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In any modern story nowadays, shapeshifters always have an original form; Andalites from Animorphs or Mystique from X-men to name a few. It raises the question of why something that can change forms would even bother with an original form. Ignoring the unrealism of a creature evolving the ability to shapeshift, why would a shapeshifter bother having an original form?

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    $\begingroup$ From what I remember, the Andalites did not evolve the ability to shapeshift. They invented technology that gave the power to shapeshift to normal living organisms. That is why the human Animorphs were able to shapeshift just as well as the alien Andalites. $\endgroup$ – sumelic May 1 '16 at 18:44
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    $\begingroup$ I was just wondering, why didn't you choose T.J.L.'s answer to accept? It is a lot more true that Cort Ammon's. The reason a shapeshifter has a true from is because it had to be born. It didn't hatch/come out of the womb/whatever shifting between shapes, it was something. Cort just adressed how it's shape can affect its identity. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon May 1 '16 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon I find that while yes T.J.L's answer applies to shapeshifters that gain their abilities, Cort's answer works for both people who gained and evolved the ability $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b May 1 '16 at 19:33
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    $\begingroup$ Note that some shapeshifters do not have an original or default form, at least not one that is known. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nyarlathotep $\endgroup$ – JAB May 2 '16 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ Note that the Andalites can't stay shifted for more than two hours, and the technology requires them to shift back to Andalite before they can shift to something else. $\endgroup$ – Nic Hartley May 2 '16 at 16:02
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A shapeshifter doesn't "choose" an original form. A shapeshifter's "original" is whatever form it started as - that's what "original" means. That form is whatever it was in before it gained/learned/discovered its ability to shapeshift.

In cases where maintaining a shape requires concentration and effort (Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), has a maximum time limit, or is triggered by an outside influence or external catalyst (classic werewolves), a shapeshifer may have a default form that they revert to when resting (Odo turns to a liquid) or in absence of the catalyst (werewolves become human).

Shapeshifters without such a restriction (Mystique from X-Men) or with a default form not conducive to interaction (Odo, again) may have a preferred form. As Cort explains, having such a form helps such an entity reinforce its sense of self. Sentient beings in most stories want to have some way to be relateable to other sentient beings; a preferred form helps you maintain those relationships, too.

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    $\begingroup$ Out-of-universe, it's because they want one version of the shapeshifter that the audience can recognize as being the "real deal". Rebecca Romijn, Robert Patrick, Rene Auberjonois, etc. are starring roles in their respective franchises, and the audience needs to recognize them. (Why do so many changeling roles star actors with 'R' names? Hmm...) In other cases, where the director wants to keep the audience guessing, there will be no default actor. This happens more often in horror movies (e.g. The Thing), so that any person can suddenly be the villain, and thus you can never trust anyone. $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman May 2 '16 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ IIRC in Animorphs they can only stay in that form for an hour, after which they can't shape-shift back. $\endgroup$ – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 2 '16 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft Two hours, but yes. One of the characters loses their ability to transform and gets stuck as an animal due to this, in the first book. $\endgroup$ – Keen May 2 '16 at 23:38
  • $\begingroup$ Mystique also has to concentrate not to shift back, compare to the moment, when she is training, and Magneto drops the bar on her (X-Men: First Class) $\endgroup$ – arc_lupus May 3 '16 at 15:45
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    $\begingroup$ Another nice example of a shapeshifter with a (probably) non-default preferred form is Nymphadora Tonks (the metamorphmagus from the Harry Potter series). I doubt she was born with purple hair. $\endgroup$ – January First-of-May May 3 '16 at 19:13
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In many stories, shapeshifters have a lot of difficult with their sense of self. In a world where a physical shape is often associated with an identity, they would continually be bombarded with interactions from everyone based on their physical appearance.

Retaining an original form would be one way to make sure you have an identity that you don't lose over the years. It's something solid and stable. (except for those rare circumstances where one shapeshifter emulates another, but its rare to find stories where they try to rob another shapeshifter's identity).

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    $\begingroup$ I have a species in one of my stories that can change its appearance at will. They typically incorporate a bauble, piece of jewelry, or symbol into all of their forms so friends can recognize them. Many are nicknamed after the feature they choose. I think it's a good compromise between recognizability and not wanting to be tied down to a given form. As an aside, assuming that a shapeshifting species would experience a loss of self from exercising a natural ability seems human-biased. $\endgroup$ – Graph Theory May 4 '16 at 0:21
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Reasons for why a shapeshifter would return to its original form:

  1. A shapeshifter cannot remain in a new form forever and must return to its original form in order to survive.
  2. Staying in another form requires a large amount of energy or concentration.
  3. A shapeshifter must stay in his original form in order to have access to the benefits of his identity, such as his bank account for example.
  4. A shapeshifter chooses to stay in its original form when it's around its childhood friends, to prevent confusion.
  5. The shapeshifter feels sentimental about its original body the way we feel sentimental about our childhood home or our favorite movie.
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    $\begingroup$ For 2, even a mild amount of concentration or effort would make it annoying. Imagine having to keep your pinky bent at all times, or to keep the beat of a particular song in your head constantly: wouldn't it be nice to relax sometimes? $\endgroup$ – Yakk May 3 '16 at 13:37
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As a metaphor, I will use online screen names.

A person can potentially have as many screen names as they like, with a different one on every site, and potentially several for the same site (discouraged as this might be). So why is it that most people like to use the same screen name in multiple places?

People like to have an identity, something that others will recognize immediately. While there are exceptions, it is human nature to want a symbol to identify themselves, taking on other forms mainly for practical purposes.

Unless a shapeshifter is particularly antisocial, it stands to reason that they might feel the same way. This is also why a shapeshifter who does enjoy mixing it up somewhat might have a common 'mark' possessed by all their forms (for example, all of their forms have the same color skin or fur) so that they can be immediately recognized.

An antisocial shapeshifter will probably be different; in their case their shapeshifting may be an acquired power and they must expend energy to sustain an altered form. Shapeshifting species are prone to defaulting to an amorphous 'blob' form when resting because this shape takes the least amount of energy to maintain. Alternatively, they may have a form that they have more experience with and will generally stick to that one when another isn't more practical, simply because the familiar is comfortable.

Antisocial shapeshifters with capricious personalities and without physical limitations are the least likely to have an 'original' form. Bartimaeus from the Bartimaeus trilogy is a good example, although even he has a common thread between his many forms (he prefers to take the shape of desert animals when possible).

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Supposing you had a shapeshifter for which any form would be equally fitting (ie. we are talking about preferred forms, not original ones), and living in a non-shapeshifter society, I see several reasons for them to have such identities:

  • Keeping the face people is used to. This is specially important when dealing with people unaware of your shapeshifting abilities, but it is still appropriate in general that people is able to associate your body with your identity.

  • Bureaucracy. Generating a background takes time and effort. Even though as a shapshifter you can change your appearance as much as you wish, you will probably have only a few identities with a driving license. Similarly for other tasks, such as opening a bank account or renting a house. You may be good at creating fake documents, but some will still require a more careful creation. And they won't be as as shape.

  • Related to the previous reasons, some identities will require a more detailed crafting: name, job, marital status, studies… Some identities will need the shapeshifter to remember lots of information not to contradict himself. Thus these can be considered as "permanent" identities even if only presented to a few people.

  • Sentimental reasons: Martian Manhunter adopted the identities of dead people (often killed) as a tribute to them.

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Ignoring the unrealism of a creature evolving the ability to shapeshift,

Chameleons can change their skin color. Not shapeshifting, but a first step to that direction. As a sidenote : they have a default/resting/original color that is different for each chameleon species but mostly green or brown.

why would a shapeshifter bother having an original form?

Assuming that the shapeshifter species developed this ability during their evolution, the "original form" is something they inherited from their ancestors.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding Vandor76, can you please extend your explanation on why they would keep the original form? Because the first part of your answer is a comment rather than an answer to the problem, so apart from the citations, only the last sentence is the part that contains the actual answer. Without further explanation, is not clear to me, why a shapeshifter would keep this form and how this differs to this answer: "That form is whatever it was in before it gained/learned/discovered its ability to shapeshift." $\endgroup$ – T3 H40 May 4 '16 at 10:17
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I think it depends on how the actual shapeshifting works.

In engineering there are three type of deformation:

Elastic Deformation, Plastic Deformation, and Fracture. I won't consider fracture.

In elastic deformation you apply force to an object to get it into a shape. Once the force is gone it will revert to its' original shape. Think about an elastic band. If your shapeshifter is an elastic deformer, then reverting to a natural form is what happens when you stop using the force keeping you in a particular form. Keeping up the shapeshift costs energy so to stop draining that they will revert. That's why they prefer their original form.

In plastic deformation you apply force to an object to permanently change its' shape. Think about: clay. If your shapeshifter is a plastic deformer, it probably won't revert to a natural state. Because keeping up the current form doesn't cost extra energy but the act of shapeshifting can cost a lot of energy. That's why they don't prefer an original form.

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Speaking as a shapeshifter irl ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) It is because we can't stay in the same form for too long. you can change your main form, but it is very hard as doing this would take a lot of energy, eating a lot of junk food for 5 weeks strait should do the trick tho

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  • $\begingroup$ i'm also bad at spelling as i just did this and am posting as a rabbit. $\endgroup$ – Anomanous Oct 5 '16 at 19:59
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Rejection of their powers. If they don't like or want to have powers, they could just stay in their original form and pretend that the powers don't exist.

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