Common Werewolf Tropes You Should Think Twice Before Using

by Alexis Feynman

Full disclosure: I don't really like werewolf stories. Not because I don't like the concept of werewolves - it's perfectly fine, even interesting. No, the reason why I usually shy away from tales of werewolves is because of the tropes that keep coming up - the same repetitive plot points that we see in stories like Blood and Chocolate or Being Human. The kind of thing that didn't make sense the first time, and now is being driven into the ground by imitators to the point where the entire market becomes unbearable.

In the interest of improving current and future werewolf fiction, here's a breakdown of the tropes in question, and why it behooves a writer to avoid them.

Table of Contents

Obsession with forming "packs."

Despite being a relatively recent addition to werewolf myths, this one has rapidly gained traction as a canon part of the mythos, and it is everywhere. Werewolves have packs. You get bitten by a werewolf, you join a pack. So on, so forth.

So what's wrong with it?
Humans are already pack animals. That's why we have things like families, friends, etc. That's one of the reasons we get along with dogs - our specially-bred, domestic versions of wolves. "Pack" is literally just another word for "inner social circle."

Assuming there is a gathered group of werewolves - and there's nothing wrong with that; having similar people around is good for the psyche - they're not likely to call themselves a "pack." They might consider themselves a family, or a community, or if they want to get REALLY pretentious, a brotherhood. They also aren't likely to clump together into a tightly-knit community in the woods. Asking anyone who got bit to give up their entire lives and livelihoods is a tall order, after all - and werewolves have demonstrated themselves fully capable of having a normal human life as long as they manage their urges properly. It's far more likely that they'll meet up every Thursday for tea and pork chops, or even have an Internet forum where they can stay in touch.

Unless they're all huge fans of pop culture werewolf fiction; then all bets are off.

Rigid "alpha/omega" dynamics.

This is another recent one, and it ties right into the "pack" cliché. It's based off of scientific studies that claimed wolves had rigid social structures, with an "alpha" at the top and a linear hierarchy of dominance all the way down to the sad "omega" loser. In fiction, this often results with one werewolf declaring himself the alpha of his pack and demanding total obedience from its members, resulting in inevitable angst and conflict when someone disagrees with his decrees or another pack member decides they want to be alpha instead.

So what's wrong with it?
This cliché is based on outdated science, for one. Wolves don't actually have a linear alpha-to-omega hierarchy - they live in familial groups, with the parents more or less at the "head", and other relationships determined on a case-by-case basis of "who can beat whom in a fight". Basically, a lot like human families.

Beyond that, this is an incredibly inefficient way to run a community - especially when you take into account the ludicrous amounts of conflict and angst that arise in fiction because of it. And not without some basis in reality, either - monarchy as a government system has a strong tendency to produce power struggles, which divides the community as individuals take sides, and generally makes it harder for them to operate as a cohesive unit. And these aren't regular wolves - they're people, which means they're intelligent enough to question why they should go on living in this system. Someone, at some point, is going to get fed up with the drama and demand some changes - whether that means democracy, anarchy, or something else.

Excessively painful and graphic transformations.

I credit An American Werewolf In London for kicking this one off. It was the 80's, they were making a horror movie, and they had some cutting-edge SFX they wanted to show off. It worked, the audience was impressed, etc. And people have been imitating it ever since.

So what's wrong with it?
Firstly, there's the simple fact that no one questions its existence. It's just taken for granted in almost every less-than-comedic werewolf story that the transformation will be painful, with absolutely no explanation given, and no thought to the problems that this could cause. Beyond the obvious problem of "pain being unpleasant", going through that much agony on that frequent a basis is a huge waste of energy, and traumatic to boot. Unless you specifically want lycanthropy to be a Miserable Curse of Misery, it makes more sense from both an evolutionary and magical standpoint to have some kind of workaround for all that pain - a prompt to the body to produce painkillers/endorphins, or something to that effect.

Secondly, writers have a bad tendency to go overboard when describing the transformation. We see and hear things like "cracking bones" and "bulging, shifting muscles" as the individual transitions from man to beast (or beast-man). But there's no logical reason why this should happen. Even if you exclude the fact that breaking bones is a horribly impractical way to transform - for all the reasons mentioned above, plus the overall risk of creating wanton fractures in a person who is writhing around in agony - there is no part of the human skeleton that should need to break entirely. Humans and wolves have roughly the same number and arrangement of bones; the main things that would change would be the shape and size, which would likely result in a lot of grinding, but relatively little actual cracking. It's roughly the same with muscles and internal organs - they're liable to change size and shape, but not in any way that would cause them to "bulge" or "writhe". While a transformation might well be unpleasant, it's not likely to be the magical equivalent of going through a trash compactor.

Violent rampages while transformed.

The one trope on this list that's actually been around for a while, this is the concept that werewolves are pretty much human until "the wolf takes over", sending them on a rampage of murder and destruction as they kill their loved ones/the neighbor's cattle. This is usually justified by "transforming makes you really hungry" and "wolfish instincts."

So what's wrong with it?
Ever wonder why it is, in fiction, that when this sort of thing happens people notice? It's because this is not normal behavior for wolves, which immediately destroys the "instincts" argument. No wolf is going to waste time and energy trying to hunt humans, particularly not when they're far more numerous and liable to carry guns, unless the wolf is literally starving and has no other options. Cattle are a somewhat more likely target, as hungry and desperate wolves have been known to go after livestock, but again, they would risk raising the ire of not only the entire herd, but also any dogs and humans that might be guarding them. Even if they're guaranteed to survive the encounter, it's still going to use time and energy that would be better spent chasing down unguarded prey somewhere else.

A lone wolf - even one with super-strength and invulnerability - is far more likely to go for targets that either won't fight back, or at least will be easier to catch. Large game like deer or antelope is probably out of the question; not only do animals of this size require pack tactics to bring down successfully, but it's going to have far more meat than a single werewolf is going to have room for in its stomach, even one with a magically enhanced appetite. Group hunting is another story, of course, but one werewolf on its own is more likely to take out a few rabbits or pheasants.

So, to recap...

And these pages might be relevant to you:

Random Wolf/Werewolf Generator
Things Writers Should Know About Animal Behavior
Tips & Ideas To Write More Believable Masquerades
Alexis Feynman's Guide To Writing Better Vampire Fiction
Tips to Create Better & More Believable Fantasy & Science Fiction Species

Back to General Storytelling & Other Things
Go to a random page!