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The 9th circle, aka, the deepest and worst part of Hell, in Dante's inferno is dedicated to traitors (from the least severe to the worst):

  1. Treason against one's kin.
  2. Treason against one's home (as in city-state/kingdom/etc...).
  3. Treason against one's guest(s).
  4. Treason against one's benefactor(s).

I had a character, more precisely, a pair of characters who were spying on a king and his court. One of them was a robot, called Maria, with the ability to assume the form of any human; the other one was a female lizardfolk, supervising the operation.


The example story (will be referred to later in the question)

While it was careful and passive surveillance for the most part, after an unsuccessful attempt to replace the king, they're forced to run. This is where M. comes in.

M. is a typical amnesiac protagonist, who takes pity on the two and aids their escape. During this, they have an opportunity to get to know each other better. The lizardfolk was told that humans hated her kind, plus she grew up in a bunker-turned-city, which was a constant reminder of that. It comes as a surprise to her that M. doesn't treat her or Maria any differently than his comrades.

Anyway, after realizing that M.'s seemingly useless ability, The Hermit, can be used to interact with ancient technology, she forges a plan and takes him to another ancient bunker city under the pretense that maybe they find clues about his lost memories there. So, they go around the place, activating ancient technology with The Hermit.

Eventually, M. finds out the place was designed to be used as a weapon, and his actions brought it to an almost-usable state. Maria and the lizardfolk realize that and knock him out. The two place him into an elevator, going straight to the surface. They delay the last steps until he's out of the maximum-security zone.

Now, when they bring the weapon online, they don't intend to use it, it's a bargaining chip. They don't know that the weapon was set to fire on the closest human target (a peaceful city, in this case) the moment it is brought online, nor that the lizardfolk's root access to the system is actually a false root that doesn't have the privilege to overwrite the weapon's orders.


I'll stop here for now.

Obviously, this lizardfolk is supposed to be a less-heroic but still good person, whose actions could believably cause someone (the king) to try and murder her even though she's unarmed and reluctant to fight. I'd say I did a fairly good job with that. The problem, as you guessed, is what she's doing to M.

M. risks a lot to help her, has no prejudice towards her kind, and happily assists her with what she asks. Even when he finds out the truth, he wants to talk her down.

So, using that person's trauma/disadvantage to trick him into doing your bidding is not nice and according to Dante Alighieri, is literally the worst sin a mortal can commit.

That's good for a villain, bad for a sympathetic character.

So, how can you keep a character sympathetic after they committed the treason of the highest order (i.e: they betrayed the one(s) who cared for them)?

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  • Does the weapon actually fire on the city?
    – hszmv
    Nov 20, 2020 at 17:53

2 Answers 2

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A compelling non-selfish excuse. They know their comrade well enough to know that revealing the truth will scuttle their non-selfish plan.

To be over the top, let's say, for example, the goal of the "traitor" is to save little girls from being raped and delivered into the hands of sex traffickers.

99.9% of readers will be sympathetic to this plan. The "traitor" is risking life and limb to save somebody else. Not to make a fortune, not for the fun of seeing somebody suffer, not even out of personal hatred or vengeance.

They simply cannot risk revealing their plan to anyone, even those helping them.

Such betrayals, lies and deceptions can be forgiven in light of the greater good.

We see this same dynamic when we are rooting for the undercover cop, infiltrating a violent, racist gang trying to overthrow a government. Yes, she is a traitor to these criminals that think she is one of them. But we are rooting for her every second to succeed in her betrayal.

Because it is for the greater good.

Give your "traitor" character some element of that in your story.

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Second Chances:

Your character can be redeemed to the audience. Many horrible characters are accepted by readers because they attain redemption. But redemption isn't free.

Similarly, if the readers accept the necessity of a character's actions, and the character beats themselves up about it anyway, it doesn't really hurt the reader opinions of the character.

Finally, if we convince the audience that a character's actions are right or acceptable in the context of that character or world, we suspend disbelief and accept evil as good.

Redemption is a combination of atonement and forgiveness. A character can be redeemed if they fundamentally and without profit give up evil gains to make up for them being an evil/selfish jerk. Think Darth Vader. He was about as evil as the come, but manages to be likable and relatable as a character once he is willing to sacrifice all for the true greater good. There usually needs to be some kind of acknowledgement of the rightness or the atonement from someone with the right to make moral decisions for their "side," like Luke Skywalker.

Similarly, a character who is unconditionally forgiven by someone is released from their burden of sin (although the audience, your readers, must accept the forgiveness as reasonable). So a spy who screws over an innocent person and kills people for supposedly good reasons is scummy. But we don't necessarily hate James Bond because he's absolved of his sins by light of him being under orders from a supposedly just government. James also suffers at times for his callousness, especially in the newer, edgier versions.

The stereotype of the hero haunted by his past is endless. Think of Clint Eastwood's character in Unforgiven who is clearly the hero, but doesn't even attempt to be good. He follows what he thinks is right and has clearly failed over the years. But his internal code means we see the how's and who's of him and accept that this is normal in context. Villains turned hero can rack up ungodly body counts, engage in torture, rob, cheat and steal. Yet in all these cases, they are using their evil power for good ends.

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