Written in response to the following question:
Hey again, I was wondering if I could actually get some advice on writing werecreatures? I’ve got a weretiger character but I was having a bit of trouble writing him as I don’t want him to end up a walking cliche (he’s already weird enough as is). Are there any parts of overall werecreature mythology I should avoid? How can I do them justice?
Thank you so much for asking! It’s really up to your preference. For me, what I look for in stories about any kind of werecreatures, is the general directions people tend to take them in today. I’m talking about a few major things. I’ll keep it general instead of specific to werewolves, since your character is a weretiger.
Note that a lot of these depend heavily on the setting and mood you’re going for, so I’ll be more specific in each section…
Things to Avoid
Stereotypical animal traits or jokes. There’s some specifics to this one, because depending on the setting and what you’re wanting to do with the story/characters/werecreatures themselves, giving them slightly more stereotypical traits of their particular animal might be fun or interesting. It can be done well, it just almost never is. Even the animal jokes can be done well, under very carefully controlled circumstances. I’ve, on rare occasion, made a few with a specific character who is crazy enough to do something like that (and they’re basically never actually true, so).
But, more often than not, when something starts dropping completely brainless dog jokes about werewolves (chasing things, dog-like scratching, “wet dog smell” jokes, fetch, can’t eat chocolate, dislikes cats, barking [I went into detail in a recent werewolf fact about just how painfully lame this is for so many reasons] the list goes on and on) and doesn’t have some seriously great reasons for keeping me there? I’m out. (But I am aware I’m often in the minority when it comes to that reaction.)
Overly obvious animal behavior. This goes hand in hand with the first section, really, but lots of things also like to make werecreatures that overtly behave like their animal side and can’t seem to stop it. Again, this can be done right and can be fun, but this is even more rarely done right than the things above. Usually it’s just so over the top and silly that it draws a lot of seriousness away from the character/creature/setting. With this, I’m talking about random compulsive animal behavior, like wanting to mark their territory (yes, urine, and yes things include that for some werecreatures), chasing things (for werewolves), licking themselves (for various felines), scratching themselves with their feet, panting with their tongue out… It’s hard to do that kind of thing and pull it off in a way that doesn’t just feel very “wtf?”
Dead giveaways. This is yet another thing that depends heavily on your setting and what you want to do with it, as well as personal preference. But I’ve personally always preferred the werecreatures that can pass as human (which was the case for basically 99% of folkloric ones as well; I know people will say “but werewolves had unibrows!” or somesuch, but in all honesty, the various silly “ways to identify a werewolf” is just cobbled together bits of random obscure wives-tales that people dug up and popularized on the internet because it was lulzy). Even if they might have, say, reflective/some other kind of oddity about their eyes, slightly sharper teeth, and whatnot (all of which I am guilty of in my own writing to some degree, so you won’t see me complain about any of those).
Rambling aside, what I mean by that is it kind of ruins the fun of the story (again, IMO) if the werecreature is so obviously a werecreature that anyone would immediately figure it out and ruin any mystique behind it. If they’re cool dead giveaways and that’s the kind of thing you’re going for in your setting, that’s one thing. If they’re absurdly silly dead giveaways (unibrow, hairy palms, etc), then it makes it feel almost comical.
Lack of intelligence. This is a serious pet peeve for me, and something I did a werewolf fact on not too long ago. The second something makes a werecreature of any type downright stupid enough to run headlong into a wall or something, I’m out. Part of what makes werecreatures terrifying is that they are still part human, and they are still very intelligent.
Things you should do, IMO:
Keep them scary/powerful. This is so, so, so, so important and I cannot stress it enough. Too many things right now make werecreatures weak, and this especially applies to werewolves. Hearthstone, the Warcraft card game, removes health points from worgen cards when they transform. They literally become weaker when they are in their werewolf form. That makes absolutely no sense, and no one can ever convince me that it does. Hearthstone is certainly not the only culprit, either.
I’m of the opinion that werecreatures should wholesale be physically superior to humans in every single way. Why? They’re monsters. It’s there on the tin. That’s what makes them scary, is that they’re so powerful. Media today portraying werewolves (this rarely seems to apply to other werecreatures, for some reason) as weak, sometimes even bordering on or reaching shambling-dead-zombie levels of weakness, is… Well, I don’t like it one little bit.
This also applies to their human form. For more info, see this post.
Keep them rare. This is almost just as important as the first to me. Today, we get werewolves that are little more than plague rats (i.e. the worgen starting zone in WoW), and we get phrases like “werewolf-infested” thrown around. That’s a phrase that should never be said. That makes them sound like a bug infestation, and bugs are tiny things that you crush with your boot or kill en masse with poison sprays. Werecreatures are not either of those things. Keeping them rare helps to maintain their aura of mystery and power, and it helps make them far scarier. Not to mention, it helps make a werecreature character feel unique, instead of feeling like just another victim of a zombie plague (as that is how lycanthropy is, unfortunately, often depicted today).
However, maybe you have a setting in which werecreatures are more common, and perhaps they’re their own race instead of it being a curse (or disease, like it so often is in modern media), which is fine too. That’s a totally different perspective on things.
Keep them serious. This is so integral to me when it comes to werecreatures, as I’m sure you already know. They aren’t jokes, and they shouldn’t be taken or presented as such. There may be a point in the story where someone gets werewolf cuddles, and that’s fine, and even that can be done in a serious way. But it needs to take time and buildup.
More than anything, refer back to the not making overly silly jokes with them. The second the jokes get out of hand, the werecreatures can’t be taken seriously anymore.
Modern audiences are so very ready to not take werecreatures seriously and see them as a joke. If you give them the chance to do so, they’ll take it and run with it and be perfectly happy to see them as a joke from there on out. That’s often an audience’s natural reaction to them. See a werewolf, make a dog joke. It’s sad, but it’s true. So writers need to tread carefully (and consider deeply each joke they might want to make in regards to them, and what character is making that joke, in what context, etc) to make sure that these particular monsters are taken with the gravity that they deserve, or else a serious story focusing on werecreatures will quite simply fall apart.
Anyway, wow, long post!
P.S.: You said “walking cliche,” I noticed, and I must say – cliches are cliches because they are fun, people like them, and they work. Cliches aren’t always a bad thing!