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11:42 pm: Rant on loyalty
This is partially about loyalty and partially about the characterization of traitors. Because I wanted it to be.

1) Keep the obverse of loyalty in mind. Usually, characters who are loyal to the protagonist are good guys. Treason is one of the ultimate crimes. And anyone who is mean to the protagonist runs the risk of being labeled a traitor—even if they haven’t given up a secret or if they don’t have a particular reason to like her or stick by her side in the first place.

But loyalty runs the risk of becoming one of the “interview flaws” I talked about in the last rant if it isn’t treated with some realism. Someone who’s loyal at any cost and beyond the reach of reason has a name, and it’s “fanatic.”

This is one of the few (very few) things that I think Robert Jordan did right. Masema, a minor character in the second book of the Wheel of Time, hates Rand, the hero, for irrational reasons. At the end of the book, he changes his mind and becomes committed to him and to spreading the word that Rand is the savior of the world. But, being Masema, his conversion is as irrational as his initial hatred, and he starts setting himself up as a “prophet.” He causes plenty of trouble for Rand throughout the following books.

Think about whether that stupidly, stubbornly loyal character in your book is really a hero after all.

2) Realize that a traitor’s motives are often more complex than “greed!” or “hatred!”. From the reaction of most fantasy heroes when they’re betrayed, we can assume that treason is considered a horrible thing by most people in that particular world. But somehow the natural consequence to that—namely, that the traitor probably considers treason horrible, too, and probably had complex reasons for making that choice—is rarely mentioned.

Yes, some people will betray the hero for simple greed or out of jealousy or because they’re incapable of being loyal. But that raises its own awkward questions. If this person is like that, the protagonist has pretty bad taste in friends and confidants.

Once again, I think a lot of the problems like these come from trying to excuse the protagonist and make her into an innocent victim no matter what the situation. There are other and far more attractive positions in a plot than that of constant victim. (Remember: Nothing you can do will secure your audience’s sympathy for your protagonist with 100% of readers). Why couldn’t she have played some part, even if it was unwitting, in inspiring the traitor to betray? Why couldn’t she be someone who might turn into a traitor herself in different circumstances? Why can’t she sometimes be stupid and mistake the signs that someone could be disloyal, instead of being horribly, horribly betrayed by people she had plenty of reasons to trust?

And what about the traitor? Does he necessarily see a choice in what he’s done? Is he always thinking of the protagonist in his choice he made and hoping that his betrayal hurts her, or is he thinking more of himself or his family or the war or the larger political situation? Maybe the choice is entirely one of principles; he thinks the protagonist is wrong, and after a long period when he tried to convince himself otherwise, he decides the best thing he can do is join the side that’s right.

A plot like this can lend itself to such good character development, I’m always disappointed when it falls—yet again—into the predictable pattern of “the traitor is the rival/the former best friend who got jealous/someone who loves money and that’s the end of it.”

3) If being a traitor is so horrible, why does the protagonist trust someone who’s betrayed the enemy? I often wonder about this. Yes, a traitor might be a good source of information about the enemy’s plans, but on the other hand, there’s no saying that that information isn’t tainted or wrong or simply partial. And if the protagonist has such a deep revulsion at the thought of disloyalty that she can barely stay in the room with a traitor, why does she wholeheartedly believe someone who tells her they’re one?

Too often, the answer is, “Well, because the enemy is wrong and anyone who betrays him must be good!” Yeah, right. I really hope that most fantasy novelists are willing to make their stories more complex than that.

Again, the possibilities for a complex story centered around a traitor are just about obvious. How long does it take the protagonist to trust her? Do we get her viewpoint? Why did she choose to come to the protagonist with her information instead of someone else? Does she try to do something to prove that she should be trusted, does she warily try to trade her information for the best bargain, does she sit around pouting? You have a ready-made plot the moment someone runs from the villain.

Why do people want to waste this by telegraphing early on that you can either trust everything or nothing the traitor says?

4) Remember that there are different kinds of loyalty. Even if someone who follows the protagonist doesn’t decide to betray her, he still might have a loyalty that’s to her principles rather than to her. He might be wrong to abandon her when she makes a mistake, but if it’s the latest in a long series of such mistakes, then you can at least see where the impulse comes from. He might try to talk to her about principles and find her stubbornly determined to keep pursuing the course he thinks is wrong, in which case he has a decision to make.

Or what about loyalties to different people coming into conflict? It might be easy for the protagonist, who of course thinks she’s right, to say, “Turn your back on your king and follow me for my claim to the throne!” or “Stop fighting wars and become a pacifist!” If the person she’s speaking to is the king’s best friend or a soldier who’s continuing a family tradition of going into the army, though, you have the conflict of the old against the new, of friendship against charisma. Even if someone falls in love with the protagonist, that shouldn’t make them willing to throw over everyone they’ve loved before that without a second thought.

(Again, I should emphasize that they still might come to the protagonist’s side. I just want to see some second thoughts).

A conflict I wish I saw more often is that of someone trying to choose between two genuinely good people or two genuinely important duties. Usually, it’s obvious from the beginning what the “right” choice is. I don’t have words for how poor a storytelling decision this is. Why would you assume your audience doesn’t enjoy suspense? More, why would you assume that the person you’re putting the burden of choice on should be so stupid as to not notice the differences between the “right” choice and the “wrong” one that are so obvious to the reader?

Finally, there’s the dim view that the people whom a character is loyal to at the start of the story might take of his abandoning those loyalties for the sake of marching at the protagonist’s side. If she’s got a reputation as someone who goes around recruiting people who are needed to support their families, get the harvest in, or take care of those who can’t take care of themselves, then there’s another source of interesting conflict, and reasons for people to oppose her that aren’t linked to just Being Evil. It might even be enough to make them ally with the villain.

5) Is loyalty always the highest good? Quite often it seems so. People can literally get away with murder as long as they’re not traitors to the protagonist. But if they become so, no one good in the story is expected to speak to them again (unless they turn out to be dupes of a clever and far more evil traitor, in which case it’s all right because they still thought they were being loyal).

Someone who chooses to separate from the protagonist and serve the same goal she’s pursuing in a different way might be placing that goal above loyalty. Someone who is daring and courageous in war, and prizes that as the prime virtue, might decide that he has no reason to be loyal to his former orders because the protagonist is too cautious for him (and maybe because she’s not as good a general as he is). Someone who openly makes a break is placing honesty above absolute and oblivious loyalty.

In none of those cases would I say the person in question is a horrible evil traitor, though their actions might or might not be intelligent when considering the larger situation. Once again, this can be a way to complicate your fantasy world and the issues your protagonist has to think about without—usually unwittingly—giving her a false dilemma instead.

6) Consider what place loyalty will play in a politician’s life. Admittedly, I’m mostly including this one because I like political fantasy, but it’s also applicable to other subgenres of fantasy that do not involve a straightforward attempt to save the world, a conflict of protagonist and villain. If your protagonist is a politician, maybe she can’t always prize loyalty above all else. A supporter who skims a bit of money off the top might be more valuable than a subordinate who is deeply faithful to her but can’t keep his mouth shut about the secrets that he’s entrusted with.

If a politician is considered tainted and compromised in this fantasy world for making compromises and hanging people out to dry who aren’t useful, then that’s fine. After all, most people who write politicians as protagonists are aware of that stereotype/view already and can work with it. Beware of the temptation to make excuses for your protagonist, however, and never having her do anything that’s morally grey even though she’s moving in a world where everyone else does.

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Date:May 29th, 2010 01:10 am (UTC)
Oooh, fun rant.

In the comic I'm writing, the two protagonists are, to varying degrees, traitors. For one of them, it's the usual path of betraying friends and allies for a higher purpose. For the other, loyalty—both on a personal and professional level—is the higher purpose, which actually makes him a bit of a sociopath. There's a fine line between unflinching loyalty and "just following orders."
Date:May 29th, 2010 02:37 am (UTC)
Nice rant. The Mole is so often clearly good (and turns to the hero's side and is easily forgiven) or clearly mouth-frothingly evil, and stupid either way.

I know in a parody rewriting of mine I have great fun turning every scene of "You want to save the world yourself, without letting me, the hero, do it. Your clearly stupid methods will clearly make things worse, so now I must kill you to stop you. You terrible traitors to me, your best friend you met three days ago!" into "I surrender to you and your cause. Now as your loyal servant, allow me to assist you in our shared goal as much as possible. Except your plans will need a slight revision because they revolve around various people I... maybe accidentally assassinated two chapters ago. Oopsies. Hey, how about this plan I just thought up that, humbly, isn't mind-numbingly stupid?"
Date:May 29th, 2010 02:50 am (UTC)
Excellent! I didn't know you were still doing this!

Date:May 29th, 2010 03:52 am (UTC)

Excellent rant

Why can’t she sometimes be stupid and mistake the signs that someone could be disloyal, instead of being horribly, horribly betrayed by people she had plenty of reasons to trust?

Or commit stupid blunders that engender disloyalty. This could be a particularly apt force in a society that is built around personal loyalty and honor, like feudalistic societies. If some numbskull repeatedly slights his subordinates without thinking, it's not surprising that some (or all) of them might turn treacherous.

And what about the traitor? Does he necessarily see a choice in what he’s done? Is he always thinking of the protagonist in his choice he made and hoping that his betrayal hurts her, or is he thinking more of himself or his family or the war or the larger political situation?

This reminds me of Walder Frey from A Song of Ice and Fire. What he ends up doing is pretty awful and contemptible, but you can see why he ended up doing that - his lord had effectively "betrayed" him according to the rules of their society, and put him in a highly dangerous position.

If she’s got a reputation as someone who goes around recruiting people who are needed to support their families, get the harvest in, or take care of those who can’t take care of themselves, then there’s another source of interesting conflict, and reasons for people to oppose her that aren’t linked to just Being Evil.

Indeed. I don't think we have enough characters with reputations for constantly leading people off on stupid "adventures" and organizing idiotic schemes.
Date:May 29th, 2010 03:56 am (UTC)
6) Consider what place loyalty will play in a politician’s life. Admittedly, I’m mostly including this one because I like political fantasy, but it’s also applicable to other subgenres of fantasy that do not involve a straightforward attempt to save the world, a conflict of protagonist and villain. If your protagonist is a politician, maybe she can’t always prize loyalty above all else. A supporter who skims a bit of money off the top might be more valuable than a subordinate who is deeply faithful to her but can’t keep his mouth shut about the secrets that he’s entrusted with.

This is especially a problem if your protagonist is a leader of a nation, large organization, etc. He's probably going to have to deal with competing factions, feuds between some of his subordinates, and in some medieval-type societies possibly open conflict between them. The protagonist will have to try and play the game, managing and earning the trust of his subordinates while not ending up too tied in problematic ways, and that will likely require a flexible definition of "loyalty".
Date:May 29th, 2010 06:04 pm (UTC)
limyaael, you are my hero. your rants always give me great ideas for adding complexity to my own writing. thanks so much. also, i recently picked up some steven brust and carol berg novels at your recommendation, and want to thank you for that, too! they are fantastic.
Date:May 29th, 2010 11:27 pm (UTC)
Excellent rant as usual! It's good to see that you're still around limyaael - I've often wondered where you'd gone and hoped that you're alright and doing well.
My apologies if this seems slightly disjointed I'm typing on a screen where I can see only a couple of lines. :)

It is interesting to see alternatives to the traditional idea of loyalty in fantasy- which IMHO are remnants from the ideal (not idea) of Medieval chivalry that seems to plague fantasy. I can understand the complexities of loyalty among friends and family and people who have earned that loyalty through an intangible set of events that have built over the years. Such bonds would be difficult to break, and the reason behind that would have to be a good one. That said, I'm always highly suspicious of anyone who pledges undying loyalty to such and such. True, deep loyalty is earned, not given away freely during happy hour.
Loyalty to a principle is different. One must believe or sympathize with the cause, or at least have such a nasty alternative that the character has a damn good reason to choose that alternative. Something I really hate seeing is a character who has been raised from childhood with a set of principles abandon them without a second thought the second something shiny comes along ("ooh! A rebellion!" *joins without second thought*) I also note that the opposite rarely happens; the kings army comes by and the rebellious protagonist becomes a soldier. Not even the nice shiny armour can sway him. I can see plenty of opportunities for complex characterization and character interaction that is truly deep. Not to mention the plots that could unfold and the ripple effects of such plots.

Regarding loyalty within politics and treason within that. Why don't authors take a good, hard look at the political situations in the world today? I'm thinking of the situation in Thailand myself. It must take a lot of courage and a deep belief that things are wrong to stand up and rebel, knowing that you might get shot down in the streets by the army. I'm sure there's a lot more involved than that, I don't really know much more about it than what I see on the news and in the papers, but there's a lot of loyalty/treason examples right there, and I'm sure that a little bit of research could reveal more.
Then there's the opportunity for political propoganda, sabotage, all sorts of nasty goodies that I like and even opportunities for those double agents fantasy likes - the traitor that isn't a traitor. I've often wondered why the protagonist doesn't send someone to the bad guys and uses them to feed misinformation and gather information - with eyes wide open. I've got a double agent character, who was sent in to gather information about an alternative society, one that isn't traditional fundementalist, but rather, seeks advancement for the society and it's people as a whole. Kaja was raised in the traditional fundementalist society and believed so strongly in it that he accepted the task to infiltrate and spy on the alternative, but once he was in, and started interacting with the people, began to look closely at both sides - and got so far in that he was unwilling to get out. He took the best from both sides and mashed it into his own set of principles. He still feeds information back, about the more reprehensible parts of this society but little more. some of his siblings call him traitor to varying degrees , but Kaja doesn't see it that way - he's become very fluid and ambigious, and sometimes I'm not sure which way he's going to take things. I think I've defused rather than inflamed the traitor situation, but there's still plenty of conflict and characterisation to drive everything on. I prefer to have plots that aren't good vs. evil but are more of a conflict between opinions and ideals.

There seems to be a whole lot of emphasis on the crushing impact of betrayal in fantasy and not so much about what caused it. I'd like to see more but it's all the same old same old and nothing really worth reading.
Thanks - (Anonymous)
Date:May 31st, 2010 11:10 pm (UTC)
My characters tend to be loyal (sometimes to the point of fanaticism or stupidity) to ideas or causes, but there are very few who tend towards loyalty to *people*, and those come over as refreshingly anarchic, I have been told.

Loyalty is such a nicely complicated thing that my leviathan of a political intrigue story (the one that always demand a complete re-write just when I think I'm nearly done) lives solely on clashing loyalties and duties. Be loyal to your friend or to your friend's cause? To your boss or to the ideas he claims to stand for? The people in the story have a saying, "Loyalty's a sword with a poisoned hilt".
Date:June 1st, 2010 06:10 am (UTC)

Why Evil? Why Good?

Na, halo!
I've discovered your rants a few months ago, and it's good to see you back!

Well, I think I have an explanation for why authors write traitors as "Chaotic Evil" unless they're working for the Good Guys. As far as I can tell, that's how it's always played in real life. The average American doesn't know why Arnold Benedict defected to the British, they just know he's the "Big Bad". Most Americans don't know who Hans Speidel was, but he was a high ranking traitor in WWII.

Long story short, Hans chose the winning side, and he's now remembered as a hero. Arnold chose the losing side, and he died in poverty.

I'd say that traitors are always, or nearly always, going to be remembered because of which side they chose. Such simplistic characterization, however, is not a good idea for describing the traitor in the act. Too late at night to think of any really good examples, but I remember tossing a few books because the traitor just happened to be the guy with the goatee that the hero trusted unconditionally upon meeting him.
Date:June 1st, 2010 08:29 am (UTC)

I like how a well-made CRPG can handle this.

For example, in Throne of Bhaal, you can get a former enemy to join your party. They're still evil, but not insane anymore. For various reasons, you have the power to extract an oath of loyalty from them that is magically binding.

But you also have the option not to, and both options are equally valid (in that you can redeem this former enemy based on your actions, with or without the oath). And the interesting thing is, their reasons for remaining loyal even if you don't get an oath out of them or convert them to "good" are perfectly sound, too. And there's multiple reasons, not one.

A rare example of there being four possible ways you can interact with an enemy turned ally and there will be perfectly good reasons in each for why they stay an ally. (That being said, it was revealed by the developers that they ran out of time and they'd intended that if you treated them like crap and didn't get an oath out of them, they would not only stay evil but turn on you.)

And then there's all the "little" betrayals you can get in such games, where party members remain more loyal to their principles than to you, not bringing you to harm but acting against your wishes (such as a merciless law enforcement officer killing a criminal you've forgiven and refused to finish off after defeating them).
Date:June 1st, 2010 11:44 am (UTC)
That's an excellent rant. One of the things I love about GRR Martin is that he seems to get this right. In Song of Ice and Fire, the characters tend to be loyal to the people they know, their friends, families, and sometimes "the right thing", but you almost always do not feel it's an arbitrary loyalty (as when the hero must convince someone to reject X and come to the hero's side), but you really feel "yes, that's what I'D do". And the conflict comes when these, mostly naturally, come into direct conflict. People are traitors not for implausibly implacable adherence to obscure abstract principles, but because they want X, and you want them to get X.
Date:June 1st, 2010 09:24 pm (UTC)

awesome rant

Good to see you're still ranting. I've been lurking on your rants for the last two years. Keep it up!

I snarl at heroes who demands loyalty just BECAUSE. And I dislike using Greed! and Hatred! as motivations. It's not that greed and hatred don't play a role in my character's loyalties, it's that I think characters need to be more than just a single motivation. Otherwise you have a cardboard cutout instead of a character.
Date:June 2nd, 2010 01:02 am (UTC)

lurker unlurking

Judas, as he's written in the Bible, comes to mind. :)
Date:June 4th, 2010 07:45 pm (UTC)
Great rant!
Date:June 7th, 2010 01:34 am (UTC)
The first thing that came to mind on loyalty as a bad thing, is remember that loyalty to a person means serving their interests as you see them. This leads to a rich area for conflicts without treachery. A loyal character may hold back information to spare the protagonist from knowing it. Or they may do things that serve the protagonist's ends by means the protagonist would condemn. Or they may try to stop the protagonist from enacting their latest heroic plan/harebrained scheme. A person being loyal to the protagonist doesn't translate into doing what the protagonist wants. If it always does, it destroys characterization.
Date:June 20th, 2010 11:40 pm (UTC)
Another possibility is that the "traitor" has no reason to be loyal. I'm working on a fantasy where the "traitor" is dragged along on a Quest, abandons the Quest, gets called a traitor, whereupon he reveals that this a) wasn't his idea and b) is loyal to someone else that this Quest could get in serious trouble.
Date:June 22nd, 2010 10:09 pm (UTC)
One of my all-time favorite literary traitors is Lord Gro in The Worm Ouroboros, the key to whose character is a Resume Flaw brought ruthlessly to its logical (and tragic, in the classical sense) conclusion: he has such a compulsion to side with the underdog that he winds up doomed to betray the victor in any conflict.
Date:June 30th, 2010 09:51 am (UTC)
Hey, I love your rants, I've been reading them for years.
The immense focus on loyalty in some fantasy books has always puzzled me. Maybe cultural differences are at work here, as most of the authors I've read are British and American, but I think it's mostly just lazy writing. Especially when loyalty or a lack thereof is apparently enough reason to classify someone as 'good' or 'evil'. Why would you want to reduce the countless motivations a human being can have for their behaviour to that?
Date:July 25th, 2010 03:25 am (UTC)


I've been reading your rants for a long time and I find them really helpful for young writers. :)

Can I friend you? If honestly, I've created my journal here mostly because of this opportunity.

Date:July 30th, 2010 05:08 am (UTC)

You're Back! :)

Fantastic! I discovered your rants series about two-and-a-half years ago, and have been an avid fan of them ever since. Thank you SO much for devoting so much time, energy and insight toward the all-too-frequent frailties of our much-abused genres.

Welcome back. You've been missed. :)

- SatyrPhil Brucato - author, editor, teacher & storyteller
Date:August 5th, 2010 06:22 am (UTC)

Big Fan

Hello! I've been a longtime fan of your articles on effective writing. They're tremendously useful, and I've yet to see a single one with which I fundamentally disagreed. I even shared them with the creative writing club on my campus. (I was vice president for a year, then president... and then graduated.) I strive to keep your recommendations in mind when I'm writing, though I confess that I don't view them as iron-clad.

Luckily, I haven't wandered seriously afoul of any of your recommendations yet. (I'm writing a political fantasy with no villains, no humans, no dragons, no ghosts, no elves, no dwarves, no orcs, no ghouls, no gentry, no "destiny", no little kids, no telepathy, no "soul bonds", no "quest", and legitimate moral ambiguity in a non-"medieval" world where magic and science are both equally respected and practically interchangeable. Oh, and about half the cast are cannibals from beginning to end.) Even so, I try to stay aware, especially when it comes to your rants on theme and proper characterization.

This rant was of particular interest to me because one of the major characters (generally considered a protagonist, but that depends on your POV) in my story is a traitor. However, he believed that betraying his friend would bring the highly ambitious goal he and his friend shared into fruition, which he assumed is what his friend would want if consulted. He was acting in the best interests of his nation, though he had personal reasons as well (an increase in the odds of survivorship). He also (fairly) perceived his friend as having previously betrayed him. Just to complicate matters, the full repercussions were impossible to know beforehand, so he was balancing the odds of particular outcomes. His friend is another important protagonist, so whether the treason was justifiable very much depends on which character the reader personally prefers.

I wonder if you've ever considered transforming the contents of your rants index into a little booklet. Maybe a staple-bound for sale? I would want a copy for myself, of course, but I'd also donate one immediately to my college's library. This isn't intended to be pressure; I just thought I'd let you know how thoroughly I'd support the idea if you chose to enact it. You have a fun, expressive, and confident style that I think grabs readers and makes them strongly consider your input. That's a good thing, considering your combination of rare gifts: knowledge, awareness, and reason!
Date:August 21st, 2010 05:37 am (UTC)


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Date:September 19th, 2010 04:40 pm (UTC)
I tried to understand what dark fantasy is and how dark can fantasy be at all, using your rants among other things. If you would like, I would be grateful for your 2 cents:

Hope you update soon. :)
Date:October 17th, 2010 11:58 pm (UTC)
I have to admit, I'd love to see a story in which the Mole waits until the very end to betray the protagonist... at which point we learn that the protagonist was wrong. Maybe he or she had good intentions... but the Evil Overlord is actually a decent ruler who is doing his or her best to preserve the freedoms of the land, and that the people who backed the protagonist did so out of greed and desire for power (they were expecting to step into the power vacuum).

You could even have the Mole protest afterward that he or she can't keep doing this... and tell the Not-So-Evil Overlord of several things that were noticed and need fixing... and have the Ruler agree to have something done. And then not kill the Mole or the like... but send the Mole off, rewarded... and find some way to reform the protagonist. Or even do the smart thing and kill him/her if the Ruler is a benign but not stupid Overlord. ;)

Rob H.

P.S. - I must admit, I rather enjoy your rants. I wish you'd redo your psychic power one with a wider venue: perhaps looking at psychics and psychic powers in a science fiction setting (with the subset of the superhero genre) and how to more effectively write these abilities. Of course, I say that seeing I'm starting to rewrite some old stories with psychic abilities in it and am taking it down a slightly darker path than McCaffery did with her Pegasus books....
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