Notes On Betrayal

Betrayal, by its very nature, is a strong dramatic element. The emotions it sparks run the gamut from sadness to rage, more so than standard conflict would; in addition, it can shape the worldview of those who have been marked by it.

Of course, this makes it an excellent addition to the toolkit for any storyteller of any stripe. But like any tool, it must be used properly.

A betrayal should be unexpected. If the potential traitor has been looking shifty all along, and the hints have had a level of subtlety approximately akin to that of a ten-ton boulder rolling down a snowy slope, it’s not going to be near as powerful as if it comes seemingly from nowhere, and only in retrospect do the odd little bits beforehand start making sense.

The best kind of betrayal isn’t completely out of nowhere, though. It needs to be within the betraying character’s capabilities, one way or another, both physically and emotionally. Moreover, there are probably very small hints that it’s coming. Nothing too obvious, mind you, and it might just fly right by the audience the first time. That’s okay. It’s better that way. If they see it afterwards and go “OH, that’s why!”, you know you’re doing it right.

Betrayal should be infrequent, for several reasons. First, its impact depends on shock value. If everyone and the dog is secretly plotting against you, being betrayed stops meaning as much after a few repetitions. This goes double when the same character’s being betrayed by the same person over and over; if it’s a story and the characters’ reactions aren’t under the audience’s control, they’re going to look like idiots, while repeatedly using the same NPC as a traitor in a game (logically enough) will result in decreasing levels of both surprise that it’s happening and opportunity to do so again. People learn from their mistakes, or at least they’re supposed to.

Traitors depend on timing. If you’re going to go turncoat, and get into that amount of trouble, you may as well wait until you’re going to have the maximum impact, right? Or aim for the point at which you’re likeliest to be able to escape. Even the kinds who rather obviously make their true side known in front of the protagonist are probably doing so because that’s the way that leads to the maximum emotional impact; intent to harm should never be underestimated.

Betrayal should mean something, and the closer and more positive connection between betrayer and betrayed, the more it should mean. First off, this means it has to have an impact, not just be something that can be whitewashed over—unless you’ve got a really ineffectual traitor, but do be aware that that’s not going to get the same kinds of emotional results. It’s going to have an emotional impact as well; unless there’s an extremely good reason, the social dynamics aren’t going to go back to the way they were after a betrayal (and even having a good reason won’t necessarily mean things can completely revert).

The most important thing to remember is that for any traitor, the betrayal has to be a, if not the, right choice. Now, betraying people you’ve been spying on, when you’ve been planning it from the start, and you don’t really have any attachment to them—that’s one thing. But hitting the audience where it hurts requires someone who’s been close to the characters. And that means it’s going to be a more difficult decision. Why is the eventual reward of the betrayal more important than what the betraying character has now? Was she magically coerced, blackmailed, offered her heart’s desire? Was the one person he’ll do anything for the one who asked? (A note: betrayal with the impetus being sex should be used exceedingly sparingly. Everyone seems to do it, but very few people do it right. This goes double if the characters in question just plain don’t think with their gonads. We have so many other options; why not use them?) The bigger the betrayal, the more important this question is, and the better the answer needs to be.

So plan your betrayals. It makes them stronger, harsher, and better able to stir up a reaction.


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  1. Enlisting PCs for Betrayal | Exchange of Realities

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