Make it Sting: How to Write Betrayal

Writersdontcry Et tu, Brute?

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.

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Comments (3)

Looking through the examples above, I wondered which would apply to one of my characters, the once mortal, now fallen, succubus Samahara.
Sam betrays, lies, and cheats, almost on a daily basis. She has betrayed family, friends, and strangers, and switched sides several times, even when the benefits did not outweigh the danger. It is almost a habit.
So why does she do it?
Part of it may be jealousy - an urge to destroy other people's lives since she never had a happy one. In a few cases it may be temptation or fear, looking for the best - or most beneficial - way out of a situation.
But there gave beee too many cases where none of these really applied. I overall, I think what makes Samahara betray, lie, and cheat, is the thrill. Power, not in a sense of money or influence, but the power to twist other people's lives, and - maybe more importantly - to direct her own.
The power to make one's own choices, exemplified with the most powerful choice of all: betrayal.
It may be this that drove Sam to betray those around her, even when it would make no sense. The thrill of doing something unexpected, something dangerous, something that harms those she (often) despises, but most of all, something that no-one but she has control over.
Maybe that is a form of temptation? I think it warrants its own category though.
The Thrill. Samahara is an example, but there must be more. Loki, the norse trickster god, for instance. Some serial killers like Hannibal Lecter may even fit this type (since it is the act of the murder/betrayal that seems to drive him, rather than what it establishes). And I assume quite a few habitual liars.

Posted by: Pierre van Rooden | Monday August 29, 2011 at 12:32 AM

Thanks, Erik! Heh. Got someone specific in mind? I'd put that on two separate betrayals, mixed into one mixed-up package: the first out of whatever first tempted them to betray the hero, and the second out of redemption :).

What's your favorite kind of betrayal?

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Monday August 22, 2011 at 8:18 AM

Excellent article, Susan!

Another thought: What about undercover villains who betray the hero because that was the plan along, only to come to regret it and fight to fix it?


Posted by: Erik de Bie | Monday August 22, 2011 at 8:11 AM

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