Traitors and Tricksters

In real life, I prefer everything to be exactly how it looks.  For instance, I run around with my colors embroidered on my chest-- it’s kind of difficult to mistake me for anything but Captain America.  (There is the thing with Puerto Rico, but it was my symbol first.)  Real life, however, is seldom that simple.  Deceit and trickery are everywhere, as much as I hate to say it.  Liars, posers, people saying one thing but doing something else-- it’s my job to find and punch people like that.

That said, I give you my full permission to cram as much trickery as you can into your novel.

I can’t deny loving character plot twists.  When a character seems like an angel, then turns out to be the traitor everyone has been hunting-- in real life it stinks, but in fiction it’s thrilling.  Or when a character seems really nasty and mean, then turns out to be the noblest person on the team, that’s pretty cool as well.  And a style I don’t like quite as much but can be used to devastating effect: the unreliable narrator.  I’ll try to give you a good idea of each type.

Type #1: The Happy Traitor

I think we know how this one looks.  Characters like these make themselves hugely likable in some way or another, through mentoring the main character, siding with them in character conflicts or saving them from danger, or just being awesome.  They are the last people you’d expect to be evil, but then they shrug and betray you.  These characters, as genuine and good they seem at the beginning, usually turn out to be the most evil people in the room.

Writing this type of character is almost the same as reading it, but you have one distinct hardship: you know exactly who the traitor is.  If you, by a sliver of a scene or one wrong word, mention this character’s evilness, the surprise is ruined and the reader will see the plot twist coming.  You have to be as convinced of that character’s goodness as the main character is-- until the penny drops.  That said, however, you have to also lay clues along the way, pointing to the traitor.  In order to keep readers from figuring it out too soon, you also have to lay red herrings, pointing the finger at other, more likely characters before finally swinging around to the true traitor.  To help you out, the traitor doesn’t want to be discovered anyway, so he or she can lay false trails as well.  It’s a difficult process to master, but if you can do it right, the effect is stunning.

Type #2: The Grouchy Hero

Like Dr. Banner!  Well… not really.  This is the character that turns out to be the exact opposite of the happy traitor.  He or she comes onscreen completely unlikable; perhaps they stay alone all the time, or insult people, or refuse to work for the good of all involved.  The main character doesn’t like them, until suddenly they turn out to be the most heroic person on the team.  This arc often coincides with another character turning traitor-- the traitor foists all their wrongdoings onto the hidden hero, until the traitor is discovered and the hero is redeemed, usually with a very good reason for all their grouchiness.

But this works for anyone with a slightly questionable personality.  Mr. Stark, for instance.  On a given day, you can’t tell if he’s going to help you out or leave you in the lurch to go kiss Miss Potts.  (Or is it JARVIS?  Whichever one has hair.)  Usually he helps out, but I hear in the past he’s been… unreliable.  Which leads us to our final type.

Type #3: The Unreliable Narrator

This is probably the hardest of the three to pull off.  The first two possibilities depend more on your ability to lay clues buried under false trails.  This one, however, requires you to lie blatantly to the reader (or else not tell the whole truth, which is just as bad), to skew the reader’s interpretation of the plot.  For instance, Director Fury’s thing with the collectible Me cards.  Apparently, Agent Coulson never had those in his jacket, and Fury was lying to us again.  We didn’t know that, however, and it served its purpose quite well.  When done right, the unreliable narrator is one of the most stunning tools in fiction.

When done right.  Fury’s choice was the right one in that instance, but be careful with this--- lying to the reader is not nice, and readers generally don’t like it unless you do it perfectly.  If you mess this up, it will backfire badly.  Tips on not messing it up: make sure we know the main character lies once in a while, even to people they know and love.  That will make it easier for the reader to accept it.  Also, having them gloss over the tidbit they’re unreliable about might help as a style of foreshadowing.  Definitely toy with different ways to make this work, but be prepared for it to fail a lot before you get it right.  When you get it right, however, it will have been well worth the effort.

Being a good person demands candor in real life, but if fiction was truthful it wouldn’t be fiction anymore.  These three options are tools in your toolbox for when you need a stunning character plot twist.  My personal favorite is the Happy Traitor, although I used the Grouchy Hero in my last novel.  I look forward to hearing about your successes with each of these.  In the meantime, if you have anything to add about any of these three techniques, go for it.  I’d love to hear from you.  Until then, I’m off.  I hope this has helped you, and good luck.


  1. Excellent post. I may be able to incorporate this into my WIP.

    I tend towards using the Happy Traitor. I've never used the Unreliable Narrator and I don't think I've used the Grouchy Hero, either (maybe I have, but I'm not sure. The character I'm thinking of was more depressed than grouchy. And he may have qualified for Happy Traitor, too...).

    ~Robyn Hoode

  2. Interesting post.

    I use both The Happy Taitor and The Grouchy Hero in my WIP. I'd like to try The Unrealiable Narrator sometime, too. Well, actualy... Does it count if your MC's perception of the plot is skewed (because s/he's been lied to), and therefore your readers' as well? Or must the MC be the one lying to the reader? I'm thinking the latter, but maybe that's a grey area.

  3. I'm trying a novel which depends mostly on one happy traitor... It's kind of weird, because my protagonist is sort of an anti-hero (at least, the most anti-hero I've ever written,) and her hinted evilness is (hopefully) both a good foreshadow and a red herring at once... the protagonist is actually her bodyguard, and she uses a tidbit of humor that's rather dark, and he just assumes that his sense of humor has been rubbing off on her... >:-D