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I have been finding it hard to find info on a certain character archetype.

Character traits:

  • has very little investment into the central plot and thus plays both pro and antagonistic roles
  • intervenes into the central plot in a way that shifts the overall plot progression
  • holds an internal logic, code or self-interest that motivates actions
  • holds immense power over plot progression

Examples: (not perfect)

  • Athena in the Odyssey, Greek gods in most Greek mythology
  • the Count of Monte Cristo (although the story follows his arch he plays this intervening role into other characters arches)
  • Gandalf (has connections to Frodo and the Ring, so not perfect) though seems to be a separate intervening character that dips in and out of other character's arches at important plot points.
  • Grey Fox in Metal Gear Solid (probably the best example I got).

TLDR: Intervening third party character who is both pro and antagonistic

What is the broad name for this archetype? Are there better examples?

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You might try searching in TVTropes for Gandalf or Archetypal Character and see how far you get. tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ArchetypalCharacter WARNING TVTropes is a known, massive time-suck. Be prepared to lose whole weekends browsing the site. It's very informative, but pack a lunch. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 26 '13 at 20:42
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This was what I found, although the archetype is a little fantastical tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/EnigmaticEmpoweringEntity –  user5438 Jun 26 '13 at 20:49
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this one as well I guess but a similar problem tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/PowersThatBe –  user5438 Jun 26 '13 at 20:50
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I'm unclear on how this is a writing question, exactly. It seems more like a literature question. Will knowing this help you in your writing, or to solve a writing problem? –  Neil Fein Jun 27 '13 at 0:39
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So what's the question? Are you looking for examples of such characters in literature? For advice on how to create such characters? Or what? –  Jay Jun 27 '13 at 12:58
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3 Answers

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What you're describing is the essence of the Trickster.

The Trickster

Most people think of a trickster as being a foolish or comedic character but the Trickster forms in the overlap between a foolish character, an authoritarian character and a mentor character. If you think of these three archetypes as forming the points of a triangle you can place your individual trickster into that area somewhere.

Several of the characters you describe (I can't talk for the Count of Monte Cristo) fall hard toward the axis between authority and mentor. For this reason it's easy to miss the influence of the foolish character in the mix.

Foolishness

In the cases you've picked foolishness is provided by one of three factors.

The Graeco-Roman Gods had very human foibles and appetites, some stories play these aspects up to make the gods into humourous characters or characters one can more easily recognize or relate to. In the story of the golden apple Hera, Athena and Aprodite are portrayed as being chronically vain, the events of the story depend upon this vanity.

Gandalf is bound by things he cannot do, specifically he is unable to trust himself to bear the ring. An equivalent derivative character is the character of the Dungeon Master in the 80s cartoon show Dungeons & Dragons. Dungoen Master appeared to know everything, had demi-godlike powers and regularly appeared and disappeared at will. However he could neither take on the antagonist, Venger, in a fight nor send the party of main characters back to their home in the real world. He was also known for concealing information by talking in riddles. All of these limits and deceptions conspire to tip DM into the trickster archetype.

In the case of Grey Fox the only thing that makes him a trickster is that he is concealing his true agenda by acting in the role of helper until the situation changes sufficiently for him to reveal his true colours. This would edge him into a sub-type of the trickster, the false friend. What stops him from just being a "mole" or a "traitor" figure include his personal code of ethics and also his weakness for proving himself against Snake in the midst of the action.

Balance

It is important that all three of the archetypal elements are present in the trickster for them to be a trickster.

  • Without elements of deception or riddling the figure becomes more monk-like, or just a straight mentor figure, like Obi Wan Kenobi.
  • An authority figure who is in some way foolish but has no mentoring role becomes a tyrannical, chaotic figure, like Caligula.
  • A fool who has knowledge to impart but no authority becomes a Savant character, such as Kazan in Cube.
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your response makes me think about the fool character in Shakespearian plays or the jester in comedia del'arte. which seems to also fit the character type in mind. –  user5438 Jun 27 '13 at 19:23
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Have you looked into alignments in role playing games? I've never played RPGs myself, but I find their classification useful when I develop my characters, fitting them into a category helps me describe them better.

From your description, your character might fall into a "True Neutral", or maybe "Chaotic Neutral", you'd be a better judge of that. To quote Wikipedia (this was taken from "Dungeons and Dragons" alignment system, so I've omitted some game related things):

Neutral

Neutral alignment, also referred to as True Neutral or Neutral Neutral, is called the "Undecided" or "Nature's" alignment. This alignment represents Neutral on both axes, and tends not to feel strongly towards any alignment. A farmer whose primary overriding concern is to feed his family is of this alignment. Most animals, lacking the capacity for moral judgment, are of this alignment since they are guided by instinct rather than conscious decision. Many roguish characters who play all sides to suit themselves are also of this alignment (such as a weapon merchant with no qualms selling his wares to both sides of a war for a profit).

Some Neutral characters, rather than feeling undecided, are committed to a balance between the alignments. They may see good, evil, law and chaos as simply prejudices and dangerous extremes. Mordenkainen is one such character who takes this concept to the extreme, dedicating himself to a detached philosophy of neutrality to ensure that no one alignment or power takes control of the Flanaess.

Lara Croft, Lucy Westenra from Dracula and Han Solo in his early Star Wars appearance are neutral.

Chaotic Neutral

Chaotic Neutral is called the "Anarchist" or "Free Spirit" alignment. A character of this alignment is an individualist who follows his or her own heart, and generally shirks rules and traditions. Although they promote the ideals of freedom, it is their own freedom that comes first. Good and Evil come second to their need to be free, and the only reliable thing about them is how totally unreliable they are. Chaotic Neutral characters are free-spirited and do not enjoy the unnecessary suffering of others, but if they join a team, it is because that team's goals happen to coincide with their own at the moment. They invariably resent taking orders and can be very selfish in their pursuit of personal goals. A Chaotic Neutral character does not have to be an aimless wanderer; they may have a specific goal in mind, but their methods of achieving that goal are often disorganized, unorthodox, or entirely unpredictable.

A subset of Chaotic Neutral is: "strongly Chaotic Neutral"; describing a character who behaves chaotically to the point of appearing insane. Characters of this type may regularly change their appearance and attitudes for the sake of change and intentionally disrupt organizations for the sole reason of disrupting a lawful institution. Characters of this type include the Xaositects from the Planescape setting, and Hennet from the third edition Player's Handbook. In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Chaotic Neutral was mistakenly assumed to refer to this subset.

Captain Jack Sparrow, Al Swearengen from the TV series Deadwood, and Snake Plissken from Escape from New York are Chaotic Neutral characters according to Complete Scoundrel (3.5e).

I've emphasized the spots that correspond to what you have described the character to be. Hope this at least gives you a place to start.

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While this doesn't match perfectly with Gandalf and his role in LOTR, it does match pretty well with his role in The Hobbit.

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