Loki

Anansi

Mica.

These names speak of gods and supernatural entities that are not villains by definition, but rather mischievous antagonists. Their actions tend to set them at odds with the protagonist, as they foil, delay, or stymie the efforts of the “hero” to achieve their end goal. However, the darker versions of these characters trend almost exclusively toward the “evil”.

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Trickster: The Origins

Tricksters, particularly trickster gods, have been a staple of mythology since ancient cultures.

  • Loki from Norse mythology was more cunning than all the other gods, and he would use his trickery to turn the tables, control the other gods, or get himself out of trouble.
  • The Lakota tribes had Iktomi, a spider-trickster and shapeshifter who can control gods as well as humans.
  • The Asante people of Ghana told tales of Anansi, the spider god. He was popular among the slaves brought to the Caribbean and New World because he used his cunning and trickery to gain the upper hand over his powerful oppressors.

Trickster characters aren’t typically evil—they simply use their cunning and deceit to get what they want, usually through underhanded means. Given that honesty is one of the more “heroic” traits, it stands to reason that this sort of deceitful character would be considered a villain or antagonist.

At the core of their being, tricksters want the same thing we all do: freedom. Their imperative is to act against the established rule of law, the gods, or the parts of their society that prevent them from doing what they want to.

Psychologists have established that rule-breakers tend to appear more powerful than those who adhere to the law strictly. Subjects in one study believed that rule breakers had more power and control, and were more easily able to get others to do what they want.

There’s just one problem with their actions: they break many rules that were established for the wellbeing of those around them. Tricksters tend to be self-absorbed and selfish, with their focus on themselves, their desires, and their hurts. Thus, their actions, while not intended to harm others, often end up affecting people negatively.

There are, of course, master manipulators who use cruel means to achieve their ends, sadists who use their cunning to hurt and control others, and sociopaths who manipulate others without their ever realizing it. However, the more “classic” trickster is usually someone “playing to type”—i.e. it is in their nature and personality to be cunning, and they have lower conscientiousness than the average rule-follower.

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In Stories

Tricksters are typically secondary antagonists, and their motives are rarely full-on evil:

  • Loki in the original Thor movie was far more trickster and less world conqueror, and that portrayal continues throughout the other Thor movies.
  • Reynard the Fox from The Magicians is one of the darker tricksters, and a downright criminal.
  • Littlefinger in the Game of Thrones TV series is reminiscent of a trickster, using his cunning and deceit to manipulate others to get what he wants: power.

From simply mischievous to downright evil, tricksters come in many shades of moral grey.

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