Tag Archives: machiavelli

Q&A: Treachery

Since you guys deal a lot with fighting, you might not be as able to help here but I wondered if you had tips for handling betrayals in a mafia type setting (and the subsequent fighting)? General tips? Are betrayals in the beginning of the story cliche? How do I make it more interesting if the betrayer does so as a move for more power? How do you foreshadow without making it so the audience sees it coming? Is Loki a good example of this trickster character?

Aside from, maybe, Tim Bentinck’s portrayal, I can’t think of a single version of Loki that would fit within a Mafia setting. I mean we’re talking about a mythological figure that gave birth to Sleipnir. So, all I can say to that is, “what?”

“Someone needs to ice Jimmy. Send Frankie and spider-horse’s mom.”

Okay, so two things, and I’ll take them in order. You’re not looking for a trickster. These are antagonistic, mythological figures tasked with tormenting or bedeviling believers and heroes. They’re a specific kind of mythological test, and sometimes Loki is one. Like many mythic elements, their function is proscribed.

To a certain extent, mythic storytelling fits comics fine. The superhero genre lends itself to that style of narrative. However there are no mythic stories about mobsters. There might be some way to do this, it’s not automatically impossible, but they’re part of an entirely different, far more grounded, narrative style. I’d call it “a different genre,” but that really doesn’t encompass how different these kinds of stories are.

Loki will stab you in the back because it’s in his nature. He doesn’t need a grandiose plan, he’s not motivated by his bank account, or some abstract power of controlling the rackets in Flatiron, or worrying about rubbing out competition in Hudson Yards. If he steps down to that level it’s because he’s doing it to catch someone who’s worthy of his attention off guard, and he wouldn’t do it while wearing a name tag.

A mobster will stab you in the back because you’re a stepping stone on their way to a larger goal, because you annoyed them, or because they’re a psychopath.

If you’re looking to have your characters engage in a well crafted betrayal, those characters need achievable goals, and plans to make them happen. Then they just need to be circumspect when they go make it happen.

View your betrayer as someone with a limited amount of resources to work with, so they need to be as efficient as possible. (This extends to writing as well; be efficient with your words.) The more they do, the more of a footprint their actions will leave, the more likely they’ll be discovered before they’re ready. The easiest way to avoid that is to be careful and deliberate.

When your characters need to act to further their goals, that’s when you foreshadow what they’re doing. ideally you want to provide enough information that your readers can understand what they’re doing after the fact, but don’t realize anything’s amiss in the moment.

Innocuous actions can have sinister implications upon return. You don’t need to point out those implications, your readers will fill that in on their return trip. You also don’t need to fully detail every action you foreshadow. A character may do something innocuous with little justification, because they needed to. An event may occur in the background with no direct ties to your characters, even when your betrayer is responsible, but slipped away undetected, or orchestrated it remotely. One cautionary note: try to make sure when your characters are foreshadowing something that they’re acting to advance their agenda and not because The Power of Plot Compels Thee.

Think of foreshadowing as setting the stage, rather than hiding something from your audience. Additionally, don’t worry too much about foreshadowing in your rough draft. This is something you should be working on when you’re redrafting, once you already know where the story’s going, and what you need to make that happen.

At a quick glance, the real danger of cliches is when you insert something into your story because, “that’s how it works in stories,” without critique or a critical thought. If your character is betrayed because they need to be betrayed to start the story, that’s probably a cliche. If they’re betrayed by their friend, because said friend has a specific goal in mind, and it furthers the story as a natural event, it will resist being a cliche. Fleshing out your characters so they have distinct personalities, and their actions make sense can help avoid this.

If we’re talking about someone who’s aggressively trying to advance through the Mafia, I would strongly recommend reading The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. This is far more specific than it may sound; multiple members of the American Mafia, including John Gotti read, absorbed, and even committed it to memory. The Prince is a blueprint for taking power through ruthless means, and it was a natural fit for organized crime.

Want to avoid a cliche? Carefully plot out your villain’s powerplay, and each step in it, so that when it happens, the last thing your reader will think is, “wait, didn’t I read this before?”

-Starke

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Based on that ask about length of careers… would it be more plausible for a set of active palace guards to have a high turnover rate for “expiring”/getting killed, instead of having a high turnover rate having too many skilled guards? (this world has laws for how many guards/top talent each palace can have, to prevent revolt against the Emperor)

Quick Note: This ask got lost in the draft folder; it was a follow up to this question about superheroes.

No. There’s a huge difference between someone standing post, and someone who jumps rooftop to rooftop every night, brawling with any petty criminals, and wandering supervillians, they come across.

In my opinion, for a royal guard, you’re looking for two things: excellent combatants, and almost more importantly, loyalty.

Because your royal guard will be elite forces, you can afford to outfit them with the best, or better than the best equipment. You can afford the most demanding training.

When these guys go toe to toe with an untrained mob, as a unit, they’ll wipe them out.

There are a lot of ways to engender loyalty, ideally, even guards who can no longer serve because of physical limitations should be at least cared for, if not kept around as security advisers and in other leadership capacities.

Now, I did say that was “in my opinion.” History has certainly showed enough cases where the palace guard were treated terribly and replaced constantly, to avoid letting them rise up in rebellion, or to become the true power behind the throne.

For every Secret Service, there’s a Praetorian Guard or cadre of Boyars, waiting to call the shots. So, this is a real danger. Rotating through the guard as viciously as possible is one way to handle that threat. From what I know, it’s not an effective way to prevent a palace coup, because you end up with a lower caliber of less motivated soldiers as a result. But, ultimately, that’s a world building question.

To a larger extent, this also applies to your nation’s military as a whole. Do you want forces that are too fractured by internal strife to turn against you, or do you want a unified elite force to deploy against any foe, with the belief that they will love you.

It’s the cruelty versus mercy question from Machiavelli’s The Prince; is it better to be feared than loved? Which is more appropriate? Which suits your story, and your setting, better?

-Starke