In my world I have a race of god-like beings who I've recently decided should be shapeshifters. However everything in my world comes in threes, and there are three races / clans of these beings. For comparison a related branch of beings is mortals; humans, elves and dwarves.

The main difference between these clans in my mind is each has an affinity with a different branch of magic, but I want there to be something else that sets them apart from each other. Something that makes an individual of Race A have more in common with another individual of Race A than of Race B or C.

There are some limitations that have ruled out some of the more obvious options though;

  • These god-like beings are practically wiped out (by forces of nature / other god-like beings) and the survivors live largely in secret. This is one of the reasons I want them to shapeshift. So whatever feature sets them apart from each other shouldn't stop them from looking like a human, elf or dwarf. So I can't just say Race A can take any form but their skin and hair will always be blue or something similar.
  • They can inter breed with each other, and with the mortal races. Kind of already covered by being able to blend in with them, but they should be able to take and maintain a humanoid form that could reliable breed with each other and other humanoids. It's also not strictly necessary but if their defining feature also allowed you to identify hybrids between the races that would help too.

The beings themselves are very powerful mages and immortal (Tolkien sense, as in live forever but can be killed) if that matters.

As for their shapeshifting my explanation is that they can modify their bodies to suit their environments in the way that mortals modify the environment to suit them. So instead of wearing clothes or building buildings to make a place more hospitable they change their bodies (though they will adapt clothing and buildings from mortals, they just don't need them in the same way). They can change their whole bodies or just adapt them (so they could grow horns, feathers, scales etc. not sure if they can grow extra limbs but I'll probably allow wings so I can't see a reason not to) and while they may have a 'true' form I don't think it is something any of them would use frequently as they instead adapt and change their bodies to suit their whims and personality.

So how can races of shapeshifters have some kind of defining features which set them apart but don't interfere with their ability to shapeshift?

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    this could be also interesting – Jannis Sep 17 at 12:38
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    Seems to me that anything that can distinguish one kind of nonhuman from another would also distinguish them from a human. In other words, defeat your goal of hiding. – WGroleau Sep 17 at 19:18
  • What are the branches of magic? Can smell be a "defining feature" ? – Mazura Sep 17 at 22:56
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    Who would be able to identify the distinct races? Is this something that only other shapeshifters could recognize, or anyone with the knowledge? For example, it could be an aura or "radiation" that is only perceivable by other shapeshifters or with technology. – Phil M Sep 17 at 23:59
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    I always thought a handshake was to check the density of the person you greet. – KalleMP Oct 4 at 16:21

23 Answers 23

up vote 34 down vote accepted

Mass

The shapeshifters can change their appearance but are bound by conservation of mass. They average 50, 100, and 150 kg and can be generally distinguished by mass.

Note that all shapeshifting races could be of any volume, so you'd have to weigh a human-shaped shapeshifter to figure out what race they were.

enter image description here

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    I like mass, or something similar anyway.. and that would also tie the three clans somewhat nicely to the mortal races as they could have similar shapes to dwarves, humans and elves.. making them easier to become their 'gods'. – adaliabooks Sep 17 at 12:35
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    She turned me into a newt. – Monty Harder Sep 17 at 19:10
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    I got better. (Obligatory for me as a Monty.) – Monty Harder Sep 17 at 19:10
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    Those quotes simply aren't good enough. You must @MontyHarder (sorry, I'm so sorry...) – RyanfaeScotland Sep 18 at 22:59
  • There were a lot of good answers, and I'm going to borrow bits of a few, but I've marked this as the answer as I think it suits my purposes best. It allows them to take any form, but for each race that form would look slightly different allowing for the tribal us vs them kind of mentality I need. It also conveniently explains why each of the three mortal races feels more aligned to one of the shapeshifters, which is a nice bonus. – adaliabooks Sep 19 at 9:38

You could always have the three races differ not necessarily by anything outwardly physical, but by their preferences of shapeshifting. If there are different types of immortal shapeshifters, their concept of being different from each other might be very different to what humans would think of as "different".

For example, while all three races can shift into any form that they choose, they may each have a "true" form that is different to each other, and they have to expend effort to change into something else. Then the different races of shapeshifters may react to shifting forms in different ways.

I would say that one prefers to be in their true form as much as possible, and only changes to other forms when necessary for disguise or survival as they find being in the shape of lesser beings offensive or disgusting.

Another race may find shifting incredibly easy, and it means nothing to them to shift, so they are changing shape almost constantly.

A third race would find it difficult to change, so they shift very rarely and only when necessary, but they don't particularly mind which form they take.

Obviously it would always be difficult for mortals to discover any type of shapeshifter, but if you know what you were looking for, then you could have tactics to reveal each one.

Force type A into being in a certain form for a long time, by having them constantly around others, and they would become distracted by how uncomfortable they are.

Type B you would just need to watch carefully, and they would eventually shift something accidentally as they struggle to remain in a single form for long.

Type C would be more difficult, but you would find they take the form of their idea of 'perfect' people, as they don't want to change form very often so they would try to create a body that is the most well equipped and versatile for any situation.

These three types can be completely different, these were just off the top of my head, but I think it would be more interesting for the shapeshifters' differences to be more psychological, considering they can take any physical form that they choose.

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    This brings me to an idea: lets say they different in the way they transform: Race A, i would call them slimes, is consisting of a slimy material which can change pretty fast, but needs for regrow/healing pretty long, because the marterial is so special. Race B, i would call them Mutants, is transforming by 'wanted' evolution, they have special DNA or sth, they have a fast healing/regrow since they need it for transforming, but they still need much time for transforming (only face 10sec +- , hole body 5 mins +-) Race C, are touchable illusions which can change instantly. Hope it helps someone – Jannis Sep 18 at 9:59
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    @Jannis -- Your comment would make a good answer. – Jasper Sep 18 at 20:03
  • @Jasper its just a suggestion, something thats too concrete and nothing thought through – Jannis Sep 19 at 7:35

If you have read (probably not) Percy Jackson - Book 4, there is a special cursed person named Daedalus, who has an owl on his neck. He tried to get rid of this owl tattoo by shapeshifting, freeing his soul and owning a new body and more, but this sign was always, when he tried, recreating itself on his new body. A restriction like this can be integrated in shapeshifting.

Otherwise there is another solution: In the trilogy Bartimaeus by Jonathan Stroud, demons are summoned by magicians to serve them. These demons are coming from another dimension and are now forced to take a form. They can change forms whenever they like. All beings in this world are living on planes. The main character can see to the 7th plane and can transform to that, but on higher planes he will be always in his natural form.

In Short: Your Gods could transform freely, but can't disguise themselves on a different layer of reality.

Fun Fact: In Bartimaeus, cats can see into the 2nd plane.

This can also provide more solutions.

  • I did consider the idea of a mark or feature which they cannot change, but it comes back to whether they can then successfully hide amongst others. Either the mark isn't very obvious and they can hide easily but doesn't provide a lot of distinction between the races or it's very obvious and reduces their ability to hide.. I've considered different layers or planes of existence but I find it very difficult to work with that concept in the past.. – adaliabooks Sep 17 at 11:59
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    considert. Other ways: are just not visible but on other senses. like hearing little sky trumpets or a scent they unload in every form. Or they have an aura only some people can feel (or see). – Jannis Sep 17 at 12:36
  • Reminds me of the Licanius trilogy as well. Each of the powerful immortal characters all have a "mark" associated with their magic. You often see other powerful characters using this knowledge (to the extent that the very knowledgeable/powerful seem to be able to sense each other based on marks); but the regular characters are completely oblivious to all of it. – JMac Sep 17 at 17:55
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    It seems like the mark might be something subtle, such as a conceptual or thematic compulsion that takes effort to override. It might take expression in subtle ways like the selection of wallpaper or clothing patterns, musical tastes or food preferences that are within the norms of other populations but taken together could form a pattern. – Art Yerkes Sep 19 at 3:55
  • On Doctor Who, there's a Time Lord named The Corsair who has a tattoo of the worm ouroboros, and no matter how many times he (occasionally she) regenerates, the tattoo is on their body...SOMEwhere. – VBartilucci Sep 19 at 15:48

The shapeshifters of the different groups change in different ways. Results are the same but the transformations are different.

Maybe one kind of shapeshifting is painful and messy, while another is quiet and fluid, and the third is brilliant, with glow-y special effects.

The painful and messing changes might be overheard ("Ow, ow, I especially hate the feel of growing feathers. Why are they stupid BIRD people in this country? Couldn't they be bats?!") and/or leave behind a mess. The glow-y, special-effect ridden transformation would be hard to hide as it is happening (at least at night), but might also impress other characters (and/or the reading audience).

There's lots of opportunities to build story tension around the drawbacks that different methods of transformation might have.

  • I like this idea. – Phil M Sep 18 at 0:00
  • Nightmarish and messy Teenage-wolfman style transformation vs fluid but tidy Star-trek Changeling transformation.. yep, sounds good to me! – Ruadhan Sep 18 at 8:27

They feel themselves differently

enter image description here We see a lot of the world around us. We can understand many things, but are totally insensitive to much, much more.
Maybe your godlike aliens have a perfect shapeshifting mechanism, and are visually undetectable. But there is other senses they could not fool. Maybe they smell like lavender, or maybe they skin has a different roughness...
Or maybe it's way more subtle. Some of them could emit some types of infrared waves, giving the impression of a warm presence. Maybe you can hear a pitch when close to another, almost imperceptible, but, if you pay attention very carefully, you could detect it.
Race A could emit a soothing sound, race B a stressing one, and race C sounds the same sound as a dog whistle.

While you would feel different around them, you could not suppose it's because they are aliens before somebody tells you. It would be like "Wow, I'm SO tense when I'm around Jim ! I don't know why he makes me nervous like that !"

The three ages of man.

aztec mask ages of man source

Your shifters always manifest as an entity of a certain age: a child or pup, an adult, or a creature in old age. These ages correspond with the seasons of spring, summer and autumn and this would manifest when the creature took the form of a tree or plant. They correspond with the light: morning, noon and dusk - and this correponds with the time they make their appearance.

Eye colour.

While I don't know what exactly you mean by "interfere with their shapeshifting abilities", it seems like you are looking for some way to tell them apart while they are shapeshifted.

In D&D, many dragons are able to shapeshift. Several GMs have run the game so that they never change the colour of their eyes. So a silver dragon will always have silver eyes, for instance. If this is a limitation, or simply the preference of the dragon does not need to be clarified.

Symbolically it is also quite neat, since "the eyes are the window of the soul" and so on.

  • While having definite eye colours that never change would interfere with being able to hide, I think I will use this as their method for identifying each other. So they can change their eye colour, but other shapeshifters will always see the original colour / glow (whatever that may be for each type). And when they want people to know who they are they can reveal their true eye colour. Thanks! – adaliabooks Sep 19 at 9:31

Personality types.

While there is much debate about the number of personality types that exist, since you're writing your story, you can pick the three.

The interesting thing is that the three shapeshifting types can presumably take any form, there will end up being preferences (and differences manifested physically or in their physiology) as a result of their personality types.

Another possible idea which I like a lot less is the means by which they shapeshift. One race may do it entirely mentally but take a lot of energy, one may undergo physical metamorphosis which requires time (cocoon like), and the third may be only be able to do it in pairs, which requires bonding and absorption of one of the entities but can happen relatively quickly.

  • Personality is definitely an interesting idea but beyond the tendency for similar preferences I'm not sure it's distinctive enough for what I want. Means of shapeshifting might have possibilities though, I'll have to consider that. – adaliabooks Sep 17 at 11:57
  • Yeah, figured I'd suggest one 'soft' tell and one 'hard' tell. – ColonelPanic Sep 17 at 12:16

The only difference is in the shape they collapse to when they die.

The only way to tell them apart alive is to take a tissue sample and let it wither and THEN take a DNA analysis or check the colour of the blood after it has been out the body for a while, red (human), blue (mage) or green (warlock).

3 different "shape-shifting-like" abilities

You say things come in threes. But there are many things that are like shape-shifting, that are not strictly shapeshifting.

I am reminded of Jim Butcher's Fool Moon, which features 4 different kinds of wolfshifters: werewolves, hexenwolves, loup-garous and lycanthropes. Which function entirely differently.

But you can go more broad that that.

Some options, all of which can accomplish the need to adapt their bodies to their environment. Though they might be a bit too different for your liking.


Morphers

The perfect shape-shifter. They can turn into any creature or individual, off magic alone. Just by picturing what the want to be.

Upsides:

Ultimately flexible.

Downsides:

The do not inherently know anything about the body they are in. Like not even the subconscious stuff about how to operate muscles. So the first time they turn into a species, they are like babies for a few months. Of-course they learn how to operate the bodies of most common creatures with in their child-hood. But even so, they are normally a bit clumsy for months after a change.

Once transformed their magic can do little to help them settle in (unlike the other races)


Skin Thieves

Claire North's novel Touch, is about a character with an ability something like this.

They don't transform, not really. They possess people, and take over their bodies. They are more spirit than creature.

They have no more ability to enhance their form than a normal human (etc), by diet and exercise. Or by skipping out and swapping to a better body. They, tend to die is utterly unfortunate ways. Getting trapped in a body that is dying.

Technically when born they have their own body, well at least a body, that is the genetic progeny of the bodies their parents were inhabiting. The spooky thing is, once they leave it, there is still a mind left behind -- a normal human (etc) mind. It just isn't theirs.

Downsides:

Need to find a host suitable, and there is some restriction on who they can take over.

This restriction might be something like they have to make skin-contact. Or it might require permission. (In the Demon the Decent RPG, demons make pacts to buy people's souls. Not so they can have the souls, but so they can turf them out of their bodies. So something kinda link that. But probably more of a rental.)

Upsides

Relatively quick transformation, with few issues. And they are really hard to kill. (Depending on the condition you put on being able to skin steal)


Animators

This is somewhat like Brandon Sanderson's Kandra from the Mistborn series.

They are somewhere between skin thieves and morphors. They build their bodies. Assemble something that is close enough to a work-able body. Out of sticks, stones or steel. They then possess it. And their magic takes care of plugging the gaps. Repairing over rust and scrapes, making it all work. But is has to be close to a workable body to function. Which is a lot of work.

The spooky thing is, there naturally exists something that is very close to a working body. The recently deceased. There magic can easily fix up a few gashes, or a cancer etc. and get the blood pumping again. Eventually, the body is as healthy as it was at it's prime.

Unlike Skin-Thieves, when they leave their birth body, or any other body for that matter, what is left is dead. Though often they just incorporate new parts into there current body, and only discard parts once they wear out.

Upsides

Great potential to became immensely powerful, if they are willing to work to build an excellent body from scratch. Like becoming a giant made of stone.

Downsides

Becoming human (etc), really requires grave robbing (or murder). Which most cultures frown upon. Though really the dead are not using their bodies any-more.

Other downside is slowness of preparing the body, especially if not reanimating the dead. A tradeoff between choice, and time.


On Hybrids

If you want hybrids to be strong. You simply have the powers not interact, so they are able to use both, but with the limitations only of the one they are using. In this case you want hybrids to be exceptionally rare, since they would just be better than the parent races. (And presumably they would be infertile, like mules. Otherwise they would have outcompeted their parent races)

If you want hybrids to be weak, you give them something like a cross between the abilities, but with the downsides of both.

  • Morpher + Animator, needs a body to possess, but has to learn how to operate it. On the upside it can be less complete than an animator would need.
  • Animator + Skin Thief can only possess the dying/very ill. On the upside the Animator's healing immediately kicks in, any they fit to their prime.
  • Morpher + Skin Thief can only turn into someone they have seen. On the upside they don't literally steal bodies.

Because they are magical beings, they could have a unique aura that surrounds them. The mortals cannot sense this magic, but other shapeshifters would naturally sense it and could tell whether they were part of their tribe or not, similar to how colonies of ants use different pheromones or murders of crows have different accents. This way, they can perfectly hide among the race they've transformed into since they can't perceive any difference (just as we can't tell which ant belongs to which colony), but can still be sensed by others of their kind.

  • This could definitely work in conjunction with a few of the other options. Thanks! – adaliabooks Sep 19 at 9:33
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    @adaliabooks I'm glad I was able to help. Good luck on your story! :) – SheepyCow Sep 19 at 16:40

They have a different energy to them. When one shapeshifts something about the self remains the same. That something is more than a mind and more than a soul. It permeates the body, as if each and every cell has its own soul, vibrant and alive.

These immortals would be identified by their age. If you spent this long in life and still thirsted for more, you would have that certain sparkle in your eye that you see in the old men and women who still go out dancing for no reason other than to go dancing. You see it as they unveil a daffodil to a young girl for the first time, and soak in her laughter like it was manna from high heaven.

This thirst for life would be hard to repress, and yet it is infinitely variable. In a "safe" area where the immortal can simply enjoy life among mortals, this might even be physically visible. Perhaps a blue streak of hair in defiance, or pointed ears to hear the laughter better. In more normal places, your immortals might shed those obvious physical signs, but still retain that magic spark of life in their eyes.

In more dangerous places, where the risk of being uncovered is great, they might strive to hide this spark such that humans cannot detect it. Still, it would appear in their stride, in their path through life. They could not help but embrace that which is given to them, even as they stride through the enemy's camp.

Wise Eyes

Their shapshifting abilities came from a different origin, and so behave differently:

  • One race was naturally able to reconfigure themselves a bit (e.g. skin colour changes for camouflage, lizard-like regrowing of lost limbs) and their shapeshifting is a magical enhancement of this natural ability. It's very slow, biological regrowth taking hours (or at least, minutes) and using mostly food-energy to do it with a little magical energy for help. Their shift leaves little magical residue on their bodies, but it is detectable by some that many of their cells are too 'new' for their appearance.

  • Another, their cells are more like a loose collection, their shapeshifting is more like Odo from Star Trek - fast, fluid. Their shape is almost entirely magically held and requires much more ongoing magic effort. They have less need to eat because they have fewer biological processes keeping them alive, maybe more need to sleep if their magic needs rest to regenerate. In areas of limited magic power, or if poked and tested by sufficiently strong mages, their shape wavers or fails. Their bodies have a continual magical residue all through at a similar level for every cell, very noticeable to the right observer. They consider the biological shapeshift 'primitive' and a bit nauseating. The biological shapeshifters consider these people's shapes fake and untrustworthy, too easy to change.

  • The third was a non-physical origin, and their bodies are projections of some kind, they have no original shape and can present as any shape they desire. They need ongoing magic to sustain a body at all and cannot go in low-magic areas in physical form. Their bodies read completely different magical signatures - maybe none at all, not even those that mortal humans can have, or magically "blank" like an all-over shield, or a dimensional boundary. They consider themselves above or outside the world, and superior to the other two shifters. The other two consider these people too strange to be relatable. Maybe this group can "shift" and present multiple physical bodies at once, which are noticable as sharing the same magical signature - sensing the same signature in multiple bodies is a dead giveaway.

  • Another maybe that their shapeshifting is an induced hallucination, good enough in a low-tech society and for non-contact times, but very noticable by confusion or physical tests against reality. But since they are very powerful, they can extend the illusion a lot further than just looks. The others consider this a poor imitation of real shapeshifting, these people consider real shapeshifting a poor limited subset of true mind-control.

Their shapeshifting ability requires different amounts of knowledge of the new shape:

  • Race A can only shift to things they have planned in advance - i.e. they have to study a shape carefully and learn to shift into it, after that they need to keep practising regularly or they start to forget details. Observers may notice common shapes which Race A members all study as part of formal education - giving them a tendency to look like "the same person". You might not always identify a Race A shapeshifter, but if you see "yet another all-American Clarke Kent", that is one of them.

  • Race B can shift to anything they can imagine, but the details are often lost, at worst having only a convincing overall size and face, but having to cover the body with clothes to hide the worst inaccuracies. Many might not gain the best skills, like many people can't draw photorealistic people. If you sneak a look at someone when they aren't expecting it and their elbow looks like a waxwork or a shop-dummy, red flags all round.

  • Race C shifts by 'cloning' an existing shape, and that's a magical and perfect reproduction, but means they can only clone something they are near, and they can only look exactly like the person/thing they cloned. If you see a doppleganger clone in the same town, if you see someone who looks suspiciously like they died a couple of hours ago - maybe it's because the body they cloned actually did, and their way to avoid looking like a living person was to clone the near-dead.

Their shapeshifting ability requires different amounts of magic:

  • One is a physical reconfiguration of matter, in a burst of intense activity over the whole body

  • Another is like a wormhole to a wardrobe department far away and a switch of clothes, focused and long-ranging.

  • Another is like an instantaneous transition, a blank cutoff and switch.

    A magically sensitive observer might be able to sense the echoes of these differing magical patterns long after the shape shift has finished, or detect that one happened in the vicinity without knowing exactly who did it, and be on-guard that somewhere nearby there is a Race C shifter.

They have different interests:

  • Race A tends to be conservative, inward-focused, protecting their own. When they shapeshift they do it to blend in with an existing society, usually to affect some change in the society. They are the least powerful magically and stand to lose the most. Most cult-like behaviour, keeping their group identity, attentive outsiders can sometimes spot these effects happening and then trace back who it's coming from. Insiders know their own methods and recognise them quickly when others use them.

  • Race B has a much greater range of expression, they're more magically powerful and so less at risk from exposure, they like to blend shapes more expressively and more experimentally. Hybrid creatures are most likely to be Race B, but they hybrid components may not be obvious. Goat hoofs for feet and imitating mythical figures are common in-jokes, and they tend to run through adding identifying marks of their own accord, which outsiders who follow their fashions can learn to identify.

  • Race C is a lot older, fewer of them, they take a longer view on time and are playing for a very distant future. They are often shifted for convenience but in some way always feel like someone from two hundred years ago, because that was only a blink ago. Much more Merlin or Dumbledore than X-Men's Mystique.

You are 10 years old, talking with your friends, when the conversation turns to those age-old questions of..."can you do this" or "do your earlobes look like this?" followed by a variety of odd body contortions or looking at each other's ears where they attach to the body.

Invariably, some of the other kids actually CAN touch their tongues to their nose. Some will be able to make a clover shape with their tongues too. Others are going to realize that most other people's footprints in the sand are missing the inner edge of the foot.

You, of course, have a uniqueness you are proud of and exclaim loudly...."I have an extra rib!"

You just outed yourself to the other shapeshifter in the group whose older sibling already had Shapeshifter Health 101. They know you are obviously an....

Although everyone looks mostly the same, there's many diverse body formations and physical dexterity differences among us that can be rather subtle. They show up when searched for in a health screen or prompted for by our peers on the playground, and don't cause much of a stir. The shapeshifters are going to know which ones aren't actually just human outliers on the genetic bell curve.

I would give them different limitations - including different ways to deal with them - and cultural preferences. Interesting limitations could be mass, duration, shapes they find hard, behavioral differences, intelligence retained, level of control, attributes gained from their form, and material limitations - if they became wolverine from the x-men, would they get adamantium claws. Cultural preferences would essentially boil down to what's cool, normal, or typical and what isn't. Maybe one group really values the life cycle and tends to change into things typically associated with decay. Perhaps one group chooses to only shape shift into things that can process meat because herbivores too low for them.

I'd also give the mechanics of shape shifting differences. For example, perhaps one group are essential biomages, while the other are essentially druids.

Have a feature/quirk that is not immediately physically apparent but could be used to "unmask" them via some sort of test.

An example could be that the species' react differently to water. Species A may have skin that sags slightly more than normal in heavy rainfall/being dunked in a body of water, Species B may have skin that cracks or blisters more under these conditions and Species C could have water run right off them, remaining bone dry whatever the weather.

This is just an example, but something that would be easy to conceal (and in the case of A & B of the example, explained away by a skin condition), but something that those in the know would recognise could help distinguish the shapeshifters from one another. They'd be more likely to readily spot the differences themselves and it also gives the mere "muggles" a means of identifying them if the story requires.

What about a cultural preference or even requirement for what they change into? If I may reference the Wonder Twins from Super Friends, Zan transformed into forms of water, and Jayna transformed into animals. Perhaps each race has a better affinity to, say, carnivorous/predator, herbivorous/prey, and flying animals.

  • Maybe the shapeshifters need to transform a coherence in feelings or elemental powers to transform to the animal/ new shape – Jannis Sep 19 at 15:55

If you want members of race A to have more affinity with members of their race than with B and C, you could just make it cultural. Maybe B and C murdered almost all members of A, which is why there are so few of them, so members of race A would have a profound hate for B and C, especially since this genocide isn't something that happened to previous generations, the race A members that are still alive were there and they held their loved ones in their arms as they died of thing-caused-by-races-B-and-C.

This would put to question the use of the word "race", but I think that saying "we of race A are the ones with the green eyes" doesn't sound as purposefully segregating as "we of race-or-some-other-word A are the survivors and descendants of the massacre of City A". This should be something to consider, because if you picked something like skin color, they would probably just ignore that very obvious difference and end up treating each other the same (like in a slightly hopeful version of our real world)

Personality traits or non-appearance-based physiological attributes.

For example, the average amount of sleep needed by the three races might be different by a few hours per day.

Different races might also have different capacities for digesting certain compounds (e.g. lactose/gluten for analogy to modern humans), be able to sense different compounds (e.g. the taste of cilantro), or have synesthesia with different associations.

Adequate rest and mental associations can be detected through psychological tests; the latter especially based on priming, coupled with proper incentives. Digestion differences could be detected by an analysis of digestive waste products, especially when combined with knowledge of the inputs.

The three races could also have different senses of humor or other personality factors that subtly distinguish how they communicate, work, and move through the world.

Blood Type

Humans have blood types A, B, AB, and O (oversimplification, I know but just go with it). Elves have blood types B, C, BC, and O. A Human with an A blood type can never reproduce with an Elf with a C blood type. Any other combination can have kids, though some will find it easier than others.

Now your shapeshifters are unique. One clan is always type A, one is always type B, and the last is always type C. If two of them reproduce, the child gets one of the two blood types, which also ends up their clan. As for their offspring with Humans/Elves, if the kid kids the shapeshifter's blood type, they are a shapeshifter. Any other blood type, and they are the mortal/solid race. And with the mortal races, the same blood type issues with reproduction could pop up (an A type shapeshifter can never have kids with a C type Elf).

This would also help them to blend in, unless they take the wrong shape (an a type shapeshifter becoming an Elf, for example).

Alternately, they could have blood types of X, Y, and Z, so that they can't even pass a blood test. You could then decide how hybridization impact blood types (is there an AX type?).

In the Witcher games and, I haven't read them, books there is a character named Dudu who is a doppler, essentially a shapeshifter. From what I gather of the game he can only turn into humanoid things. There are also elves, dwarves, and other races.

This part is the suggestion: Maybe there is a human-doppler who can only turn into other humans; an elf-doppler who can only turn into elves with pointed ears and so on. A human-doppler or the human he turned into will never have pointed ears. The dwarf-doppler will always be short, in doppler(natural) form or his shape-shifted form.

In the Witcher's case that is not true since, in the game, Dudu is naturally short but can turn into a human but your book maybe different.

  • Welcome to Worldbuilding! The author states in their post, "So whatever feature sets them apart from each other shouldn't stop them from looking like a human, elf or dwarf. So I can't just say Race A can take any form but their skin and hair will always be blue or something similar." Maybe I am inferring incorrectly, but your answer seems to suggest that, say, Race A can only turn into humans, Race B can only turn into elves, etc, which isn't what the OP (Original Poster, the person who asked the question) was asking. Am I reading your answer wrong? – John Locke Sep 18 at 22:22

This race of shapeshifters could be tied to a series of taboos, rituals and rules that they can not break. At best, these peculiarities would make them seem eccentric to mortals, and in the worst case could be confused with the symptoms of madness.

These taboos could be remnants of their previous divine condition, side effects of having to adapt their alien mental processes to the simple but obtuse life among mortals.

They could also be the price paid for living in exile: These shapeshifters perhaps needed a means to avoid being detected by their former enemies, or perhaps they discovered that by spending too much time in mundane forms the were at risk of become the mortals they imitated, as their divine nature and powers were progressively diluted and corrupted. Whatever the problem, they resorted to powerful mystical rituals to solve it, but in the process their souls and minds were scarred by the powerful magic.

These taboos and rituals are not the same for each individual, since they are deeply linked to the magic and traditions of each clan. They can range from relatively innocuous things like being unable to enter a house if you have not been invited or being unable to lie to much stranger things like getting sick if you do not return a favor before the next full moon or vomit after ingesting meat from a animal that you have not killed. They could even be unnatural things as only being able to conceive offspring in the hours after ingesting the throbbing heart of a deer.

In any case, the members of this race would have to work hard to disguise those behaviors, or perhaps adopt lifestyles where the impact of these is minimal. However, the impossibility of avoiding them altogether means that they always run the risk of being discovered by someone who knows exactly what to look for.

Differentiate them based on culture. On Earth, there is very little meaningful difference between humans worldwide at the biological level, but we've managed to divide ourselves into a couple hundred nations (plus subdivisions thereof) based mostly on culture. Your shifters indoctrinate their young into this culture during childhood. This isn't perfectly rigid, but it may be good enough for your purposes.

The other culturish option would be predisposition towards certain personalities. If you were using a D&D based structure, this would probably take the form of good/neutral/evil or lawful/neutral/chaotic, but you could easily go some other direction (friendly/helpful, suspicious/reserved, something else)

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