Friday, November 22, 2013

Chameleon Characters

Photo by William Warby, via Flickr
In the animal kingdom, chameleons are noteworthy for being able to change color in response to their environment. This makes the word chameleon an apt metaphor to denote that specialized class of Fantasy characters whose moral priorities and personal loyalties are (or appear to be) in a state of flux throughout the story.

If you’re a Fantasy writer, having a chameleon in your cast list is like having a wild card up your sleeve in a poker game. I.e., it can really liven things up when the chips are down.

To begin with, the chameleon often has a touch of “the alien” about him.1 He may be racially distinctive (one lone dwarf in a company of elves); he may come from a suspect place on the map (a Southron merchant visiting Minas Tirith), or he might belong (or might once have belonged) to a socially dubious caste or profession (a former imperial inquisitor who claims to have renounced his past). Whatever the nature of his “difference”, he’s no more at home amongst a group of Sidekicks than he is among a group of Henchmen. Other members of the group mistrust him (rightly or wrongly) for being “not one of us”.2 That means anything can happen.

Where Sidekicks and Henchmen tend to keep to their own respective sides of the moral plot divide, a chameleon contrives to shuttle between opposing camps. It’s not uncommon to find a chameleon fraternizing with the Other Side, and if challenged, he will always have a plausible excuse for doing so. A chameleon is a capable role-player, and his true allegiance often remains a mystery till the book’s finale. His performances keep us guessing.

Another cause for speculation is the fact that a chameleon’s motives and objectives don’t necessarily match up with those of the company he keeps. A lot of scope for narrative tension arises when the chameleon’s personal agenda comes into conflict with his relationships with other characters. If (for example) his companions are out to rescue a captive wizard from a necromancer’s tower, the chameleon will stick with the party till they’re inside. Thereafter, however, he’ll seize the first available opportunity to peel off and steal a book of spells (the object of his own personal quest) from the necromancer’s library. If the main party comes to grief in his absence, he may turn back to rescue them. On the other hand, he might leave them in the lurch and make off with his loot.

Like Schrödinger’s cat, a chameleon exists in a state of uncertainty. We don’t know whether he’s friend or foe till the author takes the lid off the box. Either way, readers relish well-designed shocks and surprises, and employing the services of a chameleon is one way to generate a world of suspense. That suspense will keep us turning pages till the final curtain.


1 Once again I’m obliged by default to use the masculine forms as generic.

2 From the writer’s perspective, you can have a lot of fun out-foxing the reader by endowing a villainously disposed chameleon with charm and charisma, or (conversely) by depicting an angel-in-disguise on the surface as a capricious bad-tempered bitch.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. I love a good turncoat character. Just make sure you don't tack on one at the end; make sure he is integral to the plot and, if you look back, there are signs of his inconsistency. Also try to find a unique twist. A turncoat character can border on cliche.

  2. Unless the chameleon/turncoat is a spy or double agent, he probably is a self-serving sort. As a secondary character, he will be fun, intriguing, and a possible link that facilitates movement between or among factions. However, as the protagonist, the payload of his presence and his loyalties explode into the stratosphere and can keep the reader guessing right up to the end.

    Love this post, Debby!

  3. Thanks for this interesting look at a turncoat character. I had never thought of them as being like a chameleon, but you are so right, Debbie.


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