Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Mischievous and chaotic, the trickster is a character archetype that recurs throughout mythology, folklore, literature and pop culture. This is, in part, thanks to its boundless flexibility: tricksters can be good, evil or amoral; hero or villain; help or hindrance; spiteful or angelic; comic-relief, obstacle, gatekeeper, sidekick and/or henchperson. Despite this ambiguity of role, essayist Paul Mattick Jr observes that, whatever form tricksters take, their overarching purpose is always to “violate principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis”.
In short, the trickster holds a unique role in the fabric of a story – primarily as a catalyst for change and conflict – and it could be exactly what your project needs.
What can a trickster do for me?
To a certain extent, a trickster character is one who doesn’t conform to the same set of rules, mores, and guidelines as other characters; they’re somewhat outside the established system and, because of that, they’re in a unique position to influence that system from the outside.
This can come in many forms – you can have an extremely powerful character who is ‘above’ the dangers of the story, and so who plagues the heroes and/or villains for kicks (think Star Trek’s Q and Superman antagonist Mr. Mxyzptlk), but you could also have a character who can’t be fired, or doesn’t need income, and so has the freedom to razz their boss (this crops up in various sit-coms, where the protagonist finds out the new, lazy intern is the big boss’ nephew or niece).
Because of this outsider status, tricksters are most often engines of comedy (in fact, see entry number three in Writing Funny Characters That Actually Make People Laugh), but they also have dramatic value. Since the trickster is ‘outside’ the established stakes of the story, they’re able to add obstacles to the plot that can’t come from any other source. They need far less motive or reason to cause problems or offer help.Tricksters can lob bombs into the plot without the reader asking why.Click To Tweet
In The Fifth Elephant, the vampire Lady Margolotta is something of a trickster character. Though she helps the protagonist at one point, the implication is that she does the same for the antagonist later in the story, more concerned with the joy of influencing their conflict than the actual outcome. The use of this character allows certain plot moments to be handled quickly, but the reader doesn’t feel tricked because they recognize the role of the trickster and (usually) enjoy their presence.
A trickster character allows you to lob a grenade at any given situation and, when done well, to have the reader applaud the explosion. You’ll have to understand the archetype a little better to use it well, but in the right place, a trickster can free you from punishing convention, whether they’re used as background characters or straight-out protagonists.
Tricksters are fundamentally defined by their ability to outsmart stronger, authoritative foes with their wits and cunning. Where heroes and villains must adhere to a certain measure of predictability, tricksters often use that predictability against them.
In terms of trickster villainy, Batman and the Joker are the very definition of this dynamic – Batman stops and solves crimes, but the Joker isn’t a mere criminal. In most incarnations, he’s a character who commits crimes to needle Batman or prove a philosophical point, not just a crook looking to get away with the loot. When compared to other villains who do just want the loot (even though they go after it in a colorful and exciting way), this elevates the Joker, placing him outside the usual crime/justice binary and making him a more dangerous and remarkable antagonist. He’s an exciting presence not just because he’s chaotic, but because he’s chaotic in a world of clear rules – the trickster derives much of their influence from this contrast.Tricksters are most effective in contrast to an ordered world.Click To Tweet
As well as being compelling villains, tricksters can be used as a means to inject a little fun and chaos into a story (think Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and they can also be powerful symbols of overcoming oppression. Tales of Anansi, one of the most famous characters in West African and Caribbean folklore, were carried over via the slave trade from Ghana to the Caribbean and other parts of the ‘New World’, where the half-man-half-spider became a celebrated emblem of resistance. Following the trickster tradition, he is able to get the upper hand on his oppressors through trickery and deviousness, tools that slaves used to resist from within the power structure of the plantations. In Jamaica, where Anansi stories were particularly well-preserved due to the high concentration of enslaved West Africans, every story concluded with a proverb, cementing their value as instructional tools.
A similar figure with origins in both African and Cherokee folklore is Br’er/Brer (‘Brother’) Rabbit from the Uncle Remus stories, who uses language to outsmart his enemies. As literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes, it was a, “creative way that the slave community responded to the oppressor’s failure to address them as human beings.” However, as much as these animal-inspired tricksters are beloved, they are also very much framed as anti-heroes with amoral, chaotic and selfish tendencies.
So, how can this actually be applied to your story? Well, despite the fan-favorite, cheeky poltergeist Peeves being excluded from the Harry Potter films, J.K Rowling’s other famous tricksters – Fred and George Weasley – proved far too instrumental to suffer the same treatment. Their ‘double-trouble’ antics throughout the series offered important lessons to young readers on how to weaponize comedy to resist dangerous authority figures in the same way that Anansi and Br’er Rabbit did for African-American slaves. For instance, no other characters at Hogwarts were as well-placed to steal and then pass on the Marauder’s Map to Harry – an essential moment in the plot of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Their true trickster power, however, was fully harnessed and unleashed to great effect by Rowling in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. After a string of subtle acts of cheeky rebellion in reaction to the iron-fist rule of Ministry-approved Headmistress Umbridge, the Weasley twins blast – quite literally – out of Hogwarts on broomsticks after setting off all of their home-made fireworks, including one advertising the prank shop they went on to open in Diagon Alley. Umbridge was helpless to stop them, and though her fist tightened even more around the school afterwards, the Weasley’s public act of humorous defiance raised morale amongst the victimized students and proved to young readers that there’s more than one way to flout oppressive regimes.
In general, a trickster hero needs something to provoke their nature, whether that’s a cruel plantation owner, an abusive, pastel-clad headmistress, or just a set of rules. This is what turns tricksters from innocent jokesters into compelling rebels. As with any character, the trickster is most compelling when they want something, it should just be something that’s different from the other characters’ goals.The trickster has different goals and values than other characters.Click To Tweet
Many pop culture tricksters derive their status from being aware of the audience – characters like Bugs Bunny and Marvel’s Deadpool are generally trying to survive, but they’re also trying to make the audience laugh. The same is true of Fred and George, it’s just that their audience is in the story with them, while Lady Margolotta is depicted as an influence-junkie, replacing her thirst for blood with outright control of others. These tricksters’ desires conflict with those of their victims, but they’re more mutually exclusive than exact opposites; Elmer Fudd doesn’t want to make the viewer miserable, but he’d still prefer his gun didn’t blow up in his face.
So that’s how you can use tricksters in your story, but how can you get the reader on-side? Most of the trickster’s power comes from the fact that the reader knows what a trickster is, suspending the normal rules for them without needing much persuasion. Using a trickster therefore requires you to send a signal to your reader, letting them know the rules will be different for this character. Their behaviour and stated goals will do a lot of the work, but the way they look can also be effective.
The Loki factor
Though examples are predominantly male, tricksters can really take any form – human, animal, God, mythical creature – or gender. In Norse mythology, the trickster Loki is a shapeshifter, in one tale shifting both his form and gender to become a mare who gives birth to Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir (as if that family couldn’t get any more complicated.) Marvel’s comic-book iterations of the character have by-and-large preserved this fluidity of form as a tool to continually reinvent and repurpose him, which falls neatly in line with the medium’s open-ended storytelling.
This propensity for mischief and shapeshifting, however, has been diminished somewhat during his jump into Marvel’s cinematic universe, in favor of him fulfilling the role of a tragic Shakespearean villain rather than his true trickster origins. Still, while his motivations and appearance may vary, the core components – unpredictability, self-reliance, mockery, wit and cunning – remain firmly in place.
Loki’s pop culture revival may have elevated him to greater name recognition, but he’s only one of a pantheon of iconic mischief-makers that have been lurking in the oral and written myths, fables, and folklore of pretty much every culture. As well as villains like Loki, tricksters can range from Gods like Mercury in Roman mythology, to heroes like Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey, to stock characters that populate pop culture, like Looney Tunes’ Bugs Bunny.
Tricksters as anthropomorphic animals like Bugs originally come from African, Caribbean, Japanese, Native American, Chinese, and Germanic folklore, where spiders, raccoons, foxes, ravens, monkeys, cats, and rabbits transform into common symbols of mischief and deception. This is an easy shorthand for writers. Your readers will be naturally primed to recognize trickster traits in a character because of the archetype’s long-established history in fiction, but using symbolic cues like these will quickly and easily reinforce this.Specific imagery can cue the reader to expect (and accept) a trickster.Click To Tweet
This is the case in Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, in which ‘Crow’ inflicts himself on a grieving family, possessing his own strange but effective methods for shunting them onto the road to recovery. Little explanation of Crow’s nature is needed, since whether they’re aware of it or not, the reader takes the visual cue and prepares for the twisty logic of the trickster.
Stability through annoyance
In Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art, Lewis Hyde puts forward the idea that tricksters create, ‘‘a way of living that allows constant, if gradual, alterations” to societal order, rather than huge, seismic changes. In the modern world, he sees them as, “artists [and] antisocial characters who keep society moving, framers of lies who establish new truths”. They appeal to our innate sympathy for underdogs, our affection towards rebels and rule-breakers, and our excitement at being left guessing what their next move will be.
A trickster character in your story can be used as pure comic relief – a clownish version of the archetype that serves to poke fun at your protagonist, antagonist, or both, and give your reader something to chuckle at – but you should also keep in mind the trickster’s storied, global history as a supernatural shapeshifter; a divine being of reality-warping might and a folklore antihero inspiring resistance against authority. They’re a great way to keep a long-running story fresh, and good way to create an antagonist who is challenging but not necessarily malicious.
A trickster allows you to adjust your story or create conflict with little warning: they’re there to mess things up, and if you can make the reader appreciate that early on, you can blindside them with the actual form it takes. In few places is this more apparent than the animated comedy American Dad! While not to the taste of many, there’s a strong argument to be made that the show came into its own once it embraced the possibilities of trickster character Roger – a spiteful, disguise-obsessed alien who is supremely unpredictable in ways even the viewer doesn’t see coming.
So American Dad! got off to a rough start, and viewers couldn’t be blamed for abandoning it after the first few episodes. Luckily, the show was able to fix its early flaws, and it grew into one of the most clever, interesting, and reliably hilarious animated shows on television… Roger went from merely sipping wine and delivering catty one-liners to becoming the show’s most fully realized presence, as his endless array of personas meant he was essentially dozens of characters all in one.
– John Hugar, ‘American Dad’s move from flimsy satire to animated greatness in 10 steps’ from The AV Club
A trickster character isn’t just a band-aid to cover a plot hole or an easy way to inject humor, and can even form the backbone of a smart, engaging story. After all, once you get to grips with a mercurial, chaotic, potentially shapechanging character, there’s really no limit to the stories you can tell.
Do you love a trickster, or hate the idea of using an archetype in your story? Let me know in the comments. Or, for another great device that can bring freedom to your writing, check out Is There Such A Thing As A Good MacGuffin? Finally, if you want to know more about a trickster’s comedic potential, try Writing Funny Characters That Actually Make People Laugh.