The problem with having a slick schedule with four posts a month on specific subjects on specific days is that the calendar throws in some grit into the well-ordered machine…which is why Debs and I have been very thankful to recruit some brilliant guests to contribute posts for the occasional fifth sundays which would otherwise mess up our schedule. So, continuing with this tradition, and with only a very little sleight of hand, we’re dropping in a post by @nerdcactus, with some thoughts on the ‘Trickster’ – one only has to follow her Twitter-feed to know that there is is no-one better to write with both passionate knowledge and knowledgable passion about such characters and their role in a story.
Do any of you watch The Magicians? Or have you, perhaps, read the books by Lev Grossman? That is one of the worst examples of a Trickster I have ever seen. In fact, I’d venture to say it might be the worst.
It is an absolute nightmare of characterization. Reynard the Fox comes storming in, tearing the heart out of people, raping a main character, and just generally being evil in an almost cartoonish fashion. In one scene in the show (I’ll be the first to admit I refused to read the books), he even turns a woman’s cat inside out and keeps it alive. The only piece of characterization that actually fits? He poses as a peaceful goddess and tricks an unsuspecting group of magic users into releasing him.
It’s rage-inducing. Not the least because Reynard the Fox has never been evil. Does he murder? Yes. But only the people who’re going to kill him (or, rather, animals). Reynard is a Trickster, and in this case, a satirical creature lampooning the feudal system and corruption in the Church; those creatures he murders represent the Powers That Be. Reynard is wily; he is the wily fox, a trope so pervasive even Disney couldn’t escape it (twice, actually: Robin Hood and Zootopia both feature cunning foxes, though it’s a much larger part of Nick Wilde’s character). Reynard is, at his worst, an anti-hero and, at his best, the spokesperson for the masses.
And, no matter how bad his behavior, we are meant to root for him. Because he is charismatic, clever, and speaks truth to power. That is what a Trickster is.
But the Trickster is also so much more than that.
If we were to define a Trickster, we would say he (for Tricksters are invariably men) is a mischievous or roguish creature who defies the rules of gods and men, making use of cunning and intellect rather than physical prowess. Very often, the results of their actions are positive, though they can be malicious (Loki’s involvement in the death of Baldur comes to mind). Inevitably, they are caught, but they’ll probably just talk their way out of it again. And they are, down to a man, charming.
Note I didn’t say a Trickster must play pranks on people. Yes, characters like Bart Simpson and Fred and George Weasley are examples of Tricksters, but so too is The Doctor, and he does not spend most of his time playing harmless jokes on people. Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor; this is a prime example of a Trickster subverting the laws of man to do a greater good. He embarrasses the corrupt government officials, fights for the common man, and has undoubted panache. Yes, a true Trickster.
But it’s so easy to turn Trickster into a con-man, a thief, a prankster. It is also easy to turn him into a Madman with a Box, whose plans—if they are plans and not just a thing—are labyrinthine in nature. It is easy to define Trickster by what he stands against. To have him be an outsider to the system, looking in and merely subverting what is.
It is too easy. And, frankly, it doesn’t begin to encompass everything a Trickster can be.
Lewis Hyde, in his book Trickster Makes This World (which I so heartily recommend, I’m thinking of giving it to everyone I know for ALL the holidays), says that “trickster is a boundary-crosser”. Think of all that implies. Hermes is a psychopomp, guiding the souls of the dead to the Underworld. Loki can change shape. Raven can cross between realms. Who the hell knows what kind of animal Set is? Trickster challenges identities and the rules of everything we understand. And, in challenging everything, Trickster changes everything. He makes worlds.
Now. What does this mean for us as writers? What can we do to reimagine a trope that is also an archetype? Think of boundaries. Think of changes. Of new beginnings. Trickster can be storyteller (Anansi is a great version of this). He can be messenger (Hermes’ role as running a UPS-type company is the best thing about that second Percy Jackson movie I never saw). He can remind the gods of their hubris (Loki’s role in the death of Baldur) or get them into and out of trouble (look up the origins of Odin’s horse, Sleipnir). Trickster can be a master or a fool.
Or even a victim. Maybe Trickster is at the whim of his own nature, trapped in a whirl of chaos and at the mercy of himself? A seer like Cassandra, always ignored, or constantly changing form and never able to cease? Maybe he can’t help acting the way he does, and it sometimes causes him to hurt those he loves because of a grand plan he cannot begin to grasp.
What does a world created by a Trickster look like? In my world, chaos is at the heart of creation, and this is reflected in the near-constant natural disasters that racked the planet until divine intervention stabilized it. Order is an obsession with the people of Esmeihiri, and they have a very difficult relationship with their Creator. But she loves them and does her best to be the god they need.
Oh, yes. I said she. Because what is the easiest boundary to cross but the most arbitrary limitation I’ve mentioned so far? Trickster is so much more than a con-man. So much more than wit, charm, or pranks. They might be serious. They might be doolally. Man. Woman. Both and neither. Creator. Destroyer. At odds with the gods and the god themselves. In control or out of it. Perpetrator or victim.
But, whatever they are, they are not whatever the hell The Magicians decided to do. Because, at the end of the day, a Trickster is not a sociopath. They are an appetite that needs filling. And there is nothing more interesting than a character who always wants more from life.
© NerdCactus 2017