Part two of an ongoing series. Read part one here!
Last time I wrote about character archetypes, I looked at specific archetypes pertaining to heroes and villains– the most common characters in fiction. This week we’ll be stepping away from that a bit, though still talking about major and plot-important characters. Because as important as your main protagonistic force and your main antagonistic force are, it’s often necessary to populate the story around those two forces. More often than not, however, these characters often come off as more functional characters than fully rounded characters.
There will be times when you have to have a functional character. Sometimes you need someone to give out exposition or technobabble and there’s not enough time to give them a personality. However, the closer the character is to your protagonist, the more rounded the character should be. Horatio has motivations and fully realized relationships, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, not so much. At least, until they do. A comic relief character can work very well, but if they’re the best friend of the main character and show up in several scenes, they’re going to seem rather one note.
These character archetypes can often come off as one note, as it is either particularly easy to write them as a purely functional character, or it is particularly difficult to properly write them. As you’re thinking about these archetypes, think about how they relate to your protagonist and antagonist, and what might make their relationships to the other characters more complex and realistic.
The Rival is not necissarily the main antagonistic force against the protagonist, but they are a significant and often more personal antagonist. They’re often objectively better than the main character at whatever thing the character does or wants to do, or they’re the next best and very bitter about it. They’re also a stark foil to the protagonist– Elphaba is nerdy and green and very much disliked by her classmates, Galinda is the queen bee of the school and has an entire song about being popular.
Depending on how you want the dynamic of your protagonist and their rival, you can fall into one of two traps. The first is that they fall to the rule of “show-don’t-tell” and despite the fact that everyone says they’re better than your hero, they keep losing to the hero and it gets frustrating. One of the ways to avoid this is to show their talents outside of the protagonist– basically, show them winning– and then, when they finally lose to the hero, it seems like more of a feat. At the end of the first generation of Pokémon games, Gary Oak is the Pokémon Champion and you have to beat him so that you can be the very best, like no one ever was. And as with any Pokémon game, having a literal god in your pocket helps.
The second (and this is especially true in episodic storytelling) their one goal is to beat the hero in whatever thing the two of them do and just can’t do it. People like an underdog story, and so if your rival just keeps losing, they might garner the audience’s sympathy more than you intended. Avoiding this can be solved the same way– show them winning. Seto Kaiba loses against Yugi Muto/Atem in the very first episode, but almost every other duel he’s in he wins, unless he needs to lose for plot reasons.
In Western Culture, most mentor characters can be traced back to one particular mentor: Myrddin Emrys, or Merlin Ambrosius from Arthurian legend. If you think of a mentor character being an old man with a long white beard, you’re thinking of an aspect of Merlin. They’re often very well educated, and take an actual job as an instructor or teacher. This is, of course, mostly in terms of Fantasy– it’s different in other genres. In the MCU, Nick Fury acts as a mentor figure to many of the Avengers, particularly Black Widow, Steve Rogers, and Tony Stark. Tony Stark himself has become a mentor to Peter Parker, and is definitely not a Merlin type. Characters who serve as parental guidance for characters, like Juan in Moonlight or Ducky from NCIS, can also be classified as mentors. Mentors are also characters that most often have the largest target on their backs, even in a story where most of the characters don’t die.
There are many common pitfalls in writing mentors. In Fantasy, it’s easy to just put a new coat of paint on a Merlin character and call it a day. It’s also easy to turn them into a font of exposition and little else before they die tragically to give the protagonist motivation. Remember, an archetpye is not a complete character in and of themself. Develop the relationship between your protagonist and their mentor, and show it on the page. You can also complicate your mentor by having them not be perfect. Giles had a dark past and created more than a few personal demons. Dumbledore was manipulative and distrusting, and only told people what he thought they needed to know. Obi-wan straight up lied to Luke about what happened to his father. You can then turn those flaws and mistakes around and use them to develop your protagonist.
Tricksters are an interesting case– as fitting their mutable nature, they can fit into any role in a story. There’s all sorts of tricksters in literature and folklore– Anansi from West Africa, Br’er Rabbit from the American Deep South, Eris and Hermes from Greece. While tricksters can fulfill many different roles, they all have a few things in common: they use their wit, guile, and charisma to charm or otherwise finagle situations into their favor; they rarely fit in with what are considered typical social norms in their society; and chiefly, they play the Fool. That is, they often act in a way that exposes the root of others foolishness. Their pranks and jokes are deliberate in their acts to expose the folly in others. For example: Fred and George’s pranks during Harry’s fifth year up to and including their epic flight from Hogwarts were all to show Dolores Umbridge (and, by extension, the Ministry of Magic) that is was impossible to control Hogwarts.
The Trickster as Hero
The trickster as a heroic figure is often a kind of anti-hero. They do things more for themself than for others, or they lie, cheat, and steal to achieve their goals, or they intentionally antagonize their allies as much as they do their enemies. But overall they try to use their abilities to restore balance and exact justice. In Le nozze di Figaro, Figaro and Susanna successfully prevent Count Almaviva from stopping their wedding and trick him into remembering his affections for his wife. These characters can often be anti-heroes as well, using overly violent methods to achieve their ends. In the infamous “Season Zero” of the original Yu-Gi-Oh! anime, Atem plays several different “shadow games” outside of what would become the standard Duel Monsters card game including the traditional ancient Egyptian weighing of the heart, stabbing money off the back of your hand with a knife, and picking a finger with which to kill your opponent and the first to die loses. You know, for kids.
The Trickster as Villain
The trickster as a villain, or antagonistic force, is a very common trope. It’s fun to watch an inherently charismatic and chaotic villain at work, and it works (in terms of Western thought at least) because we have a natural desire for order and control, and so defeating a person that embodies chaos and entropy is satisfying. But the easiest way to mess up a trickster villain is when you equate chaotic with randomness. The easiest case study for this is the Joker, it is very easy to do the Joker wrong. The point of the Joker is that he’s trying to be funny. It’s a twisted sense of humor, sure, but there’s supposed to be a punchline. In fact, the Joker has at times admonished his henchpeople for either not getting the joke or for ruining the punchline. As with any villain, a trickster villain needs a goal– no matter how strange or trivial it may seem.
The Trickster as Mentor
The trickster mentor is an interesting combination of archetypes. They’re there to teach, but it’s not in the most straightforward of methods. Often, these mentors are paired with students who think that they have nothing left to learn, or that they have more knowledge than they actually do. Their role is to cut into the arrogance and pride of their student in order to get to the root of what they need to know. They use their own puckish actions to demonstrate that their student might not know everything. A great example of this is in the Next Gen episode “Q Who?”, where Q seems to, on a whim, throw the Enterprise halfway across the galaxy because he was upset with Picard over being denied a place on the crew. This introduces the Enterprise to the Borg (who had been making their way to the Alpha Quadrant anyways, if you rewatch seasons one and two up to that point there are mentions of Borg activity) and shows that perhaps even the flagship of the Federation isn’t going to be prepared for anything. As Q says: “It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.”
Filling out the cast around your main character and primary antagonist helps create more opportunities for development, subplot, and conflict. If nothing else it gives your characters someone to talk to.
What archetypes would you like to see me cover in a future post? Who are some of your favorite rivals or mentors? Are there any other trickster archetypes you’re interested in? Let me know in the comments. Also, like if you can, and subscribe– or follow us on Facebook!— so you don’t miss any new content.