This page is doubling as the Analysis Page for Our Werewolves Are Different and Our Werebeasts Are Different. Note that while we're going to use werewolf-specific words like "lycanthropy" and "wolf" for ease of reference, the following points actually apply to any breed of therianthrope or other animal shapeshifter (just make the appropriate substitutions).
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Cause of Lycanthropy
The underlying cause of one's lycanthropic condition. Technically, a number of variations are possible: in some mythologies, a werewolf is an actual wolf who can assume human form rather than the other way around. However, far and away the most popular concept is that a werewolf is a human who has somehow acquired the ability to transform (willingly or otherwise) into a wolf. Popular methods include a Viral Transformation after being bitten by a previous werewolf, but there are many possible causes:
Heredity: Some werewolves are simply born that way to begin with: They either belong to a distinct species, or lycanthropy is a genetic condition (or hereditary curse) that was passed down through their family line, often manifesting around the Dangerous Sixteenth Birthday (give or take a few years). In Speculative Fiction, the werewolf is often neither really wolf nor man, but some species of alien.
One werewolf legend says that if a person is born on the 24th of December or conceived on the night of a new moon, he will become a werewolf. For this reason the historical King John of England was accused of having become a werewolf after his death (though, as Montague Summers says, with splendid insanity, "It is very curious that King John should become a werewolf after death, and one suspects there may be some confusion here, and that he became a vampire.")
Disease: Lycanthropy is an infectious condition, passed on (like vampires... maybe) to any surviving victim of a werewolf attack (usually a bite). Rarely is it explicitly established that disease-style Lycanthropy isn't also hereditary, though it often is. This is a fairly new addition to werewolf lore.
This transformation may be total, turning the human into an actual wolf; or partial, turning the man into a Beast Man with wolf features, but retaining human proportions. With the advent of more sophisticated make-up and visual effects (especially computer imagery), techniques have been developed that allowed more wolflike features on humanoids, such as giving a character a wolf's muzzle and ears. The human-to-werewolf transformation in the movie An American Werewolf in London is generally considered to be the standard to which all others are compared, quite remarkable for a movie now more than 30 years old and from the pre-CGI era.
Wolf Man: In '50s horror films, the transformation usually took the form of a hairy humanoid with a scattering of animal features, such as pointed ears, fangs, claws, and maybe a more canine nose or even a tail, but otherwise remaining almost entirely human, like Little Bit Beastly (The "classic" Wolf Man appearance is not entirely dissimilar to the symptoms of a rare genetic disorder, hypertrichosis.) Common with Clothing Damage. May be used as a Game Face to intimidate, or a Partial Transformation between full man and full wolf.
Man-Wolf: Petting Zoo People with a fur-covered humanoid body and a fully lupine head. Man-wolves seem to have become more popular than wolf-men recently, likely due to increasing special effects technology; the old wolf-man design was purely for the purposes of suggesting wolfishness while remaining within the limits of latex applications. It might also involve a Growing Muscles Sequence and sometimes Monster Modesty.
Wolf: The basic no-frills transformation is man into wolf, ending up looking just like what you'd see in the woods or a zoo.
Dire Wolf: like the above, but either much bigger, or far more muscular, often with long, rather un-lupine claws, and a grizzly-bear physique.
Multiform Balance: A werewolf might be able to assume more than one of the forms listed above, each with its own advantages. For example in 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, lycanthropes can either take either a full animal form or a hybrid form resembling Petting Zoo People.
When do they transform?
Occurs at regularly scheduled intervals, most famously upon the night of a full moon.
Sometimes this extends to the nights surrounding the full moon (frequently three), rather than just the night of the "fullest" moon.
Some transformations that occur during the full moon explicitly require exposure to the light of the moon, or that the individual actually sees the moon; thus they can be sheltered indoors or on clouded nights.
Japanese werewolf lore also includes transformations induced by seeing any object that is round.
Older works may feature other time frames; in Bisclavret, the hero has to change to a wolf every week, and needs his clothing back to change back.
Completely at will: This is usually limited to members of separate werewolf species (where shapeshifting is their natural ability) or those possessing magic spells. These werewolves may sometimes also experience an involuntary transformation at full moon.
If you want to be really old-timey, some werewolves will only change when the plant aconitum (aka wolfsbane) blooms, which is to say, around autumn, although different species bloom all year. Sometimes the werewolf has to eat the aconitum.
Transformation can be the result of a specific trigger, like Green Rocks.
Doesn't transform at all: Some werewolves don't actually possess shapeshifting powers; the humanoid-wolf shape is their single, permanent form. This, too, is typically limited to werewolves who are a distinct species (and thus born that way to begin with).
Self-Control While Transformed
A werewolf may maintain their human mind while transformed, or they may receive the mind of that animal. Or end up somewhere in between. Or they may just go crazy. In either case, they may also be subject to an irresistible urge to dine on human flesh. As a general rule, the more voluntary their transformations, the more control the individual retains in their wolf-shape — it wouldn't make much sense to voluntarily choose a transformation that requires going nuts, would it? Sometimes this is subverted and the shapeshifter might voluntarily enter this form knowing they'll lose control, but in these cases the shapeshifter will almost always turn out to be unrepentantly and totally evil and get a thrill off this much like a serial killer. In fact, some anthropologists believe werewolf lore was in part a way of the ancients explaining serial killers who horribly mutilated their victims.
Obviously, if the wolflike form isn't a transformation but one's permanent, natural-born shape, you have nothing to worry about here.
Probably the most important element for the hero of the story to know (whether he is the werewolf, or just trying to hunt one down): Just how do you stop the beast? Some werewolves are mere mortals (if dangerous ones); some are virtually indestructible creatures unless you use a Kryptonite Factor.
The most popular weakness is silver (preferably in the form of a Silver Bullet) which is associated, like werewolves themselves, with the moon.
Sometimes the silver may need to be extra-special in some way, such as having been taken from a crucifix or having to be inherited silver (in which case the source may be more important than the material).
Silver was once thought to have special properties in its own right, and may have been suggested for use against werewolves for its supposed ability to harm supernatural beings that were otherwise invulnerable. It's been said to work against vampires as well.
The monkshood plant (Acronitum genus, the European variety, Aconitum napellus, is the most commonly used) is another possible option, since it's also called wolfsbane.
Mistletoe is also a traditional way to ward off werewolves.
The claws/fangs of fellow Werewolves/other Werebeasts, Vampires, or other supernatural beings.
The extent of their vulnerabilities and/or their resistance to everything else, varies. Sometimes, they can be hurt by mundane means, but it takes their weakness to kill them. Or they may be completely invulnerable otherwise. Alternately, Silver may only negate their invulnerablity/kill them, or they could have an adverse reaction (mystical or chemical) to simple contact with silver.
In some cases, they have special invulnerability while in their wolf form, but when in human shape they can be hurt or killed the same ways as any other human. Other versions have full invulnerability whatever shape they're in.
In some cases, chopping off their heads, or extensive use of fire, are also successful methods of killing a Werewolf, and it has been noted that this conveniently works for humans too. However in some of these cases they can recover after being laid out in the light of a full moon.
Cure for Lycanthropy
A werewolf might just be a werewolf for life (often, but not always a bad thing), but sometimes it's possible to undo the condition if it is unwanted. Sadly, this may only be a temporary treatment rather than a permanent cure.
In settings where werewolves operate in packs, killing the alpha may cure the rest of the pack.
In some of the most Idealistic shows, inflicting the werewolf a non-fatal wound with silver is enough to cure him.
Sometimes wolfsbane or another plant are said to actually inhibit the transformation rather than actually repelling or harming the creature. It is usually not a particularly effective treatment, though the reason varies (usually because the plant's poisonous nature fully affects the werewolf, because it mitigates but does not completely stop the transformation, or because the substance needed is particularly rare).
Occasionally, the cure is to consume a lock of wolfsbane before the next full moon, ignoring the poisonous nature of the plant.
If lycanthropy is a disease, then curative magic, healing salves mixed with wolfsbane or some other exotic ingredient, or even normal precautions against infection may prevent it from taking hold. This almost always has to be performed soon after infection/exposure.
A werewolf will according to Swedish legends be able to be cured in three ways. One method is to call the wolf by its human name or to tell the human that it is a werewolf. You might however be "rewarded" for breaking the curse by becoming a werewolf yourself for the same period of time as the guy you just helped had been one... Method number two is safer, be nice to the werewolf while it is in wolf form and give it some food. Cure number three is more macabre. The werewolf has to rip an unborn child from its mother's womb and eat its heart/drink its blood. This method leaves you cured, but with a one-way ticket to Hell for two murders and preventing a child from ever getting baptized (and thereby entering heaven).
Relationship with "real" wolves
Works and folklore vary on what happens if werewolves meet normal, non-shifting wolves.
Sometimes werewolves can simply join wolfpacks without the wolves noticing a difference, or at least without reacting. (Although in real life, wolfpacks are highly territorial and will usually attack non-member wolves on sight.)
Sometimes normal wolves are subservient to werewolves through instinct or Mind Control, and act as Mooks for them.
In other works, normal wolves hate and fear werewolves, just as normal humans do.
Other Common Characteristics of Werewolves
Evil werewolves are typically deeply hedonistic characters who relish giving in to their "animal nature".
A werewolf may begin to adopt lupine characteristics in human form, such as heightened senses, the need to mark territory, hairy palms, or the tendency to sleep curled up into a ball. Supernatural Gold Eyes are a common characteristic, since they look mysterious but not incriminating.
Werewolves of the evil and involuntary subtypes are almost guaranteed to undergo a horrifying and/or excruciating ordeal as they transform. Good werewolves tend to have it easier.
This could have something to do with how long the person has been a werewolf, too. The first transformation shown in a film is usually the longest and most graphic, while subsequent ones often go faster.
Social werewolves operate according to a strict hierarchy, with an alpha male at the top of the group and a bullied omega at the bottom. The alpha may have some supernatural ability to compel obedience from the rest of the pack. Lower-ranking werewolves can challenge their superiors to physical combat and, upon beating them, assume their opponent's place in the hierarchy. Such one-on-one duels are generally the only way to remove an insane or incompetent alpha.
Note that this is based on what was up until recently thought to be actual lupine behavior, but in fact it's not true of real wolves. In the wild, a wolf pack is usually a family, and the alpha male and female are simply the parents of the lower-ranking wolves. Rather than rise up and challenge their parents for leadership, the children just leave when they're a few years old and find mates, becoming alphas of their own packs. (The confusion came in because up until recently, most zoological studies of wolves used wolves in captivity; as it turns out, strange wolves thrown together in captivity, much like strange humans in captivity, start acting out Prison Tropes).
Therefore, a pack made up of random people whose only thing in common is that they were turned into werewolves might plausibly interact like this.
Sexism is rampant in the werewolf world. Female werewolves are less often depicted than males, and it's especially rare to see a female alpha of a pack; there may even be an explicit rule that females are not allowed to serve as alpha. This aspect of the mythos is edging into discredited territory, though. In visual media, female werewolves are still rare, and onscreen transformations are just about non-existent due to censorship reasons (her clothes being shredded in the process of transformation). Of course, there are a lot of female werewolves in works by the furry fandombecause, well...
A dislike of being treated like a pet. A werewolf would, for example, most likely object to being scratched behind the ears, having his belly rubbed, etc. by a human companion. If he doesn't, it's probably because the companion is a very close friend or lover.
Tendency to experience graphic, violent and disturbing nightmares. Although werewolves frequently appear in these dreams, any form of gratuitous slaughter is a possibility.
Recently, the idea that werewolves can Mind Meld or psychically communicate with other werewolves has been creeping into the mythos. When done well, this is played as an extension of the pack mentality and the tightly-knit communities it creates. Other times, it's a rather obvious dodge to let them 'talk' in wolf form without the author having to stretch for modes of non-verbal communication.
If a werewolf is able to control the transformation, it sometimes raises the question of what he gets out of turning into a wolf. One common answer is that he hunts animals, or just run in the wilderness with his pack. This could be because of some supernatural compulsion, or he might just make him feel good. Often this desire is treated as a metaphor.
A Healing Factor often shows up as a Required Secondary Power or perk. After all, if you can warp your body drastically enough to turn into a completely different creature, you can probably use the same principle to regenerate tissue. This also explains how a werewolf can come back from any wound that isn't inflicted with silver.
This comes more from folklore of the middle-ages where werewolves were thought to be witches or in league with devils... and as per this thought the werewolves are granted protection and healing by whatever power gave them their shape-changing.
There are some folktales where the absence of this trope is actually very important. The story usually involves a hunter critically injuring a werewolf, and then discovering the werewolf in human form with the exact same wound.
It also creeps up in Native American lore, but on more of a Body Horror varity where liver-eaters (aka Skin Walkers) can eat warriors’ livers and hearts and replenish their own life... turning from decaying corpse-like wild humans into more living look-alikes.
Many Shapeshifting tropes can be tweaked a little to fit with a werewolf.
Averted in The Dresden Files when two werewolves get it on (off screen) "while fuzzy". However, it results in them catching a form of magical disease.
If the transformation is unwilling and no control is retained when in wolf form, a werewolf will often have themselves locked up in a secure place on nights of the full moon to ensure they don't harm anyone. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer Oz did this on nights of the full moon. On Angel Nina Ash, after learning she'd become a werewolf, voluntarily allowed herself to be locked up on nights of the full moon, but lived a normal life the rest of the month.
In Harry Potter, whether a werewolf locks themselves away or not is an indication of their morality. Remus Lupin takes huge precautions to ensure he doesn't hurt people, whereas Fenrir Greyback actually makes an effort to transform near his intended victims.