Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On Writing Betrayal: Friends & Lovers

Et Tu, Brute?

Ah, so my day to post, sadly, does not come on the Ides of March, but I cannot resist taking this opportunity to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart.


Betrayal comes in so many flavors.

The enemy you thought was your friend: Who wasn't shocked - shocked, I say - when Mad Eye Moody, who had helped Harry Potter so much during the school year, revealed himself as Barty Crouch Jr., an agent of Voldemort?

Best friends who do bad things: Julius Caesar was willing to fight off an assassination attempt until he saw his best friend, Marcus Brutus, among his assailants. It broke his heart. "Et tu, Brute?"

Love Triangles: Everyone loses, including Camelot, when Guinevere and Lancelot can't control themselves.

But, but, but - what if, for some reason, Harry still had to work with Barty throughout the rest of the series even after all he'd done? What is Julius survived and got a chance to meet with his best friend, Marcus? What if Camelot didn't have to fall, and Art & Gwen & Lance had to work things out (and found a way to)?

What happens if the betrayal isn't the end of the story but the middle?

The heart of my current WIP is betrayal. Here's the very short blurb on it (aren't they the worst to try to do well?)
Hunted by Queens and Barons, and hidden away behind walls and silence by a desperate mother, an Heiress of the Sea chooses her new servant, Dyln, to trust.

She chose wrong.

Dyln knew he would lie to Pearl, steal her away, and betray her to her enemies. He just didn't expect to fall in love with her first.

I've almost shelved this story more times than you can imagine.

Twilight gets a lot of flak because of the 'Edward the Stalker' factor. And just as disturbing,  Bella's acquiescence, even enjoyment of it. As I plunked down words on this story, I couldn't help but think, "Dyln's behavior is so much worse than anything Edward ever did to Bella."

Is it even possible to write a story with a romantic element where one character betrays the other so completely? The Prosers came to my rescue in my darkest hour with some excellent advice. The thing that seems to matter most is not just the act of betrayal itself, but the brutally honest portrayal of the consequences of that action and the reactions of all the characters involved.

Here are a few more things to consider:

Fiction is Real Life made Bigger

People read fiction for a lot of reasons. Exploring dangerous. terrifying situations from the comfort of an easy chair (with a cup of hot cocoa and a fuzzy blanket) is just one of the perks. Fiction can be an ideal medium to examine painful, difficult issues. Betrayal is very real. Who hasn't had a secret splashed all over school or work even though you only told your best friend and swore her to secrecy? And, equally, who hasn't also betrayed someone's confidences at least once? By conflating mundane betrayals (no matter how painful they are) into the life-and-death, save-the-world conflicts of novels, readers can think about all sides of an issue in an environment that isn't quite so close to the heart.

Make Everybody a Sympathetic Character

Okay, I don't have a whole lot of sympathy for Barty Crouch Jr. Sure he had a bad dad, but he's an evil psycho who never really had any other intention but to feed Harry to Voldemort. Marcus Brutus, though, that's another story. And Guinevere and Lancelot take it to a whole nother level. Gwen and Lance are complete characters, good and bad, imperfect, conflicted. Betrayal is most realistic when a reader can sympathize with all the characters involved.

Good Motivations = Bad Actions

Barty Crouch Jr. gets his, Julius Caesar dies, Camelot is destroyed. But, if  a large portion of the story is the aftermath of betrayal, then the motivations of the characters becomes hugely important. In my WIP, from the very start Dyln has his reasons for deceiving Pearl (which, by the end, you might even agree with). After he realizes he loves Pearl, his motivations to deceive her change, BUT his actions don't.

After a betrayal comes to light, it's then that the characters must each grapple with those motivations and reasons (and excuses). And that, I think, is when the reader can put the most of themselves into a story. They can grapple a bit with their own experiences with personal betrayal. And that's why it's so important to... 

Keep the Characters Together

I recently became aware of a family feud that happened in the early 1900's. One part of the family wronged another member over some land. The injured party moved half a state away and never, ever spoke of his relations again. Descendents had no idea there was another side of the family until someone mentioned the incident in passing - 75 years later.

Surprising? Yes. A good story? No.

Most often in real life, people dealing with betrayal will still have to interact with each other. Kids in High School will still be in classes together. Sports and dances will necessitate unavoidable encounters, and don't even start on the gossip (employment works almost equally well in this scenario - is that sad?). As in real life, so in fiction: friends and lovers who betray each other shouldn't have the luxury of just checking out. Physical barriers (they're trapped together somehow) can keep them together, or an ideological reason (they must still defeat a greater evil, and they can only do it together), or some other circumstance. But they must be drawn back to each other again and again. The tension and hurt has to be worked out center stage before the reader.


This is the part where I learned the most from the Prosers. Bad stuff happens. All the time. What matters is how the parties react to the bad stuff. Will Pearl just shed a few tears when she finds out what Dyln's done and say, "But Dyln is so dang hot, I just have to love him no matter what..." Hek no! Whether friends or lovers, if the betrayal is to be resolved, there must be consequences, and the consequences have to be equal to the crime.

For the Betrayer

In Sunday School when I was little I learned that repentance was a process. I was taught a cute mnemonic device to help me remember. It just so happens that I think these 6 R's of repentance are the very things I, as a reader, must see in a character if he's to have any chance of being redeemed in my eyes.
  1. Recognize - until he realizes he's done something wrong, nothing will change.
  2. Remorse - yeah, he'd better feel really, really bad.
  3. Restitution - he has to try to make it better. Even if he's not successful, he's gotta try to fix it.
  4. Reveal - confess to the person he betrayed face to face and be willing to take what's coming to him. (in church we were also taught, of course, to confess to God and ask forgiveness - so if there's some appropriate deity in a story, this could also be worked in)
  5. Resolve - to never do it again. If he keeps up the same behavior it means he hasn't learned anything and his cred is shot with me.
  6. Resolution and/or Rejoice - for the story to have closure there needs to be some level of resolution between then betrayer and betrayee (I just made that up), even if it isn't a perfect happy ending.

For the One Betrayed

Hurt is always going to be the first emotion in a betrayal, but after that I see two viable paths for the person who has been betrayed. Often these paths intertwine before the story ends as things get sorted out.

Revenge and hatred are the first option. How much of that natural hurt will be funneled into rage, and how that anger plays out depends in large part on the character. It can be a powerful source of tension, but ultimately, doesn't very often lead to a happily ever after.

Forgiveness or at least understanding is the second option. Things will never be the same again in the relationship (whether friends or lovers), but can a second path be forged by the two? Can understanding motivations, or having a heart softened by the repentance of the betrayer actually lead to a satisfactory relationship? It's tricky to make this believable to the reader, but I think more satisfying in the end.

An Example from Burn Notice

*If you haven't watched the Fourth Season, Don't Read This!*

Okay, a perfect example comes from the perennial Proser favorite, Burn Notice. In the fourth season, Michael is hot on the trail of some bad guys (motivation) when he accesses a counter-intelligence agent's computer and inadvertently gets him burned. Ack! Michael knows how that feels (sympathetic character). When the agent, Jesse, shows up on Michael's doorstep looking for help, Michael takes him in w/o telling him he's the one who burned him (further betrayal). He thinks they can work together to bust the bad guys and maybe get Jesse reinstated (motivation). But soon Fi and Sam and even Mom are lying to Jesse, too. (Not to mention there's a little heat between Fiona and Jesse) We feel for everybody - it's a total mess of betrayal.

Jesse finds out half-way through the season what everyone has done to him. He almost kills Fiona and vows to take out Michael (hurt & revenge). I'm not sure Michael is capable of repentance, but over the next episodes there is a lot of working stuff out (sticking together to defeat a greater evil), coming to a new understanding and ultimately a satisfying ending (probably Jesse shooting Michael was somewhat cathartic for him, too, don't you think?).

And wouldn't you know it, after writing that, Youtube doesn't have one single video that's usable. *sigh* Guess you'll just have to hop on Netflix and watch season 4 again.



  1. Great post!! There is nothing like a little betrayal to add some drama, and the points of how to handle it responsibly are pure gold.

    I think it is the glossing over of the betrayal or unseemly behavior in some books is the real problem. Honestly, I don't know why a writer wouldn't want to show the consequences of the those actions. It's just more conflict and tension and all that good stuff that you want in books but not in real life.

    I'm glad you didn't give up on your novel cause I want to read it. Hurry up and get that book published, so I can hunt you down to get you to sign my copy. :)

  2. This is great! I especially love the Michael Weston/Jesse reference, but you already knew I would, didn't you?

    I don't add a lot of betrayal to my novels, and you've inspired me! Especially with one particular relationship...Now I've got to rewrite Earth's Gate one more time. Dangit. :)

  3. Poor Julius Caesar...He has an odd shaped head. :) I love this. Great post!


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