Loyalty and the Narrative

For those who value it, loyalty can be one of the strongest motivations out there. It creates people who will go out of the way for a friend, rewrite reality for the sake of their organization, refuse to change sides even under insurmountable proof that their people are wrong. It’s powerful, it’s admirable (granted, more so in more collectivist cultures, but still worthy of respect even in the more individual-oriented societies), and it leads to massive dramatic awesome.

Now, we all know about the obvious things that a story or game plot can do with loyalty. It makes a splendid motivator, either in moving a character towards a goal for the good of [whatever she’s loyal to] or in ensuring there’s something that can be threatened which she will drop everything to protect. But there’s one other thing that can be done with loyalty, and that’s break it.

Think about it. The more strongly loyal to another person, or to an organization, a character is, the more she’s likely got invested in her connection with that other entity and in its well-being. But the thing about that is that usually there’s a reason, something that the character is supposed to gain from the feeling of loyalty. Maybe she looks up to the person and wants her respect; maybe she thinks that if she works hard for the good of the organization, it will take care of her in a similar manner.

Now, what do you suppose happens if the other side not only doesn’t hold up its end of the deal, but starts actively screwing the character over instead? That, I find, is where the deepest of vendettas come from; it’s hard to be as invested in a grudge against someone or something that was trying to profit off of you-a-stranger as in a grudge against something you had trusted, worked for, believed in, that turned around and took advantage of you, or at least so it is in my experience.

As a result, if you want a reasonable motivation for a character, think about loyalty and betrayal. If there’s an investment to work from, one that can build up and build up for a while, without much sign that the betrayal is coming (or sign that only really works in retrospect), the grudge that can spark will be at least as personal as any doomed hometown meeting its fate.

The loyal do not turn against those they are bound to very quickly. But when they do, they will be implacable. It’s a good trick to use, both for motivating PCs in a game and for explaining your own characters’ motivations in any form of narrative.

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