Or, The Problem of Betrayal in Small Character Sets
Before I get going, I’m gonna put up a big spoiler warning:
I’m going to be revealing plot twists in the following:
- NCIS: Los Angeles series premiere
- Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
- The Inspector Morse mysteries
- Hyperion by Dan Simmons
- Bones season 3
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman
So, we good? Good.
I was watching the series premiere of NCIS: Los Angeles the other night*. In it, the team are trying to track down a kidnapped girl connected to a South American drug cartel. Her mother gets a phone call from the absent father, and calls him Luis. And instantly I decide that he’s in on the kidnapping, because of the hispanic name. And sure enough, he’s the bad guy.
This brought into focus something I’ve faced before in creating adventures, writing stories, reading, watching movies and TV… basically, any time I interact with a story. Stories contain, of necessity, a limited subset of real-world things. Specifically, the only characters in a well-constructed story are those that contribute in some meaningful way to the story. This means that, especially in mysteries, we pay extra attention to the introduction of each character, looking for how they fit into the story*. And it becomes hard to hide things in the background, the way things get overlooked in the real world. There just isn’t enough background noise to conceal things.
This can make it hard to sneak in a betrayal, especially if the audience (or the players) are expecting one. This generalizes to any mysterious identity, including the identity of a murderer, or the missing heir, or the superhero’s secret identity, or what-have-you. I’m going to focus on idea of betrayal in this little screed, because that’s what brought it to mind.
Case in point is Turn Coat, by Jim Butcher. Going in, we know that there’s a traitor on the White Council. So when there’s a new character introduced – a fussy little bureaucrat that happens to hate Harry Dresden – he really stands out as the potential traitor. And you know what? He is the traitor*.
What made him obvious? He was a new character who didn’t seem to have a purpose that wasn’t served by one of the established characters. It made him stand out as a sacrificial lamb, so to speak. He hated Harry – but so did Morgan. He was a staunch traditionalist – but so is the Merlin and Ancient Mai and several others. He showed up, they made a big deal out of how much of the White Council’s information got processed through him, he made himself annoying, and basically made the reader want him to be the bad guy.
Yeah, this is all meta-thinking, based on what we know about how stories work, but it’s thinking that happens, whether in a reader, an audience, or a gamer. We know how stories function, and we can’t turn that knowledge off. You can come down on players for meta-game thinking, but it won’t stop them from doing it – just from acting on it.
And when you’re building a story – whether it’s a novel, a script, or an adventure – you’ve got to be aware that your audience is very sophisticated and knowledgeable in the area of story. Everyone is.
Some authors play with this. In Dan Simmons’s Hyperion, for example, he tells you up front that one of the group is a traitor, and then has each group member tell his or her story in a Chaucerian style. As you go through the book, you examine each story minutely for the clues that might reveal the teller as the traitor. The traitor turns out to be the last person to speak, but in the meantime, you come to the conclusion that each of the previous characters could be the traitor. Until the blatant reveal at the end, there is good cause to suspect each of them.
So, this actually creates two sorts of things that happen when traitors are introduced. One is fixing the identity of the traitor, and the other is seeding clues as to that identity.
By fixing the identity, I mean deciding who’s going to be the traitor. In an ongoing series (TV, novels, games, etc.), it can be tough to surprise with a betrayal. Either you have to introduce a new character (as in Turn Coat), or you have to make an established character the traitor. Introducing a new character draws attention to the addition, and makes the character an immediate suspect. Had the traitor in Turn Coat been introduced a couple of novels previously, he would have been much less obvious. On the other hand, making an established character a traitor can be jarring and unbelievable, such as the third-season finale of the Bones TV series, when they revealed that Zack Addy was the Gormogon serial killer – well, his apprentice, anyway.
The problems with fixing the identity of a traitor can be alleviated or aggravated by the seeding of clues as to who the traitor is. If you don’t give enough clues, then the reveal can strain credulity, as in Bones. If you give too many, then the reveal is not a surprise, such as in Turn Coat. Finding the right balance of clues to make the reveal both believable and surprising is tough, especially from the omniscient seat of the author. What’s the right amount of clues? Tough to say.
My assumption through this posthas been that you want the audience to have a chance of figuring out who the traitor is, but you don’t want to make it too easy. Like a good crossword puzzle clue, you want the solution to be obvious once understood but still surprising when you first discover it. You’ve got to know your audience, and you’ve got to know what they are (and aren’t) going to pick up on. You take a look at the clues you could seed, and try to use the bare minimum. In a game, you have the advantage of watching player reactions, so you can adjust things as you go to provide more or less information. In other forms of story, you take your best guess, and adjust when revising.
The most beautiful example of this that I’ve ever encountered personally is in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. You know all along that Wednesday’s up to something, and that Shadow is in over his head, but I didn’t twig to the actual shape of the con until about a paragraph before the reveal, simply because I never said the name Low-Key Lyesmith out loud. As soon as I realized that Loki was in the mix, I realized that Wednesday was playing both sides for his own ends. And then about a sentence and a half later, Gaiman spells it out. For that sentence and a half, though, I felt very clever. Then I knew that I’d been very successfully played. It was brilliant.
There is an alternative, though. If you’ve ever seen a Columbo episode, you’ve seen it. Technically, it’s called dramatic irony, when the audience knows more about what’s going on than the characters, but really its a sort of reverse reveal. Each Columbo episode started by showing you the (usually incredibly arcane) “perfect murder” perpetrated by the killer. The rest of the episode is a cat-and-mouse mental duel between the killer and the detective to find the flaw that will unravel the crime.
This approach shifts emphasis away from the surprise reveal to the interplay of character and investigation, and can be tough to pull off without becoming very formulaic. Still, it’s worthwhile considering as a device.
So, to sum up: adding betrayal (or another secret and reveal) to a story can be tough, because of the limited range of choices for identity, the difficulty of choosing the correct person for the villain, and the balancing act of seeding appropriate clues. Understanding the difficulties and keeping them in mind can help avoid the common pitfalls.
*Yeah, I like NCIS. You wanna make something out of it? Back
*Back in before-time, my friends and I used to watch the Inspector Morse mysteries. It got so that, whenever a new character was introduced, we’d race to see who could be the first to shout, “He/She did it!”* Back
*Unless, of course, the woman was a love interest for Morse. Then she was either a victim or the murderer. Back
*Well, he’s a traitor. I don’t know about the traitor. The world of the Dresdenverse is a twisty, deceiving place, and Jim Butcher is not above pulling a bait-and-switch on us. In fact, I hope he does. Back