There are a number of archetypes that pop up again and again in myths, legends, and fiction, and one of these is the Trickster character. This is a character who disobeys the rules and norms of conventional behavior and often lies, changes appearance, tells stories and generally acts in unpredictable ways. This is often contrasted with the Paragon archetype, which is someone who acts in ways which uphold the values of society and its ideals.
For a number of reasons, I’ve been thinking about these two archetypes recently, and today it occurred to me that the vast majority of characters who have become icons of popular culture tend to fit into one of these two archetypes. And, not only that, but that while once upon a time the majority of Shonen JUMP manga lead characters were paragons, for some time now, the majority of successful shonen leads that connect with audiences have been Tricksters.
Thus, I began going through the list of iconic fictional characters and dividing them into either Paragons or Tricksters to see what I could find by listing them.
- Naruto (Naruto) – Young Naruto – Chaotic Trickster, Teen Naruto – Lawful Trickster
- Goku (Dragonball/Z) – Young Goku – Chaotic Trickster, Adult Goku – Lawful Trickster
- Monkey D. Luffy (One Piece) – Chaotic Trickster
- Denji (Chainsaw Man) – Chaotic Trickster
- Loid, Yor, Anya (Spy X Family) – Loid and Yor are Lawful, Anya is Chaotic.
- Senku (Dr. Stone) – Chaotic Trickster
- Ginka and Gluna (Ginka & Gluna) – Chaotic Tricksters (both of the leads!)
- Akane (Akane Bananshi) – Lawful Trickster
- Mash (Mashle) – Lawful Trickster
- Sakamoto (Sakamoto Days) – Lawful Trickster
- Hojo Tokiyuki (The Elusive Samurai) – Lawful Trickster
- Asta (Black Clover) – Chaotic Trickster
- Yuji Itadori (Jujutsu Kaisen) – Chaotic Trickster
- Light Yagami (Death Note) – Evil Trickster
- Hanamichi Sakuragi (Slam DUNK!) – Chaotic Trickster
- Deku (My Hero Academia) (borderline)
- Emma (Promised Neverland) (borderline)
- Edogawa Conan/Jimmy Kudo (Detective Conan) (borderline)
- Kafka (Kaiju No.8)
- Gon (Hunter x Hunter)
- Tanjiro (Demon Slayer)
- Ichigo (BLEACH)
- Sakamichi Onoda (Yowamushi Pedal)
It’s interesting that the list is so lopsided. You would think that the majority of young adult shonen heroes would be paragons, but that just doesn’t seem to be the case. If you look back into 70s, 80s, and 90s, then you’ll find most (but not all) of the lead characters from those days are paragons. Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star, for example, is a paragon of virtue in his own way. However, after Dragonball made more money than anything that came before it with its trickster character Goku (literally named after the trickster god the Monkey King from Journey to the West), shonen manga seemed to decide that paragons were old fashioned and that the way to reader’s hearts (and wallets) was trickster characters.
Also, you can see, I’ve divided them up into types of trickster, as I think there are three types. Lawful Tricksters have a clear moral code they follow, even if they’re willing to deceive others to accomplish their goals. Chaotic Tricksters are largely amoral and unpredictable, and usually act out of selfishness or self-interest. There are also Evil Tricksters, who often act out of pure selfishness, hatred or spite. I think this gives a little more flexibility to the trickster archetype and allows for characters who might seem borderline tricksters to still fall with the archetype. (For obvious reasons, Evil Tricksters are rare as protagonists, but I felt Light Yagami fell deeply into this category as Death Note progressed.)
An interesting borderline character is Deku from My Hero Academia, who is forced by circumstances to lie and deceive the people around him because of the secret he holds. However, because he’s only doing it to hide the secret of his powers and is otherwise a truly noble character, I put him into the paragon list. Emma from Promised Neverland is a similar character, in that she does lie and trick others, but she’s so incredibly noble and selective about it that she seems to fall more into the paragon camp than the trickster camp. It’s a similar case with Conan from Detective Conan who on the surface clearly seems like a trickster, but is so focused and incorruptible that he just inches over into the paragon side in my opinion. Tricksters need a certain degree of selfishness to qualify, and these characters just aren’t that selfish.
Trickster leads will also usually have at least one paragon mentor/partner/rival who exists to balance them out. Especially if they are a chaotic trickster, they need another character to act as a moral compass who can keep them on the straight and narrow and get them to do the right thing from time to time. This again comes from the legend of the Monkey King, who had the monk Triptaka guiding him on the path of righteousness and encouraging him to do the right thing. The Monkey King being super influential to both Dragonball (as mentioned before) and One Piece, so it’s natural to see it continue to influence the presentation of Asian tricksters. (By the way, it’s Bulma in Dragonball, Gohan in Dragonball Z, and Nami in One Piece.)
If there is a paired set of lead characters, one of them will usually be a paragon, and one will be a trickster. (Or at least they will have paragon and trickster attributes.) Examples of this are Bakuman where Mashiro is the paragon and Takagi is the trickster. Or, Kuroko no Basketball where Kuroko is a selfless paragon and Kagami is a selfish trickster character, which reverses Slam DUNK!’s pairing of Hanamichi (trickster) and Ayukawa (paragon). This follows the pairing pattern of Naruto (trickster) and Sasuke (paragon) from Naruto as well, with the main trickster character being challenged by the straight-laced by the book paragon rival.
So, this leads to the obvious question – why? Why are so many of the iconic shonen heroes of the last two decades tricksters?
I think a lot of it has to do with the nature of shonen manga. The lead characters in shonen manga aren’t able to grow and change over time because the form requires them to remain the same characters they were from start to finish. They can expand and develop more sides to their characters, but they can’t really grow or change as people because that would make them into another character.
And who has more sides to them than a trickster character?
Tricksters are also at least a bit unpredictable, unlike paragons. Readers almost always know how paragons will act because they have clear moral codes and will always do things the “right” way, which is good but can also be a bit dull at times. It’s not easy to write a paragon and keep them interesting as a character, but with a trickster the author can always throw the audience a curve ball and it works because the main character is a trickster. They aren’t just tricking and fooling the other characters, they’re also fooling the audience at times, and that makes them fascinating (and entertaining) to watch.
In addition, tricksters can go from comedian to action hero in a panel, and this allows for tonal shifts that are impossible in a “proper” dramatic story. It keeps the story from getting too dark or serious while still giving the writer a chance to write life and death battle and adventure stories that keep the audience turning pages and coming back each week. And this is especially important when you consider that Shonen stories are technically for 8-14 year-olds, so these are kids stories, and can only get so serious before the audience won’t be having fun anymore. These kids want some laughs to go along with their battles, and tricksters provide both in spades!
Thus, the answer to the question of “Are All Popular Shonen Jump Heroes Trickster Archetypes?” is “no, but most of them are.” With the exception of a few borderline cases (and sports manga, which almost always have paragon leads), most Shonen Jump titles seem to have trickster leads, and this seems to be a trend that isn’t going to end anytime soon. In fact, one of the quickest ways to judge whether a new shonen manga will succeed or not is whether the main character is a trickster, because if they aren’t the odds aren’t good that title will be around for long.
Just my thoughts, anyways. Do you agree? Let me know in the comments.