SPECS & THE CITY: The Trickster Archetype and ‘Beetlejuice’

Brad Johnson is a screenwriter promoting the mantra “Read scripts, watch movies, and write pages.” Brad also works as a script consultant for writers of all levels to develop and grow their screenwriting toolbox. Follow Brad on Twitter @RWWFilm.

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When I previously discussed the Mentor archetype, I mentioned that it tends to be the most straightforward of all the standard archetypes you find in stories. In this column, we’re going to look at the opposite end of that spectrum: The Trickster.

What makes The Trickster archetype so fascinating is the fact that it’s so difficult to provide one definition for what role they play in any given story. Joseph Campbell described The Trickster’s function as “to disrupt,” but that’s such a broad brush to paint with that it makes it near worthless to use as anything other than a starting point.  To bring it into slightly sharper focus, The Trickster should openly question and mock authority – they relish in the breaking of rules – but at the same time, they often bringing new wisdom or a fresh perspective to the Hero and are vital to success of the journey.

Adding to the mystery of Trickster archetype is that there are countless ways they can accomplish these tasks. To illustrate, let’s look at the wide variety of roles they can play within a script. The Trickster can function as the antagonist of your Hero (The Joker in The Dark Knight), an ally that tends to take things too far in their enthusiasm to help (Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski), or they can flip back and forth at their whim (Petyr Baelish in Game of Thrones). Under the right circumstance, The Trickster can even be the protagonist of your story (Bugs Bunny or Ferris Bueller in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

To help us explore in a little more detail, let’s take a look at what is, in my opinion, a truly classic film Trickster…

Archetypes: The Trickster and Beetlejuice

beetlejuice

Most of us should be familiar with Tim Burton’s 1988 classic (written by Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren) about a loving couple – Adam and Barbara Maitland – who have an unfortunate accident and spend the majority of the movie learning the ins-and-outs of the afterlife. They, and the human family who moves into their home after their death, eventually encounter the films titular ghost and Trickster, and hilarity ensues.

Beetlejuice is a Trickster to such a degree, that he has been banished by the administrative forces of the afterlife – he breaks every rule in the (actual) rulebook for the newly deceased that is provided to the Maitlands early on. He brings chaos into the story, but ultimately everyone ends up better off – and having experienced personal growth – for having gone through the experience of dealing with/defeating Beetlejuice.

So how does Beetlejuice fit the checklist of functions for The Trickster archetype? Let’s see:

  • They thrive on havoc and chaos (There’s no denying that Beetlejuice is a force of chaos)
  • They can operate either out of malice or necessity (Beetlejuice functions as a combination of both of these methods at different points in the film; transitioning from necessity – he wants to be summoned – to full malice towards the end when he becomes more of an antagonist Trickster)
  • They refuse to follow the rules and actually rather relish the idea of breaking them (you don’t have to look any further than the final afterlife waiting room scene where Beetlejuice switches his ticket with the headshrinker to understand how deeply ingrained breaking the rules – any rule – is in the character)
  • They play an important role in the evolution of the protagonist throughout the story (Beetlejuice’s actions directly impact the arc of every other character in the movie)

And there you have it. Does your story have a Trickster? If so, explore the character a bit and really figure out which type of Trickster you have. That will help you mold their behavior in an appropriate way that is impactful to your story.

You can also read articles on the other archetypes we’ve already discussed here:

Secondary Characters: Techniques for Writing Unforgettable Supporting Characters

ws_secondarycharacter-500_medium-1Get help creating your secondary characters with Ruth Atkinson’s webinar
Secondary Characters: Techniques for Writing Unforgettable Supporting Characters

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