Character Archetypes – T for The Traitor (and the Shapeshifter)

The Traitor is a villain-type to the main character, but often not realised as such until much later into the storyline. It’s this element of surprise which makes the traitor a very successful archetype.

archetypes traitor

The Traitor

“Trust me, until… “


Normally a close confidante, workmate or friend to the story’s hero, the traitor is privy to important information, which he gives to others to betray the hero. This betrayal is often found out about at the transition between Act 2 and 3, when the hero is least expecting it, ramping up the stakes and weakening the hero’s resolve, causing the “darkest hour” in classical hero’s journey structure.

A betrayal or treachery like this is most significant because it breaks down the walls of trust the traitor has formed with the hero. Trust is a key point for both the hero and traitor’s stories – if you are writing a close relationship and a character arc for the traitor also, you will need to identify with the reader why the traitor has chosen to break this trust.

Sometimes a traitor can also have a redemptive arc – they break the bonds of trust, but then realise they’ve been duped, or made the wrong choice, and attempt to put things right. Others are coerced or blackmailed into betraying the hero.

These motivations allow the reader to sympathise with a betrayer, but most traitors are more likely to be seen simply as cowardly villain-types. Such treachery, from true cowards or characters who betray simply for their own profit, may normally be completed by having the traitor meet some sort of comeuppance (like death) by the end of the story.

Whatever the reason, even if you never write it out, pinpoint the motivation behind the betrayal.

The Judas

The Traitor is sometimes called “The Judas”. Judas Iscariot, the 12th disciple of Jesus Christ, is the most well known historical betrayer, after betraying Jesus for 30 silver pieces. The story of Judas also sometimes get told erroneously as Judas being the 13th disciple (he wasn’t); one of the reasons behind the number thirteen being maligned or attached to the devil.  Thirty pieces of silver has also become an icon for treachery.

Judas believed he was betraying Jesus in order to ultimately get his Messiah on the throne, what in essence for Judas was a business transaction. Often many traitors choose to betray for similar reasons, they think that ultimately it’s for the best, and can profit from it.

The Shapeshifter

The traitor archetype also has close associations, because of the state of secrecy of this betrayal of the hero, with that of another classical archetype, the shapeshifter. The shapeshifter was identified as a classic archetype through The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell.

A shapeshifter as archetype is difficult to really pinpoint – it’s a character who adds a level of uncertainty and tension by changing faces or behaviours and even allegiances multiple times through the story; blurring the line between ally and enemy.

Severus Snape, in Harry Potter, is a good shapeshifter example. The superhero The Hulk and Alice in Wonderland’s  Cheshire Cat are literally shape shifters with forms which contain good and bad. Stories with a heavy romance storyline often feature shapeshifters as the opposing gender to the story’s hero or heroine. Edward is a literal and figurative shape-shifter in the Twilight Series.

Television shows such as Lost use the shapeshifter for several characters such as Juliet or Ben Linus, who changed from bad to good or back again through the full story. If as a viewer you feel yourself going from liking to hating a character, then with further information, liking that character again, consider them a shapeshifter.

Shapeshifters are the backbone to unreliable narrators also. These are characters, even the protagonist, who narrate a story but turn out to not be telling the truth about events. [Spoiler alert] Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk have shapeshifting unreliable narrators.

The Traitor’s Reason

The Traitor provides a moralistic reminder to all of us, that we should be leading a life based on trust, open-ness and loyalty. It’s such a moral tale that there are laws to protect us and officiate over acts of treason.

[Ironically there is one area where concealing our true natures and working as a shapeshifter is considered okay, that of the spy or secret agent working for law enforcement authorities or the goodness of an entire country. However it remains risky and punishable if found out by those being spied on]

A traitor’s tale also teaches us to be wary that the worser enemy is the treacherous devil unseen within our ranks, rather than an external demon or monster we at least know we’re at war with.  The traitor is a archetypal metaphor for the inner bad versus good battle.

Therefore, to give us hope of winning this internal battle, and despite the motivation and reasons behind their betrayal; when we have a traitor in our stories, we as readers want to see their treachery ultimately having repercussions or a comeuppance to them. Even those traitors with redemptive arcs often die or sacrifice themselves for the hero at the end.

The Whistleblower, Spies and Star Wars

Recently we’ve had some interesting permutations to the more normal traitor, and it has brought up a lot of moral confusion.

Firstly, let’s look at Wikileaks and whistle-blowing. Wikileaks was setup to allow informants to go public with information anonymously. This was actually considered mostly heroic, until classified military documents were released on the site, and we suddenly realised that some information shouldn’t be made public.

Before Wikileaks, whistleblowers had been somewhat romanticised via Hollywood. Think about our knowledge of “Deep Throat”, the whistleblower in the Watergate Scandal and countless others, given an almost heroic characterisation even though they still did so anoymously and left it to journalists to expose the information.

So, you can have whistleblowers as either good or bad guys here.

Let’s move onto spies then. Spies are bad people, right? But only if they are caught spying, in another country, or competing corporation. For the country they are spying for, they are heroes. We have several television programs like Spooks pointing out their dangers and the perils of being incognito or underground.

Now, after the release of James Bond, the Spy who Loved Me, we really had spies to appreciate as heroes. Yet, if they are caught, they are trialed for treason, making them bad guys for a lot of people “not the same as us”.

So, let’s move back to the moral high ground here: Traitors. Traitors are definitely bad guys. Everyone hates a traitor. That’s pretty much right, even when dealing with the protagonist hero, it seems. If you do a google on the word “traitor” nowadays, and search images you will find an onslaught of memes of storm troopers with  Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Finn’s head superimposed onto helmets.

FN-2199Finn, as we know (spoiler alert) is the Star Wars movie franchises’ latest new hero, but not before he changed sides from being a storm trooper to joining the Rebels. Finn’s traitorhood was called out by a storm-trooper buddy in this scene. That storm trooper has now been given a name as FN-2i99, but he’s also earned a dubbed nickname, TR-8R. He’s the storm trooper who called out Finn as “Traitor!” and according to the memes now, was a friend and colleague to Finn. Now with an entire backstory written for him, FN-2199 or Nines, is being treated as the hero, Finn as the traitor-coward.

I’m not sure that was the intention of The Force Awaken’s writers or producers, but there it is. Even somebody being a traitor to the dark side is still a heinous crime.

Recognising the Traitor

  • Shapeshifters and Traitors are aware of themselves and their true nature. They are recognisable from other archetypes like tricksters or fools, because there is a large element of concealment of their treacherous or darker side (or in Finn’s case, his better side for some time). However, this is more often than not, also concealed from the reader audience also. Both archetypes conceal their true motives from the audience.
  • Some traitors are shown as being crooks or shysters with less than creditable morals from the start, but still their true nature and treachery or motives remain hidden for some time.
  • Betrayals, when found out, are most often within a climatic denouement, which is meant to surprise and shock not only the hero but the readers also. This means that a writer will often insert false hints and leads for the hero and reader pointing towards other characters as being the betrayer, similar to good detective fiction.
  • Readers should always be wary of stories which feature disposed sons, or characters who have been rightly or wrongly rejected from family inheritances or high end career paths. These characters often remain around the peripheral of the hero, may even appear supportive of the hero taking over, but will fester underneath and plot to take back the position or wealth they believe they are entitled to. Uncle Scar, in The Lion King, is a disposed son villain who wants to maintain his ill-gotten crown from Simba.
  • Traitors are often portrayed as the squirrelly cowardly types (aka Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter), easily misunderstood, walked-over and forced into betrayal simply to stay alive. A Dirty Rat is another name for a traitor, giving rodents a bad name.
  • Other archetypes to take care in overusing are the moral-less business leaders, who make decisions based solely on gain or loss. Even though they may currently be using their business and leadership skills in a happily helpful way, they can change at a whim. Such corporate villains are often (stereotypically) shown as holding little loyalty for those who believe in or work for them.
  • The audience has something to be wary of regarding their feelings about the traitor. They feel slightly unsettled about the character’s motivations, but also like the character, and see themselves in the traitor to a certain extent. The traitor is often somebody like us, somebody we can be intrigued about morals, grey reasons for decisions, what desires motivate the character, and consequently interested in their destruction.
  • The Traitor and their treachery or treason will ultimately have repercussions or a comeuppance to them. Even those traitors with redemptive arcs often die or sacrifice themselves for the hero at the end.

Example Traitors

In The Matrix, Cypher is the operator approached by Agent Smith to betray leader Morpheus.

Fargo is based on a traitor right from the start, where a man,  Jerry Lundegaard betrays his wife to kidnappers to get ransom money from his wife’s rich family.

Lando Calrissian, the overseer of the cloud city of Bespin, betrayed Han Solo and Princess Leia to the Empire, in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. Lando is a traitor with a redemptive arc, eventually joining the Rebel forces.

Without giving it away, the films Aliens and LA Confidential have traitors/betrayers who remain hidden and unsuspected for most of the storyline, and their betrayals remain surprising to new audiences to this day.

The Godfather has family traitors (one being a disposed son type of villain).

Harry Potter has a rat/human Peter Pettigrew as initial betrayer who eventually makes good with a redemptive sacrifice (at least in the books).  Severus Snape is ultimately a shapeshifter and believed to be traitor right from the start.

One of the biggest corrupted ones I can think of is Saruman, in Lord of the Rings, who manages to betray not only Gandalf, but the entire Middle Earth.  Golem is another – he gains the trust of Frodo in order to lead him into a trap, because he’s been corrupted and desires to get The Ring back for himself.

And at the beginning I mentioned Finn from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A storm-trooper who deserted his work to join the Rebels, another storm-trooper recognises him and calls him a traitor.

Other Names, Associates and Origins

  • Other names: two-faced, betrayer, back-stabber, turn-coat, two-faced liar, the Judas, the Rat, tell-tale, dirty rat
  • Associations:  shape-shifter, spy / double-agents, secret agent, disposed son, corporate high-flyer or moral-less business leader, trickster, coward, treason, saboteur, whistle-blowers
  • Shadows: The Traitor is actually a shadow of the hero archetype and of the reader, showing that for many reasons, all of us can have the propensity to betray others.


Part of 2016’s Character Archetype Series (A-Z) @ Hunter is Writing.

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