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A motley crew is a cliché for a roughly organized assembly of characters. Typical examples of motley crews are pirates, Western posses, rag-tag mercenary bands, and freedom fighters. They may align with, include, or be (as a group) either the protagonist or the antagonist of the story. Dictionary.com defines a motley crew as a gathered group of people of various backgrounds, appearance, character, etc.
Motley crews are, by definition, non-uniform and undisciplined as a whole. They are typified by containing characters of conflicting personality, varied backgrounds and, usually to the benefit of the group, a wide array of methods for overcoming adversity. Traditionally, a motley crew who in the course of a story comes into conflict with an organized, uniform group of characters, will prevail. This is generally achieved through the narrative using the various specialties, traits and other personal advantages of each member to counterbalance the (often sole) specialty of a formal group of adversaries.
Archetypical instances of the "motley crew" overcoming adversity are commonly found in fantasy and science fiction. Examples include parties of the Rebel Alliance (often including both humans and other species such as Wookiees, or Ewoks) defeating many identical stormtroopers in the Star Wars universe. A motley crew is also the model for most sports stories, such as The Mighty Ducks and The Sandlot, in which the opposing and antagonistic team that is ultimately defeated is also much more organized and coherent.
Motley from 13th-century Middle English means composed of elements of diverse or varied character. In the 15–16th century came the "Motley", the official dress of the court jester. The jester was an important person in court circles, who could speak the truth without punishment even when it was contrary to the king’s or senior officials’ opinion. Their uniforms were generally lively and multi-coloured.
Use in popular culture
The heavy metal band Mötley Crüe is named after that cliché. Guitarist Mick Mars remembered a former band of his being called once "a motley looking crew." He had remembered the phrase, later copied it down phonetically as "Mottley Cru", then added the metal umlauts and the final E.
- "motley crew". Dictionary.com. Retrieved 17 April 2014.
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- “A Motley Crew of Rebels: Sailors, Slaves, and the Coming of the American Revolution,” in Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert, eds., The Transforming Hand of Revolution: Reconsidering the American Revolution as a Social Movement (Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press/United States Capitol Historical Society, 1996), 155-198.