- a perfect or typical specimen
- an original model or pattern; prototype
- (psychoanalysis) one of the inherited mental images postulated by Jung as the content of the collective unconscious
- a constantly recurring symbol or motif in literature, painting, etc
—from the English Collins Dictionary
Writers are sometimes wary of archetypes, worried they will lead to characters that come off as unoriginal. But archetypes are a wonderful tool in the writer’s arsenal, and, as I hope to demonstrate, their use is only limited by the author’s own creativity and imagination.
Let’s start with one of my all-time favorite archetypes, the trickster. Here are some things to keep in mind about the trickster archetype while composing your own stories:
1. The trickster creates havoc. Mythologist Joseph Campbell, during his famous The Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyers, recounted the story of Edshu, a Nigerian trickster god. Edshu painted a hat blue on one side and red on the other, then put it on and walked through a village. A farmer on one side of the village claimed he saw the god in a blue hat, and another other swore he saw him in a red hat. Edshu then made things worse by turning the hat around and walking through the village the other way. The two farmers came to blows, still arguing about the color of the god’s hat. When the chief tried to mediate, the god showed up and admitted what he did, declaring he loves to create strife.
This is the most important function of the trickster in a story. They land in the middle of the mundane and shake things up. This is a great way to use character to get your plot moving. It’s also a great way to jump-start your protagonist’s character arc, because people don’t change until they HAVE to change. While it’s typical to assume that tricksters will function as antagonists—and they certainly can—whether friend or foe, they are usually the agent for a profound change in your protagonist.
2. Which means the trickster is often (though not always) the best thing that ever happened to your protagonist. Two examples from Jane Austen novels: George Wickham of Pride & Prejudice and Lucy Steele of Sense and Sensibility:
Both are schemers who bring a great deal of heartache to the protagonists of their stories.
But without Wickham and his schemes, it’s highly unlikely that Elizabeth would have changed her opinion of Darcy. Without Lucy Steele and her schemes, it’s highly unlikely Elinor would ever have been in a position to marry her one true love, Edward Ferrars. In a sense, they are like the fairy godmothers of the respective love stories, allowing the characters’ happy endings to happen
3. The trickster does not play by the rules. This is another vital aspect of the trickster. The rules simply are not made for them—at least, in their opinion.
One of my favorite lines in the first TV season of Game of Thrones is by Petyr Baelish, a low-level aristocrat who is bitter that he wasn’t allowed to marry the woman he loved and who has clawed his way into becoming an important political player:
“I’m not going to fight them, I’m going to f*ck them.”
That is a great summation of how the trickster operates. Not directly, not by doing the expected, but by subterfuge and doing the unexpected.
4. The trickster relishes the idea of breaking the rules. This is why tricksters are often beloved characters—because we LOVE the idea of someone who can not only break the rules, but enjoy doing it. In that way the trickster functions as a mirror for things we would LIKE to do, but are too timid to do ourselves.
Even though Baelish helped contrive the downfall of the show’s supposed hero, he’s still a fairly well-liked character because people just love watching this guy enjoying his own plots and schemes.
Another character of this ilk would be Shakespeare’s Richard III, who does many monstrous things, but has such a grand time doing them that the audience can’t help being at least somewhat on his side.
5. Not every trickster is motivated by malice, but rather is forced by circumstances into trickster tactics. Bugs Bunny is the perfect example of this. He rarely seeks out trouble; it almost always comes to him. Usually, it’s a threat to his survival and/or environment that makes him become a trickster, i.e. because Elmer Fudd or Wile E. Coyote try to kill him, or because someone tries to build a skyscraper over his rabbit hole.
6. Tricksters often serve to tear off the masks of other characters. They bring down the arrogant, the stupid, and the self-deluded. Bugs Bunny does this time and again, besting opponents who think they are superior to him.
Another example is John Givings from the movie Revolutionary Road. A recently released mental patient, he has no filter, and at a lunch with the protagonists he proceeds to rip away the lies they have been telling themselves and each other. By doing this, he causes a marriage that had cracks in it to crumble completely.
7. The trickster does not have to be a character. It can be anything that causes profound upheaval to the protagonist. It can be an alien invasion, a hungry shark, a plane with a defect. Or something even simpler, like losing a job or the sudden end of a relationship.
It can also be a disease. An example is the movie Awakenings, which featured a doctor studying a disease that caused people to live their lives in an almost catatonic state. When he figures out a drug regime that brings them back, he has to deal with the consequences of his actions. The patients don’t realize so much time has passed, and don’t understand why they can’t live life exactly as they want, outside the hospital. This in turn causes the doctor to change, as he becomes less of an introvert and engages more in life.
8. Tricksters can function as the protagonist. This is usual in comedies. The aforementioned Bugs Bunny is one example, as are Ferris Bueller, Ace Ventura (pretty much any character played by Jim Carrey), and most of the characters played by the Marx Brothers.
9. A story can have multiple trickster protagonists. For instance, in the movie Animal House, the entire Delta house is composed of tricksters who make life miserable for Dean Wormer.
This may seem like a bit of a stretch, but I think the maids in The Help could also be seen as tricksters, because they shake up their society by finally rebelling against the limits put upon them. Some of the ways they do this are wonderfully inventive. This example shows that trickster protagonists do not have to be confined to the comedy genre—they can be involved in stories about serious issues, as well.
10. Tricksters can function as a romantic interest. In the old screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s, the female character was often a trickster who shook up the life of a staid male character. Nowadays, the genders have flipped, and it’s more likely the male character in a romcom will function as a trickster to shake up a staid female character.
11. Tricksters can function as a mentor. One of my favorite examples of this is Gazu, the alien who was forced to serve Fred and Barnie on the old animated series The Flintstones. He was supposed to help them out and teach them to be better than their primitive selves. Instead, he would conveniently not be around whenever the things he did for them got them into trouble.
A really good mentor always has an element of the trickster in them, because one way protagonists learn is by extricating themselves from trouble. So mentors will resort to trickster tactics, like disappearing at a crucial moment, or leaving out something vital from the instructions.
12. Some characters are inadvertent tricksters. They cause trouble because they can’t help it, not because they do it deliberately.
Stephanie Plum, the bounty hunter from Janet Evanovich’s series, causes havoc just by driving through town, and you know at least one car is going to blow up before the end of the book. Manuel, the Spanish waiter in the classic British TV show Fawlty Towers, is another inadvertent trickster, who wreaks havoc almost entirely because of his limited ability to speak English.
I would also designate Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm as an inadvertent trickster. He simply doesn’t get why he upsets people so much, or why he causes so much strife when he’s around.
13. Tricksters can be friends/allies to the protagonists. Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski is an example of a trickster-ally. He helps The Dude with everything he does, and invariably turns every situation into a disaster.
Megan in Bridesmaids is a trickster-friend, who does outrageous things, but also helps the protagonist Annie face her problems.
“I’m life, Annie, I’m biting you on the ass!” Then she literally bites Annie on the ass, to get her point across.
That line of dialog pretty much sums up what the trickster needs to accomplish in a story: bite your protagonist on the ass, and make her take action that forces her to change and grow.
Do you have a favorite trickster character? Let us know in the comments!