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Betrayal—the Ultimate Conflict

June 15, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 15, 2015

I don’t know how many of you watch TV’s Game of Thrones or have read George R. R. Martin’s series a Song of Ice and Fire, but a lot has happened on the TV show the past couple of weeks. And a whole lot happened on the season five finale.

I’m not going to get into the show itself or into the theories about who did what to whom,  what really happened, and what comes next. But I did want to mention something that one of the producers mentioned in his recap of the season five finale.

He was talking about conflict, how it’s not only about good versus evil but that conflict often takes place between people of good intentions (or in my addition, between people of bad intentions) who have different views of the world.

Conflict isn’t always between the good guy and the bad guy or between characters with different approaches to life or even between characters with different belief systems.

We already know this. We know in our personal lives that when we’re at odds with friends and family, when we can’t come to an agreement, nothing feels right. We’re antsy and edgy and out of sorts. And eventually all of us discover that when it’s worse than a simple disagreement, when we’re betrayed by those we love and trust, there’s nothing worse. The betrayal cuts into our very souls and into our hearts.

Betrayal cripples us.

Betrayal destroys trust. It makes us rethink our responses and even our outlook. It makes us second guess our decisions. It affects our behavior.

If a loved one betrays us, what does that mean? Does it mean we shouldn’t trust anyone with our deepest selves? Does it mean something is out of alignment with the detection mechanisms that help us decide which people we can trust, the inner mechanisms that we take for granted and rely on every day?

Even worse, when we’re betrayed by those closest to us, we often wonder if we’re somehow at fault. Does betrayal by a loved one imply that we’re not worthy of their protection and honor, that there’s something wrong with us? That we’re of so little value that those who are supposed to side with us not only don’t side with us, but they actively oppose us publicly?


Betrayal is a particularly effective emotion-filled type of conflict that we can use in fiction to create long-lasting problems for our characters.

We expect those on the other side—the bad guys, in our way of thinking—to do anything to try to win. We expect them to lie or expose our secrets. We expect them to use our weaknesses, if they can discover them, against us.

But we don’t expect those who profess to love us, those that have our backs, to betray us. We don’t expect them to allow differences, no matter how great, to destroy our relationships.

We don’t expect our friends and lovers to expose us—make us vulnerable—before our enemies.

Our walls are down with those we love and trust. We can’t be on guard all the time—for our mental health and sanity, we sometimes have to let others in. We have to feel safe enough to reveal our truest selves. And that may mean our secret dreams and our most fearsome and shameful memories.

We don’t expect our lovers and trusted friends to hold us up for ridicule or censure or punishment.

But adding betrayal to a story can be quite effective in terms of shaking up a character. Shaking up both characters, the betrayed and the betrayer.


The Effects of Betrayal

Betrayal is a shock. The one betrayed is often brought to a standstill because the shock is so great. Events continue on around her, but she is not a part of them. Her tasks go undone as she deals with the sting of the betrayal. Thus betrayal by a friend or loved one can be used by the enemy to stop a character, to prevent him from doing what he should be doing.

The betrayed character quite often spends times doubting the betrayal—trying to excuse away the betrayal, as if it’s unreal—which sets her back even farther. And then once she eventually believes that she was betrayed, she spends even more time trying to figure out why.

The character may also spend time reminiscing about moments from the past spent with the traitor. The character may try to discover how far-reaching the betrayal is. Had the traitor ever been a friend, or had the betrayed one been gullible right from the start? And which would be worse, being gullible and trusting the untrustworthy faux friend or having a true friend commit a real betrayal?

Betrayal by trusted friends and loved ones can be confusing and disconcerting. It can cause physical, emotional, and mental stress.

And betrayal can lead to irrational behavior.

So the betrayed character might resort to drinking or drug use to run away from the betrayal, if only for a moment. This can be a real problem and risk for someone who has a weakness for alcohol or drugs. Betrayal could send him back into behavior he thought he’d overcome.

Betrayal might lead to unsafe sexual behavior.

It might lead to rage and irrational acts toward the traitor or toward substitutes for the traitor if he’s not close by or is unreachable or otherwise untouchable.

It might lead to rage toward innocents.

It could simply lead to inattention and accidents.

Betrayal could also lead to revenge, revenge accomplished in the next chapter or in the next book of a series.


Consider adding betrayal and all the possible repercussions to it to your next story.

See if a betrayal can add depth and a different emotional component to an otherwise common story line.


Questions to Ask

What could betrayal lead to? Who could get hurt? What happens to the betrayer? To the betrayed? To bystanders and those that love both of the characters involved?

Can betrayal add tension beyond a single scene? Is there enough to last the length of a novel?

Could a simple betrayal (even a mistaken betrayal) lead to something even worse? What kinds of reactions fit the betrayed character’s personality?

How might one character react to betrayal when compared to the way another does? What kinds of betrayals can a character forgive? What kinds would he never forgive?

How does the betrayal affect other elements of the story? Does it take over the emotional component? Should it? Can it be toned down to better fit the story?

Or should the betrayal be ramped up, making it a major element of the story?

How is life changed for the betrayed? For the one who betrays? Can either of them trust again?

What of other relationships? How does a spouse or lover handle it when his or her loved one pulls back because of the betrayal of someone else, because of events in which the spouse or lover had no part?

How does a betrayal affect a character’s work life?

How would the story be changed if a different character was the betrayer? Would the effects be stronger? Would they resonate for longer? Touch more characters? Promise additional problems?


Keep in Mind

Remember that betrayal packs the strongest emotional punch for readers when they know the characters, when they feel the effects of the betrayal because they know what it means to the one betrayed.

A betrayal too early in a story or between unfamiliar characters won’t be as strong or as involving as one between characters the readers have come to know and understand.

Betrayals can be hinted at or they can seemingly come out of nowhere, but in truth, as with any character action, the traitorous character must have a reason to behave as he does. So the one who betrays must have a reason for that betrayal. And at some point, readers should discover what that reason is.

Reasons for betrayals can be as varied as the characters.

~  A woman might betray her lover because she’s forced to in order to save a life or prevent a tragedy.

~  She may betray her lover in retribution, for either a real or perceived insult or injury.

~  The traitor may be convinced to switch allegiances for moral purposes.

~  The traitor may be led to believe she was wronged first and is lashing out in an emotional response.

Betrayals can start out small and grow, or they may start as a powerful conflagration. But they should produce immediate responses and long-lasting repercussions.

Betrayal is a conflict that spreads, like ripples on a pond. Unless it’s small to begin with and a result of a misunderstanding that’s easily straightened out, a betrayal is the kind of conflict that causes problems more than once through a full-length novel. Characters don’t easily forget a betrayal, even if forgiveness is sought and given.

If you’ve not considered the effects of a good betrayal in your stories, do consider adding one. No, betrayals aren’t necessarily perfect for every story, so don’t assume that you must have one. But a betrayal between friends or lovers, between trusted comrades, may be exactly what your current project is looking for.


I tip my hat to George R. R. Martin, author of the Song of Ice and Fire Series. He’s ticked off a lot of fans with the way he kills off major characters, but he certainly knows how to engage those fans. And if even half of the fan theories are true, Martin also knows how to plant important details through the books in the series. Fans are reading big intentions into the smallest of details. If those intentions are true, Martin has been a genius in his planning of story events, even those that took place in the distant past.



Tags: ,     Posted in: Beyond the Basics, Writing Tips

11 Responses to “Betrayal—the Ultimate Conflict”

  1. Interestingly enough, I just wrote a chapter yesterday in which betrayal plays a significant role. Looking back over my nine novels, betrayal is part of the plot in every one.

  2. I think betrayal is an excellent idea to use as part of a plot. But I’ve learned that readers do not seem to like betrayal, nor unsafe sexual behaviour, nor irrational behaviour… Nice straightforward stories are the fashion, with clearly defined goodies versus baddies.

  3. Harold Webb says:

    I agree with you, following the list of TV shows and bestsellers that are popular nowadays, we can see that betrayal is a trend. And including betrayal to the plot is a way to succeed.

    • Harold, I’m guessing that some form of betrayal has been around for ages. But as Catherine pointed out, some readers don’t like it. But that just means that we don’t all like the same kinds of stories. Some like bad guys that are relative outsiders while others enjoy seeing what happens when a close friend or loved one turns out to be the bad guy.

  4. Thanks, Beth, for an insightful post. Your comments on “betrayal” have given me much to ponder as I continue my creative writing projects.

  5. Vijay says:

    Hi, Beth,
    I find your ‘questions to ask’ section of this post useful to my current work in progress. All of my novel events involve the betrayal planned by a husband to his wife to reunite with his girlfriend. In the third act, wife hears his intention to part and she takes her classmate’s help to overcome her problem in the fourth act. Again, thank you for providing useful tips.

  6. Janet says:

    Hi Beth,
    My story of betrayal occurs 3 weeks before my third child is born when my husband announces that he is leaving out of the blue.

    Thanks for your insight into writing about this moving subject.

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