Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Curse your Sudden but Inevitable Betrayal! - Charley R's Guide to Traitors

Following on from - and perhaps inspired by - my last post Liar, Liar... I have decided to donate this guide to those characters that are either everyone's favourite, or the ones we want to murder with a pointy stick and a can of sardines. I'm surprised these characters aren't as popular as they could be - you'd have thought an opportunity to scare the pants off the other characters, twist your plot up like a sandy beach towel, generate huge hissy fits in the readership and whip out your very best evil laugh would be near irresistible to an author, no matter how small their evil streak.

So, in order to indulge my own (enormous) sadistic tendency, I'm going to hand this post over to the worst of the worst - the cowards, egotists, sadists and million different breeds of general git. Rotten tomatoes will also be handed out at the end of the presentation for pelting of author or persons portrayed here, depending on your preference.

Now then, dear readers, let's find out ... which one of these wonderful people would make the perfect turncoat?


Suspect Number One: Administration, Advice and Anarchy.
We begin our investigation into traitors with one of the simplest and most well-known archetypes - the backstabbing advisor or second-in-command. Common haunts include high fantasy, political thriller and some murder mysteries. Motives vary depending on the situation - it could be anything from an inferiority complex, thwarted or jealousy of love, a stupidly low salary, the boss' annoying habit of ruffling their hair and calling them "boy-o", or the usual warmongering, power-hungriness or mental instability.
Known aliases: Grima Wormtongue, Iago.

Pros: Politics is a brutal business, so it's hardly implausible that, sooner or later, the Head Honcho's backup might turn nasty. Motives are easy to concoct, and there's plenty of variety to be had to spice things up. They've also got the added advantage of being perfect catalysts for civil wars and mad campaigns of genocide and opression, or alternately being used as puppets by some darker Big Bad Overlord, due to their flexibility of nature and drive.

Cons: Face it, we've all seen these guys too many times to be surprised when they whip out the knives. Especially if they're portrayed in that awfully cliche'd fashion (greasy hair, pasty skin, suspicious twitch) and walk around muttering about world domination like Kreacher on crack. There's no point in having a traitor character at all if we know who it's going to be!

Final Verdicit: Easy to find, useful, but not terribly bright. More interesting candidates available.

Suspect Number Two: HE WAS THEIR FRIEND!
A close cousin of Suspect Number One, we have the backstabber who lives a little closer to home. Has been sighted on multiple occasions in almost every genre, and most motives seem to involve some incarnation of jealousy against the hero(ine) of the tale, or a feeling that working for the "other side" will fulfill the gaping hole in their lives that tells them they must be something bigger and better than everyone else.
Known aliases: Peter Pettigrew.

Pros: There's no way to break the heart of your central character (and the readership that loves them) like having them turned on by someone they thought the could trust. Unlike snaky advisors, friends are not the people we'd expect to turn traitor, so the element of surprise factor is very much in their favour. Making the readership watch a well-loved character slowly nurse their festering wounds against the hero for the big moment is also a greatly under-appreciated technique. Treacherous friends also have brilliant potential to become "grey-area" villains later in the plot and - you guessed it - their dual nature as friend and foe is yet another pointy weapon with which to torture the readers!

Cons: If the motive isn't credible for the character, the whole charade falls to pieces. Friends are harder to turn against other characters, and - sometimes - the fact that the hero(ine) refuses to take a swing at them for old time's sake can get a little grating. This sort of character is also a lot more prone to irritating "superiority" monologues than "professional" villains.

Final Verdict: Read the contract carefully before you hire this one.

Suspect Number Three: Whose Side Are You On Again?
Ah, the double agent. Both protagonist and arch-nemesis in many a spy-based thriller (or any book involving intrigue, really), working out where this lot stand is one of the most entertaining pursuits of any reader. No matter what you see them doing - chatting with Mr Nice, helping Mr Nasty pin up the blueprints of his doomsday machine or singing to Britney Spears in the shower - nothing they do will tell you anything more about them. To trust .... or not to trust?
Known aliases: Severus Snape, Varys the Spider.

Pros: The sheer ambuguity and lack of certainty with a double agent character is their greatest attraction. Who knows if they're double-crossing, or even triple-crossing, the hero? Are they bluffing? Are they lying? What is the hidden meaning behind those glittering eyes? What's that shiny thing lurking up their sleeve? Red herrings are a double agent's best friend, and sometimes you don't even need to tell the reader definitively who's side they're on at all, but let their actions eventually show their loyalties ... or lack of them.

Cons: Too many signs in a short space of time may confuse your reader more than intrigue them, but the absolute worst thing about a double agent is how easy it is to make them contrived. Their motives can be incredibly hard to fathom and gradually show to the readers without exposition, and there's nothing worse than setting a character up beautifully and then, suddenly "Oh, it turns out they're on OUR side all along!" and then rattle off some very tenuous links to one side or another. They're complex people who require incredibly careful planning - probably more so than any other sort of traitor.

Final Verdict: Spectacular agents, but watch your back. You never know when you might find something sticking out of it ...

Suspect Number Four: The Voices Are Telling Me To Kill You...
Ooer, anybody got a straight-jacket? It's always the crazy ones who'll bite you in the butt at the last minute. And they needn't even be that crazy - in fact, the majority of "mad" traitors aren't the types who run around with chickens on their heads claiming to the the Queen of The Math Fairies. You'll find them just about everywhere, living normal, or next to normal, lives, looking just like you or me ... until you scratch beneath the surface. Deluded, desperate or downtrodden ... and, maybe, just a tiny bit doolally.
Known Aliases: Murtagh Morzansson, Petyr Littlefinger, Jaime Lannister.

Pros: Though it may sound a little strange, the damaged traitors are often the most likely to be the ones the readers will feel sorry for. Come on, wouldn't your heart ache if you knew the only reason this character was doing the horrible things they do was because they honestly believed it would be for the best, or because they've become to utterly broken by their lives that, to them, this is the only logical course of action? Villains are clever, rememeber, and they find nothing more enjoyable than finding weaknesses and twisting or forcing people into their service. In the case of Murtagh up there, he didn't have any choice when he was forced to betray his half-brother and fight for an evil king. Can you really call him a traitor for that? As for Jaime, well, wouldn't you finish of Mad King Aerys in those circumstances, too?

Cons: One word: angst. If your traitor spends more time bewailing what has become of them than acting on their orders / beliefs / crazed desires, you know they've been drinking too much coffee. Using this approach simply to get your character a sympathy vote does NOT count as complete justification for what they do - odds are they DO have an alternative, if they're really that noble. Even if it does involve death.

Final Verdict: As long as they take their meds, and you don't let them read the newspaper, they ought to operate just fine.


Of course, there are a multitude of other variants and degrees of treachery that this world of thugs and thieves can throw at us, but it's good to have an idea of alternatives. No matter how iffy their morals, remember that even sneaks like these are people too, and their motives will be different depending on their character, circumstances, and whatever horrors you plan to inflict on them in the course of the story.

Mixing and matching different aspects of villain models can also create a more dynamic character - what about a supposedly treacherous advisor acting as a double agent? What about the hero(ine)'s best friend being exploited and twisted by the villain until they're tricked into betraying their friend?

Much like methods of assassination, the possibilities really are endless.

- Charley R


  1. Ah let’s see.

    Suspect Number 1 is Wholawski... and he’s the obvious villan – but that’s who he’d be if I told the story from Azure’s point of view.

    I wonder if Manual would like to be Suspect Number 2... Perhaps he’s the one who gives away that there’s a female amongst the Scouts... Of course he’s spent too much time with Jason to truly turn on his Sergeant.

    Suspect Number 3 is James. He scared me a couple times as I wondered whose side he was on... until I started writing his thoughts down and it became obvious. I’d like to think I worked him in well... or should I say he worked himself in well. :}

    I don’t think I’ve really dealt with a Suspect Number 4 – unless you want to count York.

    And I just realized you could classify Sharon as suspect 1 or 2. Of course it’s a bit misconstrued because I’m really looking at it from Wholawski’s side.

    What do you think – You’ve read the books. How’d I do?

    :} Cayla

    1. I think your characters fit wonderfully into those! I don't have enough traitors to squeeze in here from Aeserion, but I have a couple of fairly tragic 4s from the hakel stories. Quite a few 2s as well, and Vidal is king of the double-triple-bazillion-agents. Even I don't know whose side he's on! xP

      Also, Manuel, if you ever go full villain, I will hand you a bogus goo gun and leave you in Sephirax's line of sight. I'm not joking *glares at him* Just in case...

  2. I gotta say, your writerly guides are awesome, Charley! Talk about the epitome of helpful and informative but still tongue-in-cheek lists! Though... I've never had a real traitor in any of my stories; the one who might qualify did his betraying years before the story actually opens. Hmm.. I shall have to include one or two in the future!

    1. Thanks Farjag! :D

      Traitors are really good fun as characters - I'd recommend trying one out sometime. Seriously, the kicks you can get out of it are spectacular *cackles*

  3. Haha, I love this post - and the fact that I knew at least one of your examples for each type of traitor. :) Grima Wormtongue, Peter Pettigrew, Severus Snape, Murtagh Morzansson...all great examples of villains and traitors! (Although I think we can all agree that Severus Snape wasn't really a villain. ;) Also, I totally know what you mean. Despite it all, at the end of the Inheritance Cycle I still really liked Murtagh! :)

    This guide is perfect! Your writerly guides are fantastic and such fun to read. Great job!

    1. Murtagh is the best! I HATED the end of Inheritance regarding him though - so ... so ... NOT Murtagh, really. But he is an awesome character, and I love him dearly xD

      Snape was totally a villain! He killed Dumbledore! .. okay, so not really, but he still did nasty things. Definitely a double-agent, you can't deny THAT xD

      Aww, thank you! More are forthcoming :)

    2. I know, I really wish Murtagh hadn't left. :'( So sad. MURTAGH WHY YOU DID YOU HAVE TO LEAVE?! He really is an awesome character.

      Oh no, I won't deny that - Snape was totally a double-agent! He was always doing sneaky things, and he could be pretty nasty. But the whole, "After all this time?" "Always," thing sort of cancels it out, in my opinion. Plus even though he's a jerk to Harry, he always seems to save his life somehow... ;)

    3. Eragon should have grabbed him by the ear and said "Nuh uh, YOU'RE COMING WITH ME BROTHER!" xD

      Yeah, he does. There's a song I know, called "Hand of Sorrow" by Within Temptation, which could literally have been written about Snape. So sad. Though I have to say I never really warmed to him, however good he turned out to be in the end. He'll always be the greasy-haired git to me :P

    4. I totally agree. Eragon, how could you let him go?! Murtagh, how could you leave Nasuada?! WHY, CHRISTOPHER PAOLINI? WHY?

      I've never heard "Hand of Sorrow", but now I may need to look it up. ;) I can understand your viewpoint, though...Snape WAS kind of a greasy-haired git. But in the end, his good side won out for me. I tend to have compassion for people (including fictional characters!) when I can see even just a glimpse of what's going on in their head. Like Murtagh - some people might think he's a jerk, but since I can see why he's the way he is, I still like him! (Of course, there are some characters I intensely dislike and still feel compassion for, villains though they are. An example that pops to mind is Peter Pettigrew. I can't stand him, but I still feel a little bad for him!) Am I making sense at all? Or is this all coming out as a strange jumble?

    5. Neh, I didn't like Nasuada and Murtagh as a potential couple. He'd never expressed the slightest interest in her before - they'd never even TALKED CIVILLY before she ended up his captive. I didn't like it - too contrived. Still think Eragon should have brought him along to the new place, though. He could have emoed all he liked about his terrible deeds on the way ... if he wasn't too busy being seasick xD

      You should - it's an amazing song :)

      Ironically, I found Snape's love for Lily weakened him a bit for me. I thought it was daft that he was so cruel to Lily - couldn't he see it as an opportunity to make up for losing her, by at least being a help to her son? Though he does look a lot like and idolise James ... eh, fair game.

      Murtagh was a bit whiny sometimes but, unlike Snape, he really didn't have a choice in a lot of what happened to him. Death or eternal enslavement - not much to choose between! I think he was looking for an escape there a lot ... and he was epic pairing up with Eragon in books one and two. The "epic former companion-ness" kinda added up to brownie points for him.

      Nah, I understand you completely :)

    6. That's true...but I don't know, I liked them together. Guess it's just my inner romantic coming out... ;) Same with Snape and Lily. To quote Jim Carrey in The Grinch: MAX! I'M...FEELING!!

      You do have a point - Murtagh didn't really have a lot of great options to choose from - but I could still see some people disliking him anyway. Not me, though...he made a lasting good impression on me! I always love the tough characters, those who often appear with either a bow and arrows or a sword, as well as knowledge and/or awesome skills. Murtagh, Aragorn, etc. I just love the epic awesomeness! ;)

    7. BAH! Snape and Lily ... doesn't work in my head. Not in the least because it wouldn't result in Harry. I'm a bit of a canon pairings person for the most part, and I usually have to have something vaguely justifable to go on.

      Oh yes! Could not agree more! If only he didn't emo so much .... mebbe I could see Nasuada putting up with him then, and not just whacking him with something saying "GET OVER YOURSELF!" xD

    8. Oh, absolutely! I guess what I mean is I like the romance Snape and Lily had. But I'm glad things worked out the way they did, romantically, because of course without arrogant James Potter we wouldn't have had Harry. And we just gotta have Harry! :D

      Good point. Nasuada seemed to like Murtagh, though, and he was pretty nice to her too. I think it could have potentially worked, but alas...Murtagh. Had to. Flippin'. Leave. *shakes head sadly* Bittersweet ending, indeed.

    9. No Harry = BAD BAD BAD! xD

      It's just the fact he'd never really seemed to notice her before, and then suddenly he's head over heels for her ... unless you go for that admiration from afar thing ... nah, I think Eragon should have dragged him over the sea with him. Watching Emo Boy get seasick would have been hilarious xD

    10. It did sort of come out of nowhere, but maybe when they met up in Uru'baen they both needed someone to lean on. In which case, it's more understandable. But agreed - if he was going to leave, he should have at least gone with his brother over the sea!!

    11. *sigh* There was a clear brain deficiency in their genetics. If Eragon's supposed to be the "bright" one, all hope is lost (though he did grow a brain in Inheritance, I have to say). If Murtagh's the smart one ... gods save us all xD

  4. Very nice post, Spooky :)

    So, which category would you say Cormac came under? I'm thinking probably the first.

    1. Cormac ... I dunno, I think Category The Second, or maybe even Three - he "betrays" the Dagda, then Alex, so we never really know where he stands. Unless we don't count him as a friend for Alex, in which case he is certainly the first :P

    2. Hmm, I don't even know any more. His behaviour has changed so much in this draft that ... well, the plot has changed since you last read it, so...

    3. He's his own new brand of traitor! The "Cormac" model! xD

    4. He's the "I'm on your side because the girl I've been in love with for years is on your side too and I don't want to have to kill her" model of traitor, I think. In which case it's the Dagda's he's betraying.

    5. In which case ... double agent / treacherous friend / generally unpredictable? xD

  5. It took me about ten seconds to work out where that quote was from. I'm ashamed of myself - I was only watching Firefly yesterday.

    Also, I may have to use this sometime!

    1. Haha, I don't even watch Firefly - I just love that quote xD