I have a weak spot for betrayals in my fiction. There’s just something beautifully heartbreaking about beloved characters suddenly changing course. Whether I’m reading it, writing it, or watching it on TV, done right, it’s one of my absolute favorite things.
The key words being: done right. I’ve seen a lot of very poorly executed betrayals. You either see it coming a mile away or get to the end still scratching your head over why they would ever have done that. So, for my example of this character done to perfection, I’m going to be talking about Tunstall from Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper books.
For a good betrayal, I need three ingredients. The first of those is trust. Every good stab in the back starts with a seed of trust. I have to love the character who’s going to hurt me, but more importantly I have to feel that the protagonist loves them. That’s what makes the pain so delicious.
Pierce does this with Tunstall–the reader gets two full books with him before the event. We see his wit, his dogged determination, how deeply he cares for Beka and she for him. That, more than anything else, is what sells the end of his arc and puts me right in Beka’s skin, reeling right along with her.
The second thing I need is foreshadowing in the traitor’s character. A thing that they want but would never chase because it would mean going against the protagonist or their professed morals or goals. It has to be believable, though, and a thing that’s present in the narrative before the double-cross is brought to light. It’s especially important that, after the fact, the reader (and the protagonist) can look back and pick up on all those clues that something wasn’t right and throw the whole relationship into question.
With respect to Tunstall, I got this in spades. Once I finished the book, I literally sat there for a good fifteen or twenty minutes, going back through the story and rereading key scenes. The betrayal is right there on the page, present in every fiber of his character, and I still didn’t see it coming.
The third thing I need is a red herring. If the main character–and by extension the reader–has their attention focused on others, they take it for granted that their loved one is with them through thick and thin. It’s a simple ingredient, but it builds upon the idea of trust and foreshadowing. It creates an us-against-them mentality that makes the protagonist and the traitor seem to playing on the same side. It also makes the ulterior motive for the traitor easier to overlook.
In the case of Mastiff, there are two red herrings. Both are great characters, but we haven’t known or loved them for as long as we have Tunstall, so our–and Beka’s–focus is on them when we’re trying to suss out who the spy in the party might be. Tunstall easily fades into the background against these other two more overt possibilities.
Be sure to also check out Rachel Serbicki’s take on betrayals at her blog!