Everyone loves a smart ass. Whether it’s Loki from Norse mythology or Deadpool and his wise-cracking girlfriend Vanessa, tricksters are an important archetype. In novels, they lend a sense of unpredictability to the plot and in myth they challenge accepted norms, even gender norms. They teach us that human beings can survive by their wits. That can be reassuring during a time when the use of money and power—both physical and political—are in the forefront of everyone’s minds.
Tricksters are the vehicle through which human beings question and sometimes mock authority and the status quo. They’re quintessential rule breakers and can take the place of the hero or the villain—in some cases, they occupy both roles at the same time.
Here are five great examples.
The Vorkosigan Series by Lois McMaster Bujold
Miles is a nice guy from a nice family. He seems honest and honorable. He’s even charming and empathetic. However, he’s also a young man who (in The Warrior’s Apprentice) acquires an entire mercenary fleet by lying his ass off, stealing a jumpship, and writing a vast fortune in hot checks. In spite of all this, everyone puts their faith in him as he end-runs his way through galaxies of problems with willpower, nimble intellect, and a healthy dose of luck. And while he’s quick with a comeback, he’s also thoughtful enough to know when to quit. Mostly. At one point in the book he (tellingly) explains to another character that he doesn’t have time to consider his fear. “I’ve got forward momentum. There’s no virtue in it. It’s just a balancing act. I don’t dare stop.” It’s like watching a trained athlete sprint their way through an obstacle course designed by Rube Goldberg. It’s breath-taking.
Moist von Lipwig
The Discworld Series by Sir Terry Pratchett
Moist is definitely someone that no one in their right mind should trust. He’s a talented con artist as well as an adrenaline junky. When we first meet him in Going Postal, he’s in a prison cell, having been convicted of fraud and theft. Soon Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, gives him a choice. Either he can walk out the door (and fall to his death via a pit trap) or he can be responsible for the city-state’s failed post office. Moist chooses the latter. What follows is not only the story of how he restores a post office system that has choked to death on its own bureaucracy via mountains of undelivered letters but also a skillful takedown of libertarianism and Ayn Rand. The book features an angel, a golem parole officer, the introduction of the postage stamp, Discworld’s analog for the internet—the Grand Trunk Clacks line, a banshee assassin, a CEO named Reacher Gilt, and a group of hackers who call themselves “The Smoking Gnu.” In the end, Moist turns out to be the only person the Patrician can trust to survive long enough to do the job.
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
Locke is probably one of the most beloved characters in fantasy. Another sympathetic con-man with a heart of, if not gold at least brass. Locke is loyal to his friends. He’s also sort of a Robin Hood figure, in that he robs the rich and gives to the poor—himself and his friends. The Gentlemen Bastards (Locke and his crew) are known to be small time thieves who pay Capa Barsavi, the crime boss of Camorr, a modest sum in the form of dues. However, not even Capa Barsavi is aware that Locke and his friends have been surreptitiously stealing from Camorr’s elite. This, in spite of the Duke’s Secret Peace—an unwritten agreement designed to protect the upper class and specific government representatives. Luckily for The Gentlemen Bastards their clandestine exploits are blamed upon the mysterious “Thorn of Camorr.” However, it becomes apparent that not everyone is fooled, and eventually, Locke becomes embroiled in the city’s political and criminal intrigue, getting many of his friends killed in the process. Not someone you’d want to be within a hundred feet of in reality, but he’s a wonderful character.
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
Spider and Fat Charlie are literally the twin sons of the West African trickster god, Anansi. When Fat Charlie is told his father (Mr. Nancy) has died, he must travel to Florida. There, he discovers his father is an incarnation of the trickster god. In addition, Charlie finds out that he has a twin brother who inherited their father’s powers. Before leaving, Charlie is encouraged to contact his twin by talking to a spider. Charlie dismisses the idea as ridiculous and all is well until he is home and safe in England. On a drunken whim, he tells a spider that it’d be nice if his brother came for a visit. The next day, Charlie’s twin arrives in the form of a well-dressed man named Spider. Eventually, Spider decides to take Charlie’s place at work while Charlie stays home with a hangover and then (as you can imagine) things go horribly, horribly awry.
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
Honestly, you can’t compile a list like this without including Tyrion. He certainly qualifies as a person you can’t help liking and even admiring in spite of his many flaws. He lives by his wits because, compared to his siblings and everyone around him, it’s all he has. His father hates him and blames him for his mother’s death. So does his sister Cersei. In a world filled with twisted, awful characters, he’s the only one whose journey takes him from bad person to one that’s the most human. He’s also the most sympathetic character with the longest lifespan in the series.
You’ve probably noticed that all these popular examples are male. This, in spite of the fact that the Trickster is known for flirting with established borders around gender. There’s a reason for that. The answer lies in the first paragraph. The trickster is a powerful archetype used not merely to question authority, but to defy it and in some cases make fun of it. The world is currently experiencing a real threat from authoritarianism. And history has repeatedly demonstrated that if there’s one thing authoritarian regimes are firm on, it’s traditional gender roles, ableism, and racism. So, it shouldn’t be surprising given that we live during a time when the LGBTQ+ community is in danger of a roll back in basic human rights, transgender individuals are experiencing a dramatic uptick in violent hate crimes, and reproductive healthcare restrictions on not only abortion rights but birth control availability are negatively impacting persons with uteri. With this information in hand, it shouldn’t surprise you that an archetype known for breaking the rules and thumbing their nose at authority has been largely restricted to cis male characters in popular Science Fiction and Fantasy.
There are rare exceptions, mind you. There’s Harley Quinn for instance, but she isn’t a character from a novel. So, she doesn’t count for the sake of this list. There’s Matilda from Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, but it’s a children’s story and the same is true of Pipi Longstocking. It’s also interesting to note that these two characters are girls, not women. There’s a reason for that, too, but there’s no space in this article to explore that issue. Looking outside of Western cultures, it’s easier to find more plentiful trickster women. For example: Japanese folklore has the kitsune—the fox fairies; the Māori have Ārohirohi, the goddess of mirages; and Kuku-Lau is a Polynesian goddess of deception. Hopefully as Feminism’s political influence increases, we’ll see more women as tricksters in Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Stina Leicht is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in central Texas. Her second novel, And Blue Skies From Pain, was on the Locus Recommended Reading list for 2012. She was an Astounding Award for Best New Writer finalist in 2011 and in 2012. In 2011, she was also shortlisted for the Crawford Award, and she is the host of the Hugo-nominated podcast Skiffy and Fanty.