This is a Tomorrowlands universe story; they are listed at http://www.tomorrowlands.org/story/stories.html.
(c) 2002, Tad "Baxil" Ramspott
As creator and chief editor of The Tomorrowlands Universe, I've seen a lot of stories about people changing into non-human bodies. This is, at heart, a pretty simple idea -- and a lot of story mileage can come from the act of transformation and the consequences thereof.
On one level, that's exactly what TTU is about -- exploring the consequences of transformation and magic in a world otherwise like our own. But on another level, it's much more complicated. There are _rules_ underlying the transformations that are central to TTU. Rules that nobody in the world actually knows, but everyone intuitively grasps. (After all, if some people are changing into otherworldly beasts, there must be a reason that not everyone changes, and a law determining who changes into what.) This rule can be broadly distilled down to "people change because they want to," but any summary of such a complex topic into such a brief statement is bound to generate misunderstanding. The purpose of this essay is to discuss the mechanics of TTU transformations, in order to give writers a better grasp of what The Rules are and of what stories will be allowed into the canon.
1. The game of Life
The first thing to realize in any discussion of TTU therianthropy is that "The Changes" -- the overall twist in reality that makes possible a human's change into a theri -- is something that was done to the world, rather than simply happening. Nobody knows by whom; nobody knows why. Nobody even has any evidence that this was a directed rather than a random force except for the argument that this just has worked out too conveniently to be a chance upheaval of the laws of physics. (Although certainly there are a lot of people who speculate about these things!)
You, however, are a writer; you have knowledge about the world that your characters cannot. Meta-knowledge, if you will. Consider this your first piece of meta-information: Someone, or something, caused The Changes. Someone, or something, is continuing to shape the world in the aftermath. There _are_ rules, and they are being enforced, quietly, behind the scenes.
The second thing to realize about TTU therianthropy is that it is directly and innately intertwined with the force of magic. In TTU, magic is nothing more or less than directly applying your force of will to the world around you. Shapeshifting into a theri form is, strictly speaking, not the same thing as casting a spell, but it's a very subtle distinction, and one that the vast majority of TTU residents will be unaware of. (In fact, in TTU, the term 'theri' as popularly defined also includes human mages!) For most purposes, you can consider shifting and magic to be the same thing.
Magic, too, has rules -- but these are largely rules imposed by the force which granted it to the world, not rules inherent to the system of willworking. To use an analogy, you are seated at a computer in a university's network lab. The computer has a simple set of rules defining what it can and cannot do. (You cannot give a file a name more than 8 characters long with a 3-character extension; you cannot delete directories that contain files; etc.) The _university_ has an Acceptable Use Policy for its computers that has nothing to do with the computer's actual capabilities. (You cannot talk on IRC; you must virus-scan all disks; etc.) If you violate the computer's rules, your action will silently fail, because you're not interacting with the system in such a way that it can produce output. If you violate the university's rules, the action will occur, but an administrator may notice, stop your action, and discipline you.
In other words, with magic, basically _anything_ is possible. However, the greater the effect in question, the greater the likelihood that the "administrator" will take notice and enforce the rules. (If a necromancer were to take control of a rural town, turn the population into zombies, and march on the White House, this would be the equivalent in our analogy of someone introducing a virus onto the network that made hundreds of people's screens immediately start flashing; there's no way for the admin to ignore it. This is why, despite the technical possibility of such a thing, no necromancers have set up shop as evil overlords in TTU. Well, that and the fact that TTU's "administrators" have the power to undo things -- rearranging the world so that the action essentially never occurred in the first place.)
How does this relate to therianthropy specifically? Well, the "administrator" keeps an eye out for several consequences of this new force. One is that it doesn't want people to ruin their lives by messing with forces beyond their comprehension. Another is that it wants therianthropy to be a choice people make rather than something that is forced upon them. A third is that it wants therianthropy, and magic, to be accessible in principle to _anyone_, not just a chosen few. On the other hand, most people simply aren't ready to make such profound alterations in their life, and it wants people to reach for these new possibilities only when they are ready to undertake the difficult inner and outer journey involved. The bar must be set low enough to allow everyone eventual access; it must be set high enough to make sure that only those trying to leap it will do so. By all accounts in TTU, the "administrator" has erred on the latter side.
_Becoming a theri is not easy. Wielding magic is not easy._ Only a small percentage of people ever explore the possibilities persistently enough to become anything other than what they started as, or do anything more than the sort of parlor tricks easily faked today. This is not to say that weird things don't happen to people, or that the only people to change are those expecting it. (Remember principle #2 above; the rules imposed have little bearing on what's actually _possible_.) But there is always something watching the show. If a user yanks their keyboard out of their computer, or the network slows, or someone gets a Blue Screen of Death, you can count on it that it will get fixed. In such a way that there's no permanent evidence anything ever went wrong.
I will cover the actual rules below -- but, first, let me talk about the single biggest exception to everything I'm going to tell you about shapeshifting, and digress into the basics of TTU magic.
2. In case of fire, light match
Turning into something nonhuman is a difficult endeavour. The forces (both active and inertial) arrayed against someone trying to change their shape are daunting. It's an obvious, enormous change, and requires such a constant effort of will that a typical mage casting a shapeshifting spell will revert to their natural form when they run out of energy, get their concentration shattered or fall asleep.
Turning into a theri -- making such a change _permanent_ -- is an even more brutal assault on consensus reality. Most mages in TTU are at a loss to explain how it can happen at all, and have taken to believing (possibly led by Redwing's book "We Walk Among You") that theris actually always have been Other Things stuck in human bodies, and they were not transforming themselves but _reverting_. [Do note that this is merely a popular theory, NOT meta-information.] This is borne out by the fact that therianthropes basically universally claim comfort with their new form.
In other words, there is a prominent lack of people who change into a theri form and then turn around and claim, "I am a human stuck in this weird body." It simply _doesn't happen_. The media, in the early days of The Changes, sniffed the scent of calamity on the wind and went on an active search for theris who had changed against their will ... and _didn't find any_. (People upset at the social consequences of their changes, sure, but not a single one who claimed it was _wrong_ or _mistaken_. Plenty of humans who claimed they'd changed and then changed back, but there was no way to verify their stories.) The conventional wisdom has been set from the beginning that, if someone's stuck in a nonhuman body, they're meant to be that way.
Still, accidents happen.
Not to normal people, mind you. Our hypothetical administrator makes certain of _that_. Still, to dive back into the analogy, there are folks who have requested fuller control over their computers -- a license to ignore the university's restrictions designed to protect people from themselves. If they demonstrate enough competence, the admin figures they know what they're doing -- and turns more of a blind eye to their activities. He figures they're bright enough to reboot their own machines if they slip up and get a blue screen of death. They're still kept from doing wholesale harm to other computers on the network, but they have immense control over their own box.
Put bluntly: While the average resident of TTU is prevented from screwing up his life by dabbling in these new forces, any mage of sufficient skill is given free rein to self-destruct. They may not _mean_ to shapeshift, much less to get stuck that way. They may not even be casting a spell themselves -- they can suffer permanent consequences from being the target of someone else's (botched or successful) effect!
Basically, the big exception to the Theri Rules below is that _mages, and only mages, can get stuck in shapes besides their preferred one_. It still isn't _easy_, mind you; they have to be messing with forces at or beyond the limits of their personal capabilities, and shapeshifting has to be at least a plausible outcome. (For instance, if they're trying to channel vast amounts of electricity into a huge lightning bolt to hurl at someone, the only thing they're going to shapeshift into is a crispy, blackened mess.)
_Such changes are always possible to undo._ However, this isn't to say that the mage in question will have the competence to trace what went wrong by themselves -- or even the desire! While such "accidents" are rare, there are at least a handful of mages out there who "discovered" that they were theris by the happy coincidence of a magical botch-up they later decided not to fix.
And, yes, sometimes -- _very_ rarely -- a mage will botch himself into a state he'd really rather not be in, and has little hope of fixing on his own. For example, a living but immobile stone statue. Or a completely normal, ten-inch-long rabbit. Hey, those are the risks you agreed to when you signed up for the deluxe package. Hope you've got some good friends to help out.
Let me emphasize again: _This only applies to mages of at least passable competence._ This does not include someone who dabbles with Tarot decks on weekends; this does not include someone who picks up a book of druid rituals and decides to play with the shapeshifting stuff in the back. (They can give themselves a good shock by generating effects they didn't intend, yes -- but they don't have the practice or power to make such changes stick.) This only applies to people who have proven to their own satisfaction that they can generate strong, real, physical effects with magic -- generally through a long period of training, or significant pre-Changes magical experience that they got to put into practice.
This isn't the place to discuss the limits of magic, or the ways in which people can generate magical effects, but I should point this out for the record: Magic, like therianthropy, is accessible but difficult. The average person _cannot_ learn to do magic from a book. (Of course, people vary greatly from "average", and the quality of the book makes a large difference!) The average person _cannot_ mimic even a simple magic trick they watch someone perform. (They'll make the same motions, missing the point, expecting the motions to have some sort of power in themselves -- thus willing themselves to accurately mimic the motions, rather than willing the effect to occur.) If a few fundamentals are explained, the average person can be coached to perform _very_ simple tricks -- like snapping their fingers to light a cigarette -- but won't be able to extrapolate that into anything of any great practical use. (This will not be sufficient to qualify them under the "passable competence" rule.) To become an actual mage, the average person must train with a teacher (one-on-one or in small groups) for a month or two before they've fully caught on -- and then must build up their repertoire of "spells" to an effective level before they have enough confidence to start doing things they haven't been directly taught. (Even so, this isn't a very big barrier to entry; the three largest factors that keep people from learning magic are the social pressures against it, the general rarity of mages, and the expectation of "Oh, I can't do that" that keeps people from seeking teachers out.)
3. Welcome to wherever you are
That digression having been covered, I will proceed to the rules which govern people's changes into therianthropes. (It should go without saying that all theris started out as humans. This isn't the place for a discussion on the implied anthropocentrism of this rule, nor of whatever capabilities that animals may possess; for now, just accept that transformation is a human oddity.)
I wish to emphasize again that TTU transformations are not something that happens TO people; transformation is something that people _do to themselves_. It is a matter of some debate whether theris are truly changing under their own power, or using their will to call upon some greater force, but that is irrelevant for our purposes; what matters here is that transformation is the result of a choice. While it may not be a _conscious_ decision, it is always an act of will, under the sole control of that individual from beginning to end.
I would also like to note that the following is all meta-information; undoubtedly TTU would have a lot more therianthropes if people knew just what they had to do to go about changing!
So what is the mechanism that allows transformations to occur? The simplest way to think of it is that there are four factors, all of which must be met simultaneously in order to change. (Hey, just like the title -- four steps to therianthropy! I _told_ you this was easy. Well, of course, it's not easy to do. But at least it's easy to understand.)
This also doesn't mean that they will _expect_ the change to occur; having a desire suddenly transformed into reality in front of your eyes can be a genuine surprise, even if all of the other conditions are met. And just because it's something they wanted doesn't mean that they'll be thrilled with all aspects of it; there is still the potential for story conflict here. But, in general, the theri _must_ be able to look back in hindsight and say, "I genuinely wanted this, and it made a lot of sense at the time." (And, usually, that it still does.)
Basically, someone has to have at least seen video evidence _firsthand_ (or watched another theri change, or seen one walk down the street, or otherwise observed something "impossible") in order to consider the possibility. More importantly, they have to believe (at least momentarily, and at the same time as they fulfill the other three factors) that they have the power to effect a similar transformation in their own life. This is a pretty tall order for the average person, whose reaction is more likely to approach "How the heck did he do THAT?" than "Hey, I wonder if I could ..."
In essence, theris-to-be must go into their change with a clear head and a foreknowledge that they're becoming what they're meant to be. This is one of the cardinal reasons TTU's total therianthrope population is so small. However, this _doesn't_ mean that people who were familiar with the concept of therianthropy pre-Changes are the only ones who are transformed. Anyone smart and open-minded enough can put two and two together after the First Sighting and start to wonder about the possibilities -- and, beyond that, there are even ways to "fake" this factor. For example, a person who doesn't _really_ consider themselves as anything other than human, but whose mate affectionately calls them "tiger" in bed, might play as a tiger while lovemaking -- and might, in the heat of the moment, _be_ the tiger. (This is an interesting hypothetical, because it might actually meet all four factors for that one brief moment, but is unlikely to have enough force of belief behind it to overcome the person's initial reaction and make the change stick. See the section on reverting, below.)
Note that the purpose of this resonance is to align oneself mentally, and prime oneself physically, for the transformation into something which generally reacts very differently from one's current body. This is why it's important for the theri to have a clear conception of what it is that they are going to transform to -- why simply "I'm not human" won't suffice.
This _does_ mean that it's easier to transform into an animal (at least Earth-native ones) than a mythic creature; as one will have greater prior exposure to the new form, it doesn't require quite as much mental effort to clearly correspond oneself with it. But this doesn't mean a detailed, photograph-accurate mental map is necessary before one's first transformation -- if that were the case, it would be far-fetched to expect more than a handful of mythics worldwide! A good general grasp of the new form is sufficient.
Again, remember: "I AM an <X>." In full honesty and seriousness.
The first important thing is to stop the theri-to-be from being conscious of the subtle, constant reminders of his human body. Many altered states of consciousness are sufficient; being in a dream, or meditating, or focusing singlemindedly on some task at hand are all typical circumstances for triggers. A moment of extreme vertigo, sensory overload (such as orgasm or diving into a cold river), or extreme pain will also suffice. Of course, once that distraction has cleared the way for a spark to ignite the roaring flames of change, the spark itself must occur. Perhaps in the theri's dream, he changes, and thus also does so in physical life. Or the magically apt theri, in meditation, quietly summons his energy and unleashes it in a burst of willpower. The long-distance runner, hitting the wall and focused on the race, has his mind flash to that National Geographic special he watched a few days ago, with lions bounding across the plains. The child getting teased on the playground gets cuffed and falls to the ground, his inner predator flaring to life with his adrenaline. You get the idea.
4. There's no place like home ...
Of course, while meeting these four factors will be sufficient to trigger an alteration, that isn't the end of the story. A certain amount of follow-through is necessary to make this a permanent change rather than a freak surge of magic. Someone who is deliberately trying to evoke a change into a specific form, once they get this far, is basically set; stabilizing in the new form is a great deal easier than trying to break the inertia of the old one. But in the majority of unplanned transformations, and even some of the planned ones, the effect is shattered before it can fully take hold, and a reversion occurs. (In this essay, I will use "reversion" to describe the specific effect of an initial change being cancelled right out of the gate, not the more general phenomena of a therianthrope changing back into a human form. Theris who can change back and forth between human and theri forms are shapeshifting, not reverting.)
Reverting is, to descend into simile, the mental equivalent of a body's rejecting a transplanted organ ... and can often be equally violent. Reversion is, after all, the mind having a new reality grafted on top of its old one, and if it decides that this new stuff Doesn't Belong, it can be rather fierce in preventing the fusion. If you want a reversion, there are two instantaneous reactions which are each almost certain to create one, and I recommend them highly: Panic and denial.
Panic is a different thing than fear or surprise; a certain amount of both of the latter is almost to be expected after such invasive reality surgery, but panic goes beyond that into a complete, unreasoning inability to cope with what occurred. Unfortunately, it's also more common in unexpected transformations than is healthy. If you're not prepared to suddenly spend the rest of your life in a different body than the one you started with, then trying to figure it out all at once can induce enough stress to cause a snap. Ironically, the likelihood of an unplanned transformation leading to a panic reaction increased sharply after the first few weeks of the Changes; as the political situation become clearer and the social consequences of therianthropy grew more critical, a sudden confrontation with one's own species identity meant a whole lot more to figure out!
Denial, on the other hand, is simply the retreat into one's previous reality -- a conscious rejection of the new situation. "This must be a dream," "this couldn't have happened to ME," or even a simple "I can't deal with this." As with panic and fear, denial is a different thing from shock, and _everyone_ will undergo an initial period of shock after a change (just like one has to recuperate physically after a surgery) as they readjust their expectations. What sets denial apart from its lesser brother is that denial _doesn't go away_. Denial is the brain getting stuck on "no way" instead of moving on to "What now?" It isn't as immediately traumatic as panic, but it is more insidious, and is just as effective at triggering a reversion.
Either way -- whether through denial or panic -- the person's brain determines that this new state of affairs must be reset as soon as possible. In the case of denial, it sits, poised, waiting for the first trigger (i.e., distraction) at which it can plausibly bring things back to normal. This is often harder to find than the initial trigger, since the person is going to be a lot more fixated on these changes that couldn't have occurred. Thus, in cases like this, it's most common for someone to sleep off their new change and wake up, vastly relieved and a bit puzzled, in the morning. With a panic attack, on the other hand, the brain has not only determined that things need to be reset -- but that _it can't wait_. None of this pussyfooting around, waiting for an opportunity to do it gently; we'll just create the distraction ourselves by going stark raving mad and writhing around on the ground for a while. Of course, often the person in denial is pressed into a more urgent situation -- trapped in a room with some friends pounding at the door, for example -- and starts descending into panic; this leads inevitably to the previously described conclusion.
The aftereffects of a reversion are typically shock followed by denial. Once the person has gotten over the physical and mental effects of having briefly experienced life in another body, they will attempt to rationalize it away, pretend it didn't happen, or simply forget. In cases where the would-be theri suffered a panic attack, the sheer trauma of the situation may simply repress any memories of the event. (Real-life, non-TTU examples: When I got attacked on the street back in 1998, I got knocked to the curb and had to be taken to the hospital with a head wound. I remember nothing after the initial confrontation; my memory of the event stops before the first punch was thrown and picks up again when I awoke after the ambulance arrived. An acquaintance of mine, similarly, tells how he woke up one day in a hospital bed -- the last thing he remembers before that being reading a newspaper on a train. In the meantime, he got run over by said train and nearly died, but had to piece together how he got from inside it to underneath it through the police reports. These were, of course, _physical_ traumas rather than mental ones, but let's not forget that a transformation will be a great physical shock as well.)
The majority of "accidental" transformations, and nearly all of them that end in reversions, take place in private. Most TTU mages would tell you that this is because the presence of other observers tends to strengthen existing reality, and thus makes it more difficult to find a "trigger" that allows the change to occur. While this is a convincing enough explanation, it does leave some serious questions about the public or semi-public changes that _do_ occur; how, for example, does one explain the many well-documented transformations (the ones that don't revert) occurring in front of hundreds of witnesses? How does one explain the First Change? If these are explained away as exceptions because "theris are merely changing _back_ to true form, which is much easier," then what are we to make of the few, sparse cases where an avowed human has a change and reversion in front of witnesses? (There have only been a few verifiable instances of this -- generally in such chaotic circumstances as the middle of a fight, where participants' accounts are fragmentary and often contradictory. The best evidence TTU residents have that such things really do occur is when a bystander is available to take note of the whole thing, and ambient conditions are good enough to allow for identification.) Such things hint at a deeper explanation to the mystery of therianthropy than the simplistic "changing back" that everyone accepts.
5. Watchers and wanderers
That covers reversion, but then what about the werewolf who shifts back and forth between his canine and human forms? What about the dragon who has to take human shape again to fit through doorways? What about the theris "stuck" in their new body? What are the rules governing the shapeshifting that theris do?
I have previously noted in my writing about the universe that all therianthropes can shift back to their original human form. While this is technically true, a bit of clarification is in order: This statement is true _in theory_ (just like the idea that anyone can be a theri if they follow the four steps above), and the results can be different in practice. In fact, the Four Steps are a good reference guide here -- because there are three ways for a theri to take human form again, and following those four steps to shift (_not_ to their theri form, but to their _human_ one) is the primary way.
This is the one accessible to everyone; this is the great big undo switch. Of course, just as therianthropy is a one-way trip for some theris, the first change back is final for some. Morphing back into a familiar form after having to deal with extra limbs and new senses can raise enough doubts in a theri's mind to keep them from changing a _third_ time via the Four Steps. ("This just feels so ... right. What was I thinking earlier?") Of course, the people who get stuck there are the ones who were more predisposed to be unhappy with their change, anyway, so it all works out in the end.
It should be noted that it's _not_ required to believe one is "just a human" in order to meet the criteria of resonance for a change back to human form. Once you've been in a form long enough, resonating with it is as simple as remembering what it feels like. This is fairly well-recognized, even in TTU, and is seen as basically the reason why theris can shapeshift back to their old human form (and, usually, back and forth) even though they can't shapeshift to anything else. So meeting the 'resonance' criteria for a shift back shouldn't be nearly as difficult as the original change. Of course, some theris -- for reasons unknown to them -- simply can't seem to make that connection again. Why this is the case, and how it can be plausibly explained while adhering to the spirit of these guidelines, is left as an exercise to the writer.
The second method of shapeshifting is via a magical effect. This is flexible, much simpler than going through the Four Steps again (at least if one already knows magic), and runs little to no risk of backfiring. It also has the added advantage (or, occasionally, disadvantage) that the effect generally cancels out in times of distraction, pain or recharge (thus allowing the theri to run around looking like whatever they want, without having to throw total, honest conviction into each form -- and with very little risk of getting stuck). It's conventional wisdom in TTU -- in part because some of the world's best-known dragons, like Dennis Redwing, are also skilled mages -- that dragons all shapeshift back into their human form this way. That's not true, but has a lot of common sense behind it, because a dragon that can magically shapeshift usually prefers to do it that way: if they're attacked or surprised, they'll lose control of their spell effect, and their foe suddenly has to deal with a few tons of angry lizard!
The third method of shapeshifting is also, in many ways, a magical effect. This is when a theri's "true form" is one that they believe to have shapeshifting powers. For example, a traditional werewolf (either in the full-moon half-beast sense, the White Wolf RPG sense, or the person-that-can-shift-between-wolf-and-human sense) or other lycanthrope. While this effect is similar to magical shapeshifting in that it's invoked through a simple effort of will rather than the full checklist of the Four Steps, the change is also permanent (i.e., it won't come undone when concentration is broken), and it requires no special magical prowess on the part of the theri. This is, from the theri's point of view, the most straightforward way to change -- and the least expensive in terms of effort of will. However, only a select few theris can do this. The majority of therianthropes only have their one basic shape, and that's it, and the fact that they can change back to human form at all is only possible because they've got so much prior experience in the form, as explained above.
6. Bridging the pencil-paper gap
One point I would like to cover is how to write these "rules" into your story. My simplest advice? Don't worry about it -- _following_ them is better than exposing them. While your audience may be privy to information that your characters don't possess, that doesn't mean that they have to know everything about the world -- just enough so that everything fits together and makes sense. (An often-quoted "rule" of speculative fiction, actually, is that a writer is allowed one big what-if that the audience takes on faith, and then must explain the rest. In TTU, magic and theris are that freebie. You don't have to go into any detail on how it works; readers can pick it up a piece at a time, and try to sort the bad information from the good, just like TTU residents.)
The one thing that I _don't_ want to see done to stories is to write transformations that necessarily violate one of the principles above. For example, writing a scene where someone wakes up as a theri, looks in a mirror, and screams in horror and revulsion would be very hard to reconcile with the "desire" step. You _can_ have this happen in a story -- but, then, you have to _specifically_ explain (elsewhere in the story) how it is that the theri met the "desire" criterion, since you've introduced a situation where the reader would by default assume that the change was unwanted.
You _don't_ have to specifically show in your story how your theri met all four steps; in fact, if it would bog down your story with unnecessary detail or disrupt the flow, I encourage you to leave it out. You _do_ have to specifically show why the change works if you bend any of the rules. See Thrames' "Diary of David Mordred" for an excellent example; the title character is disgusted by his change, and in fact spends several years before finally learning to appreciate his insect body -- but the story very carefully sets up his resonance with the form, and makes a very plausible case for his wishing, in a moment of angst, for a body outside to match how he feels inside. The trigger is left unspecified; the method of changing is almost unimportant to the story.
Hopefully, this essay has been helpful to you in explaining why TTU shapeshifting works the way it does. I don't have much else to say in terms of advice for prospective writers -- except that this document is half ground rules and half jumping-off points. Many of the complications and exceptions mentioned in the previous sections would be worthy sources of conflict or plot hooks for a story. Feel free to explore them; if you're uncertain about a given rule, feel free to e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or ask on the Tomorrowlands Forums (http://www.tomorrowlands.org/forum/).
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