Storytelling has been an important part of life for essentially all of human history. In this long tradition of tale-weaving there are a few structures and archetypes we just keep coming back to, from ancient mythology to modern movies. One of them is the Trickster, which, in my view, is entirely fair—after all, it’s one of the most blatantly fun character archetypes out there, brimming with cheekiness and social commentary and a degree of unpredictability that you don’t always find with stories about, say, Heroes or Lovers. We’re not telling stories of gods and monsters so much these days, but this ancient character type is still strolling through our popular culture, though perhaps in slightly different shapes and sizes.
So, what are we looking for when we look for a Trickster? As with most of these things, it’s a little different depending on who you ask. From asking (or at least reading) a bunch of different people, here is the list of characteristics I deduce you can generally expect to find in a Trickster and their tales:
- Emphasis on cleverness and trickery as dominant traits
- Moral ambiguity and self-motivation: they’re neither wholly good nor wholly bad, though they may swing in the direction of protagonist or antagonist depending on what happens
- Magic and shapeshifting (which can tie into gender fluidity/ambiguity)
- Contradictions: just as they’re kind of good and kind of bad, they’re also a mess of paradoxes. The archetypal Trickster is a a selfish culture-hero, a clever dumbass, a sympathetic bastard, and a sacred figure who regularly does really profane things (see “dirty jokes”)
- Liminality: Tricksters exist on the fringe, outsiders in their story-world in some way
- Boundary crossing: connected to the above point, Tricksters have an ability to cross borders—be they social, physical, magical, spiritual, etc.
- Agents of change: they use their trickery to make a mess of pre-established systems and power structures (we’re getting into this today)
- Dirty jokes. No, really. It’s usually written as “scatological humour” or “breaking of taboos around sexual conversation”, but basically Tricksters are known mythologically to be horny on main and always ready with a poop joke
These points don’t all necessarily apply to every Trickster character at once, but were you to construct a Trickster from scratch, those are the kinds of traits you would need to take into account; and it’s from this collection of attributes that we build our Trickster Goggles for examining characters in modern fiction. There are many different facets and aspects to the Trickster, and many different people who have come up with their own definitive definitions—some characters will fit the archetype by one person’s set of definitions, but not by another’s. If we explored them all in one post all we’d get is a headache.
To that end, I’m compartmentalising, and will look at different aspects and versions of the Trickster (and where we can see them popping up in modern media) in a shiny new series of posts.
To begin: one key aspect of the Trickster is their liminal status, one way or another. Lewis Hyde wrote that the “trickster is a boundary-crosser. Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there.” The Trickster is defined by their existence on and around boundaries and borders, their outsider status, their not really belonging in any one place, and, most importantly for today’s discussion, definitely not belonging to the group recognised as The Powers That Be within their story. In fact, most often the Trickster is the character who manages to undermine and knock down The Powers That Be, beginning in myth and carrying through to today: as Helena Bassil-Morozow says, “Whereas mythological tricksters fight with personified representations of the deterministic principle—Zeus, Thor, Odin—cinematic tricksters attempt to cause socio-political Ragnarök.”
This feeds into an important distinction we should make while talking about this archetype: just because a character is tricky, doesn’t necessarily make them a Trickster with a capital T. Where they sit in the narrative is just as important as their characteristics. Let’s look at this through the example of my favourite soul-stealing cat-alien-thing, Kyuubey. Yes, Kyuubey is a clever shapeshifter who uses trickery to get what they want. But the important thing here is where Kyuubey sits in relation to the power structure of the story. Kyuubey represents the system and the power structure, whereas Tricksters tend to be defined by their resistance to the system. Ergo, Kyuubey can’t be a Trickster—and neither can characters in similar roles, for example Akio Ohtori or the giraffe from Revue Starlight (similarly, Faustian demons and devils also aren’t necessarily Tricksters, but we can get to that kettle of fish in another post).
Tricksters are somehow outsiders, not possessing the characteristics or status synonymous with positions of power in the context of the story. To go way back to mythology, the West African Trickster Anansi took the form of a spider, who was often pitted against and contrasted against the Tiger. Tiger represents brute strength, ferocity, and general jungle majesty, which the tiny little spider simply can’t compete with… and so the tiny little spider is the Trickster, who uses his wits and skills to get into the cracks of Tiger’s supposedly unshakeable power (would you argue with a tiger?) and finds ways to take it down. Terrie Waddell called the Trickster the “archetypal agent of change”, a representation of the necessary shakeup of a system when it becomes oppressive—a shakeup that involves sneaking around the system and not playing by its rules. Which, hey, is easier to do when you’ve been pushed to the fringes of that system in the first place.
So who’s out there causing “socio-political Ragnarök”? A bizarrely great example is Roald Dahl’s Matilda (who, being a small child, obviously doesn’t possess some of the more adult-rated qualities of the Trickster, but who fits into some of the important ones nonetheless). She is an outsider to the perceived norm and to the power structure in her story, not fitting into her family and belittled by them at every step for it. She’s a liminal figure in most aspects of her life, she sees the world in a different way, and of course she’s clever—and it’s her cleverness and her trickery (and the magic that it manifests as, of course) that ends up not only saving her, but taking apart the system of power entirely.
The power structure in Matilda is represented in a bigger and more terrifying sense by Mrs. Trunchbull, an abusive principal who runs her school—another system—with her own brand of unshakeable authority. Again, the big burly “tiger” figure of Trunchbull is pitted against the comparatively weak and helpless “spider” that is Matilda. Obviously Matilda couldn’t take Trunchbull in a fist fight, but more to the point, Matilda is a child who has no agency and no rights within the adult world and within the system as Trunchbull rules it. And so, unable to fight the system head on, Matilda uses her more quiet, clever skills and attributes to locate and sneak through cracks in the system, eventually undermining Trunchbull’s power and defeating her using trickery and telepathy.
Matilda comes out of this a culture-hero, not only saving her classmates from Trunchbull’s tyranny but winning herself a happy ending too, when she leaves her abusive family (another system) behind. Tricksters are not necessarily always heroic, but she’s an excellent example of how they can be: with her Trickster qualities she sneaks around the cruel system and finds ways to undermine it, opening room for other people to do the same, and becomes a champion of reclaiming agency from The Powers That Be who systematically take it away. And all with a certain sense of humour, of course: laughter is often a trickster’s weapon of choice.
For a complete tonal change—but still talking about superheroes!—Deadpool is also a surprisingly good example of a pop culture Trickster. And yes, Deadpool does lean into those more grown-up Trickster qualities, like the sexual appetite and the profanity. Deadpool is a particularly interesting example to me because of how metatextual his Trickster-ness is, specifically in regards to his brand of “boundary-crossing”: the supposedly rigid boundary that he dances on is the fourth wall, breaking tradition and the usual “rules” of fiction by directly addressing the audience, and showing an awareness of his situation that other characters do not. He shapeshifts, too (in a body horror sort of way), and, as most of the marketing surrounding him was happy to tell us, does not fit the normal characteristics that a superhero in power would have. Deadpool is a liminal, boundary-crossing, profane, unlikely culture-hero. He will save the day, but only in an unusual and underhanded way, and he will make dick jokes all the while (the folkloric Tricksters would be proud).
A big point is made that he exists outside recognised systems of power, from his refusal the join The X-Men to his inability to die (life and death are powers we assume are set in stone, after all, and Tricksters—like Hermes and Loki and others who hop between the land of the living and the Underworld—can transgress these too). Normal rules, of society, of politeness, of physics and biology, do not quite apply to this dude. But his Tricksterish liminality becomes especially interesting in Deadpool 2, which sees him (and a band of similar misfits) explicitly fighting against an oppressive system of power, in the form of the abusive orphanage that torments and punishes children with superpowers.
This puts him in a much more traditional Trickster position, narratively speaking: his existence betwixt and between puts him in a unique position to critique and bring the system down, as he isn’t beholden to the usual rules and expectations enforced on those trapped inside said system. Like Matilda (and again, I can’t believe I’m making this comparison, but I swear it makes sense) Deadpool becomes a champion for agency and an “archetypal agent of change” whose outsider status gives him the ability to come at the system sideways and take it down.
It’s also his Trickster morality—which, again, sits outside the usual “rules” facing straight-up Heroes—that allows him to confront the system and take it out, which in Deadpool 2 manifests as him and his newfound friends tearing the orphanage to shreds and beating the hell out of its adult orderlies, a.k.a. The Powers That Be. It’s abhorrent but also feels correct at the same time, letting Deadpool (and company) stand squarely in that grey zone that defines the Trickster. In Lori Landay’s words, Tricksters “are fantasy figures who do what we cannot or dare not, and they call our attention to where we draw the lines that separate what is appropriate and shocking, possible and impossible.” So on the one hand, yes, all that marketing hoo-ha about Deadpool not being a typical Hero was eye-rollingly edgy, but it also genuinely has a narrative purpose that ties into a long history of storytelling.
The Trickster archetype has a rebellious spirit, for better or worse. The two I’ve looked at today have both been heroic examples, but of course there are plenty of Tricksters whose shakeup of systems have a more antagonistic bent—Ragnarök, after all, is both a classic Trickster tale and an apocalypse. But hey, Norse myth is cyclical, so Loki dismantling the power structure of Asgard just means something new will grow in its place.
You have to inject a little chaos into order sometimes, lest it get stale or outright nasty: to quote Bassil-Morozow again, “The trickster is the raw energy of the new struggling to break through the surface of old structures. It is a metaphor for change. A healthy system has an in-built trickster as a necessary chaotic element, a menacing but important nuisance, ensuring the system’s renewal.” Sometimes your sneaky champion of change is a Matilda, and sometimes it’s a Starscream. The results may be different, but the heart of the fascinating trouble-making archetype remains the same.