Tag Archives: the trickster in modern mythology

The Role of the Trickster #amwriting

My lead characters always have companions, and one of them is usually the trickster. In his famous book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, philosopher Joseph Campbell discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies.

Christopher Vogler takes Campbell’s concept of the monomyth and applies it to modern storytelling.  His 2007 book, The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, offers insights into character development and takes the mythical aspects of the hero’s journey and places it into pop culture, from movies to television, to books.

I am on my third copy of this book.

In my last post, I mentioned that tricksters:

  • Cross Boundaries
  • Break rules
  • Disrupt ordinary life
  • Charm us with their wit and charisma

Wikipedia tells us:

All cultures have tales of the trickster, a crafty creature who uses cunning to get food, steal precious possessions, or simply cause mischief. In some Greek myths, Hermes plays the trickster. He is the patron of thieves and the inventor of lying, a gift he passed on to Autolycus, who in turn passed it on to Odysseus. In Slavic folktales, the trickster and the culture hero are often combined. [1]

Often in mythology, the bending/breaking of rules takes the form of tricks or thievery.  When I need a thief, I automatically think of Loki—the consummate trickster of Norse mythology. Loki sometimes helps the gods and other times he is the villain. Loki is the god you love to hate.

Who is a good example of the trickster in modern mythology? Let’s look at the first three Star Wars movies, and the character of Han Solo.

This is a man who is slightly older than the rest of the cast and has been around long enough to become jaded. He’s contradictory, in that he doesn’t believe in the force but relies on his luck.

Always courageous but not stupid, Han Solo takes incredible chances, and usually comes out on top. He rarely learns anything from his failures.

Han Solo’s primary role is keep everyone grounded. No one gets to be a princess around him, not even an actual princess. He points out to our hero that a blaster is more reliable than the force, and has no problem cold-bloodedly murdering a bounty hunter in a crowded bar.

What I love about the character of Han Solo is the way he livens things up. He is the ray of sunshine in what is actually a dark tale.

Vogler describes the trickster as: someone who embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change. [2]

I think the word energy is key. The rogue’s job is to inject energy into the story.

The loveable rascal is an important component of any epic tale. In the book versions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Pippin and Merry tend to go their own way sometimes and by doing so, they serve in the role of tricksters.

Quote from Wikipedia: The critic Tom Shippey notes that Tolkien uses the two hobbits and their low simple humour as foils for the much higher romance to which he was aspiring with the more heroic and kingly figures of Theoden, Denethor, and Aragorn: an unfamiliar and old-fashioned writing style that might otherwise have lost his readers entirely.

He notes that Pippin and Merry serve, too, as guides to introduce the reader to seeing the various non-human characters, letting the reader know that an ent looks an old tree stump or “almost like the figure of some gnarled old man”. The two apparently minor hobbits have another role, too, Shippey writes: it is to remain of good courage when even strong men start to doubt whether victory is possible, as when Pippin comforts the soldier of Gondor, Beregond, as the hordes of Mordor approach Minas Tirith. [3]

The trickster brings the essence of fallible humanity to a group of characters that can be otherwise too perfect. Their influence on the hero also offers us moments of hilarity and pathos.

The character who plays the trickster guides us through the darker aspects of a story with their wit and ironic humor. Thanks to them, the story is not quite so frightening, even when things are really bad.

The trickster sometimes emerges in my work, but I don’t always recognize them until my reading posse gets my manuscript. They will point out areas where I could use this character to better show certain aspects of the action.

I highly recommend The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler. It is one of the foundation books in my reference library, and I refer back to it often, especially in the early stages of a manuscript.

Hero, villain, mentor, or trickster—knowing what archetype a character embodies helps me identify their potential role within the story.

Credits and Attributions:

Star Wars movie poster © 1977 Lucasfilm Ltd., via Wikimedia Commons. Production company: Lucasfilm Ltd. Distributed by 20th Century Fox Release date May 25, 1977 (United States) Fair Use.

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Trickster,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Trickster&oldid=811022016 (accessed December 5, 2017).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Writer%27s_Journey:_Mythic_Structure_for_Writers&oldid=804454608  (accessed December 5, 2017).

[3] Wikipedia contributors, “Pippin Took,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pippin_Took&oldid=1010711687 (accessed March 9, 2021).


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