Writers, Know Your Archetypes: The Fool

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This is Part 4 of my series about archetypes. In this article, I will examine the Fool.

1. Don’t assume “fool” is interchangeable with “stupid.” While some fool characters may be stupid, that’s not the essence of the archetype. Elizabeth Bennet’s mother in Jane Austen’s novel Pride & Prejudice is a very silly woman, but she’s smart enough to know her daughters must marry to avoid ending up in poverty.

2. Don’t assume the fool’s sole function is comic relief. Again, these characters may provide comic relief, but that’s not the only reason they exist in a story.

3. The primary function of the fool is to represent optimism. The most iconic image of the fool archetype is from the Tarot deck, which shows a young man looking up at the sky as he’s about the step off a cliff. The fool moves forward regardless of danger, warnings, or common sense. They believe they will prevail, no matter what.

4. That doesn’t mean they never experience fear. Guy Fleegman in the movie Galaxy Quest is in a constant state of terror, but never thinks not to join in with the rest of the characters on their dangerous missions.

5. The fool represents an important aspect of the hero. Heroes tend to be cautious, even reluctant, and may be plagued with self-doubt. The fool represents the part of the hero that wants to press on in spite of any fear or doubts they may have about doing so.

6. Fools also represent innocence. As well as a foil for the hero, the fool can be a foil for the antagonist, because their innocence is a counterpoint to the antagonist’s corruption. Antagonists may fear fool characters more than heroes because they are afraid of the incorruptible.

“Holy Fools” are innocent characters who seem to be touched by or speaking for God. An example would be Tom Cullen in Stephen King’s novel The Stand. A man with a mild mental disability, when hypnotized he conveys to the other characters what God wants them to do.

7. Fool characters tend to be astonishingly lucky. A perfect example of this would be Forrest Gump. Forrest becomes a football star by accident (a coach sees how fast he can run while trying to evade bullies) and survives Vietnam unscathed, while others around him are killed or injured. He also becomes an Olympic ping pong player, millionaire and pop culture phenomenon without trying very hard to accomplish any of those things.

8. They may be lucky even when they are utterly incompetent. Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther series is just about the world’s worst detective, yet somehow always manages to catch the thiefAnother example would be Maxwell Smart from the TV series Get Smart, a Cold War spy who bumbles his way to success in his profession.  

9. Fools may leave a trail of destruction in their wake—without ever meaning to. Clouseau torments his superior, Chief Inspector Dreyfus, not only with his incompetence, but because he nearly always injures him while in his presence. In Connie Willis’ novel Bellwether, mail clerk Flip wreaks all kinds of havoc for the characters just by walking through the protagonist’s place of work.

10. Unlike the trickster archetype, fools rarely cause harm intentionally and don’t take pleasure in the idea of causing trouble. In fact, if anyone bothers to accuse them of causing harm, their reaction most likely will be surprise and dismay. They’ll either live in denial or try to make up for it—and inadvertently cause even more destruction.

11. The destruction can have a negative outcome—or a positive one. In the case of the Clouseau example, obviously, it’s a negative one for his superior officer. In fact, Dreyfus is eventually driven insane by Clouseau. In the case of Flip in the novel Bellwether, the destruction leads to personal happiness and professional success for the protagonist.

12. In spite of causing havoc, fools can be a last resort for problems the main characters can’t solve. An example would be Delly Cartwright from The Hunger Games series. In Mockingjay, Peeta has been so damaged by torture he thinks Katniss is out to kill him. Their childhood friend Delly, who has such an optimistic and honest demeanor it’s difficult not to take what she says at face value, is brought in to convince him otherwise.

13. Fools are also capable of acts of heroism. Tom Cullen in The Stand is sent on a dangerous mission to spy on the antagonist Randall Flagg. In Galaxy Quest, Guy offers to sacrifice his life to save the rest of the crew/cast, believing that’s the purpose of his character, an unnamed extra on the show.

14. Fools can be a sounding board for the protagonist and/or a way for characters to convey exposition. Because of their open manner other characters tend to trust and confide in them. Consequently, a fool character can be useful for conveying exposition in a natural way.

15. Don’t be afraid to twist the archetype a bit. Joss Whedon did this for two characters in his TV series Firefly: Jayne Cobb is hardly optimistic or innocent (on the surface, at least) but he fits the archetype in other respects. For instance, he is worshiped by the residents of a town called Canton as a savior when he actually meant to steal from them. On the other hand, the character Kaylee is optimistic, but also competent at her job.

Please check out my previous articles about archetypes:

The Trickster

The Mentor

The Herald

Do you have a favorite fool character? Let us know in the comments section!

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