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I'm working on a story where the main character gains the abilities of a shapeshifter. In this case, defined as a human who can become any non-human animal, indistinguishable from the real thing, and retain his/her mental state.

Part of the story revolves around the character having to decide whether to share information about the ability with friends and family. Perhaps a situation where the ability must be explained or the character risks losing a love interest.

What are the possible larger outcomes if the secret leaks?

I've already considered the following:

  • Scientists and doctors wanting to perform examinations to understand how the ability works.
  • Government wanting to capture and keep the subject hidden, for study and possible exploitation.
  • Religious organizations declaring varying stories ranging from the protagonist being god-like and revered, to evil and requiring destruction.
  • The HBO television series "True Blood" hints that there might be groups of people who view shapeshifters as a threat and seek to kill them.

I'm interested in some plausible, realistic consequences of public knowledge of the existence of a bona fide shapeshifter.

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    $\begingroup$ Is another person considered an animal? $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 19 '14 at 23:45
  • $\begingroup$ Not in this example. The shapeshifter is not like Mystique from X-Men; they cannot look like other humans. $\endgroup$ – JYelton Dec 19 '14 at 23:46
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure why looking like a badger is a god-like power then. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 19 '14 at 23:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Oldcat Well, being a badger, rather than just looking like one. I'm sure certain people would construe a shapeshifter as some sort of god-given ability, or in some way discern it as religious or spiritual. $\endgroup$ – JYelton Dec 19 '14 at 23:59
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    $\begingroup$ Please remember that being a shapeshiter means that they would have a really hard time trying to catch him. Much more likely they would have to kidnap some relative and force him to "willingly" come. $\endgroup$ – o0'. Dec 21 '14 at 16:03
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I think the most "natural" reaction from the US government if the information spread would be to put the shapeshifter in a laboratory and try to find out where the ability comes from. They will try to persuade him to go willingly and if it doesn't work, they will try to take him by force. That's where the storyline interferes with how the society sees him: Does he really want to help his country? Or maybe the country is the bad guy here and the shapshifter escaping the military becomes some sort of a lower classes hero? And what if he or she isn't a US citizen, but - let's say - an Iranian or Russian? Also, if the ability to shapeshift is tested under scientific methodology then you have to think through where it really comes from - and it also can affect the way people will think of the shapeshifter. Let's say he's Indian and the ability seems to be magical. Then the hero will start to be perceived as a sort of a demigod in his fatherland. Someone who just has to help them, fight the corrupt government, right the wrongs, etc. And if he's just a regular American citizen... well, there are still lots of religious freaks who would think of him as an Antichrist.

And if the ability is scientific and reproducable, the governmet will try to use it to create supersoldiers or animal shapeshifting companions - imagine a dog, trained and obedient, who can shapeshift into a lion at a request. As good or better as a supersoldier and without any moral mumbojumbo about not killing people without good reason. That could create political turmoil, as well as protests of organizations concerned with the government's rights to treat people like that. On the other hand, there will be pressures to commercialize this. On the biological level shapeshifting might be useful in treating malfunctioning organs - after all, during the shapeshift the whole body changes, so maybe we will be able to use it to reshape and fix just some parts of the body. And even without this clear advantage to the society, I'm sure soon one of multimillionaires will want to be a shapeshifter too and willing to pay huge amount of money to get the technology in his veins.

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I third the paranoia/spying angle. I think it's an important angle but it's been already well addressed.

In the short term I think a big one is disbelief, lots and lots of it; and not unreasonably. If my sister showed up at my house right now, told me she could shapeshift, and did it I would still assume that it was an elaborate hoax. Shapeshifting violates so many laws of science that disbelief, even after seeing it once, is actually the logical response. I would insist my sister change into multiple shapes, while I was touching some part of her skin to feel the change, and swear up and down it wasn't a hoax before I would even begin to accept that it was true, and even then my next step would be to contemplate my own sanity and ask at least one other person to verify that they see my sister and she isn't imaginary while I look up schizophrenia. And that is coming from a reasonable person with first hand experience from someone he trusts.

Anyone that doesn't see the shapeshifters is going to believe they are fake. You can publish all kinds of videos, they will be claimed to be faked as well. Look how much people still disbelieve thing like the moon landing, which are completely possible and people don't claim violates physics, to imagine the response. There would likely be a whole culture clash over those that believe and those that don't believe these shapeshifters are real, and the majority will fall in the 'don't believe' category without absurdly strong evidence.

On a different front, I think that people misrepresent the 'want to study' concept. When someone with strange powers shows up they are always afraid of being 'studied' by being shoved into a cage and slowly dissected. The medical and scientific community would be amazed and fascinated by this, but not suddenly turn evil. We have an absurdly large number of rules we abide by in studies that won't change because something is a scientific curiosity. For that matter there is no reason to dissect someone. Even if your completely amoral and have no laws constraining you the fact is that dissecting someone isn't a very good study method. The studies would invariably spend years on preliminary non invasive and simple things with willing subjects. Unwilling subjects are very hard to study, you need their feedback. Frankly, study would be far more benign, and positive for humanity, then you imagine. Think shapeshifters as being payed very good money to shape shift into various rats inside an EKG one day, then to do some physical exercise as various animals to study the energy use. Maybe a 2 weeks study of caloric intake to see how various shapes handle calories and try to figure out where energy comes from. Good money for some non invasive and almost-fun tests.

Some other interesting angles, in brief:

  • Worship or idolization, many gods WERE half animal in the past
  • Re-imagining of animals and animal rights. suddenly there would be a lot more vegetarians, animal rights etc. If people can be animals this completely breaks and redefines the cultural divide we have between 'human' and 'animal'
  • Rule 34...just...yeah you don't want to imagine the fetishes. I give it less then a week for someone to ask rather a shape shiftier can get an animal pregnant and what will develop if he does (along with a dozen other questions)
  • Shapeshifting celebrities. Shapeshifting groupies, shapeshifting tell-all books etc etc
  • Some paternity questions as to rather the shapeshifters are really someone's child. Maybe someone pointing out how well the mother gets along with Fido....
  • Allegations of the government creating shapeshifters with everything from viruses and nanoteck to voodoo
  • A race between governments to get the most shapeshifters on their payroll (for scientific reasons not military or espionage primarily! though of course espionage would happen too)
  • People pointing out that a shapeshifter is a lethal weapon, able to turn into creature more dangerous then a gun at a moment. Some fear, some reanalyzing of self cary laws, more people carrying guns
  • Bigotry. No shapeshifter will marry my daughter! That shapeshifter isn't a vegetarian, that's cannibalism! You're a shapeshifter; how can I trust you to not fly away (literally) with my money?
  • Some people will suggest that shapeshifters can turn into other humans (even if they can't accusations will be made). This will lead to more distrust and uncertainty.
  • The stock market will collapse. Seriously, fear and uncertainty hurts the market. this is so life changing that, if people believe it, it will start a collapse that will continue on itself. Look at the crash after 9/11, trust me shape shifters are scarier to accept then 9/11

And finally: realization that shapeshifting violates the law of conservation of mass, and thus thermodynamics. Use this to create perpetual energy, stop entropy and the heat death of the universe, completely redefine every scientific constraint known to man....what? you break physics a little you break it everywhere :)

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I'll just add one angle to your list that hasn't been done a lot in fiction: paranoia, with the possibility of widespread, culture-altering degrees of paranoia if this is a universe that has any significant number of animal shapeshifters rather than just the one.

On the most basic level, if I found out someone I knew well could turn into, say, a spider or a flea, I would have difficulty coping with this information. Philosophically, I'd be moving from a world where I feel reasonably secure that it's possible to keep some things private to one where Bob could be a spider on the ceiling watching me have sex without me knowing and with zero consequences. Ew.

Some people would take this knowledge better than others. Imagine, for example, Bob was a guy in your high school. Sooner or later, everyone's going to think of the spider-sex scenario and apply it to all of their secrets and all of the gross things humans prefer to do without an audience. In even that small group of people loosely connected to Bob, some people are going to have a pretty rosy view of humanity and think it's okay, some people will be realists and think about whether or not Bob has motivation to spy on them specifically out of all the people he might be spying on, and some will, in all likelihood, be inclined to paranoia anyway. Some people will try to put Bob out of their mind, and others will worry about the possibility of him watching every second of the day until they melt down.

All this would happen even if Bob was the best guy in the world and would never think of spying on anyone. Bob would be pretty lucky if nobody tried to murder him just to be able to believe in privacy again.

If anything, I might think someone in a very close relationship with your shapeshifter might take all this better, in the same way that you get used to compromising privacy when you're living with someone you for the most part like. People who know Bob peripherally would probably go the most crazy thinking about it, because they don't really know what Bob is thinking about them.

Lastly, inevitably, I would think at least someone would start developing religious thoughts about Bob, because frankly, if Bob could be watching you at any time, a sufficiently paranoid mind would start considering, as a matter of course, the possibility that Bob was watching any time they did anything shameful or gross, and from there it's a hop, skip, and a jump to the theological.

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    $\begingroup$ Theology develops for reasons that are pretty far removed than "he might watch me have sex some time" $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 22 '14 at 18:41
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having to decide whether to share information about the ability with friends and family. Perhaps a situation where the ability must be explained or the character risks losing a love interest.

The only time any of the negatives come into effect is when the love interest or the family or friends decide to rat out the shifter. Any number of secrets are held by families and friends from the government or society. Think of all the successful gays in the military back in the day. Then of course, the people who're ratting our your shifter would have to be believed (difficult to do). Might get the character on a watch-list, however.

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    $\begingroup$ "My boyfriend can turn into a turtle" is a bit less likely to be believed by the military than "My boyfriend is gay" $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 22 '14 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ That's why I said "would have to be believed (difficult to do)." :D -- especially if the shifter played dumb, "What do you mean I can turn into a turtle? That's just crazy. I think she's having a mental breakdown. Honey, why don't you take your meds, and come home now..." $\endgroup$ – user3082 Dec 22 '14 at 18:46
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The ability to shift shapes into animal forms has some divine precidence. The Greek Gods used to do it all the time.

As for the social and cultural aspects of "coming out" as a shapeshifter, significant issues would include fear, envy and trust.

Fear A world-class karate champion who is single-shaped wouldn't stand a chance against an untrained shapeshifter who can become a grizzly bear.

Envy To fly like a bird, swim like a seal, run like a jaquar... who wouldn't be jealous.

Trust Keeping a human mind while looking like the family dog... the perfect spy! Who would trust anyone who could do that.

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    $\begingroup$ They might have the appearance of the dog, but not wincing at the bad jokes and rolling your eyes at the lame conversation might be much harder! $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 22 '14 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ Amen! That would be the hardest part of spying. $\endgroup$ – HadesHerald Jul 8 '15 at 19:08

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