The universal appeal of shifters: A trope for every genre

Humans that morph into animals abound in stories of fantasy and romance and can even be found in literary fiction, science fiction, and horror. But which shifters appeal to which readers?

I have my own theories, but I thought I’d see how they stack up against real-life responses. To that end, I polled three facebook groups — one focused on werewolves in paranormal romance settings, one focused on urban fantasy in general, and one created just for fans of Patricia Briggs.

Alpha werewolves

As expected, the paranormal-romance readers were most united about their reasons for loving werewolves. 80% of them were looking for one or both of the following:

Mates — You could have guessed this one. Paranormal-romance readers love the idea of the one true mate, the fated mate, and/or the hot alpha mate. They’re not the only ones sucked in by that idea, though. 8% of urban fantasy respondents and 14% of Patricia Briggs’ fans also put mates at the top of their werewolf-book wish list.

Found family — This is one of my favorite things to write about (present in all of my books to some extent, but particularly in my Wolf Rampant series), so I know exactly where readers are coming from. A community of werewolves that comes together to create something larger than the sum of its parts is instantly seductive. Subsets include: pack bonds and lone wolves being drawn into a pack.

Werewolf pack dynamics

In contrast, readers in both the general urban fantasy group and in Patricia Briggs’ fan group rated a different facet of werewolf books most important:

Pack dynamics — We love the way the combination of wolf and animal traits create a complicated world full of drama, ritual, and infighting. In fact, if you add in the element of making human power dynamics more visible (overbearing alphas, sassy underdogs bucking the hierarchy, etc.), 20% of paranormal romance readers put this at the top of their list as well. I’ve found pack dynamics are particularly fun to tease apart when you insert a protagonist into a pack she wasn’t born into, as is the case in my Moon Marked series (and, come to think of it, in Mercy Thompson’s case as well).

Human/wolf duality

On the other hand, urban-fantasy readers were more interested than anyone else in this aspect:

The dual animal/human nature of a werewolf — I’ll let one of my respondents sum this one up since she said it so well: “The internal struggle between wolf/human. I think it is a good description of how complex humans are. We all have a wolf half or darker nature, if you will. And we all struggle to balance those emotions and desires.” I suspect this human/wolf duality that Lori Hughes so ably described (and which I put at the forefront of my Moon Blind series) would appeal to a horror audience in addition to a fantasy audience. If you want your werewolves to be forced to shift at the full moon, I suspect you’re tapping into this deep human conflict.

What’s left to love about werewolves? How about:

The wolves themselves — As Tina Hoefs explained, “I love animals more than people. Less drama and bs.” Other respondents mentioned how much they love wolves specifically. They particularly appreciated the scenes where protagonists ran in lupine form, although several also mentioned other aspects of wolfish behavior (either while two-legged or four-legged). Paranormal-romance readers weren’t strongly interested in this aspect, but about a quarter of urban-fantasy readers and a fifth of Patricia Briggs’ fans listed it as a must-have in werewolf books.

Finally, a much smaller subset of readers noted that their favorite aspect is:

General worldbuilding — Whether that’s werewolf superpowers or shifters interacting with vampires and other beings.

And that’s about it for what most of us love about werewolves. Except…maybe you’re attracted to something entirely different? If so, you’ll have to write an outside-the-box shifter novel and share it with the world!