Changing Alignments, Allegiances, & Loyalties More Believably
So, you want to write about a villain who stops being so villainous, and perhaps even becomes a hero? Or do you want to write about a hero who becomes more of a "dark" hero, or even an outright villain? Or a character who just plain switches sides? This is a subject that is often handled badly, with the character progression coming off as forced and contrived. So, here are some tips that should help you write a more plausible shift, whether you're writing an OC for a roleplay or fanfiction or a character for an original work.
Table of Contents
- First, don't think in terms of "good/evil deep inside."
- Don't have it happen all at once.
- Leaving one's current group does not mean allying with its rivals by default.
- If your character had an antagonistic relationship with the people xe's defecting to, xe should have to earn their trust.
- After the switch, your character should have doubts and "off" moments, or moments of cognitive dissonance when appropriate.
First, don't think in terms of "good/evil deep inside."
If you're thinking in terms like "good/evil deep down inside," stop right now. There's a grain of truth to this, but for the most part it's much more complex, and people usually change allegiances or become better or worse people for more complicated reasons.
First, there are some people who put on a "good" front to get what they want and drop that front as soon as they actually have it. There are also people who on their own would be fairly decent people, but end up with bad crowds that they end up doing awful things to fit in with or even to simply avoid complete ostracism or punishment from the group.
However, many people see certain "evil" characters like some kind of Tootsie-Roll Pop with a gooey center of good covered with a hard shell of evil, or particular "good" characters as being sourballs covered in a thin sweet coating waiting to be cracked.
In reality, people are more like mixed bags of candy with the good and the bad all jumbled up together. The warlord who orders the extermination of an entire race may very well donate to and personally visit a children's hospital out of genuine compassion. The man who stays up all night with his sick daughter fretting over her may also believe that women should essentially stay barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. There is nothing contradictory or strange about this; this is simply how real people often work.
A character who started out as "good" before going down a bad road probably had these bad aspects all along, but situations and circumstances forced or encouraged them to the surface. Perhaps a person had slight paranoid tendencies that were reinforced to the point where the person thinks that everyone is out to get xir, and now needs a reality check to see that it isn't the case. Perhaps someone who started out as "evil" and is heading toward a better path is doing so because xe saw a way to use xir less-destructive or harmful skills for self-gain or to work toward a pre-existing goal or ideal.
Long before your character starts to re-evaluate xir life and make the switch, show some foreshadowing. For example, show your character having problems with or questioning xir own methods or views, or the methods and views of the people xe's with. If your character is a villain who is supposed to become a hero, have a few moments where we get to see your character's better qualities in action. If your character is a hero who is supposed to become a villain, show off aspects of your character's personality that would lend to villainy.
For example, a villain might stop to question whether the extreme measures xe's been taking have been really necessary - maybe a doomsday device just seems a little overboard, or maybe punishing the underlings by whipping them for a failure that was realistically beyond their control strikes the character as absurdly cruel. Maybe xe goes out of xir way to do something nice or decent. Maybe xe just shows indications of just wanting to leave and get out of that situation.
Maybe a hero goes a little overboard - eg, uses more violence than necessary. Or maybe xe complains that the protagonists are "too nice" and that they'll never get anything accomplished this way. Or maybe xe starts displaying a generally bitter and jaded attitude. In general, just something that will hint toward the sort of person xe will end up becoming.
Don't have it happen all at once.
People's whole worldviews and moral values don't radically, let alone diametrically change overnight. It's a gradual process that takes place over a period of time. Even the most intensive thought reform techniques take time - and the longer a person has held to a specific worldview/moral value system and the more emotionally invested in it xe is, the longer it will take.
Every belief system is supported by a number of beliefs. Taking out just one - or even a few - of these beliefs is not enough to make the worldview topple. For example, let's say that someone believes that xe was destined to "cleanse" the world of the impure (whatever that means) and sets off to do just that. Realistically, if this person learned that the prophecy was fabricated just two months before xe was born, xe'd very likely just keep going if xe genuinely believed the world needed cleansed anyway. If this person met a few people who proved that the world wasn't as "impure" as all that, the person would likely rationalize that most of the world was still impure anyway, and thus xir plan is still justified. During this time the person's convictions may be weakening, but the person won't actually change much of anything until a critical number of beliefs have been challenged and destroyed.
Many stories (especially superhero and creepypasta stories) have characters who don't seem to be especially awful people when they're first introduced - they're perhaps a little troubled or frustrated, but there's nothing to suggest that they'd go on a killing spree or try to blow up a planet. But then something happens that prompts the character to snap and lash out violently. The moral dam apparently breached, the character goes on to gleefully wreak all kinds of chaos and destruction. But as discussed in further detail in Things About Death, Dying, & Murder Writers Need To Know, peoples' moral centers don't just totally shut down because they've been forced or cornered into performing something they would have ordinarily considered wrong or detestable - they'd be much more likely to feel guilt and regret over the action. See How Good People & Well-Intentioned Groups Can Go Bad for some examples of how people can more realistically be brought to commit actions they might have considered wrong before.
Leaving one's current group does not mean allying with its rivals by default.
It happens rather often that people assume that because a character leaves their current group because they've strayed from being a proper hero or villain, they should join up with their rivals by default. But this isn't how things work out - leaving any particular group doesn't automatically make you a member of another group or that you must join them by default; it only means you're no longer a member of the group you left.
A lot of people overlook the fact that under realistic circumstances, these characters would more likely look for a group that's closer to their own ideals, or try to start up a new group, or even simply go neutral. Remember: people want to remain true to themselves. They aren't going to join up with a person or group who defies their core morals and beliefs unless they are very, very desperate.
If they are going to join a rival group, they need a valid reason. Maybe they've genuinely come to believe in the ideals held by their former rivals, or maybe they believe that their former rivals will be better at helping them achieve their long-term goals. Maybe they're mainly concerned with looking out for themselves and have been offered a nice cushy position their former enemies in exchange for assistance.
If your character had an antagonistic relationship with the people xe's defecting to, xe should have to earn their trust.
It frequently happens that once a character defects to another side after causing devastating harm to that side and people that individuals on this side care about, xe'll be forgiven and trusted completely - never mind the possibility that the character is defecting to undermine the opposition and that the reasons the character gave for defecting may have been completely fabricated. Even worse, if someone doesn't trust the defector or harbors any misgivings toward xir at all, the defector will be unequivocally treated as the victim.
Unless you want the side your character is joining to come off as naive or gullible (and ask yourself - is it really plausible for the characters to have gotten as far as they have up to this point if they are?) this should be avoided.
Conversely, do keep in mind that if your character's new allies or associates suspect the character of underhanded activities under nonsensical circumstances - eg, suspecting someone of poisoning a sandwich when that person would have absolutely nothing of value to gain by poisoning the recipient - the new allies/associates will most likely come off as downright paranoid.
After the switch, your character should have doubts and "off" moments, or moments of cognitive dissonance when appropriate.
The conscious decision to change one's life is only the beginning. Longtime habits and strongly-held convictions don't just vanish in a puff of smoke. Realistically, your character would have to deal with second thoughts, doubts, and relapses or near-relapses in at least some behaviors and habits (particularly the deeply-ingrained ones), especially during times of stress or uncertainty. Your character might even need a bit of a break to pull xirself back together mentally and/or reassure xirself that xe's made the right choice after all. Also, a character who is suddenly faced with doing actions that xe wouldn't have considered doing or would have considered taboo before should experience and have to deal with cognitive dissonance - for example, someone who'd have never hurt anyone intentionally before won't be able to shrug that off in an instant, and may even experience huge amounts of guilt, doubt, and remorse the first time xe does; and on the flip side of the coin, someone who was told that dancing was a horrible, horrible sin would likely have to spend some time getting past the mental blocks that kind of conditioning would instill before truly feeling comfortable cutting a rug.
Also, a person who switches sides will most likely miss the good experiences xe had on the other side now and then, as the positive emotions associated with those memories aren't just going to magically fade away - and when one is feeling lost and lonely, it's hard not to think back on the times when one felt like one had a place and was looked after, even if it wasn't all sunshine and roses. And if your character had any sort of positive feelings or emotional attachments whatsoever toward anyone, xe certainly shouldn't be ready and willing to torture and kill them right off the bat.
If you liked this, you might also be interested in:
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How Good People & Well-Intentioned Groups Can Go Bad
Basic Tips To Write Better & More Despicable Villains
Mindsets & Rationales That Lend Well To Villainy
How It Feels To Be A Bigot
Plotting, Conniving, & Manipulating - What It Isn't, And What It Is
On Writing Sympathetic Morally-Ambiguous Characters
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