouldn’t be those that I’d associate with a hero/heroine. Perhaps the swan shifter is a dancer!

    • Ah, there’s another vote for Thea Harrison. I also like dragon-shifters, which is strange because in trad fantasy, I’m not always a fan of dragons. I guess if a dragon turns into a sexy guy, well, that’s another story 🙂

      I’m trying to rack my brain and remember more about the swan shifter in the Anita Blake series. He was the king of the swans, I recall, but I don’t remember what his “day job” was. Seems like it was something more corporate, though. Dancer would have been perfect. Ballet!

  16. I love shifter stories and one I’d have to see taken further was from Rachel Vincent’s Werecat series- her thunderbirds. I was totally fascinated by that side story and had hoped she would do more.

  17. I love shifter stories! Werewolves are my favorite! My first werewolf was Taylor (Jacob) in the Twilight series. I have since progressed and I love all werewolves. I do agree that Richard became annoying as hell in the Anita Blake series though. 🙂

  18. It seems like I never get tired of shifters. They are my favorite paranormal creatures. I love that authors don’t limit themselves to just werewolves anymore. My personal favorites are big cats, dragons, and bears. The only thing I don’t like is when an author just uses the shifting as window dressing, but doesn’t really integrate the animal side into the story. In other words, the character acts completely human except that they just happen to be able to shift. To me, that’s a cop out on the world building.

  19. I actually haven’t read too many shifter books and the ones I have read and really enjoyed have mainly been wolf shifters with the occasional cougar, black panther and bear thrown in