Make it Sting: How to Write Betrayal
Adultery. Treason. Sacrilege. Fratricide. There’s a form of betrayal for every occasion. Villains can betray villains who can betray heroes who can betray heroes or villains in turn. Individuals can betray other individuals who can betray groups who can betray other groups or individuals themselves. Hell, half of all science fiction is about the betrayal of man by machine, or man by man for machine—or sometimes even machine by man.
Betrayals are by definition horrifying and fascinating, even in fiction, because you cannot have betrayal without first having trust. Without first developing a meaningful relationship between the characters you intend to have betray each other, your clever plot twist is just common cruelty.
So to write a meaningful betrayal, you must first develop a strong relationship between characters people care about. Then, you must select the right flaw to bring it all crashing down. There are a number of good, solid flaws to choose from. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Temptation, particularly for power. The classic, most biblical of betrayals. Boromir betrays the fellowship out of temptation in The Lord of the Rings, Edmond betrays his siblings for Turkish delight in The Chronicles of Narnia—and in both cases this selfishness is seen as the primary downfall of man. Characters who betray out of temptation can be good men who feel the ends justify the means, weak characters who feel the present so much more strongly than the future, or simply characters so wounded that no matter what is offered to them, it will never satisfy their desires.
- Fear. The weak man betrays his friends out of fear. Which he sometimes calls pragmatism. Or survival of the fittest. In 1984, Winston betrays Julia out of fear—and is declared broken shortly thereafter. Xenophilius Lovegood betrays Harry Potter out of fear for his daughter. Children feed their parents to the lions in “The Veldt” out of fear of having their playthings taken away from them. If the only thing to fear is fear itself, I’d be equally wary of what fear inspires in other people. These characters are rarely heroes, but often stand in to represent the common man, to set the hero apart.
- Righteousness. It must be said: I love a villain who believes in what they do. Ozymandias, in The Watchman, is a classic example of a villain doing what he thinks is right. And which, arguably, to the best intelligence of the majority of the characters, is what is right, despite their cold feet and qualms. But the scariest example of I’ve read, hands down, is The Handmaid’s Tale. The hero is betrayed by a self-righteous society so completely and swiftly that she is in a state of shock, and doesn’t fight back until it is much too late. Righteousness is the most compelling of betrayals in some ways, as characters who betray out of righteousness could pass as heroes… until you get to the part where they kill all humans.
- Redemption. Righteousness is not the sole province of over-enthused caretakers. It is also the primary motivation of villains who turn against villains when they suddenly discover a conscience. Darth Vader is the obvious example from Star Wars, but Thrawn’s betrayal in The Last Command is both beautiful and poetic. Mostly the province of villains, the personal sacrifice of those who betray on the path to redemption lends credence to the hero’s quest.
- Love. In Harry Potter, part of what makes Snape’s attack on Dumbledore so emotionally resonant is the debate as to whether it was a betrayal or not. Snape, being a double agent, is by definition betraying someone. And Harry is sure it is Dumbledore’s Army, earning Snape the eventual hatred and distrust of all Dumbledore’s allies. But how tragic, if he betrayed Dumbledore out of love—to be thought a traitor, to lose all his friends, and to sacrifice everything, just to better serve their cause. To be truer than most of those who hate him… No wonder he’s bitter. Those who betray out of love are the most tragic of characters—and one of the most uncommon. Their sacrifice lends a depth and strength to the hero's quest that most of us hope never to have to contemplate.
- Jealousy. Sometimes, there is no better reason than that people are jealous and will be cruel. Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” is one of the coldest stories of childhood cruelty I have ever read, made worse because of the perpetrator’s shame. Those who betray out of jealousy are not always young, however—even the elderly can be jealous enough of another’s success or happiness to throw them under the bus. These betrayals ground a story firmly in a cynical reality, and are often used to evoke a sense of pity or despair.
The best betrayals come from the best relationships—coming up with reasons why mother would betray daughter, and soul mates would stab each other in the back—and when they’re elegantly done, you feel for both sides of the equation. But I think it’s worth mentioning that what makes betrayals so compelling is not what they take from us—but what they give to us. Being let down is a compelling argument for those who continue to stand by your side.
Flash Fiction Practice
Extremely short fiction can be very helpful for practicing new concepts and trying out new techniques. Experiment with twisting the knife with this exercise.
- Pick one of the six betrayal types listed above and flesh it out a bit more.
- What makes this kind of betrayal compelling?
- Who would suffer most if they were betrayed in this fashion?
- Who would be the most likely to use this form of betrayal?
- Who would be the least likely to use this form of betrayal?
- Is it more engaging if this form of betrayal comes from a group or an individual?
- Is it more hurtful if this form of betrayal is used on a group or individual?
- What would make the betrayer easy to identify with?
- What would make the betrayed easy to identify with?
- What would the result of this betrayal be?
Write a quick one-paragraph story idea about a betrayal using the situation you've just created, and if you’re feeling particularly brave, post it!