“So many vows…they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.”Jaime Lannister, A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
Antiheroes like Jaime Lannister understand the necessity and the practicality of betrayal well. Through Machiavellian scheming and pragmatism, antiheroes often use the chaos of the conflict around them to go for the throat, crippling their enemies, and often leaving their allies betrayed. Some, like Jaime, see it as unavoidable, and throughout A Song of Ice and Fire, it seems to be his primary modus operandi.
It goes without saying: betrayal is a common weapon in the villain’s arsenal. It’s also a blunt instrument in the antihero’s toolkit. Noble heroes may betray others for some noble cause, avenging the death of a friend or saving a village. It’s never about them. All too often, the betrayals they inflict get tossed under the umbrella of revenge literature and society will forgive the noble hero for deceiving the villains. Like Jaime, most antiheroes don’t care whether they’re forgiven or not. Antiheroes always have a reason for turning traitor, but they’re not limited to ideals other’s might find high-minded.
Often, betrayal and revenge are linked in our minds. One doesn’t necessarily beget the other, but there’s a reason that treason is a capital crime: selling out your allies, friends, or family, is considered so morally low, it can be considered as bad as murder, especially with life-or-death stakes at play.
By its nature, betrayal is a shock. It doesn’t matter if the betrayal is for revenge, pragmatism, or some petty slight. Friends and allies are people you expect to trust, so when that trust is broken in literature, it often begets an exciting plot twist – or it kicks off a revenge plot.
Making it hardly uncommon. Revenge arcs for heroes go way back in literature. I can name a metric fuckton of classics off my head right now where the protagonist operates by getting revenge: The Count of Monte Cristo, Titus Andronicus, the list goes on.
Typically, though, the people they’re stacked against are irredeemable assholes. Otherwise, the revenge is about someone else. Often, the protagonist will be someone coming back from a stint in exile, or jail. Unrecognizable to their old enemies, they befriend the bastards with every intention of double-crossing them once they get the chance. In many of these works, over the hundreds of pages you read, the hero agonizes over their decision to act, wondering if this makes them “just as bad” as the villains they face. Then, the story climaxes in the satisfying downfall of whoever did the protagonist dirty in the first place. The justifications are clear. The morality of the “good guys” and “bad guys” is spelled out, supposedly leading to a satisfied reader and a happy ending.
Besides the moral taboo, there’s another reason that betrayal is often in the villain’s wheelhouse. Apart from our social taboos against betrayal, it hits the hardest when it takes the protagonist, and thus the reader, by complete surprise. By the nature of most novels (apart from ones with multiple PoV characters), the reader is nearly exclusively following what’s going on the head of the protagonist.
Does the protagonist get taken by surprise? Good. So should the reader. Unless, of course, the protagonist is the one doing the betraying.
The Cask of Amontillado
As far as straight-up betrayal with no rhyme or reason, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Cask of Amontillado” is probably one of the most classic examples of a protagonist doing the morally unthinkable and betraying someone.
From the opening line, we know what’s what: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.”
The protagonist even calls his hapless prey his “friend” in the opening paragraphs. But while there are hints aplenty that scholars are still picking apart today, it’s unclear to the casual reader why the antihero seals up his so-called friend in a silent tomb. What insults and injuries were so extreme that he’d entomb his own colleague alive?!
Rules and Exceptions
“The Cask of Amontillado” works. It engages the reader with an intriguing story that makes the reader suspend disbelief. Why? One, it’s a short story, so the reader doesn’t expect as much information to be parsed and fleshed out. Two, it’s in the horror genre; like horror’s sodomizing cousin, grimdark fantasy, here be villain protagonists and antiheroes aplenty. If you can distinguish the heroes from the monsters, it’s not grimdark in my not-so-humble opinion.
In most other genres, protagonists need to have some sort of moral relatability in order to be believable to readers. If the reader doesn’t understand why a protagonist is crossing a giant moral line, they’re more likely to toss the book aside. Of course, this is barring other factors that can make a morally irredeemable character interesting (intrigue, the anticipation of plot points, pure fascination, whatever).
We live in a messy world. There are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys, and in the real world, meteing out your vengeance after a betrayal often becomes a two-way street. They strike. You strike. They strike back. On and on until one of you dies. And even if death’s involved, some ally or descendent is waiting in the wings to scoop up the banner and continue the blood feud.
Betrayal Is Pragmatism
And of course, sometimes, betrayal has nothing to do with revenge at all. The target is simply in the way of the antihero’s goals. Much like the villain in a traditional story, they’ll stop at nothing to complete their goals, especially if their goal is just surviving.
Bringing us to The Temple of Vengeance series. I have no qualms about adding betrayal, for any reason, to my characters’ arsenals. I’ll admit though, it can be a challenge to make the protagonist relatable. An unfair, crappy world that the protagonist has to navigate helps.
With Raven Queen, Arise, I started out with a the traditional-seeming revenge story. My protagonist Illyria has already suffered betrayal at the hands of purported allies for their own ends: human sacrifice. She’s dumped into a mass grave along with the other sacrifices to appease gods that have forsaken the highlands. This is not her carefree past as a sheltered highland warden—full of bedding people and selling stolen Elysian cattle—catching up to her.
This is a pogrom.
Which means there’s more betrayal than the inciting incident. In the face of genocide in the highlands, Illyria chooses to use any and all weapons at her disposal to avenge herself and protect those she holds dear from a similar, horrible fate.
Betrayal is a weapon Illyria wields just as she does her sword, Grievance. As an antiheroine, she betrays at least four people along the way who trust her with their lives in order to earn her revenge. I won’t spoil the surprises for you, but let me know if you can’t spot them. 😈
Of course, if she double-crosses those who’ve wronged her, all is fair in love and war. If she’s capable of betraying those closest to her to achieve her ultimate goals, then others, too, can and will destroy or thwart her.
If you’re ready to read a grimdark fantasy where betrayal is on the table for antiheroes and villains alike, look no further.