Troublemakers and Troubleshooters: Two Critical Fail-Safe Archetypes

by James Bonnet

In the previous story course article, we talked about the anima and animus (the loves interests) in a great story. In this article, we’ll talk about the trickster and the threshold guardian, which like the anima and animus, have a male and a female aspect which can be either positive (supporting the goals of the higher, spiritual self) or negative (following the instincts and cravings of the lower, primordial physical self.

Let’s review a few things first. The purpose of the passage is to awaken the lower self energy and transform it into higher consciousness. The selfish behavior of the antiheroes (the lower self motivated conscious archetype) accomplish this when they set out to take possession of something for purely selfish reasons. Then, because of the problem this creates, the unselfish heroes (the higher self motivated conscious archetype) and their willingness to sacrifice themselves, release the positive energy that will transform the lower energy into a higher consciousness that can solve the problem.

The seven creative unconscious archetypes play a critical role in this process. The anima\animus love interests help lure the antihero and the hero into the adventure. The tricksters* goad the conscious archetypes forward when they get stuck, or stir up trouble that forces the conscious archetypes to bring about meaningful change. The threshold guardians* confirm that the conscious archetypes are properly prepared and ready to face the necessary psychological ordeal. The four remaining archetypes – the physical, the emotional, the mental, and the spiritual, which will be described in the next four articles – are there to act as mentors, trainers, and guides, if the conscious archetypes are not sufficiently prepared. In real life, as we are growing up, if we’re lucky, good parents, teachers, grandparents, uncles, aunts, older brothers, sisters, good friends and love interests will assume all seven of these roles and help us transform the gradually awakened selfish energy (the terrible two’s, for instance) into the fully realized, higher states of consciousness that will let us play the real roles we were meant to play in our society. All of this is revealed in a great story by the actions of the characters.

Needless to say, you don’t have to use all of the archetypes in every story. You can have a great story with only one or two characters (The Old Man and the Sea, All is Lost, or My Dinner with Andrea.) You only need to include the archetypes that are necessary in your particular story.In Silver Linings Playbook, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) is, as I mentioned in the previous article, a powerful positive anima figure. But she is also acting as a positive trickster when she creates serious trouble for Pat (Bradley Cooper) with his parents and best friend, or when she deceives Pat with the counterfeit letter which is supposedly from his ex-wife with whom he is hoping to reconcile. All of which, in the end, helps bring about his transformation. The ghost of Cole’s grandmother in The Sixth Sense is also a positive trickster. She secretly moves an heirloom broach from her daughter’s dresser to her grandson Cole’s dresser, and when Cole denies taking it, that stirs up a lot of trouble between Cole and his mother, which is ultimately positively resolved.

In The Iliad, Eris, the Goddess of Strife, is a negative female trickster. Because she was not invited to the wedding of King Peleus and the sea goddess, Thetis, Eris tosses a golden apple, inscribed “to the most beautiful,” among the wedding guests. The goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite all assume it was meant for them. The dispute that breaks out triggers all of the events that bring about the Trojan Wars. The three witches in Macbeth are negative female tricksters, their prophesy that Macbeth will become king brings about his complete and utter downfall. In The Lord of the Rings,Gollum is a negative male trickster, who is always trying to stir up trouble between Frodo and Samwise, so he can get his hands on theprecious ring.

One of Joseph Campbell’s favorite examples of a threshold guardian is a ferocious demon guardian that stands in front of a Japanese temple. The demon’s authoritative right hand is held out in an intimidating gesture that says: “Don’t you dare go beyond this point,” while its left hand signals from below with a gentler gesture which encourages you to come in, if you are ready. In The Lord of the Rings, Elrond is a threshold guardian to his daughter, Arwen, when he warns her not to give up her immortality and her kinship to the Elves for the sake of the mortal, Aragon, whom she loves. The subway ghost in the movie, Ghost, remains one of the best examples of a threshold guardian in recent times. Patrick Swayze has to get downtown to see a psychic helper, but a belligerent, aggressive ghost he runs into on the subway scares him off. Later, he stands up to the ghost and the ghost is transformed into a positive helper.

What is all this telling us about ourselves? Psychologically it is telling us there are feelings arising from the archetypes within our psyches that help to lure us into the game, goad us forward when we get stuck, and make us stop to be sure we’re properly prepared. Anger, jealousy, blind ambition, lust, and the fear that forces us to take immediate action, arise from the trickster. They can get us into trouble, or goad us forward toward meaningful change. Other feelings like guilt, doubt, and the fear that stops us in our tracks and makes us think before taking action, arise from the threshold guardian.

In real life, when we play the trickster role, we might be a relative or a friend goading a couch potato child or comrade into action. Disasters or catastrophes in the real world that bring about reforms are trickster events. Someone who gossips or spreads malicious rumors that spread resentment and discord are negative tricksters. The instructor who tells you you’re not ready to make your first sky dive, climb that steep cliff face in the rain, or the doctor that tells you to exercise or eat less fat are threshold guardians.

How do you create a good trickster or threshold guardian? As with everything else in a great story you are creating, you collaborate with your creative unconscious self. You ask your self direct questions, you try this and try that, and you listen to the intuitive feelings that will confirm or deny the truth about the ideas you are considering.

If you want to make your trickster or the threshold guardian more fascinating, take them to the quintessential. Study the best known tricksters and threshold guardians, analyze their unique qualities, and use the fourth creative technique, conjuring, to slowly evolve your characters into the most intriguing tricksters or threshold guardians of all time.

In our story model, the Golden Paradigm, I illustrate the tricksters as the smaller circles imbedded in the lighter spokes and the threshold guardians as the larger circles imbedded in the bolder spokes.

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In the next story course article, we’ll talk about the physical archetypes – the positive and negative male and female physical mentors, helpers and guides.