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.