Betrayals are a story element that, when done well, can lead to quite an emotional reactions, and a several questions the reader might want answered. When done well, they can spur the reader to continue with the story well into the sequels to get their answers. Today, I’ll look into some specifics of betrayals.
As with anything, the most important thing to remember in any aspect of storytelling is to respect the character(s) in question, especially their personality and traits. In other words, characters with specific traits are more (or less) likely to betray their own.
And those traits don’t have to be outright negative. After all, negative use of positive traits might be even more powerful way. Determination, intelligence, ambition… those are the typical traits of a great schemer – and none of them is inherently negative.
Another important aspect is motivation. After all, why would someone ‘switch sides’ without a reason? Motivation will be based on the character’s traits (mentioned above) and background.
One of the ways is a desire for recognition. This is pretty much buffed-up ambition. Being a hero – let alone a hero’s sidekick – is a role that often bears more pain and sorrow than acknowledgement. And characters who’d like to see some degree of attention for their deeds might eventually start sliding towards the other side of the fence.
After all, once a villain shows how good they are in something (whether this is magic, persuasion, influence, power,…), few will forget it. And for recognition-driven characters, it might not be as important whether the memory is a positive or negative, as long as their skills are known to the world.
Promise of power
I think this case is new to none. What kind of villain would not look for his potential high-ranked lackeys among people who desire power? Those characters can be easily swayed to take a part in their plans in a promise of power which rarely reaches the promised level. This ties more towards the villain – because they need to preserve their ‘top of the food chain’ status and thus won’t ever share their biggest secrets.
There’s a way to master this scenario by building a character that’s not seen as someone desiring power early on but as the story progresses, they might start developing some of their own plans/ideas and find that they won’t get a chance where they are just now. This may lead to a tragic end for that character as one side can’t forget their betrayal while the other never truly accepts them.
Filling a void
Third scenario I’d like to touch is a character that has the potential for something but their approach or personality gives anyone willing to help such a character the ‘red flag’. After trying several times, they’ll eventually fall into a despair – and consider shadier ways to grow their skills.
This can lead to inner conflict: the character gets a chance to grow their skills but at the cost of aligning with a faction they might despise otherwise. When a conflict forces them to take a stand for that faction, they might be forced to think whether the price was worth it… and what course to take.
This also opens a way for redemption arc in the character realizing the error of thir ways and attempting to somehow remedy their mistakes, whether by becoming an double agent, a lone wolf, or someone dying in a bittersweet sacrifice in an attempt to sabotage the evil schemers.
A character’s background, in regards to betrayals, is about what was missing in their life enough to be willing to leave everything behind. Many characters can be in such a situation but not all will fall prey to the temptation, depending on their personality.
Characters who never got a chance to use their talents could jump on a chance to show them to the world. Those who were never in control of their own life might be willing to reach for power, to make sure no one controls them ever again.
Thus, writing a ‘perfect’ betrayal sequence means the reader should know and understand the traitor’s motivations, how they connect to their past, and what the character believes will gain from their actions. Of course, not everything has to be known beforehand – seeking those reasons can be a complelling sub-plot of finding a way to defeat the antagonist.
I’ll wrap it up here – and, as always, welcome your opinions. What do you believe is crucial for a good betrayal plot? Have you ever written one? Or read one that was done well? You’re welcome to share.