Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Archetypes: The Trickster

Is the Internet on? Because I haven't been getting e-mail for hours, not even spam. It's making me feel paranoid and unloved.

The series on archetypes from the hero's journey is coming to an end. Today is our last archetype, and then next time I'll do some wrap-up and attempt to tie it all together. And then I'll need a new topic, so I'm entertaining questions or suggestions. Is there something you'd like me to address about the craft of writing or the publishing business?

The final archetype is the Trickster. Generally, this is the comic relief character who brings balance to a story by adding a little humor or allowing some relief from all the tension. But beyond that, the Trickster opposes the status quo, mocking it, questioning it or even working actively against it. That can be both the bad guy status quo or even the good guys. The Trickster character often serves to keep the hero's head from getting too big or to keep the institutions in the story world on the right track by constantly questioning them. The Trickster keeps people honest (even if he sometimes resorts to dishonesty to force honesty). Traditionally, a Trickster character often is a practical joker or a prankster, but he can also just be the one who's cynical and always asking the questions people in power wish they'd just shut up about. This also may be a person who kind of likes chaos, and who will disrupt things that seem a bit too orderly to be fun. That can be destructive, but it can also be a way of forcing positive change by making people rethink things as they start over.

While Tricksters often serve as the comic relief, I don't think all comic relief characters are true Tricksters (though some of my reference sources disagree). To get the real Trickster energy, a character needs to be someone who sees the flaws in the status quo and the hypocrisy in the people around him, someone who's willing to criticize or mock even his friends. A character who just falls down a lot, makes jokes and bumps into things may be funny, but I don't think he's really a Trickster.

In the Star Wars example, Han Solo is the one bringing the Trickster energy. He doesn't take anything at face value and questions everything. He rolls his eyes at the idea of the Force, laughs at Luke enough to keep him from getting delusions of grandeur, questions Obi-Wan's sanity and refuses to worship Princess Leia just because she's a princess. In doing so, he keeps everyone honest, even as he's not exactly an entirely honest man, himself. To some extent, he's also the voice of the audience because he asks the same questions or makes the same remarks we might make. I think one of the (many) problems with the prequels was that there was no real Trickster character, and when one part of the story involves a quasi-monastic mystical order and the other involves trade negotiations, you really, really need someone to mock the status quo. It's even possible that the reason Luke was able to not only resist the dark side but also bring his father back while Anakin so easily fell prey (in spite of having a lot of advantages Luke didn't have) was because Luke had Trickster Han Solo around to keep him from getting delusions of self-importance.

Other Trickster-type characters include the Katharine Hepburn character in Bringing Up Baby, who totally disrupted stuffy Cary Grant's life, to the point she had him standing in the yard at night, wearing a woman's bathrobe and serenading a leopard. Then there was the Jimmy Stewart character in The Philadelphia Story, who went about exposing all of Katharine Hepburn's hypocrisies. In the old screwball comedies, you quite often had one part of the couple being a Trickster who was complicating the other character's life. In more modern romantic comedies, the Trickster is often the best friend sidekick of the hero or heroine who's cynical about the idea of true love (and that's usually the character who ends up stealing the movie). Gollum was something of a dark Trickster in the Lord of the Rings saga. In the Buffyverse, Spike was the Trickster. When he was evil, he mocked the other bad guys as well as the good guys, and he didn't stop when he got a soul and regained his conscience. On The Office, Trickster Jim (or Tim in the British version) uses his office pranks to undermine the self-importance of the characters who are more or less delusional about their own merits.

While the Trickster is often a sidekick who keeps the hero down to earth, there's also a huge tradition of Trickster heroes, from mythology on up to modern entertainment. Just about every folklore tradition has a Trickster hero, from the Norse Loki (who was also sometimes a villain or a sidekick, depending on the story), the Native American coyote, the African-American Brer Rabbit to the modern Bugs Bunny. Then there's Robin Hood and his ilk. Or Dr. House and Axel Foley (or, really, a lot of the characters played by Eddie Murphy). Quite often, the Trickster hero serves as a catalyst in that he causes a lot of change around him and in other people while remaining unchanged, himself. He drops in, stirs things up and changes the things that need to be changed, then goes on to his next adventure.

A Trickster villain keeps the hero on his toes, causing chaos for the fun of it. The Joker and the Riddler in the Batman universe are Trickster villains. The bad guy in my books, Phelan Idris, is something of a Trickster. A lot of what he does is just for the fun of seeing what happens and making the good guys jump.

Psychologically, the Trickster can represent healthy change and transformation. The energy of the Trickster calls attention to folly, imbalance and stagnation. Once you're aware that you're stagnating, you can make positive changes. This aspect of the psyche helps us keep things in perspective.

Both the Trickster and the Herald are about change. The Herald is the wake-up call while the Trickster is more of an ongoing commentary of the specifics of what needs to change, and what the Trickster thinks needs pointing out may go far beyond the scope of the mission the Herald announces. Drama is essentially about change, so you need a variety of characters to help bring about change and to keep the Hero on course.

When writing a Trickster character, remember that the energy is more about pointing out foolishness or self-importance. It doesn't have to mean the character plays practical jokes or is a laugh-a-minute. This character does have a tendency to steal the show, so remember that even though your Trickster is in ways undermining your hero, your hero needs to be able to grow and learn from that in order to be a stronger hero. Instead of weakening your strong Trickster, make your hero stronger.

And now I have to get back to slogging away. Yesterday I made far less progress and was far more tempted by the evil Internet (because even when I'm not getting e-mail, I can be distracted). I had to do a lot of new writing after throwing out what I had written. By the time I'm done with this book, the finished word count will be under 80K, but I'll have actually written War and Peace.

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