Sometimes the characters that we think are good guys turn out to be bad guys. How do you create believable traitors?
In The Lord Of The Rings, Saruman was Gandolf’s friend and mentor, the wizard that he trusted most. In The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo turns to his old friend Lando Calrissian.
Many dramatic scenes in fiction begin when the hero realizes too late that a trusted friend is actually working for the other side. As writers, we create all kinds of characters, good guys, bad guys, innocent bystanders. Creating characters that end up turning on their friends, however, has some particular challenges.
What Motivates Traitors?
First and foremost is the question of motivation. We may want a character to turn because it advances the plot and increases the tension, turns what should be an easy victory into an ignominious defeat. Why would someone do such a thing, though?
What makes a betrayer? Here
1. Sometimes it’s bribery.
Jayne Cobb, in the series Firefly, tells his captain, “The money was just too good.” Saruman was seduced by the promise of the power that Sauron could grant.
2. Sometimes it’s fear.
Lando Calrissian’s city was occupied by Imperial forces, he believed that turning Han over to Darth Vader would save himself and his people. In 1984, O’Brien tells Winston Smith, “They got me a long time ago”, implying that he himself had been arrested and turned by the Party.
3. Sometimes the traitor is motivated by loyalty.
George Correll in Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down thought of himself as a soldier and a patriot. In the film Gangs Of New York, Amsterdam Vallon goes to work for Bill Cutting specifically to seek revenge for the death of his father.
4. Sometimes the betrayal seems justified.
In John Sayles’ film about the 1919 White Sox scandal, Eight Men Out, the team’s owner Charles Comiskey is shown breaking promises to the players and essentially driving them to throw the series.
Why We Love to Hate Traitors
In order to make a character’s betrayal believable to the reader, the betrayer’s motivation should make sense. That doesn’t mean that the character has to be likable, or that the reader has to agree with the character’s motivation. Turncoats are characters that we all love to hate.
We can’t just make the hero’s best friend suddenly turn him over to the villains just because the plot is more exciting that way, though. Somehow we have to let the reader know that the best friend has a reason, and it should be a reason that is compelling to that character.
Have you ever had a character who became a traitor? What was his or her motivation?
Give us a traitor. Write a character sketch of someone who is going to turn against a friend, a colleague, an employer, a superior officer.
Take fifteen minutes to explain this character’s rationalization for her or his actions. And if you practice, make sure to comment on some else’s practice with your feedback.
Photo by Jospeh Bremson (Creative Commons)