I’ve read through your tag about assassins and I had some questions for you about a character having killed during her teens, fault of another option. Naturally, that left some trauma that had to be addressed by her teacher, being that it’s not something that could be avoided. I want to write a prompt about her training and how the trauma was addressed and properly dealt with but I don’t know where to begin or how to go about it in a believable way. It’s an obstacle to not be overlooked. Ideas?

It’s really going to depend on her teacher and how he or she wants her to view the event. If you haven’t spent a lot of time developing the personality of the teacher, their agenda, their personal goals and those for their student, who they answer to, and the eventual purpose of the character’s training then now is a good time to start.

Like parents, teachers and mentors hold phenomenal amounts of power over their students. Their students rely on them to teach them and even (especially in this case) to define right and wrong. This is true of both good and bad teachers. Your teen will ultimately believe what their teacher wants them to believe. How their teacher deals with it (for good or ill), even someone well-meaning can have terrible results depending on what they do. Even if they come to a different conclusion later, this character’s early development and perspective is almost entirely reliant on their teacher. This is why it’s a terrible idea to ignore instructors, teachers, and other professionals who’ve had an impact on your character. They are people too and whether they are diabolical, selfish, or well-meaning, their perspective will influence their student. Teachers are people too. They are humans with flaws, foibles, goals, worldviews, and their own understanding of right and wrong. Their views will affect their student. Even if their student doesn’t adopt them or outright rejects them, they will influence them.

Below, I’ll illustrate a few different directions it can go with how the instructor handles it. Guilt trips, turning it into something positive, talking about reality, being an asshole, and the teacher taking responsibility for their student’s failure are all viable approaches. The ones I’m going to list are just a few within a myriad of possibilities designed to get you thinking. Deciding on which one is right for your characters is up to you.

Teacher/Student relationships (non-romantic) are as complex as they come. There’s no right way to do them and, like writing any relationship, writing it right requires understanding both sides of the equation. It takes two to tango, after all.

Think about your own teachers and mentors for a moment. How do you see them? How do you view them? When did you agree with them? When didn’t you? Have you ever had a close mentor-student relationship? What was it or is it like? How did it make you feel? How did it affect you?

If you’ve ever been a teacher, a babysitter, or in any position of authority over another younger human being, think about that. If there was trouble, how did you respond to it? Is there anything you regret? Why did you choose to behave a certain way? Who were you thinking of? Were you thinking at all?

We all make mistakes. This could be one of them.

How this teacher responds to their student will be part and parcel to how they see their student’s action? How do they feel? Are they angry? Frustrated? Proud? Do they think they’ve failed their student? Do they think their student has failed them? Has their student fulfilled their training? Are they worried this will damage their future? Their potential? Has their student created a mess that they must now clean up?

A trainer for an assassin or a spy working field ops is one part mentor, one part protector, and one part handler. They are training an asset. A pawn who may/will one day need to be sacrificed for the greater game. This is not reliant on their student’s successes or failures, this is just part of the nature of being an assassin or a spy. They will care, but they also don’t have the luxury to care too much. The role of the handler is to sacrifice other people.

So how does the teacher deal with it? Not knowing them, I can’t tell you exactly what they’ll say. However, I can say that they will most likely say whatever they think their student needs to hear in order to keep them on track. What that is depends on the teen and how they see their action. They are training an assassin, they aren’t likely to be completely honest.

Here are some approaches:

Guilt – “You knew what you were getting into…”

The student feels guilty. They killed someone they weren’t supposed to. They failed. They feel awful. They understand the difference between good guys and bad guys, they thought they were killing a bad guy but murdered an innocent instead. They feel guilty, they may even want to quit. Their teacher won’t let them. They are going to play on their student’s sense of responsibility, they are going to remind them that they chose this path. They have a responsibility to see it through. As guilty as they feel about killing an innocent man, their teacher is going to make them feel even more guilty over betraying them. This leads back to the cause, to the ideal that they’re fighting for, about making a worthy sacrifice of their needs for the greater good or whatever the ideal is.

Guilt trips are powerful motivators, especially since they put the entire onus on the student. The student feels like they must now make up for their failure and will now work harder. The teacher will then pat them on the back, puff up their ego by congratulating them at succeeding at their training, and then say, “don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” Resulting in the student feeling even more loyal to their teacher. Their teacher is fixing their screw up, they decide they must work harder to make up for their mistake. They are in their debt, they owe them.

Whether this is intentional on the part of the teacher (superb or decent manipulator) or unintentional (they mean well, they’re just upset), the end result is the same. The student sticks around because they need to make up for their mistake. It was a mistake, they’ll do better next time.

Hear it? Next time. The decision is made and that was the point all along, ensuring there will be a next time.

Someone who makes a choice for themselves is much more difficult to dissuade than someone who has a choice made for them. Teens are very easy to manipulate in this regard. They’re young but have just enough experience to think that they know everything and thus assume they know what they’re getting into. They invariably don’t, but it’s an easy Achilles Heel to exploit.

Positive –“Well, you screwed up but this is certainly a step in the right direction. The good news is we know your training works…”

It’s important to remember that if your teen has never killed anyone before and is training to kill, then them actually making the kill is an achievement. There are going to be plenty of trainees who never manage to make it to that stage. Good job, kid. All we have to do now is focus on making sure you kill the right guy next time.

Yeah. Next time. Again, that’s where the focus is.

The teacher can’t exactly blame their student for doing what they taught them to do. If the student is troubled, they can spin it as something positive. Yes, they failed but they got something out of it. That something will help them toward being better in the future, which takes the sting out of the failure.

“You got back here safe. You didn’t end up in prison. The cops haven’t plastered your face all over the evening news. All in all, it’s a good day.”

Positive is best coupled with guilt or reality in order to make it clear to the student that this feeling is part of the work that they’ve been training to do. Positive teachers are supportive, they understand what their student is going through. They’ve been through it themselves. They know that dwelling doesn’t do any good. You make a mistake, you learn from it, and you move on. It’s not easy, but nothing in this job is easy. Take the good where you can and improve on what you can’t. Get your head together, hit the training mat, get back in the game.

If your character has been training to kill someone, then them actually doing it isn’t going to come as a surprise. It’s an achievement. They made it. Celebrate.

Reality – “You were angry, you killed someone. That’s what we’ve been training you to do, what we’ve been working for. Mistakes happen…”

There’s going to be an element of guilt here because the student feels guilty. The instructor reminds them of the reality of their situation, they’ve been training to kill people so it’s only natural for that training to take it’s course. Yes, they killed someone they weren’t supposed to but now they know they can. No, it doesn’t feel good. Killing never does. In time it gets easier, but the pain never goes away. Remember this, try not to let it happen again.

The teacher reminds the student about the power they’ve been given to wield. They have access to training that others don’t, they must ensure they don’t let it get away from them or they’ll hurt someone they didn’t intend to. Mistakes are part of life, they will inevitably kill someone they didn’t intend to. They have to accept that and do their best.

Hear it? Again. Do your best.

The instructor is still working toward the next time. They want their student to understand that they will make mistakes and because of the stakes, those mistakes will be ugly. They have to get over it, but they also know getting over it isn’t easy. They are sympathetic, yet they won’t let them quit. They aren’t even suggesting that they’re not fit for this. If guilt happens, it’s actually unintentional (though it is often combined with a guilt trip at the end). The student is still in training, they’ve got time to improve. The student walks away feeling like their teacher is in their corner (whether or not they actually are), but they don’t necessarily feel better. They may feel indebted but that depends more on them and their own sense of self. They understand now, though. They are resolved toward some solution. Whatever it is, it isn’t leaving.

The Asshole – “Damn it! Look at what you did! I knew it was too soon. Now, I’ve got to clean up your goddamn mess…

The asshole is a much more obviously abusive guilt trip. The teacher is actively angry and places the blame squarely on the student’s shoulders. The student who already feels bad now immediately feels even more guilty because they let their teacher down, caused them trouble, and now they’re very angry at the student. The whole screw up is their fault and now their teacher is probably thinking of getting rid of them.

This reaction plays on the idea that the student has no where else to go, which is why it works best with someone who has nothing. An abuser doesn’t allow the abused to see sunlight, in their world there is only them. If the teacher gets rid of them, they have nothing and that nothing is what keeps them afraid to leave.

This will prompt the student to say, “I’m sorry! I’ll do better next time!”

Their own feelings forgotten in the face of impending fear, they immediately jump to make their abuser feel better. It’s their fault, they’ll change. Please, don’t be angry.

This approach is not about taking responsibility, not really, like in reality or guilt trip. It’s about getting the student who already feels bad, to feel worse and thereby forcing them to change out of fear. It’s heavy handed and it’s not really a good long term strategy, but it does work best in the short term.

This is the response that will leave your character feeling at their worst and most like a child. They feel little, small, and stupid. They don’t want to feel little, small, and stupid but the only way to do that is please their teacher. Their own feelings about killing a man aren’t forgotten, but get labeled less important and shoved under the rug. Every time they flinch over killing, they’ll hit themselves twice as hard.

Their fears probably won’t be addressed until much later, possibly never, because they are so focused on pleasing someone else.

While this approach is certainly popular, it’s actually very difficult to do. Actively abusive relationships like this one are simple in concept, but hard to pull off. Unless you honestly want to explore the nature, the behavior, and the psychological ramifications of someone from an abusive household, I’d avoid it. The kids who come out of this approach (and several of the above and below depending on how you handle it) are incredibly screwed up with plenty of great dramatic twists, but they also end up harder, colder, angrier, less sympathetic to others, less empathetic, and overall more brutal than most plots want or warrant. They can have a difficult time seeing other people as people. If you don’t understand the affects of abuse (and the myriad of different ways it can assert itself) then finding the balance when writing it can be difficult. It’s far too easy to overplay your hand, both with the teacher and the student, to the point where it feels like an onerous bid for audience sympathy. You know: a drama llama.

Think about almost all the overly dramatic Mary Sues, whether in fanfiction or regular fiction, whose backstories are all too tragic. If you fail here, that’s what you’ll get. So, be careful.

The Alternate Guilt Trip, It’s All the Teacher’s Fault“I’m sorry, I knew you weren’t ready. I hoped, but…”

Feel the difference? The rest of the above have been all “you, you, you”, this one is different. It’s “me, me, me”. The teacher blames themselves for their student’s failure. They are taking responsibility for their student’s mistake and shielding them from blame. It’s still actually actively abusive because it’s focusing on the teacher and not the student. Worse, it gaslights the student because their teacher didn’t even believe they’d succeed.

Unlike the angry asshole, this one is more subtle and morose. The teacher knows they’ve caused their student pain and they’re sorry for it, more they’re sad that they failed. The student feels like they’ve let their teacher down, again they resolve to do better but their confidence is also hurt. They went into this believing they could, but now they know they aren’t ready and worse their teacher knew.

This one is most likely going to result in the student feeling angry and betrayed by their teacher. All this pain that they’re feeling is their teacher’s fault! Their confidence, which has already been wounded, is going to take another hit. They may want to quit, they may shout, they’ll probably get very angry. The opening is there. They stalk off in a huff, then come back resolved to do better. But that decision to do better is one they come to on their own and possibly in order to spite their teacher. They’re going to prove they can, damn it! “I’m going to prove I’m worthy of your time and attention”.

If they return, they come back stronger and more determined. If we put into context that this means stronger and more determined to murder, then you can decide whether or not that’s actually a good thing. Either way, this is no longer about the person they killed. It’s about them.

The end result may be a more honest relationship between teacher and student, but the trust is going to be gone. It has to be rebuilt and that’s far more challenging than it sounds.

Either way, if the character returns then you end up with someone who is very determined, who may not always be confident but fights past their doubts. Who is determined to work hard and do better.

All these qualities are tools that can be used against them in their future line of work.

The one truth to understand when writing an assassin is that the assassin is ultimately expendable. You care about them, you’re their creator but just because you do, it doesn’t mean anyone else in the story will. An assassin has to earn their place, they’re not given it. They get there by succeeding and any failure could mean their death or have terrible consequences for the people they work for. They’re working within a web of secrets, of lies, of power, and it all one day leads to them potentially playing with the fate of nations. Even if failure is tolerated now, it won’t be forever and plenty of people are banking on your teen failing. This includes the people who may be backing them.

Some great fictional examples on the subject:

Spy Game – This movie with Robert Redford and Brad Pitt focuses almost entirely on the relationship between mentor and student. It focuses on the training period, the warnings, and the student’s screw ups while the instructor attempts to bail him out of hot water. It also speaks to the trouble spies can get into when they A) care too much and B) are talented but don’t have the necessary personalities that make for good spies. It’s a good movie, a decent primer on spy work (can be modified for assassins) and a good look at the importance of mentors for students/handlers for spies. Redford is the most interesting character in the movie, pay attention to him.

The Recruit – Starring Al Pachino and Colin Farrel, this movie reflects the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s an important watch for anyone writing spies/assassins/anything shadow world as a reminder that teachers don’t need to care about their students. They can be users, they can invest their energy in someone talented and use them as a fall guy. (That is a spoiler, but it’s why you’re watching this movie.)

Between these two mentors, you can probably find a solid basis for your teacher/mentor character. They’re also better than some other examples because they deal directly with the subject matter you’re looking for.

-Michi

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