Traitors, Moral Conflicts and Transformations
by Che Monro
Reading Alyssa R George's excellent article on villains in FARP made me think about traitors and characters with internal moral conflicts. Wikipedia defines a traitor as: “a person who reneges on an oath of loyalty or a pledge of allegiance, and in some way willfully cooperates with an enemy.”
The most common form of a traitor in a fantasy setting is the individual who betrays his fellows for personal gain, the guard who opens the castle gate for money, or the prisoner who informs on an escape attempt in return for extra rations. These traitors are simple, self interested characters who have a useful place in moving the story along, but they are hardly the fodder for great character drama.
Of more interest are those who commit such acts of treachery because of tragic character flaws such as pride, hatred, greed, jealousy, vanity and despair. Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus because of jealousy, Saruman betrayed Middle Earth from pride and despair. The theme of the tragic, anti-heroic traitor and their fall from grace to eventual destruction is one of the great themes of western mythology. The archetype of the tragically flawed traitor is, of course, Satan.
Another character type of interest to those looking to write complex villains is the morally torn or conflicted character, i.e. the person who is pulled two ways. This can often be the hero of the story, particularly in transformative or coming of age stories.
A character, who realizes that their family, group, state, or society is flawed or evil, enters into a state of moral conflict, which must be resolved by making moral choices. These choices will transform the individual or their situation.
A soldier discovers that his army has been infected by alien mind control spores, so he betrays them to the enemy. A preacher realizes that the government is corrupt, so he joins a revolutionary organization. A servant is loyal to his master, but cannot bear to see the children of his enemies persecuted. These are examples of morally conflicted characters. They may go on to become full blown traitors against their original alignment like Darth Vader or Doctor Yueh in Dune. They may change their own nature, coming to accept one or the other side completely. The redemption of morally flawed and initially evil characters is another great theme of western literature. Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Eustace in The Dawn Treader are a good examples of this.
Finally there are the characters who, through their actions, cause their entire world, society, or situation to change; and thus solve the dilemma of moral conflicts between the world as it is and how we would wish it to be. Revolutionary or spiritual characters such as Odo in Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, or Silk in Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun exemplify the type.
Traitors and morally conflicted characters can provide a level of character complexity that is often sorely lacking in the struggle between good and evil, which is the typical fodder for fantasy writing. They serve useful plot functions and throw the strengths and weaknesses of simpler character types into high relief. They serve to bring abstract moral struggles into the domain of choice, personality and emotion, making it accessible to the writer, to other characters, and, of course, to the reader. Properly used these characters cannot fail to engage the reader's interest. This is why traitors and moral conflicts deserve a place in your writing.
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