Monday 28 January 2013

Sympathetic Characters Part 5: Betrayal

One of the sharpest pains we feel on behalf of a character is when they are betrayed. In order for the reader to feel this pain, they need to know who the betrayer is. The closer the relationship between the character and the betrayer, the greater their pain and the greater our sympathy.

A story that focuses on finding out who the traitor is—a mystery—usually reveals their identity near the end of the story, at which point the reader and the main character discover the truth together.

In terms of creating sympathy you can use to draw the reader into the story, that's too late to be of much use. 

When it comes to sympathy, the sooner you reveal the betrayal and who's responsible, the better.

It can also be tempting to just show the effects of betrayal—the guy who won’t trust anyone, the girl who won’t love again—and only reveal the cause later, but again, that’s veering towards mystery. 

You will generate a lot more sympathy if the readers knows up front that the character has been betrayed and by whom (assuming the reason is a valid one). The betrayal doesn’t have to be the central focus of the story, it can just be something that informs a character's development. 

If you have a situation where the reader knows someone is being duplicitous, but the character doesn’t, then seeing the character being duped by someone he trusts can markedly increase sympathy for them. But it can also work if both reader and character know from the start. A child abandoned by its mother is a betrayal that can still be seen having an effect many years later without much need for explanation.

The kind of betrayal can be wide-ranging, from a double-agent in a group of spies to a cheating lover to a kid who tells on another. However, because this kind of situation is most effective when it’s someone close to your MC, what you end up with is a lot of stories where it’s the same person doing the backstabbing. The wife, the best friend, the boss... And because it’s obvious, for example, that a man would be close to his wife, the relationship is just sketched in on the page. They’re married, you know what married people are like, I don’t have to paint you a picture do I?

And so you end up with a lot of clichéd representations of what a perfect marriage is like.

In order to maximise the pain of betrayal, it helps to emphasise the positive sides of the relationship. Show how well a couple get on, how cool a best friend is, how important the boss is. But what often happens when a writer knows a scene has a specific purpose (e.g. to show a couple are close and loving) is that they’re so busy making sure they get the message across, the scene ends up being direct and simplistic. They forget to make the scene interesting and entertaining in its own right.

Betrayal is about being lied to or cheated on or swindled in some way. These sorts of moments have all the ingredients for a great, memorable scene. The important thing isn’t that a character is betrayed, it’s how they’re betrayed. How can you use what happens to show the kind of people we’re dealing with? How can you make it interesting and unexpected?

Because even though a man coming home early and finding his wife in bed with the gardener gives us the information, it does so in a flat and pedestrian manner.

It’s also very easy to settle for clichéd reasons for the betrayal. She doesn’t love him anymore, he wanted all the money for himself, the company had to downsize... 

Betrayal is emotionally affecting, but don't let the hefty weight of the concept take away from making the scenes where it occurs, where it's discovered, where blame is handed out, obvious and on-the-nose. You still have to make it inventive and engaging for the reader. 

The bond between betrayer and betrayee is key to creating maximum sympathy for the MC. This isn’t always possible. The betrayer might be a corporation, or they might be dead. But getting across a sense of what they meant to the character before the betrayal will intensify sympathy. Seeing it for ourselves is the best way, but flashbacks, exposition or narrative summary can all do the job, too.

If the MC is/was especially kind or generous towards the person who turns on him, that will also intensify sympathy. If the reader doesn’t know this is the betrayer, they’ll be all the more hurt when they do find out. If they already know, then the greater the outrage at seeing the MC being taken advantage of.

The act of betrayal itself can come in many forms, but the character you want to come across as sympathetic needs to be as blameless as possible. If he was planning to double-cross the other bank robbers, and they double-crossed him first, that isn’t going to generate much sympathy.

Betrayal hurts the most when it isn’t provoked, when the victim’s actions deserve a medal not a knife in the back, and when the betrayer is someone the victim cares about. Give the reader all three and they’ll be on the character’s side no matter what.

Throughout this series on Sympathetic Characters, the more unfairly a character is treated the more sympathetic the reader feels towards him. This is one of the most effective and versatile ways to increase sympathy in any situation, as we shall see in the next post—Sympathetic Characters Part 6: Unfairness.


If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Other posts in the series can be found here:

Sympathetic Characters Part 1: Danger
Sympathetic Characters Part 2: Suffering
Sympathetic Characters Part 3: Noble Soul
Sympathetic Characters Part 4: Outcasts 

And don't forget to check out the latest posts from other top bloggers at The Funnily Enough 


Anonymous said...

"The more unfairly a character is treated the more sympathetic the reader feels towards him." Well, I suppose it also depends on why the character is being treated unfairly. It might be justified. Great post, mooderino! -AJ

mooderino said...

@AJ - If they're treated badly their treatment might be justified, but if it's unfair then by definition it can't be justified.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

What if the betrayal is unintentional or accidental? The choice of a close friend leaves the main character 'stranded' in life for instance?

mooderino said...

@Alex - I don't think that would have the same effect. The character would receive the same sympathy they would from suffering any hardship, but it wouldn't be real betrayal if it was accidental.

Anonymous said...

Haha, right you are. This isn't the first time I've contradicted myself. ;) You've got lots of useful advice. I'll be coming back here for sure. -AJ

dolorah said...

Trust and betrayal are hard concepts to build into the story.


mooderino said...

@AJ - you'll be very welcome.

@Donna - But all the more rewarding when you get it right.

nutschell said...

another great post, moody! And I do agree that a character who gets betrayed (especially by someone they love) always gets my sympathy vote. :D

mooderino said...

@nutschell - trust is such a delicate thing that can so easily be broken.

Jack Dowden said...

I really liked the line, “The important thing isn’t that a character is betrayed, it’s how they’re betrayed.” This is an excellent point. Nearly everything is considered cliché, so a writer needs to be able to take something like betrayal and use it in a way to make the reader feel something. The same holds true for other things like friendship, redemption, the fall from grace, etc. Too many think that all they have to do is a have a character experience betrayal, and that’s it. But you’re right, it’s not about the betrayal, it’s about how it happens.

mooderino said...

@Jack - it's one of the most important things to learn, I think, that the most visceral emotions can end up dull and unaffecting if executed poorly.

Unknown said...

I must go back and read all the posts in this series -- this is awesome!

Stopping by to welcome you on board the A to Z Challenge April 2013 once again.

Please consider putting up the Challenge badge so it is easier to identify your participation.
Twitter: @AprilA2Z

mooderino said...

@Damyanti - thanks. Planning to put up the badge as soon as I get a mo.

Jay Noel said...

Fantastic! I love creating dramatic irony when the reader knows more than the character. I want my reader to scream at my book (or their kindle)

mooderino said...

@Jay - withholding information from the character often works better than withholding it from the reader. Hard to do in first person pov though (but not impossible).

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

This really hits close to home because the manuscript I have on submission right now has a betrayal in it. I tend to think (of course I am biased) that I did the betrayal well and was not at all cliche about it. But who knows. Maybe I really suck at it.

mooderino said...

@Michael - in the end it only really matters if people enjoy the story. I think all this craft stuff helps, but story is the most important thing.

Golden Eagle said...

It always hurts more when there's something (or the reader/MC were led to believe that there was) meaningful between the betrayed and the betrayer.

Great post!

mooderino said...

@Golden - painfully true.

Arlee Bird said...

I think most of us have experienced some kind of betrayal in our lives so it's easy to relate to a character who is going through something like this if it's done well. Betrayal is a classic theme.

Glad to have you signed up for the A to Z!

Wrote By Rote
An A to Z Co-host blog

mooderino said...

@Lee - Cheers, glad to be back for 2013.

Unknown said...

THe ones closest to us are also the ones most capable of crushing us.

mooderino said...

@Melanie - to be fair, people who know me have plenty of reasons.

Rusty Carl said...

In reading this series I've been thinking of when I've been the most sympathetic to a character... and the quickest. For that I'd have to vote for American Gods - I thought the plot of that book got a bit away from me, but I loved it because I was so committed to seeing this guy have something good happen to him. So, that would probably be a good case study in a sympathetic character... I mention it because betrayal took place there too.

mooderino said...

@Rusty - once the reader's in, they're in all the way.

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