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What Is Transformation Fiction?

By T. Carrier
Updated: May 23, 2024

Transformation fiction is a type of make-believe literature that has transformation as a primary theme or plot development. The radical change may be of a physical or psychological nature. Examples include shape-shifting in a science fiction or horror story and gender changes in a mainstream novel. Authors may use transformation to promote various themes, both uplifting and critical.

Shapeshifting is a common plot device in the genres of science fiction and horror, and thus is a well-known type of transformation fiction. This practice occurs when a being physically changes into another type of being. The transformation may either be at the character's will or it may occur involuntarily.

In the former example, an alien entity might possess the natural ability to look like any human being or other earthly creature, such as in the science fiction classics The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. One popular representative in the involuntary transformation vein is the werewolf story. An example in classic literature would be The Metamophosis by Franz Kafka, which details a young man's inexplicable transformation into a large insect.

Gender change is another common device in transformation fiction. This process may involve the aforementioned magical and mystical abilities associated with shapeshifting, particularly in mythology and folklore legends. It may also involve metamorphosis of a more psychological nature. Transgender fiction has emerged as a subgenre in 20th century literature. These works explore the journey of an individual who feels he or she is trapped in the wrong body, and they may include actual physical changes from male to female or vice versa. The Pulitzer Prize-winning 2002 novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is one prominent example.

On a more subtle level, transformation fiction may chart a character's slow internal change. Personality, values, and the overall outlook on life may be significantly altered in a fictional protagonist's journey from the beginning to the end of a story. An extreme symbolic offering is found in the novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which the story's main character vacillates between a good, law-abiding side and an evil, law-breaking side. Much contemporary fiction documents less drastic mental and emotional paths.

Themes in transformation fiction may be positive or negative. Loss of control, lack of free will, and alienation can emerge as negative aspects of involuntary transformations. Sometimes the characters are forced to endure a transformation as a punishment as well, such as in the fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast." An individual who chooses transformation, on the other hand, may become symbolic of liberation and escape from convention or expectation. Voluntary transformation can also, however, indicate abuse of power and deceit.

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Discussion Comments
By clintflint — On Feb 08, 2014

@browncoat - Most of the transformation fiction stories I've read have actually been somewhat feminist, because they usually deal with some kind of gender transformation. Either a man into a woman or vice versa (or sometimes both).

They are usually fairly lighthearted though and honestly, I think that might be because when you come right down to it, men and women aren't all that different under the surface. There is only so much depth you can give to someone being horrified that they have to wear a bra.

I do think there is space for more though. One of my favorite celebrity stories is the one where Dustin Hoffman describes his transformation in Tootsie and how they turned him into a woman and he realized that he wasn't attractive enough to invite his own interest, even though he was intelligent and funny and so forth. And it made him realize the different pressures women face in society. Which I think is the point of transformation fiction. To throw light on a different viewpoint.

By browncoat — On Feb 08, 2014

@Fa5t3r - Honestly, I found Metamorphosis to be a bit too murky. I preferred Marie Darrieussecq's novella called "Pig Tales" where a woman is turned into a pig. It's a little bit heavy handed in the deliverance, but I think it has more to say than Metamorphosis.

I guess it might be the kind of transformation that does it. When a man turns into a giant insect, there aren't all that many ways for people to react. Mostly, there is going to be fear and disgust.

But as the woman turns into a pig, she starts off becoming more beautiful, because her skin becomes pinker and plumper. It explores ideas of dominance and feminism, rather than simply existential angst.

By Fa5t3r — On Feb 07, 2014

Everyone should try to read Metamorphosis at least once in their lives. I mean, it's out of copyright now, so it's free to read online and it is basically the length of a novella, so it doesn't take long to read.

It's a classic and probably the best of all the transformation stories I've ever read. Although I do have to admit that it is very depressing, so it's probably not a good pick for someone looking for light entertainment.

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