I am writing a story about a war, and there is this particular character whom they are a traitor to their own side. The traitor's identity is to be unknown until the Resolution part of the story in which their identity is finally exposed. I plan to make this character the least likely person to be the traitor, but yet keep their habits and behavior somewhat similar to themselves being the traitor. Their normal behavior is usually very confident and charismatic, and they love attention from people. I want to maintain this personality in some form as they gather information for the enemy, as they may do certain things from their own habits that would be their mistake. The protagonist of the story would later point this out when they finally uncover the traitor's identity and do a "re-cap" of what they found out.

This character is really complicated, and I am worried that the reader may be able to uncover the traitor's identity easily on their own. So how do I maintain some of their habits but yet not make their identity obvious?

I am a novice writer, so I still have yet to learn about writing techniques and things like these.

  • Just place some ambiguous clues here and there, and have the reader debate in himself about them, i.e: Make the readers use their brains, for once. Dec 2 '17 at 20:46

The first thing I think of is that this constrains your Point of View [POV] as an author. To be satisfying to the reader, the author must not lie to them. Thus you cannot write from an omniscient point of view (the narrator of the tale knows everything), and you cannot write from the POV of that character (meaning the narrator knows their thoughts and feelings and motivations). You could write from multiple the POV of multiple characters, just not the traitor's POV, because then you would be effectively lying to your reader by concealing their true motivations, and in the end of the story when the traitor was revealed, the reader would feel like you cheated them.

Secondly, you must make sure that your traitor always has a good excuse or good alibi for any action taken that might help the enemy. The 'big mistake' they made that finally reveals their identity must be something the traitor could not have anticipated: for example, Stranger X is somebody the traitor does not know at all. Stranger X is a professional involved in spy craft and on a mission, he happens to see the traitor interacting with Miss Y in an unusual, secretive way, perhaps even an intimate way (e.g. a long hug or kiss). At the time Stranger X thought nothing of that, or thought perhaps a man was with his girlfriend (but why in a gritty alley?). But Stranger X is in the habit of remembering all unusual encounters he may witness during a mission, and this one stuck.

We follow Stranger X once in a while, and a few years later in the normal course of his job he joins the team with the traitor. He recognizes the traitor, the traitor does not recognize him, and then here comes the issue of Miss Y: Finally uncovered as a possible manager of assets in the enemy ranks.

Our traitor pretends he doesn't know her at all, but Stranger X knows he is lying. He hugged her! She manages their informants! The lie raises his suspicions. He starts to keep an eye on the lying traitor. A week later Miss Y turns up dead, and Stranger X realizes he IS the traitor sabotaging the team's efforts, making sure no information could be extracted from Miss Y.

You would have to bring Stranger X into the story in the first Act (I'd say in the first 15% of the story, when readers accept most anything), so this does not appear to be a deus ex machina.

There are other plot mechanisms to get this done, that is just one example. The basic idea is to ensure it is very plausible the traitor could not have known he made any mistakes. The reason for that is again what readers find most satisfying: They do not like villains that get caught because they made stupid mistakes they could have prevented.

In my toss away, the traitor does not know the discovery of Miss Y and her subsequent death has revealed him to Stranger X, and he thinks he got away with eliminating that threat. The traitor relies on his alibis and framing of criminals and the benefit of the doubt from his friends to evade detection. He makes sure there is always somebody else to blame, somebody more plausible, including for the sudden death of Miss Y. So he made NO mistake in eliminating this threat, but was revealed because of a minor mistake a few years before: A romantic liaison with Miss Y, his handler, perhaps even his recruiter (many informants are recruited using sex), and a hug he gave her when they separated.


This is a classic example of why writers need to be well-read: they can learn from how someone else solved a similar problem before. You're probably well-aware (if familiar with the plot of Treasure Island) that Robert Louis Stevenson did with Long John Silver what you want to do with the traitor in your story. The parallel will be all the closer if your protagonist is a first person narrator, as Jim Hawkins was.

Part of the reason that story became a classic is because it's a coming of age story that twisted the genre's conventions of the time (and even of today), by having the most formative influence on our protagonist be the villain, which couldn't help but make him a very three-dimensional character. It's not just that Silver's treachery takes a while to discover; it's that he's a much more complex character than just a cartoon villain. He had a goal he was willing to be violent to pursue, but Stevenson also made clear to us who he would be without that goal. The truth, oddly enough, is that Jim was better for having known him.

You should read TI with a close eye to how Stevenson crafts Silver. He's a man who talks of mathematics and logic and the finer points of exploration. He teaches Jim certain skills and habits, and while none of his actions knowingly undermine his treasure-hunting plans, many of them aren't straightforwardly in service of any evil ambition either. The details will of course be very different with your own traitor, but that's not what matters. Pretend you don't know LJS is the villain, and read everything Stevenson writes about him before the reveal (and much after too) as an exercise in characterising LJS as the kind of person he is, quite apart from his mutinous plan.


Your basic strategy is the same as that of any magician: misdirection. Drop the clues while the characters, and hopefully the reader, is paying attention to something more interesting. A typical way of doing this is providing red herrings, or a plausible but wrong suspect to be hunted down even as the real traitor stands casually by and watches. This is often Agatha Christie's approach, and Rowling uses Professor Snape this way in the first Harry Potter by playing off Snape and Harry's mutual antipathy.

An arguably more interesting method of misdirection is when the characters, and thus the reader, have a strong but somehow challenging relationship with the mole that keeps them from conceptualizing the mole in this different role. One of the best examples I know is Diana Wynne Jones' Cart & Cwidder. The book is ostensibly about a young boy growing up in a family of traveling musicians in a vaguely medieval fantasyland wracked by civil war. One of the many background details of the setting is that his parents often share news as they travel about a mysterious master spy who causes various acts of sabotage around the southern kingdom.


It isn't until after his father is unexpectedly killed that the boy stumbles on the truth --his father was the spy all along!

The twist is effective because the boy's main concerns are the typical ones of adolescents --sibling rivalries, trying to find his own identity, feeling like an adult but being treated like a child, his increasingly stormy relationship with his parents, especially his father. It's completely believable that he misses what is going on right under his nose. And since you, the reader, are caught up in the character's POV, you pay attention to what he pays attention to, and miss what he misses.

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