Liminal Being

"Then I shan't be exactly a human?" Peter asked.
"No."
"Nor exactly a bird?"
"No."
"What shall I be?"
"You will be a Betwixt-and-Between," Solomon said, and certainly he was a wise old fellow, for that is exactly how it turned out.
J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Some creatures are not exactly a thing, because they partake of the natures of two different things. The term for this is "liminality", from the Latin limen or threshold, and beings who remain perpetually on this threshold are mysterious, uncanny, eerie beings — if the artist uses them for their full potential. They can also appear just for the Rule of Cool (but beware the dangers of Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot). This makes this a Super Trope of many, many, many tropes.

Shapeshifting or other changes into and out of determinate states is still liminal if the transition keeps happening, or if the time in the other state confers a permanent change in the character.

They are also notorious for Loophole Abuse and No Man of Woman Born, particularly for the Impossible Task. If a task can be performed by neither one thing nor the other, it can often be done by someone who is half one and half the other.

Transitioning out of being a liminal being is difficult if even possible. See Liminal Time for when transition is normal. Duality Motif appears a lot.

Tropes of liminal beings


Liminal beings that fall between the tropes

Anime & Manga
  • Schrodinger in Hellsing, a catboy who, due to being a result of a Nazi experiment, has a loose grasp of causality; he both exists and does not exist.

Fairy Tales
  • In the French tale "The Valley of Damned", the character the couple meet on the borders of the valley is dressed half for town and half for country.

Literature
  • Tiresias, when Odysseus consults him in the underworld, manages to hit a trifecta of liminality:
    • A ghost, both alive and dead
    • A blind seer, both less and more than human in his abilities, and
    • Having been transformed into woman and back while alive, both male and female.
  • Tobias from Animorphs, with his human and hawk dual natures, plus his Andalite heritage.
  • The "scramble suits" worn by drug enforcement agents in A Scanner Darkly were thin membranes projecting constantly-shifting images of different physical and facial features over the bodies of the wearers, to provide anonymity.
  • In Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor, a woman had been formally betrothed to a prince when he died, but not actually married him; this detached her from her own family without incorporating her into his. Maia contemplates her status as this, and there are suggestions that she could become a votary (dedicate herself to a god) as the simplest way to handle her situation.
  • In Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, when Calvin and Charles Wallace first meet, Charles Wallace explains that Meg has it tough because she's not really one thing or another — she's not a glamorous and collected scientist like her mother, and she's not one of the cool, popular girls at school.
  • In A Discovery of Witches, it turns out that Diana Bishop is a being of opposites in several ways — thanks to Vanishing Twin Syndrome, she's a genetic chimera with DNA of her unborn twin brother. She then saves Matthew's life by giving him some of her blood, and patches of her body turn cold, like a vampire's. In the second book, it turns out she is a weaver (capable of using all paths of witchcraft, but never mastering them), with an affinity for fire and water, and capable of standing between the realms of life and death, and past and future. In the third book, it's revealed that weavers themselves are the result of daemon and witch DNA mingling — and Diana merges with the Book of Life, to become a book and a woman, the history of the four races and the hope for their future. Phew!
  • In Ursula K Leguin's The Farthest Shore, they find that someone is offering that one can escape both life and death. In the end, he claims to be between both and so free of them.
  • In Terry Pratchett's Witches Abroad, Mrs. Gogol starts her invocations with the observation that she is between light and darkness, which does not matter because "I am between."
    • In The Wee Free Men, the "hag of the hills" is supposed to look after edges and gateways. At the end, the witches tell Tiffany that witches are supposed to look after edges.

Live-Action TV
  • Torchwood had Owen, who died and Came Back Wrong. He wasn't really alive or dead, so he couldn't be killed, couldn't heal from injuries, eat, etc etc

Myth/Folklore
  • In one of Aesops Fables, a bat tries to ally with both beasts and birds, trading on its similarity to both and disavowing the other traits according to whom it's addressing, but after the war, they unify in rejecting it from both groups.
  • In Indian myth, Vishnu became a half-man, half-lion in order to deal with a demon that could not been killed by an animal, a man, or a god, neither by night nor by day. (He also did it at sundown.)

Other
  • In the Western Zodiac, a few signs hinge between forms, either obviously or implicitly. Capricorn is depicted as a goat with a fish's tail, therefore being between earth and sea. Sagittarius, depicted as a centaur, is half-human, half-animal, furthermore always aiming towards heaven with their bow, therefore a being between three worlds. Gemini is a pair of twins, Castor and Pollux, of whom one is mortal and the other is divine, but they'll do anything to stay together. Aquarius, "The Water Bearer," is actually an Air Sign; in mythology Aquarius is Ganymede, a human prince who was kidnapped and made to be a servant of the gods.
  • In the Tarot deck, more than a few cards dwell between worlds, or between states. The Fool is a clear example, standing outside the numbered cards, at both and neither the beginning and the end, with symbols of creation and destruction. The Hanged Man is a card full of paradoxes: he is between life and death, sacrificed, but still alive; he dangles between worlds, yet sees all of them clearly; bound, his mind is freed.

Video Games
  • In Diablo III's "Reaper of Souls" expansion, Malthael, Angel of Death, is said to be in a state of superimposed life and death, allowing him to attack people or even suck out their souls while their weapons pass through him harmlessly. In the final part of the act, the player-character must counter this by receiving help from a group of powerful ghosts, giving them the same attribute.

Visual Novel
  • Ciel from Tsukihime is stuck between life and death, due to not having died after the Big Bad possessed and left her body, like all his previous victims did.

Webcomics
  • In Gunnerkrigg Court, when Annie and Kat ask Jones whether Zimmy is human, Jones says, not that she is or she isn't, but that she is for all practical purposes. She is in many respects more uncanny and creepy than many of the overtly non-human people about.
  • In Bird Boy, the woods, which are actually called the liminal woods.

Western Animation
  • Balto has it verbalized by Boris about the title character. "Not a dog, not a wolf...all he knows is what he is not."

Alternative Title(s):

In Between Being