If you’re looking to shake up your story and add an unpredictable character to increase the tension, using the trickster archetype can help you create just that. It’s likely that you’ve read and even written this type of character before.
But there is a balance to writing a character that falls under the trickster archetype while still crafting a unique and round character readers are interested in. To strike that balance, it’s important to understand what this type of character is and what they’ll provide you with for your story.
Plugging in a few key traits in a character just for some laughs won’t cut it, and you won’t get the effect you’re looking for.
This is what you’ll learn about the trickster archetype:
- What is the trickster archetype?
- Traits of a Trickster
- Examples of Tricksters in Fiction
- How to Write the Trickster Archetype
What is the trickster archetype?
At its core, the trickster archetype embodies the characteristic of mischief, chaos, and unpredictability. They trick both the other main characters as well as the reader. They challenge conventions, disrupt order, and often serve as a catalyst for change within the story’s world.
While you might be picturing a fool-type character, tricksters are often complex and multi-dimensional, often revealed to have more to them than the reader initially thinks. But they do often tend to have certain characteristics.
Traits of a Trickster
Writing any old character into this role is difficult. There are specific qualities to craft in order to write the trickster archetype, but not every single one of these needs to be used.
In general, using any character archetype can give you a mold to work within, but you’ll always tweak certain traits to work for your unique story.
Here are the common traits that make a character a trickster:
- Cunning and Intelligence: Tricksters don’t just play a fool or pull pranks. They’re actually highly intelligent characters. They use their wits to outsmart others and navigate complex situations. The ways in which they act out and trick you are the result of intelligence and forethought.
- Playfulness and Humor: A mischievous sense of humor is a hallmark trait of the Trickster. They find joy in pranks, riddles, and unconventional behavior. You often see the humorous side to the trickster archetype, usually in the form of pranks. But the playful tone you see typically compensates for something else in this character’s personality traits.
- Ambiguity and Unpredictability: The Trickster blurs the lines between good and bad, right and wrong. They defy easy categorization, making them both captivating and elusive. But it also makes them unpredictable. If you’re looking for ways to add conflict to your stories, this trait is sure to do it.
- Shape-shifting or Transformation: In many tales, the Trickster has the ability to change forms, symbolizing adaptability and the ability to see things from multiple perspectives. This is for if you’re going more literal with your trickster archetype. I’ll put some examples below, but these types often pretend to be something else prior to being revealed as the character they are.
- Disruptive and Chaotic: The Trickster often disrupts established norms and challenges authority. They introduce chaos that can lead to unexpected outcomes, for both the characters and your reader. Just having a trickster around, after establishing that they don’t play by the rules, can add tension to any scene or situation they’re a part of. It’s useful for pacing and adding an element of anxiety to your writing!
Examples of Tricksters in Fiction
Not every trickster archetype is the main character, but they can be. You’ll find many different types, but here are a few common examples of a trickster.
Study them and how they interact with other characters. Notice how they shape the story with their actions.
- Matilda Wormwood from Matilda by Roald Dahl: You wouldn’t think of Matilda as a trickster character until you peel back some of the layers, especially if you’ve only ever seen the movie. Matilda is cunning and intelligent. She uses her wits to outsmart her opponents and also plays tricks on them. Like when her dad’s hat got glued to his head or making Ms. Trunchbull think she was being haunted.
- The Wit from Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings: In this story, there’s a character actually named Wit. If that didn’t clue you in to the fact that he’s a trickster, then his general demeanor would. He’s incredibly witty, and uses it to insult people, mostly, as a job to make the King giggle. But he’s more complex than that and uses his intelligence and position wisely.
- Loki from Norse Mythology/Marvel Comics: Perhaps one of the most iconic Tricksters, Loki is the Norse god of mischief. He embodies the archetype with his cunning, shape-shifting abilities, and propensity for causing havoc in Asgard. He can also change his appearance to others, which is another classic trait of a trickster.
- Hermes from Greek Mythology: Known as the messenger of the gods, Hermes possesses the Trickster’s characteristic wit and agility. He often blurs the line between truth and deception, creating intrigue in his interactions with both gods and mortals.
- Coyote from Native American Folklore: In Native American cultures, Coyote is a revered Trickster figure. He is both a creator and destroyer, symbolizing the unpredictable nature of the world.
- The Joker in the Batman Comics: A modern incarnation of the Trickster archetype, the Joker embodies chaos and unpredictability. His actions are driven by a desire to disrupt societal norms and challenge the established order.
- Deadpool in the Marvel Universe: He likes to mess with people, and he’s good at it. It’s not just the physical fighting, either. Deadpool is intelligent with both his insults and plans of attack, and can get under his opponent’s skin in psychological ways.
How to Write the Trickster Archetype
If you want to use the trickster in your cast of characters, there’s a few things you’ll want to keep in mind. As always, you want every character in your story to be intentional. They have a purpose and that’s purpose is to move the story along.
In addition to using some of the traits from above, keep these elements in mind when writing the trickster archetype:
1. Understand how this character affects your story
The trickster archetype will likely stir up a lot of trouble and conflict in your story. That’s super useful if you’re using them intentionally, but can cause plotting challenges if you haven’t thought it through.
The unpredictable nature of the trickster leaves room for that character to take action that seems inconsistent with their character, but it does still have to make sense over time, which is more about motivation and their backstory.
2. Start with their motivation and history
All tricksters have a reason for the way that they are. Even Matilda is the way she is because her parents and brother suck, and often made her figure everything out on her own when she was a kid. That’s reason enough for her to act the way she does.
Your trickster can’t just cause trouble for no reason. Even if they seem erratic and unpredictable, you should know what it is they’re doing and why. Much of the character motivation for the trickster archetype will be revealed as the story progresses. Then their actions will make sense.
Even the Joker has reasons for being the menace he is. Make sure you develop the character with these details in mind.
3. Flesh out their complexity
We’ve already established motivation is important. It’s kind of the driving force of any behavior of a character. But what’s also important is the rest of them. This is why you can have some tricksters that are good and some that are bad.
The ways in which your trickster character interprets their history can impact their complexity.
Complexity is a number of character traits, including:
- how they act when no one is watching
- how they act when people are watching
- broad assumptions
- guiding beliefs
All of this information forms a complex character. Know them for your trickster so you don’t end up writing a flat character that readers aren’t interested in, or worse, have already read many times and are sick of.
4. Build them into the plot
As mentioned before, these characters are useful for driving the plot forward in unexpected ways. Yes, you can use a trickster to create a plot twist, but it’s not always necessary.
First, decide if your trickster will be the main character or a side character. This greatly dictates how much unpredictability you’ll be afforded. If it’s a viewpoint (main) character, then we’ll know what they’re doing and when because we’ll see it. If they’re a side character, we only witness them at certain times, which usually creates more tension and unpredictability.
When you’re in need of conflict in some areas, see if the trickster can step in to liven things up. The tension added when this character is present can do a lot to make a scene feel more impactful, especially if it’s otherwise a bland scene (even if it’s important).
Your trickster is just one part of your story, though they can be a vital part if you write them correctly. To learn more about how to fit characters into a plot and the overall structure, check out this free class on writing a quality novel: