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Thursday, November 10

How Could You Do This to Me? When Characters Betray Other Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The always fabulous Donald Maass wrote about reversals recently over at Writer Unboxed, and there was one tip he gave that I actually had to disagree with a little. (I know, I was shocked too.) He was suggesting various ways you can shake things up in your novel, and one of them was:
What’s the worst betrayal this character could do? Do it.
Now, a year or so ago I would have been all over this. It’s a great and unexpected thing to do. But lately, I’ve been seeing the unexpected betrayal everywhere. It’s gotten so bad it’s verging on cliché. Instead if surprising me, I’m playing the “I wonder which one of these allies will turn on the hero in the third act?” game. I know it’s gonna happen. And more times than not, it does.

I think betrayals have become the new go-to twist (at least in YA). The trusted mentor suddenly turning on you seems to be the most common, but betrayals are coming from all quarters. Close friends, random people, family.

They’re starting to feel a bit deus ex machina to me. It’s like yanking off the mask at the end of Scooby Do and seeing Old Man Withers.

I think some of it has to do with the fact that the betrayals I keep seeing are all the “turn against you and side with the bad guy” type in the climax. But the “worst” betrayal doesn’t necessarily mean turn you over to the bad guy. There are all kinds of ways to betray someone.

Let’s look at the official definition of betray:

1. To deliver or expose to an enemy by treachery or disloyalty.
2. To be unfaithful in guarding, maintaining, or fulfilling: to betray a trust.
3. To disappoint the hopes or expectations of; be disloyal to.
4. To reveal or disclose in violation of confidence: to betray a secret.
5. To reveal unconsciously (something one would preferably conceal):

There are a lot of options here that have nothing to do with the bad guy. And this is what I think Maass means by “the worst betrayal.” Let’s look at these options a little closer.

1. To deliver or expose to an enemy by treachery or disloyalty. 

This is your standard “oh no, our trusted friend was the bad guy’s minion all the time” variety.

2. To be unfaithful in guarding, maintaining, or fulfilling. 

This is a great and personal betrayal that doesn’t have to be “turning on you.” Protagonist’s rely on their friends and sidekicks, so if someone doesn’t do what they promised, that can be bad. Maybe the best friend is always there where the protag needs her. She swore she’d be there for something very critical. Maybe the betrayal is that she doesn’t do it. And not in a “something kept me from it” way, but an “I chose not to do this” type action. Unexpected, but also something you can lay ground work for and use afterward to deepen the conflict.

3. To disappoint the hopes or expectations of; be disloyal to. 

When someone lets you down, it’s hard to trust them again. You second guess them, question them. Isn’t that a great way to raise tension and suspense in a story? Let the protagonist be unsure they can trust or count on someone they always could before. Maybe someone isn’t who the protagonist thought they were and they find this out in a horrible way that hurts them. There’s a reason parents use that “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed” line. It hurts. Even better, it hurts on both sides.

4. To reveal or disclose in violation of confidence: to betray a secret. 

Giving away secrets can cause lots of trouble. Better still, folks tell secrets for all kinds of reasons, and you can even mix this with some of the other betray definitions. Maybe the sidekick reveals a secret in order to help, thus betraying a confidence and an expectation of trust. Look at all the conflict you can have there!

5. To reveal unconsciously (something one would preferably conceal).

This is about betraying yourself, but I think it can work just as well with others in a story. Someone says the wrong thing/acts the wrong way and tips the bad guy without meaning to. Someone tries to be loyal to the protagonist, and that loyalty is the very thing that the bad guy picks up on to use against the protagonist. This is almost as common as #1, but could still be effective.

Betrayals are a handy way to do the unexpected, but take a few minutes to think about how you’re doing it. Are you using the clichéd version that probably won’t surprise anyone, or are you being more subtle about it? Is it a betrayal that will truly hurt the protagonist and deepen the story, or is it just a way to cause trouble and send the protagonist after the antagonist? If it’s just for shock value, perhaps reconsider it.

Betrayals can cut deep, so use them wisely.

Have you noticed an increase in betrayals lately? Have you ever written a betrayal? Does your story hinge on one? If so, what type are you using? 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a monthly contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl.

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  1. Actually, I was just talking with a friend about the end of a book she was reading. She was kind of Meh about the whole thing, since she felt that the betrayal at the end didn't work for the characters. (That is it was already established that there was a traitor, but The reveal of who it was felt false--like they were going for shocking rather than consistent characterization.)

    Thinking about my current project...Yeah I have a couple of betrayals actually.

    One of does involve the betrayal of a mentor, And my story definitely hinges on it. But it doesn't happen at the climax--it's part of the inciting incident. Type 1, but not in a premeditated way: The mentor believes that the protagonist killed her parents and locks her up. It really hurts the protagonist, and she actually goes into denial about it for a time.

    There is, however, a more straightforward betrayal along the line you mean at the climax of the story. But there, since I set up who the traitor is early, It's not about the surprise so much as watching the character struggle over the choice. I'm hoping to make the shock to the reader more of a Tragic one than a Betrayed one. (More like the feeling you get when a character is shot, then when a character you trusted turns out to be bad-to-the-bone.)

  2. I seem to really love betrayals, because I tend to use them often. But I don't so much like to use the kind where the friend turns out to be evil. I like when characters are betrayed by other characters for more subtle reasons--their motives are different, the character didn't realize what the impact would be of their actions, that sort of thing. I think betrayal almost hurts more that way. If you're betrayed by someone who turns out to be evil, it's pretty easy to just start hating them. But if they betray you and you know they didn't mean to, but the repercussions were still huge, that's more emotionally complicated for the MC.

    I think that betrayals can work really well (even the turns out to be evil kind of betrayals) or really poorly, depending how much thought goes into them.

  3. I'm outlining a story with a possible betrayal, but it would be during the second act and not by the person closest to the MC. The betrayer has good reason to do so-- she was hurt defending the MC once, now she's in trouble a second time because of her and they aren't even that close. When she gets offered an out, she takes it. The real trouble comes later when the best-friend ignores the MC's advice not to get involved in her mess and then, surprise, he goes ahead and 'helps' anyway. Not a betrayal, but he seriously screws things up in the process. Because that's what friends do!

  4. Interesting. I don't have any major betrayals in my books, and can't really think of many in books I've been reading lately. I'm not sure I consider a bad guy working toward his own agenda and leading another character on as a "betrayal" but I'll be thinking about it now that you've brought the idea to my attention.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  5. Betrayals (or any other major twist) can easily become cliched. Read George R.R. Martin to see a great example.

  6. Hi Janice!

    GREAT post and I think you really got the deeper meaning or unexpected betrayal. I agree with you about Betrayal #1. Ick. Boring. Next.

    I'm working on a different form of betrayal, BY the protag (not against). His call to action is to search for his dad because his brother wants to. He agrees to do it but not for the reasons the brothers thinks. The story gets ugly over that. Hopefully I can pull it off. LOL

    Keep the great posts coming!!

  7. I can't say I've read a lot of betrayal books recently... but my reading taste is pretty eclectic.

    Trust is one of the biggest themes I explore, so it always shows up in some kind of variety in every story I write.

    I don't always use betrayal, but when I do, it the #2 or #3 variety. Usually it's the kind of thing where one character feels betrayed in some way, but the other character has acted completely in character/logically or has made a choice to better him/herself.

  8. My favorite part of this post was "If it's just for shock value, I'd suggest reconsidering it." I think any of these kinds of betrayals can be done and done well. Then again, I haven't seen a bunch of cliched betrayals lately -- guess we're reading different books.

    One of my favorite books (which I don't think I can name for fear of spoilers) has a constant threat of betrayal, things looking like betrayal, but at the end of the book, no one's a traitor.

  9. I haven't noticed this trend in books...that is interesting. I have a HUGE betrayal in my WIP, but it is a "I have everything under control--oh, crap I don't!" kind of betrayal. It isn't premeditated which is why it works for my story.

  10. This is fantastic, so much to think about. The only betrayls that feel right to me are true to the emotional growth of the characters. Otherwise, they strike me as a device. I did read a YA recently that had a betrayal that seemed to be there for shock value. Left me cold.

  11. Janice, this was a thought-provoking article, and a topic I hadn't thought about before.
    I reckon your suggestions for a better way are spot on too.
    I've passed it on to my writer friends here in Australia.

  12. I do have a story in the outline stage that includes a mentor betraying my heroine. Um... maybe that isn't as shocking a plot twist as I thought. :)

  13. I'm not sure what type of betrayal the one in my main project is:

    Basically, the narrator says to his friend. "Why don't you think of yourself more?" because the friend doesn't care about his faith.

    Several chapter later, the friend lets an ally die so he could initiate an attempt to die. It fails, but it creates a slight breach between the two. Does that count as a betrayal?

  14. Kathie, that sounds like one that'll work.

    Kaitlin, I totally agree. You always hurt the one you love, right? Cliched but true.

    Sophia, that sounds good! Betrayals with real emotional grounding behind them.

    Terry, if you know the guy is bad the whole time, then no. My peeve is that lately I'm seeing a trusted ally of the protag help them all book, then suddenly in the end flip and betray them to the antag. So annoying!

    Matthew, I've only seen the HBO show, but that looks like the kind of plot where this would happen a lot.

    Birgitte, hi! Thanks. Ooo, I like that. Protags doing the betraying.

    Monkey, trust is a great theme, and I can see how betrayal would really work well with that.

    MK, thanks! It might just be a fluke in my reading, but it's been weird. A constant threat is another good example of one way it can work.

    Angela, that sounds good as well. Those are the kinds that do work. And I Love a character who thinks they have it, then realizes they don't. Fun!

    Tricia, love that. A great way to put it. Tap into the emotion and you can do almost anything and it'll work.

    Sheryl, thanks!

    Chicory, I saved one! (grin) It could work, just because I', seeing a trend doesn't mean it's something to avoid, but it might be worth thinking about it some more. If it's the right thing for the story, keep it, but if you think you can do better, go for it.

    CO, that doesn't sound like a betrayal to me, unless he let the ally die to hinder the protag in some way. But it does sound like an interesting conflict to work with. :)

  15. The book I am currently reading told from mutiple viewpoints has a few kinds of betrayal in it. Interesting topic this one and something to consider. Sometimes that betrayal can be unintentional, or someone thinks they have been betrayed when it is really just circumstances have conspired to make it appear that way.

  16. Like you, I sometimes figure it out ahead of time. But when a betrayal is written well, and I didn't see it coming? Golden.

    Thanks for the awesome suggestions.

  17. "They’re starting to feel a bit deus ex machina to me."

    I agree with this. I think betrayal has to feel organic to work well--a sudden twist is great, but it has to make sense with the character dynamics in play.

    I agree with the spirit if Maass' teachings tho--don't be afraid to make it hardcore for your characters. :) We should always be doing this, but to make it fit with the events of the story and have it marry well with personalities and the elements in play. :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  18. When it's done well and fits organically (like Angela mentioned) it can work great.

  19. Good ideas on variations of betrayal. Well written.