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Tag: trickster

A Long Way From Chicago By Richard Peck

A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck is a Newbery Honor book from 1998, set in the era of The Great Depression. An adult narrator looks back and remembers his wily trickster grandmother. This book is one of the most moving and well-written children’s books I’ve read, at once comical and resonant.


A Long Way From Chicago

On all the various covers of A Long Way From Chicago the image of Joey in the plane features strongly. In one of the chapters Grandma finagles Joey a ride on a plane at the country fair but the plane ride itself is very much secondary to the chapter, in which we and the child characters learn the extent of Grandma’s cunning — as well as how tricks can somehow backfire.

So what’s with the centrality of the plane illustration? Continue reading

The Blood Bay by Annie Proulx

At around the same time Annie Proulx published “The Blood Bay”, an episode of Six Feet Under saw Claire in big trouble for stealing a severed foot from her family’s funeral business and taking it with her to school. That episode, like this story, was darkly funny and made use of someone’s severed foot.

Six Feet Under, like The Blood Bay, uses a severed foot as prop in a darkly humorous episode.

Scene from Six Feet Under

It was inevitable that a TV series called something about feet would have to at one point make use of an actual foot. Dark comedy involving the loss of someone’s severed foot was used more recently in episode seven of season two of Animal Kingdom. (“Dig”)

While this is icky, North Americans haven’t been so squeamish about carrying around rabbits’ feet for good luck. Larry McMurtry writes of that practice in his cowboy novels. (Only the left hind foot is lucky.)

Severed human hands have a stronger history in folklore than severed feet. Characters with severed hands tend to be either victims, or monster-like villains. For more on that see Severed Hands as Symbols of Humanity in Legend and Popular Narrative by Scott White. The severed, walking hand also makes for a memorable horror scene.


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Storytelling Tips from Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman

Northern Lights is a YA story with broad appeal for adults. It follows mythic structure.

The story has been adapted into a film (2007) and also into an action/adventure puzzle game (by Sega). While in some cases films can be just as enjoyable — or even more enjoyable — than the books upon which they are based, that is nowhere near true in this case. There are many reasons for this which resulted from too many cooks spoiling the broth. Not least: Continue reading

Desperate Housewives Storytelling Tips

Desperate Housewives ran for eight seasons from 2004 to 2012. This show is a great example of a ‘cozy mystery’.


Taglines are for the marketing copy. 

Season One: Everyone has a little dirty laundry…/Secrets. Romance. Murder. All On One Street.



For maximum narrative drive the premise should be all about the plot. A premise that works will contain some sort of contrast.

“Secrets and truths unfold through the lives of female friends in one suburban neighborhood, after the mysterious suicide of a neighbor.”

The contrast in this logline is that ‘friends’ have ‘secrets’ in the ‘suburbs’, an arena we generally associate with ‘knowing everybody’s business’ and ‘nothing interesting ever happens’.


drama, mystery, satire

When Desperate Housewives first aired in 2004 it was the tone which drew me in. I hadn’t seen anything with quite that balance of 1950s housewife satire, comedy and mystery. It’s easy to forget that now because we’ve since seen a number of TV dramas with a similar vibe: Pretty Little Liars for one was pitched as ‘Desperate Housewives For Teens’. Like Desperate Housewives, there is a cast of four distinct female archetypes who are friends. There is also a slight supernatural overtone to the story, with a dead person pulling strings/narrating omnisciently.

The women on this show aren’t real women — nothing like it. An excellent example of the ‘unreality’ of the characters can be heard in the audio commentary to episode 15, season one. Marc Cherry is especially proud of his writing of this episode (and it was the first time they shifted to their new, more expansive set), so he guides DVD owners through the episode they called Impossible.  In this one, John’s roommate Justin blackmails Gabrielle into having sex with him by becoming their new gardener. Gabrielle turns the gardener down, both for sex and for free garden work with obvious strings attached, but her husband lets him in and he surprises her while she’s in her own bathroom upstairs. The male writer and producer tell us on the audio commentary that actress Eva Longoria did an excellent job of ‘taking control of the situation’ but was ‘rooted to the spot’ for the first few takes, terrified at the prospect of finding a well-muscled young man confronting her for sex in her own space. The scene is meant to be played as comedy. Longoria’s acting made it somewhere there, but I did watch this episode the first time thinking that it’s not good comedy material, and a ‘real woman’ would not react with Gabrielle’s bravado — not with genuine bravado — in that particular situation. From my perspective, the male writer on this occasion simply did not understand how terrifying this scenario would be for a woman, and seemed a bit mystified about why Eva Longoria had trouble acting her part in it.

The men are archetypes, too. Even the children are preternaturally scheming/mature/creepy, harking back to a time before the concept of childhood existed. In this ways and many others, Desperate Housewives is a series of fairytales.

The show was originally pitched with ‘comedy’ in its genre blend but none of the networks were interested. When it was re-pitched as ‘satire’ suddenly it found a home. Networks had assumed it was just another soap. But they realised the audience was ready for a ‘self-aware’ version of the daytime soap, and changing the genre from ‘comedy’ to ‘satire’ did the trick.


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The Great Fusilli Courage The Cowardly Dog:

The title card artwork is done by Margaret Frey. Main title by John R. Dilworth, the art director.


This is the last Courage story of season one and it is fitting that the creators have made a work of metafiction — in other words, the audience is reminded that they are watching a TV show.


Courage: That it’s up to him to save the day despite being an ordinary dog

Muriel: That she is oblivious and trusting and just a little prone to fancy

Eustace: That he is easily persuaded by the promise of riches (among many other faults, this one is often his downfall, as it is here.) Continue reading

Strat and Chatto by Jan Mark and David Hughes

Strat and Chatto is a picture book created by Jan Mark and David Hughes. Jan Mark was a British children’s book author who died about 10 years ago in 2006. She wrote for the picture book and chapter book age range. Her subject matter was mostly ordinary kids in ordinary settings. She also wrote plays and collections of short stories.

strat and chatto cover



David Hughes describes himself as “a graphic designer who happens to illustrate” which sounds suspiciously to me like he’s actively avoiding the condescension experienced by creators of children’s books. The truth is, though, that he hasn’t really illustrated many picture books compared to all the other work he has done. He also writes children’s books.

His background/forte in graphic design shines through on these pages, which are all double page spreads, with the action flowing beautifully across the page. (I haven’t scanned any of the double page spreads — the hard copy is necessary to enjoy those.)

White space is preserved, and busyness minimised, with the technique of filling some objects with colour and leaving others as outlines.

Another standout feature of these illustrations are the disgustingness of the creatures. Hughes achieves this by creating skeletal, long-fingered hands, spiny tails and wavy antennae.



Strat and Chatto is a story set in London, with a strong Cockney influence coming through in the rat. This rat is an animal version of the Rag and Bone man of yesteryear — a white, working class guy who gambles, drinks and plays darts at the pub when he’s not at work.

Like any old city, London is in a state of constant change — out with the old, in with the new. This cycle is emulated at the micro level in this story about the rotation of animals inclined to infest urban dwellings: cockroaches, rats, silverfish and also bats.




Our viewpoint character is the put-upon cat. The cat is presented as somewhat cuter than the other characters, though lacking in drive. This is his downfall.



All Chatto wants is this one rat out of his house.


The original (off-stage) opponent may be the rat throwing lentils onto his head, but this story begins with a far stronger opponent coming along.

See here for why rats are the baddies and mice are the goodies of children’s literature.

Readers do love tricksters, and the rat is an example of that archetype.


We don’t see the rat’s plan for a while, though we’re encouraged to guess.

This part of the story is very similar to Julia Donaldson’s A Squash and a Squeeze, in that a small dwelling becomes unbearably overcrowded with creatures, upsetting the original inhabitant. Donaldson’s story is created more like a modern fable with a message about not complaining about the size of your house, but this is a purely comic tale in which the reader is invited to guess at what the wily rat is up to.


I suspect the illustrator is not a huge fan of Nana Mouskouri.


Possibly the only instance of camel toe I have seen in a children’s book.



The battle scene is a busy scene where all the invaders come together.

Then Strat climbed in at the cat flap and yelled, “EVERYBODY OUT!”

And out of the cat flap came the bats and the cockroaches and the silverfish.


We realise the rat’s plan. We’ve been wondering all along why he’s been moving all his friends and acquaintances into the cat’s house — it’s because he wants to move in himself, since his own house is about to be demolished.


We realise now that this is a very clever circular story. The original rat probably weasled his way into the cat’s apartment by similar means.

Notice the tails here, intertwined, but in a stranglehold.

The long, bulbous fingers which have been emphasised throughout the book are framed for attention here. Long fingers indicate a long reach, and we find them creepy. I’m sure that’s why depictions of grey aliens feature similar hands.


The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch is another feminist picturebook from the 1980s in which a scruffy princess does not end up marrying the prince. In fact, it must be one of the earliest of its kind. It’s published in 1980 and remains one of Munsch’s most popular books.

Like others of its kind:

  • the prince is an unlikeable fellow
  • the princess does not look like a princess (beautiful and coiffed)
  • the princess is a trickster rather than compliant
  • it’s still set in a fairytale world but with modern additions here and there — this setting has a medieval backdrop such as castles and dragons with modern details such as tennis rackets and sweaters.

the paper bag princess cover Continue reading

Mirrors and Reflections 04: Doppelgangers

A doppelganger is an apparition or double of a living person. It comes from German, and translates literally from ‘double walker’. In fiction there are four main types of doppelangers:

  1. A ghostly double of a living person, especially one that haunts such a person.
  2. An evil twin.
  3. A remarkably similar double; a lookalike. This kind of doppelganger is also known as a ‘twin stranger’.
  4. (fantasy) A monster that takes the forms of people, usually after killing them.


Mr Monkey and Mr Monkey stuck together, from the Japanese picture book Kuttsuita by Miura Tarou

Mr Monkey and Mr Monkey stuck together, from the Japanese picture book Kuttsuita by Miura Tarou

Our picture book app Hilda Bewildered makes use of a doppelgänger, who may or may not exist in the real life of the story. The purpose? To demonstrate the theme: That there is really not that much difference between rich kids and poor kids other than circumstance of birth. Or as I heard Julian Fellowes say in an RNZ interview, in his experience there are genteel, good-looking and smart people to be found at every level of society.

Hero and the Imagined Self from Hilda Bewildered

Hero and the Imagined Self from Hilda Bewildered

The ghost writer of this Alfred Hitchcock novel from 1978 used the concept of the doppelgänger in a very camp way. Read accordingly.

But we all have doppelgangers, if you expand the concept a little.


If you’ve ever taken more than a brief glance at the ‘personalised’ advertising directed at you by companies such as Facebook, you may identify with the following:

Google thinks I’m interested in parenting, superhero movies, and shooter games. The data broker Acxiom thinks I like driving trucks. My data doppelgänger is made up of my browsing history, my status updates, my GPS locations, my responses to marketing mail, my credit card transactions, and my public records. Still, it constantly gets me wrong, often to hilarious effect. I take some comfort that the system doesn’t know me too well, yet it is unnerving when something is misdirected at me. Why do I take it so personally when personalization gets it wrong? 

The Atlantic


The Double Film Poster

A clerk in a government agency finds his unenviable life takes a turn for the horrific with the arrival of a new co-worker who is both his exact physical double and his opposite – confident, charismatic and seductive with women.

See this list: 20 Films About Doubles And Doppelgangers. Can you guess the most famous one?

The double/doppelganger is a subcategory of the trickster archetype. (Click through for a mindmap of tricksters in storytelling.)


Freaky Friday is a story which has been adapted numerous times for film. The Freaky Friday body swap is a different take on the doppelganger.


Changeling: You may be familiar with the film starring Angelina Jolie. See John Truby’s breakdown — for him the film didn’t work. Did it work for you?

Twins are also used a lot in storytelling. Often one is evil; other times both are evil, and since two minds are better than one by an order of magnitude, this is useful for storytellers.


 Goodreads List of Changelings and Doppelgangers

Goodreads List of Doppelgangers in general fiction

Goodreads List of Trading Places: YA

The Trickster Archetype In Storytelling

The trickster is a lower form of the magician archetype and — in various forms —  is very popular in modern storytelling. Audiences love characters who break the rules and outwit others to get what they want.

They often appear as pranksters or mischief-makers. In stories for adults and young adults tricksters can also have a sinister side.


STRENGTHS: Uses confidence, trickery, and a way with words to get what they want. Their antics can do great good. 

WEAKNESSES: May become complete liars who look out only for themselves. They’re often at the mercy of their own passions and vices (e.g. the seven deadly sins). Their antics can do great harm. Although it is the trickster’s job to shake things up, they can inadvertently end up preserving the moral code they seek to destroy.


What Is A Trickster, Exactly?

Tricksters can be found along the entire spectrum of morality. They can be supremely evil or extremely good. Most often they’re ambivalent, shifting back and forth as the story sees fit. Think Pennywise the Clown, who changes from scene to scene to be the monster the plot requires him to be. By the way, all clowns are descended from the trickster archetype. (Comedians, jesters, Medieval court fools, the masked actors of the Commedia dell’Arte, Punch and Judy.)

Tricksters don’t conform to the usual taboos, and can therefore help challenge them. They just don’t seem to care. Some of them, if real people, might be analysed as psychopaths. Because tricksters don’t worry so much about taboos, some of them are extremely scatological. For this same reason, native cultures have sometimes been reluctant to share these stories with ethnographers, and have probably gone under-recorded as a result.

Some animal characters are tricksters, established by storytellers such as Aesop. Foxes, ravens and other animals who live on their wits are most likely to get the trickster treatment in our stories.


Why Tricksters Work So Well In Narrative

In his book Secrets of Story, Matt Bird ranks five levels of scene work. From weakest to strongest he lists:

  1. Listen and Accept Scenes
  2. Listen and Dispute Scenes
  3. Extract Information or Action Directly Scenes
  4. Extract Information or Action Through Tricks and Traps Scenes
  5. Both Try To Trick and Trap Each Other And One Or Both Succeed Scenes

Notice how 4 and 5 are the most lively scenes? They both involve tricksters. Or, they both involve ‘tricks’. Even when your main characters aren’t trickster archetypes, it’s really  helpful if they sometimes use trickster tools to get what they want.

An audience identifies with a trickster because we all feel like we have hidden layers. The hidden layer of a trickster is that there is an ironic distance between what they appear to do and what they really do. Tricksters are inherently ironic, and irony is necessary for a story to work.

A Brief History Of Trickster

The word “trickster” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in the eighteenth century. However, the concept has been around for a lot longer than that.

Tricksters are descended from ancient gods.

Tricksters are “beings of the beginning, working in some complex relationship with the High God; transformers, helping to bring the present human world into being; performers of heroic acts on behalf of men, yet in their original form, and in some later forms, foolish, obscene, laughable, yet indomitable.”

— The Trickster in West Africa, Robert D. Pelton 

The term actually refers to a variety of different character archetypes, from the magician to the wise fool. A trickster can be a shapeshifter or parahuman creature or a human simpleton who blunders into good fortune.

In the Middle Ages, the Christian Feast of Fools was a celebration of tricksters. People dressed up as their reverse. Men as women, peasants as lords and so on. In Catholic countries there are the Carnaval festivities — fun before the hard days of Lent. (This is related to the term carnivalesque. Both are derived from the Latin word for ‘meat’. )

A lot of fairies are tricksters. Puck of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a good example.

Even today, scholars argue about the definition of this term, but writers don’t need to get into that. We can create any kind of trickster for our stories as we see fit.

Examples Across The Ages

  • Odysseus/Ulysses – Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus, a hero in ancient Greek literature. Odysseus is renowned for his brilliance, guile, and versatility, and is hence known by the epithet Odysseus the Cunning (mētis, or “cunning intelligence”).
  • Prometheus — Prometheus in European myth is both Trickster (when he steals fire from the gods) and culture hero (when he lifts the darkness for mankind).
  • Hermes – the Greek god. (Mercury to the Romans). According to prominent folklorist Yeleazar Meletinsky, Hermes is a deified trickster. He is the god of messengers, of merchants, and of financial transactions — but he’s also, in his dark aspect, the god of liars, gamblers, and thieves.
  • Merlin – from the Arthurian legend, perhaps based on 6th-century Druid living in southern Scotland. He causes trouble at his former wife’s wedding, for instance.
  • Brer Rabbit — For some reason, trickster rabbits and hares are found in stories from all over the world. Perhaps this is because they’re hard to catch, being so fast, disappearing into otherwise invisible holes in the ground.
  • Hares — Hare is the primary Trickster figure of various Native American tribes, particularly among the Algonquin–speaking peoples of the central and eastern woodlands.
  • Rumpelstiltskin
  • Cagliuso
  • Jack and the Beanstalk
  • Anansi the Spider — a trickster whose tales are known in many parts of Africa, the West Indies, and far beyond. His tales are generally humorous, with Anansi in the role of antihero. He breaks the rules, violates taboos, makes mockery of sacred things; he gets what he wants by plotting, scheming, lying and cheating. Anansi is famously lazy, greedy, pompous, vain, and ignorant — but he’s also very, very clever, usually outwitting everyone around him.
  • Reynard the Fox — a European epic of the Middle Ages. This fox is a satirical figure — greedy, wily. He dupes peasants and nobility alike.
  • Raven —  the central Trickster figure for many tribes on the North Pacific Coast of America.
  • Old Man Coyote — Old Man Coyote makes the earth, animals, and humans. He is the Indian Prometheus, bringing fire and daylight to the people. He positions the sun, moon, and stars in their proper places. He teaches humans how to live.
  • Coyotes — though this expectation is ironically explored in the Road Runner cartoon, though in common with Old Man Coyote, this one is soon on his feet again after any setback.. Coyotes are the best known animal trickster in North America.
  • Puss In Boots — a vain and silly creature, yet clever enough to win a castle and a princess for his master
  • Faust — and a devil waiting at the crossroads
  • A Muslim mullah
  • a Zen master
  • Jack — There are a whole lot of tales featuring a human simpleton called Jack. They come from Great Britain and the Appalachian Mountains of North America. There’s a similar character in German and Pennsylvanian Dutch cultures.
  • Eshu-Elegba is the trickster god of the Yoruba people of West Africa. Like Hermes, this fellow is the god of thresholds and roads. Eshu can be benevolent or malign — and is usually both these things at once, delighting in playing tricks on human beings and the other gods. Notice that the older variety of religions feature gods who are assholes but really nice also. Modern religious thought has no time for this. Why love a god who is also heinous?
  • Loki in Norse mythology is full of clever pranks that both undermine and benefit the gods of Asgard. He is an irrepressible liar, schemer, thief, and lover of practical jokes; he is also a shape–shifter, with the rare ability to shift between genders. Perhaps the character of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs is (problematically) based on this Loki character. (Transphobia goes way back.) Unlike Buffalo Bill, however, Loki is exuberantly amoral.
  • Maui is New Zealand and Hawaii’s folklore trickster. He may have created the world but he’s also a meddlesome troublemaker.
  • Iktomi — a small but powerful creature, devious and mischievous. According to the Lakota and Dakota (Sioux) tribes of the American Midwest, it was Iktomi who created time, space, and language, and gave all the animals their names, but he’s also a thief, a glutton, a letch, and “the grandfather of lies.”
  • Monkey King — famous in China
  • Lord Hanuman — the Monkey God of India is sometimes considered a trickster though he is upstanding rather than amoral.

Examples From Pop Culture

  • Carrie Mathieson — from Homeland does underhanded things in her job in order to do her job well, gets herself fired and committed to a mental institution
  • Sarah Manning — a mistress of disguise, often throws away the book in order to accomplish her goals
  • Jessica Jones — a private investigator from the Marvel franchise
  • The Doctor — Doctor Who
  • Walter White — Breaking Bad. On the other hand, we can’t stand watching Marie because she tries to get away with petty theft and keeps failing miserably. This is excruciating to watch and makes us hate her not just for the immoral behaviour itself but for the fact she fails.
  • Marty Byrde — Ozark — a Walter White off-shoot.
  • Newman — from Seinfeld
  • Bart Simpson — is always getting into trouble at school
  • Will — (Hugh Grant’s character) in About A Boy 
  • Tom Sawyer
  • Jack in Titanic — Leonardo DiCaprio plays a rogue charmer hero
  • The Usual Suspects
  • Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
  • Pirates of the Caribbean — Johnny Depp plays a rogue charmer
  • Men In Black
  • Ferris Bueller — Bueller, the hero of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, tricks everyone so that he can have a relaxing day off school
  • Silence of the Lambs — Hannibal Lecter is a trickster character who sets up a puzzle for Clarice to solve
  • James Bond — a (good-looking) loveable rogue
  • All of Eddie Murphy’s roles in his younger days, e.g. Beverly Hills Cop
  • Shock jock radio hosts — for breaking ‘taboos’ and hating on the politically correct crowd

There are many other subcategories of fictional tricksters. See the list at TV Tropes.

Tricksters In Children’s Stories

In children’s stories, the trickster and the underdog are the two main archetypes. Trickster heroes are more common in entertaining stories. In picture books you’ll find tricksters in ‘carnivalesque’ stories. Tricksters upset normal hierarchies and rules of everyday or official behaviour, either through cleverness or foolishness. There are plenty of tricksters in Aesop’s fables.


Trickster tales are humorous stories in which the hero, either in human or animal form, outwits or foils a more powerful opponent through the use of trickery. Anansi the spider is a trickster figure in African folklore; Iktomi, which means spider, comes from the U.S. Plains Indians and is generally in human flrom; Coyote is a trickster figure from southwestern Native American folklore; and Raven is from the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Picture book examples are A Story, a story (1970), illustrated by Gail E. Haley; Iktomi and the Boulder (1988), illustrated by Paul Goble; Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest (1993), illustrated by Gerald McDermott; Nail Soup (2007), illustrated by Paul Hess; and Mauri and the Big Fish (2003), illustrated by Frane Lessac.

— A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books By Denise I. Matulka

The Red Wolf by Margaret Shannon features a female picture book trickster.

  • The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy
  • Hannah’s Garden by Midori Snyder
  • A Rumor of Gems by Ellen Steiber
  • Deluge, by Albertine Strong
  • Chancers by Gerald Vizenor
  • Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore
  • Bone Game by Louis Owen

Tips For Writing A Good Trickster Character

  • Tricksters have extreme confidence.
  • They have a way with words.
  • They are fun-loving. By seeming not to care about common morality (always) they teach the audience how to have fun in life.
  • Deception is crucial. The  more deception, the better the story.
  • They are complete liars but we like to watch them in action so we do forgive them.
  • The trickster might be the main character, but if not, they are the hero’s main opponent.
  • Trickster opponents are very smart and have the ability to attack the hero, giving heroes a lot of grief.


New Female Tricksters

The original archetypal trickster is almost always gendered male.

Very occasionally in folklore you’ll come across a female trickster:

  • The seductive, deceptive foxes of Korea and Japan can be female. Note that ‘seduction‘ is a specifically feminine attribute that doesn’t seem to work for male tricksters in quite the same way, even though this Southeast Asian fox is seductive even when he is gendered male. This plays on the culturally dominant idea that men do the choosing, but if women want a part in choosing their own partners they must go about it in ‘underhanded’ ways (‘seduction’). In European tradition, the fox is gendered male — a handsome, smooth-talking knave.
  • There’s a wise-cracking Baubo in Greek Eleusinian myth. The modern Crabby Road cartoons featuring the wise-cracking old woman who loves wine is a descendent of Baubo. (My mother and aunties often share them on social media.)
  • In African-American culture there is clever Aunt Nancy. In A Long Way From Chicago, Richard Peck creates a clever trickster grandmother who is a joy to read.
  • The Hopi and Tewa Native American tribes feature a female coyote.

In children’s literature, Pippi Longstocking is the ‘tomboy girl’ equivalent of Tom Sawyer. (See also Anne Shirley and others.) These girl tricksters are very common in children’s stories being published today, as these characters have agency, and are therefore often referred to as ‘strong female characters’.  Female tricksters are equally popular among adult readers, as Maria Tatar points out below. Notice also the extra burden heaped upon female tricksters compared to the original male version:

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” series have given us female tricksters, women who are quick-witted, fleet-footed, and resolutely brave. Like their male counterparts—Coyote, Anansi, Raven, Rabbit, Hermes, Loki, and all those other mercurial survivors—these women are often famished (bulimic binges are their update on the mythical figure’s ravenous appetite), but also driven by mysterious cravings that make them appealingly enigmatic. Surrounded by predators, they quickly develop survival skills; they cross boundaries, challenge property rights, and outwit all who see them as easy prey. But, unlike their male analogues, they are not just cleverly resourceful and determined to survive. They’re also committed to social causes and political change.

– Maria Tatar

In modern culture we now have:

  • I Love Lucy
  • Hyacinth Bucket — Hyacinth comes from a low income family and pretends to the world that she is a respectable upper-middle class lady. It’s a full-time job tricking other middle class people into thinking she’s from respectable roots.
  • Roseanne — has a mischievousness about her
  • Madonna — plays the part of a trickster in some of her music videos
  • Rihanna — see the music video for Bitch Better Have My Money for instance
  • Sarah — from Orphan Black shows us that she’s a trickster from the pilot, pretending to be her doppelganger in order to solve the mystery of her origin. A number of her clones are also trickster types, especially the soccer mom.
  • Gabby — from Desperate Housewives is appealing because she’s constantly tricking her husband. This is a couple who are a constant state of oneupmanship. Roald Dahl’s Twits are this kind of couple, as are Vera and Jack Duckworth of Coronation Street.
  • Nicolette Grant — is the trickiest housewife in the Hendrickson family, but following in her footsteps is Rhonda Volmer, for whom everything backfires terribly. The compound women in Big Love learn trickery as a survival measure — it’s the only power they get. But the trickster characters are all punished in the end.

There are a number of Rhonda Volmer archetypes in pop culture — they’re not usually the star of the story. Teenage girls who present as sweet but who are liars and thieves. These girls are uniformly pretty, and like Rhonda they might be able to sing beautifully or something like that. They are often the opponent in a middle grade story, where the heroine is adorably straight-up, mostly lacking in guile. Ramona Quimby is lacking in guile, but her nemesis Susan is pretty but sly. This dynamic, set up by Beverly Cleary, has been repeated over and over in middle grade stories for and about girls.

Meanwhile, think of any female entertainer who is known as a ‘bitch’ and she probably has trickster attributes.

  • Most stories come from patriarchal cultures, where both hero and opponent are male.
  • It’s possible (and very likely) that stories about female tricksters once existed but have since been lost because they haven’t been considered worthy of recording
  • The female trickster may take a different form entirely, in which case we don’t consider her the female analogue of the same thing
  • There might be something about the trickster archetype that cultures see as primarily male. In this case, even in a hypothetical matriarchal culture, the trickster would be gendered male.

I posit that voters have higher expectations of female politicians just as audiences have higher expectations of female tricksters. This has a very real effect upon who makes it into office. Hillary Clinton is often described as ‘wily’, for instance, whereas the same behaviours from a man would be considered ‘clever’.

The Trickster As Story Genre

As well as referring to a character, the trickster is also a type of tale.

The Biter Bit

A subcategory of the trickster tale is the ‘biter bit’.

  • Biter bit is a technical editorial term used to describe a story about aggression, in which the aggressor becomes the victim.
  • The Biter Bit is an 1899 British short black-and-white silent comedy film featuring a boy playing a practical joke on a gardener by grasping his hose to stop the water flow and then letting go again when the gardener looks down it to check.
  • A biter bit story is usually told from the point of view of the eventual victim, who throughout the major part of the story seems to be the perpetrator of the joke, swindle, etc.
  • At the close of the story another biter-bit might begin.
  • At the story’s close, both sides might find themselves undone by another party even shrewder than they are.
  • The biter bit has two component parts:
    • a fairly original situation in which one man is doing another dirt
    • an ingenious reversal whereby the dirt is done the doer.
  • Probably about half of all jokes that do the rounds are biter-bit stories. Essentially, the biter-bit is an extended joke or anecdote. Just as in so many jokes, there is the non-malicious aggression and then the sudden setback for that aggressor. As in the joke, too, the story first sets up a taut situation and then explosively loosens it with an unexpected reversal. As with a successful joke, also, the good biter-bit must have a spark.
  • A good biter-bit story rests entirely on how good the switch is.
  • The morality of a biter bit is inherently conservative — people who seek to trick others get their own back.
  • In children’s stories in particular, it is important to certain gatekeepers that children with ill-intent are punished.

Roald Dahl was a fan of the biter bit. The Twits is an extended biter bit comedy. Many of his short stories for adults end with a trickster getting tricked back.

Who is the trickster in Road Runner? Wile E. Coyote has an ironically symbolic name — the road runner always ends up playing a better trick.


Further Reading

Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde


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