Archetypes are universal character patterns that appear again and again in stories throughout history—and the trickster archetype is one of the most popular of all. Tricksters range from light-hearted and humorous to calculating and sinister. They can be your hero’s best friend, a mortal enemy, or even both.

Here’s what makes a trickster archetype stand out from other characters, some literary and pop culture examples of this archetype that you can learn from, and some tips on effectively incorporate this character archetype into your next story.

What is the trickster archetype?

The trickster archetype is a literary figure characterized by mischief and cunning. They bring chaos and destruction to a story, and they can be forces for good or evil. Their role is to challenge or disrupt the status quo. Tricksters can be found in ancient world mythology as well as in modern novels, films, and TV.

The trickster can be a main character or a secondary character. Additionally, this is one archetype that can be combined with others. For example, you could have a trickster archetype character that also plays the role of the rebel archetype or even a hero.

The trickster is a literary archetype known for their duplicity and cunning.

Why tricksters are effective characters

Tricksters are some of the most popular and memorable characters across literature. Beyond the mere fact that they’re fun to write, this archetype can impact your plot, characters, and story theme in unique ways. Let’s look at why a trickster character might be a good choice for your story.

A trickster creates conflict

A great plot hinges on conflict. Without conflict, you have no story. A trickster’s role is to shake things up and create suspense as the hero works towards their goal.

The trickster doesn’t need to be your primary antagonist or even a major character within your story for this to be the case. One selfish choice can set a plot in motion. A lie told for the trickster’s own amusement can set your hero down the wrong path.

Because you never know what a trickster is going to do next, this archetype is a great choice for inciting conflict and raising big dramatic questions for your reader.

A trickster communicates morality and theme

Beyond simply creating conflict, think of how a trickster’s disruption of your character’s life can also play into your book’s theme. Many literary themes deal with disruption in some way, whether that be the disruption of social order, a family unit, or a character’s beliefs. A trickster can be easily incorporated into conveying such a theme.

Within your story’s theme, a trickster character can also be used to prove a moral point. This is particularly true in mythology and oral tradition, wherein trickster characters would show the listener or reader the negative consequences of traits such as dishonesty or selfishness.

If your story includes a theme that attempts to prove some sort of moral point, your trickster can help show your readers why they might want to behave (or not behave) in a certain way.

A trickster can add comic relief

While this is only one very small aspect of the trickster archetype, it still remains true for all trickster characters: they’re sure to make readers or audiences laugh.

If you worry that your story is getting a little gritty and you want to add some levity, a trickster character is the perfect fit. They may have a dark side, but but they have relatable, ridiculous moments that make us smile at our own humanity.

Trickster archetype examples

You will likely recognize many of the trickster archetype examples found throughout modern literature, folklore, and popular culture. Some of them have become our most beloved literary figures.

Trickster archetypes from mythology and folklore

Tricksters are as ancient as world myth, and folklore is filled with them. Here are a few of the more famous examples.

Loki from Norse mythology

While Loki is a big part of Norse mythology, you may know him best from the Marvel Comics universe. Loki is also one of the most well known examples of the trickster archetype, and Loki is often called the god of mischief.

In both the Marvel universe and the traditional myth, Loki—like any archetypal trickster god—hovers between good and bad and causes problems for the other Norse gods.

Māui in Polynesian mythology

This shapeshifting trickster can be traced to the Māori mythology of various Polynesian islands and countries. As such, there are many different stories about Māui’s exploits and adventures, but he’s particularly known for being clever and going against the social or cultural expectations. You may recognize this character from Disney’s “Moana.”

Anansi in African folklore

Originating in Ghana, the tales of Anansi—a god of wisdom and trickery—spread throughout the continent and to the Caribbean. Anansi is a shapeshifter and often takes the shape of a spider. This god was known for outsmarting those stronger than him via his wit, a characteristic that we commonly see among tricksters. Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys is a good literary example of this trickster archetype.

The trickster is a character that often mocks authority and abandons traditional ideas of good and evil.

Eris and Dionysus in Greek mythology

Dionysus is known for a lot of things—free-flowing wine, festivity, fertility, and basically having a good time. However, Dionysus is also sometimes considered one of the tricksters among Greek gods due to the god’s moral ambiguity, selfishness, shapeshifting and unpredictability.

Likewise, Eris could be considered a trickster, and this goddess is known as the goddess of discord. Throughout Greek myths, Eris is blamed for starting a lot of that discord and a lot of conflict, including full-blown wars between other gods or between humans.

Animal tricksters in Indigenous cultures

When we look at the oral traditions of Indigenous cultures and the folktales that have been passed down through the centuries, we see a variety of trickster archetypes. Different tribes adopted trickster spirits and characters that differed in name or shape, but which still all displayed trickster characteristics.

Many of these cultures apply the trickster archetype to an animal that they felt portrayed some of the classic trickster characteristics. For example, the fox often plays a trickster role in Indigenous stories, as foxes are known as being particularly sly, cunning creatures. Likewise, some tribes depicted the trickster as a raven, a bird that’s notoriously smart. The trickster has also been depicted as a coyote, causing discord and disharmony among other animals and humans, playing in that unpredictable, gray area that the trickster archetype likes so much.

Fairies in Western European folkore

In medieval and later Western European cultures, fairies appear as a popular trickster figure. Throughout folktales and cultural beliefs, fairies may be either good or bad, but they are always reliably selfish. They love to play tricks on humans and are always looking for a fun time. They particularly know how to use words and clever language to achieve their ends.

Historically, a range of misfortunes would be blamed on fairies, from losing items to being lost; but, sometimes, more serious crimes would be likewise blamed on fairies, even death.

Trickster archetypes from literature

Classic literature is also filled with beloved trickster figures like these!

Tom Sawyer in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Tom Sawyer is a good example of a trickster in literature that also plays a leading role. Tom Sawyer’s trickery is low-stakes, never “evil”, and there’s no betrayal of others who will meet their death due to Tom’s actions. Nonetheless, Tom displays characteristics of a classic trickster, such as using trickery and cunning turns of phrases to manipulate and convince others to do what he wants.

Tricksters can overlap with other character archetypes like jesters, rebels, and even heroes.

Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

In some cases, the trickster archetype can be combined with the jester archetype. In Puck’s case, he’s mischievous and plays tricks, but, at the end, leans more good-hearted than mean-spirited. He shows a lack of concern for others as he makes his mischief and always has a witty remark, characteristic of tricksters, and much of the play relies on his trickery.

Trickster archetypes from film and TV

Trickster archetypes have entertained film and TV audiences for generations.

Bugs Bunny from the Loony Toons series

The cartoon character Bugs Bunny is both the hero in his story and also a trickster archetype. Viewers, when asked, would likely say that he’s the “good guy” as opposed to the other animals who want to, in some cases, trap and eat him. However, Bugs Bunny is constantly playing tricks and using this trickery to harm his opponents, to varying degrees of severity. His action could be viewed as violent or sadistic and yet, we root for him every time.

Jack Sparrow from The Pirates of the Caribbean

The pirate Jack Sparrow is one of three main characters in the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and he is undeniably a trickster. On some days, he seems like one of the good guys, helping the other characters reach their goals. On other days, he’s clearly on the bad team, betraying his friends left and right. However, whatever side he’s on, he’s always on his own side and, even though he has relatively few resources compared to some of the other players in this franchise, he always uses his wits and cunning to overcome his problems.

Tricksters are just one of the archetypes that live within our collective unconscious, but they resonate powerfully.

How to write a strong trickster archetype

So what makes the trickster archetype stand out from any other character who may enjoy a good joke? There are a few key characteristics and a recurring theme or two that help define the trickster archetype in a story.

1. Highlight your trickster’s cunning

The trickster’s most important weapon in their arsenal at any time is their cunning. In some stories, in order to highlight this, the trickster is left devoid of all other advantages and resources; for example, they may be physically smaller or weaker than those around them, they may be part of a disadvantaged group, etc.

The trickster archetype can always rely on their own wits to get them out of a tight spot. This character knows how to get what they want via a few conversations, twisting words and their meaning, sometimes lying their way out of trouble… or at least not revealing full truths.

If your trickster is also playing the role of the story’s hero, they’ll rely on their cunning in the final stages of their hero’s journey, when they need to overcome the odds and defeat the antagonist one final time.

2. Blur your trickster’s morality

The trickster archetype is often a gray-area character. Sometimes, their actions could be construed as “bad,” even though they’re generally a “good” character, or vice versa. The trickster archetype is often surprising in this way. You’ll think they’re definitely corrupted, then they’ll pull something that makes you think they have a good side after all. You’ll think they’re on the good guys’ side, and then they pull a trick that betrays everyone.

This character usually displays negative traits like hubris (due to their amazing intelligence and sly cunning), impulsiveness, and selfishness. The trickster archetype is always looking out for themselves. They put their own interests first and are always looking for ways they can benefit from a situation (typically through mischievous means). This makes them great archetypes to use as antihero characters.

The only instance where this might not be the case is when the trickster pulls one of their characteristic surprises and performs a selfless act (though this selfless act is often connected in some way to their arrogance—if they’re going to sacrifice themselves for the team, they’re going to do so in flashy, look-at-me-and-how-great-I-am fashion). Sometimes, however, a trickster’s arrogance can be a cover for their true vulnerability.

The trickster doesn’t follow the normal rules or subscribe to conventional behavior.

The trickster archetype doesn’t care about authority or the way things have always been done. They’re too focused on their own needs, goals, and desires to care about adhering to someone else’s rule book, and so when conflict arises, the trickster openly questions the status quo. As such, they can often be seen as in conflict with authority or society, and they often encourage other characters to abandon the status quo as well.

3. Use your trickster to create humor

The trickster archetype is a bit of a joker. While they’re by no means just around for comic relief, they can offer some comedic elements, because the trickster will always have some sort of humorous quip or observation that plays on other characters’ discomfiture. Yes, those quips or observations can be rude, offensive, or even downright mean, and show a twisted sense of humor, but they can still often elicit a chuckle or two from the audience.

4. Show your trickster’s resilience and adaptability

A trickster archetype always bounces back when they’ve been beaten down. The trickster survives some tough situations. Their arrogance makes it so that they have quite a lot of faith in themselves and, if they’re pushed down, they’ll just get up again and try again—confident that this time they’ll figure things out and reach their goal.

In many cultures, this ability to adapt manifests as shapeshifting. Several trickster archetype examples from myths and legends transform into a wily animal. When this characteristic is displayed figuratively, the trickster can “shapeshift” to fit their surroundings by changing the impact they have on others and the impressions that they make. Whichever the case, though, literal or figurative, this shapeshifting is typically done in order to help the trickster manipulate or achieve their goal.

In addition to their resilience, the trickster archetype can be unfailing patient. They’ll wait as long as it takes for one of their ruses to produce the desired effect. Sometimes, they’ll formulate tricks and traps that take years to fully unfold. However, again, that over-abundance of confidence helps them keep their eye on the prize, knowing that their long-term efforts will be worth it.

Note that because of the trickster’s selfish ways and constant scheming, they don’t really do well in relationships (at least not in healthy relationships, that is). For this reason, you’ll often find that trickster characters are loners. They’re likely not romantically attached to anyone and would prefer to keep things casual. They might not have strong familial relationships, because those who’ve been around the trickster long enough have caught on to their ways. They might also be more likely to lose friendships due to their betrayals and selfishness.

In many tales, tricksters are portrayed as being alone in the world.

Use tricksters to give your story nuance

Tricksters, despite their selfishness and moral ambiguity, are popular throughout literature and mythology across the world for many good reasons. Humans like the predictability of archetypal characters (even when the trickster is, by nature, unpredictable). Plus, trickster characters are often just fun.

If you think that this type of character is exactly what your story needs, think about the examples of the trickster and their traits above as you craft your own trickster—and be sure to study the other literary archetypes to uncover further blueprints for creating characters that will resonate with audiences.