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SPECS & THE CITY: The Shapeshifter Archetype and ‘Harry Potter'

Brad Johnson discusses the Shapeshifter archetype and Harry Potter.

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The Shapeshifter archetype is one of the most interesting archetypes to explore, because they can come in so many different forms. At their core, a Shapeshifter is exactly what it sounds like – a character perceived by the Hero to have a specific motivation or allegiance that is either discovered to be false, or legitimately changes, as the story plays out.

This can see be manifested within a wide spectrum of relationships to your protagonist; everything from the false friend that leads our Hero astray or betrays them (Ash in ALIEN), to the perceived villain who turns out to have the Hero’s back when all seems lost (Old Man Marley in Home Alone), to the opponent that has a change of heart over the course of the movie (Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy).

The most effective Shapeshifter is one that keeps both the Hero and the audience guessing as to their true intentions, and one of the best modern examples of this archetype comes from the worldwide phenomenon known as Harry Potter. Let’s take a deeper look at…

Archetypes: The Shapeshifter and Harry Potter

Severus Snape in Harry Potter

Severus Snape in Harry Potter

As you may have guessed, the ultimate Shapeshifter in the Harry Potter universe is Professor Severus Snape. What makes Snape so captivating is the continually evolving understanding that Harry and the audience have of the character. From that initial meeting where Harry’s scar hurts upon meeting Snape, we are working under the impression that he is, if not an evil character, someone whom does not have Harry’s best intentions at heart.

These instincts are seemingly confirmed over the course of the first several movies as Snape seemingly conspires against Harry at every turn. Our confusion about the character are only deepened by the other key characters (namely Dumbledore) seem to completely trust Snape despite his dubious actions towards our Hero. The first turn in our expectations of Snape’s loyalties come in The Order of the Phoenix, when it is revealed that the Dark Arts instructor is indeed working for the good guys. It’s an emotionally potent moment in the film because it so completely alters what Harry, and therefore the audience, thought he knew.

Despite this alignment with the Order of the Phoenix, Snape continues to test and confront Harry; allowing the character to shift from supporter to opponent multiple times over the course of the next several movies. In fact, even as the series began to draw to a close with The Deathly Hallows Part I, Harry is still unsure of Snape’s true motivations.

Leaving spoilers aside, there are multiple additional twists and turns for Snape and the story ends with his legacy being much different than when the series began.

It’s hard to imagine what the Harry Potter series would have been like without Snape in them. By including such a continually evolving Shapeshifter into the narrative, the story gained a constant influx of conflict and confusion; one that helped keep us all guessing while Voldemort lurked in the background. Through eight movies, Snape constantly kept Harry and his friends guessing, and that confusion is the sign of truly well-crafter Shapeshiter.

If you're interested, you can read about the archetypes that have already been discussed here:

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