As the patron saints of storytellers, filmmakers, writers and artists, the trickster is the one archetype creative practitioners should know about. Screenwriter Amanda Schiff explores the Trickster in fiction and drama…
What do the following film characters have in common? Tyler Durden from ‘Fight Club’, Bugs Bunny, Betelgeuse from ‘Beetlejuice’, Wile E Coyote, Ratso Rizzo from ‘Midnight Cowboy’, Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Carribean’ and Loki from ‘Thor’?
Answer: They are my favourite kind of Archetype. Tricksters all of them.
Archetypes are ideal or universal characters, situations and behaviours that originate in antiquity and the creation myths of all cultures. Heroes and Villains, Gods and Monsters, Kings and Queens… you know the paradigms. Archetypes are the original source, whereas stereotypes are flimsy copies – vaguely familiar but faded after one too many iterations.
You can find Trickster characters (hardly evolved from their origins in myth and legend), almost everywhere. From comic book superheroes to straight drama, the contemporary Trickster appears in many forms, some male and sometimes female, as you would expect from a character so multi-faceted and slippery.
“…he is the archetype who attacks all archetypes. He is the character in myth who threatens to take the myth apart. He is an ‘eternal state of mind’ that is suspicious of all eternal, dragging them from their heavenly preserves to see how they fare down here in this time-haunted world."
‘Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art’ (Lewis Hyde)
So, why does this ambiguous, fundamentally unreliable character appeal to me so much?
If creativity comes from chaos, and performs the essentially disruptive purpose of reminding us that life is unpredictable, then Trickster is the enabler, for good or ill, of the creative process. The Trickster archetype invents the ‘art’ of lying and teaches it to humans. What are fiction and storytelling, if not a way to shape facts, events, and ‘truth’
Bringing the new, be it inventions, technology, ideas or knowledge, is Trickster’s raison d’etre, and the price we pay is confusion, danger, the breaking of rules, chaos and disruption. The thing about the Trickster is you never know where you are with him/her, which is a wonderful dynamic for fiction. And, as the catalyst for change, Trickster provokes other characters into action and sends storylines hurtling in unexpected directions. Trickster characters can give you a helping hand and then throw a massive great spanner in the works. Just for the hell of it.
The orgins of Trickster
Classical antiquity gave us Hermes, the God of the threshold, the hinge that swings backwards and forwards and the deity of the crossroads who could “lead the way, or lead astray.” Today we have Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, the cunning, devil-make-care deceiver, or Michael Keaton’s Betelgeuse who even performs one of Hermes’ classical functions – that of the Psychopomp – guiding the Dead to and around the Underworld.
Trickster characters are at heart an unknowable paradox, even in recognisably human form. It’s their way of being both in this world, and the world of the gods (or authority) – they are not fundamentally benign or malign, and it’s hard to predict if they will help or hinder us poor mortals. They are also are supreme narrators and storytellers, spinning yarns and weaving spells over their audiences, so they can no longer tell what is truth or fable, and, probably don’t care.
As the patron saints of storytellers, filmmakers, writers and artists, the trickster is the one archetype creative practitioners should know about. They inject a dynamism and unpredictability into familiar situations and stories. Get them right and they’ll pass into legend, taking your work with you.