Sunday, August 3, 2014

Character Archetypes: Trickster

Lately, I've been playing with an idea for a girl who uses a magical ring to change her appearance and lead a double life. Diamond, as I call her, likes to be at times beautiful, at times plain, at times rich, at times poor, at times the center of attention, at times practically invisible. She uses these dual roles to get what she wants. She's a trickster.

Which got me thinking. What is a trickster? What makes them tick? How do they pull off their mad plans and what roles can they take in the story?


"A trickster is a character who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior. The Trickster openly questions and mocks authority, encourages impulse and enthusiasm, seeks out new ideas and experiences, destroys convention and complacency, and promotes chaos and unrest." So sayeth TV Tropes, my authority on archetypes.

Put another way, a trickster is the polar opposite of your typical law-abiding hero. He trades relatability for unpredictability. You might not approve of what a trickster does, but darned if hhe doesn't make things interesting. And therein lies both the risk and reward of writing one. You may have to push the boundaries of what is acceptable in order to give the character life.

Characters In-Depth

I want to look at what makes other trickster characters tick. T.V. tropes offers a wonderful list of examples, but for my intents and purposes, I want to study tricksters I know very well, so I've chosen one trickster I watch every Sunday and another I wrote an awesome fanfiction about.

Rumpelstiltskin (Once Upon a Time--TV series)

In a show chock full of magicians, Rumplestiltskin is arguably the most powerful of all. Though he's known as "The Dark One," he's not really into taking over the world or committing acts of genocide. Instead he watches on the sidelines, offering deals to heroes and villains alike. If you need something, he'll give it to you... but often at a price.

The deals are the source of his trickster power. Every single one is made to his benefit and few are what they seem. Sometimes, Rumpelstiltskin seems to promise one thing, only to deliver something else. Sometimes he asks for small tokens in return for powerful magic: name, a cloak, a strand of hair. They will be important later on. Rumpelstiltskin works the long game like no one else in the show. It took him several hundred years to put his grand scheme into action, but he did succeed.

Nabiki Tendo (Ranma 1/2Anime/ Manga)

Almost everyone in Ranma 1/2 is a rock-splitting, high-flying super martial artists, half the characters are cursed, and the rest are more than willing to use magic objects lying around for their own nefarious purpose. (It should be noted, this is a comedy, so said purpose includes anything from growing hair to making someone fall in love.)  In this world, Nabiki Tendo is an anomaly. She doesn't fight or dabble with magic. Yet, when something stands between her and money, she will destroy heaven and earth and poor hero Ranma to get it.

Whereas everyone else uses physical force, only Nabiki relies on manipulation to get her way. She blackmails, spills secrets, sells things the heroes might want. To keep from getting hurt, she plays up her own weakness and her strategic position as the sister of Ranma's girlfriend. Nabiki knows Ranma will be obliged to save her from the chaos, even if she's the one who created it. If worse comes to worse, she'll whip out the crocodile tears, pretending she's hopeless in love or wounded by the hero's actions. Then, as he stands paralyzed, she'll strike like a viper, wheeling and dealing not two feet behind his back.

Personality Traits


All tricksters lie. If they don't fib outright, they tell half-truths or leave out important information. It's impossible to play tricks without deception. But aside from that, this may have a defensive purpose. They know the power of getting inside someone's head; they don't want that to happen to them. So they feign indifference about the things they care about, mask anger with a smile, and lie about their motives. Some may go all out and pretend to be crazy. They want to seem unpredictable, as that is their greatest asset.

Student of Psychology

Tricksters are smart. Not in a memorize-the-Internet way or a make-robot-out-of-soupcan way. Their power derives from psychology. They can predict how people will react. This isn't done by reading books, but by going out and studying them. The trickster doesn't hide out in a tower, he interacts with the masses. And if he finds a special subject of particular interest, you can be sure he will unwrap their loves, desires, weaknesses, and philosophy on life.

Master of Planning and of Improv

Tricksters can draw up insanely complicated plans and abandon them in an instant. Maybe they say that everything is going to plan. Maybe they say they have no plan at all. These are lies. Think of any prank or surprise party you've pulled off. You need to figure out what you want to do and how to pull it off. So you plan. But something goes wrong. So you improvise. Tricksters must do both, and do them so well it comes off as effortless.


Tricksters generally don't take themselves too seriously, and ultimately, this is their saving grace. An evil mastermind will pull off a complicated schemes in hopes of ruling the world. Tricksters usually settle for a few bucks, a shiny object, and maybe some amusement. Even dangerous tricksters tend to be witty, charming, and amusing. They force you to like them--perhaps their greatest trick of all.

How to Play a Trick

The Motive

Why are they playing the trick? That's the first thing a writer must consider. Reasons can range from great to petty: trying to prove a point, trying to win a bet, boredom, money, a valuable object, love, greed, vengeance, justice, freedom. They may, of course, say they want one thing (like money) but really want something else (like vengeance). Or their motive may evolve alongside the prank.

The Victim

Who are they playing the trick on? Bear in mind, the choice of victim may shine a light on the trickster's psyche. Does he chose people he admires or loathes? Does he pick easy marks or go for a challenge? Even if he chooses at random, he may adjust the trick according to the person.

The Set Up

You cannot just pull off a trick in a void. You need to make sure the circumstances are just right. In The Dark Knight, the Joker had to carefully cultivate an atmosphere of terror. In Ocean's Eleven, Danny Ocean had to make sure he had the right people in the right spot at the right time. Costumes are dawned, mirrors polished, smoke blown. Even magicians aren't exempt. They may be able to wave their hands and come up with any scenario they want, but first they need to think up that scenario. Weirdly enough, the more powerful the being, the more they relies on rules and limits. A trick is only fun if you can get the hero to play along.

The Test (Optional)

If the trickster doesn't know their mark very well, and if they are a relatively normal person (not an immortal god), it might behove them to set up a little test in order to gauge their victims reaction. For example, in my fanfiction, I Want a Refund, Nabiki's trick relied on her victim carrying enough about her to fight for her honor. To test this out, she had him walk her home from school. Little tests like this are a good way to foster trickster-victim interaction and make the audience wonder what's to come.

The Strike

This is where things go boom.

Now tricks can take many forms, but its usually vital for the trickster to insert himself in the action. No sitting in a tower for him.  First of all, the trickster knows the trick won't go off without his involvement. Second, this is where the fun is.

The Counter Strike

Tricks don't go as planned. Any simple thing might go wrong. The victim may fight back. A good trickster will roll with the punches.

The Getaway (Optional)

The problem with tricks is that, even if you succeed, you will end up with a huge mess and perhaps a mob of angry people. This is a good time for the trickster to make a graceful getaway, far from the chaos and the consequences.

The Lesson

Tricks are a psychological experiment. You mess with people in order to see how they'll react. If the victim is wise, he will learn something from the trick. The process may also change the trickster.

Final Thoughts

Tricksters work especially well as wild card supporting characters in long running series. Their personality adds spice and they can cause the hero plenty of stress without doing him much harm. Tricksters can be good or bad, helpful or bothersome. They can switch sides on a whim.

The question, for me, is can they work as main characters? I think so, but they may be trickier (ha) than a regular hero. The fun of a trickster is their lack of inhibition. Heroes get saddled with the weight of expectation: upholding morals, saving the world, etc. One way of balancing this is creating a secondary character who can act as the pillar of respectability, freeing the trickster to act as they want.

Another problem is the actual trick. A trickster must be like a magician, misdirecting the audience all the way until the end. Having a trickster as a point of view character risks giving up the goat too soon. However, a writer can get around this by judiciously cutting scenes or setting up the trickster as an unreliable narrator. It's a delicate art to leave out important information without annoying the reader, but it can be done.

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