Seven Ways to Write Betrayal in Your Novel

I don’t know if I’m just sadistic, or if I have some deep buried emotional trauma from my past, or I’m just a stereotypical writer who likes to bring emotional tragedy on her readers…but I’ve always loved betrayal. I love reading it, writing it–it doesn’t matter.

If I really had to guess why betrayal has always been my go-to literary plot device, it might have something to do with the way I think of loyalty. Loyalty is one of the most important qualities a person could have, in my opinion. And sadly, because we’re human, we rarely find that friend who’s loyal until the end.

We’re all disappointed by one another at some point in our lives, but luckily, it’s a common wound we all share, which makes betrayal in novels a powerful tool to wound your readers, yet still have them come crawling back for more.

I’m going to be using the following examples from TV and literature, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, run awaaaay: Treasure Planet, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 1, Star Wars, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Inkheart, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Legend by Marie Lu, Mean Girls, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

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1. The Classic Traitor

General Description: This is the guy everyone thinks of when they think of betrayal. He’s bad from the start, but puts on a good show for the protagonists. He’s kind and charismatic and passionate in stopping the bad guy. It just so happens that he thinks the bad guys are the main characters, not himself, who’s really the villain.

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Notable Culprits: John Silver from Treasure Planet is a great example. Silver is a pirate through and through. He’s never been a good guy and never will be. Yet he’s a likable guy who knows his way around flatteries and witty compliments to the crew. But sure enough, we learn he has every intention of killing his way to the treasure.

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Agent Grant Ward from Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is another great example. Throughout Season 1, we see him develop relationships with his teammates. He shares a sandwich with Fitz and saves Simmons by jumping out of a plane without a parachute. The man is a regular Captain America. Until he’s not. Suddenly he throws Fitz-Simmons to the bottom of the ocean. He kills agents. For Pete’s Sake, he burns his own home and murders his family.

Tips on Writing Them: The goal to betrayal is to make your characters and readers suffer. You want to make your traitor so likable that even after they reveal their true intentions, you still want to believe there’s good in them. With Ward, it took me till maybe Season 3 to be fully convinced it wasn’t some elaborate Marvel trick. With Silver, he became a father figure for Jim, teaching him important character traits and filling the void in Jim’s heart. This makes it particularly wounding when Jim overhears Silver take back every kind thing he’d said to him, claiming it was just to keep him from getting suspicious.

2. Hero Turned Villain

General Description: Similar to the classic traitor, this is a character who formerly was on the straight and narrow, but is either deceived or willing switches sides.

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Notable Culprit: Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars is probably the best example for this kind of traitor. Once so passionate for justice and tender-hearted for the ones he loves, now he dresses in black, carries a red lightsaber, and enjoys choking his inferior officers to death.

Tips on Writing Them: Again, pain is your friend. While Hayden Christensen’s portrayal of Anakin in the prequels left something to be desired, if you take the time to watch the animated series or read the Expanded Universe, you can tell Anakin truly cared about his friends and loved ones. This makes his turn to the Dark Side that much more painful. Having a character’s passion deceived like this can make him a winning traitor, since the readers will weep for him like a lost friend and hope for the rest of the book that he might just come back to the fold. Plus, you can take the rest of the book showing the traitor’s conflict between fighting his friends, and fighting for what he now thinks is right.

3. The Remorseful Traitor

General Description: This is by far my favorite traitor. This guy is a combination of the two previous ones. He can either be bad from the beginning, or be deceived along the way, but by the end, he realizes his faults. Sometimes it’s too late for him to stop the evil he’s already caused, which can introduce guilt.

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Notable Culprits: Edmund from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is probably the most classic example. After the White Witch deceives him into helping her, rather than the Christ-like character of Aslan, Edmund is overcome with guilt and shame for what he’s done. But by the time he realizes what he’s done, Aslan chooses to sacrifice himself and takes Edmund’s death penalty.

Tips on Writing Them: As I’ve said, this is my favorite traitor. Probably because this kind of traitor can be literally anyone, even the protagonist, and reflects biblical human nature seen in the Gospel. When he realizes he’s put everyone he loves in danger, it’s too late to stop the carnage. Whether people are hurt, or a prominent character sacrifices himself to stop the doom, your traitor has to live with the consequences. You can throw guilt and shame on him, alienate him from people who used to be friends. Torment him with the desire to explain himself away with excuses and then realize it’s entirely his fault. Making him subject to the ones he betrayed creates extra tension between the characters. Will they forgive him? Can he be truly redeemed? After all, the path to redemption is one of the best stories in human history.

4. The Conflicted Traitor

General Description: This character doesn’t know what side he’s on. All he knows is he wants to win, and he thinks he wants to do right, but he’s not sure if he’s strong enough. This character is often pathetically weak-spined, easily manipulated, and tormented.

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Notable Culprit: I think of Dustfinger from Inkheart. Dustfinger wants only one thing: to be reunited with his family. He doesn’t really care who helps him, and he’s quickly convinced to steal the book from the protagonists in an attempt to fix his own problems without their help. But he’s never really bad, and he blames his weak personality on the author for writing him that way.

Tips for Writing Them: Internal conflict is the key. You want to keep this character’s goal consistent, but his means for accomplishing that goal fluctuating. Sometimes the bad guy might have more power over him, so he’ll help the bad guy. Then the next day he might realize this isn’t what he wanted, so he’ll come crawling back to the heroes. Make him confused, tormented, and untrustworthy, but make him likable all the same. If he’s just wishy-washy with nothing redeemable about him, readers will roll their eyes and get bored. But if you magnify his conflict, they’ll be aching every time he makes a poor choice.

5. The Double Agent

General Description: This is another favorite of mine. He’s great because he can go either way. Every day the readers will get new information that makes them wonder if he’s truly on their side, or has been bad the whole time.

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Notable Culprit: Snape from Harry Potter trumps this category. In every book the readers are pulled in a different direction. In Sorcerer’s Stone, we think the entire book that Snape is the villain, that Snape is jinxing the broom, that Snape is out to murder Harry. Then we realize at the end that Snape was doing the exact opposite. Then the whole process starts all over again the next book, and the next, until it piques at a climax in the ending books.

Tips on Writing Them: This guy can be either good or bad. That’s the fun of it. Giving both good qualities and bad to this character will keep your readers guessing and over-analyzing their every move. Was that smirk meant to be threatening? Or did he genuinely think something was funny? What did he mean “you’ve been warned”? Is he concerned for their safety, or trying to deter them from being nosy?

6. Unreliable Narrators

General Description: This character is less of a traitor and more misinformed. They see everything through a certain worldview, and often that worldview might not line up with what’s happening. As a result, what they think they know might cause them to make poor choices that could hinder the rest of the heroes.

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Notable Culprits: June Iparis from Marie Lu’s Legend series. Growing up within the government, June has learned to trust officials and distrust the government’s wanted criminals. This causes her to hunt Day, gain his trust, and send the government after his family–all the while June truly believes she’s doing the world a favor until the truth comes out.

Tips on Writing Them: It’s always fun to pit your good characters against each other. They do it in super hero movies all the time. You want to see conflict, and what better conflict than with people who are supposed to be on the same side? You can have your character overhear a part of a conversation that leads him to believe his teammates are plotting against him. He can discover ulterior motives that appear on the surface to be contrary to the heroes’ goal. This can have long-term wounds as well, especially if the misinformed character has done something irreversible to the teammates they’ve betrayed.

7. The High School Traitor

General Description: This is the guy you talk about at your lockers. The petty stuff. He ate lunch with the popular kids today when he said he’d sit with you. He told them he thought comics were stupid when you know the two of you are reading through the entire run of X-Men together. He cancelled a movie with you because the popular kids had a bonfire that same night.

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Notable Culprit: Cady Heron from Mean Girls lives and breathes this description. Originally befriending the outcasts of the school, she plots with them to humiliate the popular–or “plastic”–girls of the high school…only to become just like them.

Tips on Writing Them: Ha, write about your high school. Every kid had a friend turn on them before, even if it was just for something petty. Write about your own disappointments, that time when your friend chose someone over you, or didn’t stand up for you when others ostracized you. That time they texted their crush while you were having a conversation with them. Or sharing their Oreos with their new best friend but never offering you one. Take it. Magnify it. Blow it out of proportion. Everyone is ready to sympathize with characters who go through the same thing as they did.

Bonus: Mind Control

General Description: Mind control is awesome because it’s reversible. You can have your characters do all the wicked things and then just flip a switch and watch them reel in horror. But instead of his friends blaming him for what happened, they can all say “It wasn’t your fault.” Friendships are less likely to be strained, but the consequences still remain.

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Notable Culprit: Bucky Barnes. While yes, Iron Man and others sure didn’t like him after what he’d done in Winter Soldier, the viewers and Captain America still stood by his side. He was tortured and brainwashed, completely at the mercy of his tormentors. Yet he never wanted to hurt anyone.

Tips on Writing Them: Make him do something awful, then have him wake up in time to realize what he did. You can have him snap out of it during his evil deed, only to come face to face with his friend’s horror-stricken face. Or you can have him wallow in his own guilt knowing he’d been controlled for years, but still taking the blame upon himself. What’s great is you can’t morally hold him accountable for whatever you make him do. He can’t go to jail at the end, or be booted off the team (I mean, unless you wanted to). So you can do anything you want without worrying about losing him to “justice.” Muahaha.

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