In Your Writing, Be the Bad Guy
Updated: Sep 13
The trickster archetype narrator and how to utilize it.
“How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also If I am to be whole.”
― Carl Gustav Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul
Everybody wants to be liked. We want to be the heroes of our own stories. It's often why our main characters are the most difficult to write. We base them on us and then we edit them down the same way we edit down our own public personas in order to show only the good bits.
What, did you think you'd been building yourself up this whole time?
As much as we'll deny it, we humans prefer to read about other flawed, contradictory, multilayered messes such as ourselves. Not perfect little archetypal fragments of a much larger picture. The truth is that we all contain every archetype. It’s just a matter of which ones we habitually choose to deploy. Deciding, then, to pull a wildcard archetype every so often creates interest, depth, and growth.
This doesn't only apply to your characters. It applies, especially, to your narrator — the person who sets the entire tone of the story. The person far more likely than the main character to reflect upon you.
I've often found that I'm bound to get blocked when I expect my narrator to be an omniscient God, overseeing all with a completely neutral perspective. Why? Because I'm human and I can't live up to that. It puts my narrator voice up on a pedestal in a way that feels impossible to live up to in much the same way people have put archetypal gods on pedestals since the beginning of time.
I'm about to get philosophical but we've always seen ourselves as more complex and therefore more flawed than archetypal heroes or gods. My contrary, blasphemous belief is that humans are the more complex and therefore larger, more interesting, more powerful beings. And we should embrace the shadow aspects of ourselves.
And with that declaration, to some, I've already started to show my dark side.
Write a scene with a central conflict from the perspective of an envious narrator. What interest does this add to the scene? Is your narrator omniscient or is their perspective limited? Does the scene have a serious tone or is it suddenly hilarious?
Now write the same scene from the perspective of a narrator who loves every character with all their heart and thinks they're the bee's knees. How does this change the tone? How does this change the way you yourself view these characters? What does it do to the conflict in the scene?
Neither of these choices is wrong, by the way, they're just different. And they each add a layer of interest.
Carl Jung's Archetypes
Mr. Dr. Daddy Carl Jung of Switzerland is the founder of modern psychology and of the concept of incorporating archetypes into psychological analysis. Part of Jung's theory of archetypes, as you'll recognize them in stories throughout human history — the lover, the magician, the explorer, etc. — was that they can be both internally called upon or externally imposed.
A character's archetypes, for example, can change based on the lens through which others might see them. My tig ol' bitties and wide hips (a purely physical aspect of my overall being that could very well have nothing to do with my personality) might make me a nurturing, tambourine-wielding fertility goddess to someone out there.
In my writing, however, I've chosen to show my sometimes domineering, judgemental, petty, "look at me!" side. The bad guy/trickster questions authority, wants to create a new world order, and be the center of attention in it. I find that I want to dismantle preconceived notions and systems and lead you in the wrong direction sometimes. I want to lift you up, then break your heart. What's funny is that anyone who knows me in real life knows this side of me only ever comes out in my writing.
Jung believed that all humans are an endless well, not a finite resource. We're not destined or limited to any particular archetype… as long as we're aware of what archetypes are trying to speak through us. “The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate," he said. "That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposing halves.” (Carl Jung, Auon, Christ: A Symbol of the Self, pgs 70–71)
I let my bad guy out in my writing because I don't give him an outlet in the real world. If I didn't let him out somewhere, he'd show up when I least expect him - when I'm feeling vulnerable, bored, or backed into a corner, probably. In other words, I choose to be the bad guy because otherwise, I'm doomed to it.
How to Find Your Narrator Voice
You'll know you've got the right archetype when you start to feel true to yourself, like the voice you're using just fits — either because it's an archetype you've been cultivating your entire life or because it's one you've been desperately trying to hide away.
My writing hardly ever felt like it flowed through me the way other writers have described. It's always been like a spluttery car with an engine that would poop out at the slightest incline in the road. My ideas and takes would fly along until I got stuck on a fact or an element I didn't understand yet. Then I'd go back to my research in an attempt to be the omniscient, all-knowing-yet-humble, one-note, one-GOD.
But it was all an act. Being God is really hard.
Sometimes I'd metaphorically walk long distances to a gas station in the sweltering sun to get something written. Sometimes I'd change a tire for the first time ever with instructions in one hand and tools I'd never used in the other. Sometimes I'd have to disentangle some funky wiring under the hood or violently kick the car until it roared back to life. And I found myself feeling resentful that I was then supposed to hide all that behind-the-scenes effort from my audience as if I'd just snapped my fingers and everything fell into place.
Selfishly, I found myself caring less that I'd gotten this old clunker to run smoothly and more about how to show you exactly who the mechanic was who'd performed the miracle.
I pulled off this incredible feat of writing prowess. Me.
How could I show that to you?
By taking you away on the occasional petty tangent, by having opinions, by being presentational, being extra, by saying outright, "Hello, I'm your narrator. Love me but don't trust me. I crash just for fun sometimes, to see where all the parts go, and then I make you watch me put that shit back together."
In Defense of The Mythological Trickster
It was Professor Grant L. Voth's lecture on the trickster archetype for his Mythology class at Monterey Peninsula College that resonated so deeply with me. He quoted Clause Levi-Straus, the French anthropologist, who referred to the trickster as a “bricoleur".
"A bricoleur is a fix-it person, a tinkerer, who takes whatever materials are available and patches them together in whatever ways strike him in that moment. His motives are always personal and his plans ad hoc. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes people benefit from what he does and sometimes they’re harmed. His stories can be, and often are, funny. But the fun is partly serious because much of what he does has consequences for us and consequences, at that, that weren’t planned out or anticipated by the trickster when he did whatever it was that he did.”
"…Oh," I thought. "So the bad guy was me, the narrator, all along." A vengeful Darth Vader in the sense that I wanted to expose the darkness of the topics I was writing about (and perhaps pull you over to the dark side too); A smarmy Falstaff in the sense that I couldn't take it as seriously as all that.
Be a Big Human, Not a Tiny God.
I can be bigger than the bad guy too. That's the superpower we humans possess. Again, I'm not doomed to him. I can pull from any of my other archetypes when needed:
I can reach in and call upon my fertility goddess, who has unconditional love and empathy for both the subjects and the readers. She has a hard time choosing a bad guy or villain from among my characters because she sees them all as people whose needs and wants are contrary to each other's.
My goddess of justice is aware that all writing is political writing. She drills it into my head that I need a clear message and a call to action because there are consequences to writing. People are actually looking to be moved to action and you don't want to be unpleasantly shocked at the motivation they end up finding in your work.
My hero god of awareness and forward motion — your Horus, your Hercules, your Saint George; the antitheses of the trickster archetype — reminds me to take action and that I can’t just fuck around forever. He’s the one that slays dragons for breakfast and gets back on the horse after a rejection. He’s a bit of a himbo and a necessary shot of idiotic optimism.
The Unreliable Narrator
But wait. Isn't this all just an example of the famous "unreliable narrator"? Sure, if you think the bad guy lies to you. Or misrepresents facts in some way. Or is naive or crazy. But who's to say I am or do any of those things? I've never lied or exaggerated a single day of my life.
Your unconditionally loving narrator may be unreliable too if she can't see the flaws in her characters. Your hero might have unreasonably high moral standards. Your magician might get sidetracked by the details of the hard magic system you've decided to implement. These narrative flaws are actually narrative tools for you. I recently didn't want to reveal something important yet in a piece of writing I was working on so I allowed my narrator to have conveniently forgotten. Whoops! Easy-peasy and exactly the sort of shortcut a bad guy/trickster would take. It works specifically because you know I'm lying.
One of my favorite examples of an unreliable narrator is the title character from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, who tells the story from his own naive, indoctrinated perspective. His heart's in the right place but he's got no clue what's going on. Nick Carraway from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, is another fantastic one. He spends a whole novel talking shit about his vapid, shallow, dangerous friends without ever acknowledging that he's become one of them - vapid, shallow, and dangerous by association and tolerance. That's a bad guy who thinks he's a good guy. Jung would diagnose him as "torn into opposing halves".
These are examples of narrators that are also characters within the story, but yours don't have to be. Regardless, your narrator deserves a personality and a perspective. You'll do yourself a favor by utilizing this often untapped resource for added conflict and you'll take some pressure off of yourself to be all-knowing.
Just be human. Embrace the bad guy.
Let me know your narrator archetypes, favorite archetypes to write, favorite wildcards to pull, and which ones you personally relate to in the comments!
(Article originally published in The Writing Cooperative.)
Want to read more? Visit www.KatlynRoberts.com
Here's what people are saying about this article over on Medium:
"Magician here, I love walking the tightrope of creating an unreliable narrator who can still get the story across. Extra fun with a first person present in the driver's seat." -David W. Lemke