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Liminal Being

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"Then I shan't be exactly a human?" Peter asked.
"Nor exactly a bird?"
"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.

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.

Most liminal beings take the chaos side of Order Versus Chaos. Lawful ones tend to be the guardians of the boundaries they cross and often are immensely powerful.

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.

Compare and contrast Werebeasts, which can change from being fully one form to fully another; in other words, they're either/or while Liminal Beings are both/and.

Tropes of liminal beings

  • Shapeshifting
    A being that is capable of modifying its own physical form, often radically.

Liminal beings that fall between the tropes

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     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.
  • Tweeny Witches: Lennon, the pirate witch from the Interdimensional Sea, is revealed to be the only male witch and the only Half-Human Hybrid in existence.
  • Kurama and Yusuke in YuYu Hakusho. Kurama is a fox demon who fused with a human embryo to avoid dying of injuries, while Yusuke was born a human, but because he was descended from a demon 44 generations back, he transformed into one after dying a second time.

     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.
  • The Swan Maiden, a creature from Eurasian folklore and myth, can be considered this. Barring tales where she is a cursed human princess, she is of supernatural origin (sometimes the daughter of a celestial deity), and is capable of shifting between human and avian forms. In her tales, a mortal man meets her (and her sisters) while they are bathing in a lake - which is also a liminal place between water and land.
  • Jean de l'Ours (John of the Bear, John Bear, among other names) is a character in European folklore that can be described as this: he is the product of a union between a human woman and a bear, after the animal kidnaps her and takes her to its den. After the boy is born, he is always said to possess superhuman strength, and sometimes is described as having some of his father's physical traits (bear's ears, lots of hair, etc.). The boy and his mother escape back to human civilization, but, due to his animal ancestry and superpowers, he can no longer fit among human peers. Eventually, in his adulthood, he meets two (or three) equally strong companions and rescues three princesses, marrying the youngest of them (depending on the tale).

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

  • 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 to Mrs Who that Meg has it tough because she's not really one thing or another — neither, like him, comfortable dealing with Mrs Who and others like her, nor not involved at all
  • 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. Le Guin'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.
  • Terry Pratchett's novels:
    • In 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.
  • Rick Riordan's novels:
    • In The Sea of Monsters, Chiron points out that Divine Parentage for humans (as opposed to cyclopes and other such creatures) puts them on two levels at once, human and immortal.
    • In The House of Hades, Hecate — while standing at a crossroads — tells Hazel that having died and come back to life gives her still more control over the veil between the two worlds.
  • In Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter, having been across the border to the mortal lands and back means Lirazel can not be content in either land.
  • In John C. Wright's Green Knight's Squire, the Moths and Cobwebs are part human, part fae. They are known as the Twilight People as a consequence, and fall between worlds in many ways.
  • The Graveyard Book:
    • The protagonist, Nobody Owens, is a human child raised by ghosts, which gives him access to the worlds of the living and of the dead. When he reaches adulthood, he has to choose once and for all which world he will belong to.
    • Silas (who is strongly implied but never quite stated to be a vampire) also exists between the living world and the dead, but unlike Bod, who belongs to both worlds, Silas belongs to neither, which occasionally has drawbacks.
  • In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Nearly Headless Nick reveals that this is what it means for a witch or wizard to become a ghost, to be stuck between life and death and have chosen not to move on for a flimsy approximation of life.
  • The Unexplored Summon://Blood-Sign:
    • Umie is an ex-ghost who, because she died in one reality, was able to prevent her death in another one and Ret-Gone her ghost self out of existence. Due to paradox shenanigans, she has the memories of both lives, a corporeal body, and a ghost's ability to remember the supernatural.
    • The Colorless Little Girl (human name unknown) died to an attack so powerful that it erased the memories of people around her. A few years later, her brother forged an entirely new Material- one outside the hierarchy of existing Materials- which she incorporated herself into. Therefore, she has all the strength of a Material, but she has the free will of a human and can oppose the Queen of Materials, owing to the No Man of Woman Born principle.
  • The Dresden Files: Implied with wizards, who have both human souls and supernatural powers. One character notes that they have an inherent "conflict" in their natures, unlike other supernatural beings. In the modern day, this manifests as Walking Techbane tendencies that worsen when they use their magic; in previous eras, it caused wizards to grow warts or spoil nearby milk.
  • Labyrinths of Echo: A strong affinity for liminality of all kinds is Sir Melifaro's unique magical power within the Special Investigations team. Its primary application allows Melifaro to serve as a Guardian for his colleagues whenever they travel to the Dark Side: by staying exactly on the border between the material world and the Dark Side, he is able psychically monitor anything that happens to them and yank them out of danger if necessary, while also preventing anyone from pursuing them from the material plane. However, his liminality affinity also has a lot of other applications, such is when he is able to resist powerful enchantments by succumbing to them half-way, i.e. feeling their effects, but still retaining a degree of agency, or when he can keep watch for days by remaining half-asleep-half-awake indefinitely. Juffin suspects that this affinity has to do with his ancestry, as his forebears included both dwarves and giants, making it easier for him to stay in-between extremes.

     Live-Action TV 
  • Torchwood has Owen, who dies and Comes Back Wrong. He isn't really alive or dead, so he can't be killed, can't heal from injuries, eat, etc.

  • In one of Aesop's 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.)
  • According to Christian doctrine, Jesus Christ is "fully God and fully Man". The official doctrinal term is the hypostatic union, meaning Jesus was one individual person who had two natures, a divine nature and a human nature, 100% of each. The ideas that he was God but appeared to be human, or that he was a human who became God, are rejected by most branches of the Church as heretical, though not without a fair bit of controversy.

     Tabletop Games 
  • Exalted: The Liminal Exalted are something like zombies, able to amputate and reattach their body parts without harm. Their appearance can range from human to disgustingly corpselike, depending on how high their Essence is at the time. Apparently they come from necromantic rituals both successful (in the sense that something came alive) and not (in the sense that what came back was not the original dead person, but something that inhabits their body).
  • Ars Magica: Mages belong to both the mortal world and the Magical Realm. As mortals, they're vulnerable to Warping from magic exposure, although they experience it differently and can even benefit from it. As beings of magic, they can vanish into Twilight in lieu of dying, although nobody's quite sure what that means for the mage. Unlike purely magical beings, their powers register as profoundly wrong to animals and humans nearby. There are rare ways to become wholly of the Magical Realm, though they usually deprive the mage of some important benefit of being mortal, like the ability to learn and grow.

  • In Wicked, Elphaba herself links earth and sky. At first, she simply doesn't fit in anywhere. After she unlocks the ability to fly and comes into her own, her Act II dress brims with fossil-and-geode patterns (see Susan Hilferty's notes in The Grimmerie). And late in the play, we learn that she is literally the child of two worlds, which accounts for her uncanny power.

  • 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, note  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.
  • Many characters in Ghost Trick invoke this trope, but possibly no one embodies it as much as Yomiel. Stuck between life and death due to the Temsik meteor fragment lodged in his body, Yomiel can neither live nor die, and the isolation eventually drives him insane.
  • Loatle from Temtem is described as straddling the line between natural and artificial intelligence, and life and death.
  • Touhou has Yukari Yakumo, the youkai of boundaries, who has perhaps the single most broken Semantic Superpower in a series filled with them. She can manipulate boundaries (Gensokyo/the real world, truth/illusion, Earth/the Moon, life/death...), manifesting mostly as Thinking Up Portals (holes in reality where and whenever she wants. Call her the gap hag at your own risk). Thankfully she spends most of her time sleeping and playing stupid pranks on people.
  • Warframe: In the backstory, the Void mutated a group of children into... something that hovers between the realm of Energy Beings and mutated humans. This is likely why the Orokin treated them like dirt, since they no longer saw the children as pure humans and referred to them as monsters or "demons." These children eventually became the Tenno, warrior-gods who destroyed the Orokin Empire for their crimes against absolutely everyone.

     Visual Novel 
  • Doki Doki Literature Club!: (Walking Spoiler example that can't be written without endgame spoilers.) Monika, thanks to being a Deconstructed Trope example of Medium Awareness, leaving her trapped in a world she sees as unreal, yearning for access to the real world, which she can interact with through the internet as well as by modifying the game itself, but never enter. Thus, she's between a real person and a video game character, neither fully part of the game world nor the real world.
  • 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.

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

     Western Animation 
  • The eponymous character in Steven Universe is a gem-human hybrid, with the abilities and needs of both. Rather than a conventional Half-Human Hybrid, he has the Heart Drive of a gem (the same one his mother effectively died passing on) tied to an organic body, instead of projecting a Hard Light construct. Separating the two will leave his organic body physically crippled, and make the gemstone project an emotionally crippled new body for the express purpose of reuniting.
  • The main hero of Danny Phantom is a ghost-human hybrid, the result of a Freak Lab Accident. Spectra pulled a Breaking Speech on Danny in her first appearance based on this.
    Spectra: What are you? A ghost trying to fit in with humans? Or some creepy little boy with creepy little powers?
    Danny: Both! Uh...neither! I don't know.
    Spectra: You're a freak! Not a ghost, not a boy! Who cares for a thing like you?
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic Spike the dragon suffers from this as a major emotional obstacle. As a dragon that grew up among (magical) ponies, Spike has a lot of characteristics normal for ponies, which makes him stand out like a sore thumb among his fellow dragons. Dragons aren't quite Always Chaotic Evil, but they are prone to more violence and aggression than is normal for ponies, so Spike's soft hearted nature is ill suited to living around large portions of the dragon race. Spike does later meet more reasonable, pragmatic dragons who can act and speak diplomatically and intelligently, and actually manages to reconcile his image of dragons being rude and crude with examples of genuinely well meaning dragons. Though, there is a degree of arrogance among the ponies (that the story rarely addresses) that the ponies are acting a bit self important; as if they have no history of crimes or terrible personality flaws to speak of, when clearly they're not that different from dragons in some respects.
  • She-Ra and the Princesses of Power:
    • As an uplifted animal, Swift Wind is both a horse and a sentient being
    • Double Trouble straddles categories and transgresses everyday boundaries. As a non-binary character, they transcend binary categories of gender. As a shapeshifter, they partake of many forms. As a mercenary, Double Trouble sides with the Horde and the Rebellion at different points in season 4.
    • Hordak straddles boundaries as well. As a cyborg, he is both flesh and machine. He was cast out of the galactic Horde but remains loyal to Horde Prime, so he both is and isn't part of the clone army. As a clone soldier with free will, he has aspects of both his drone-like brethren and an autonomous individual.

    Real Life 
  • Viruses. They don't grow, can't live on their own, and do not generate their own energy, so they can't be considered alive. At the same time, they do replicate, mutate, and adapt, traits commonly associated with living beings. Scientists have argued whether they are considered living or nonliving, depending on the system they adopt, but one thing is clear - viruses are a class of their own.

Alternative Title(s): In Between Being