Q&A: Assassin Career Counseling

Heyo! I read your post on assassins and they are really good. Like, goooood. I do have one question though: when being an assassin is the character’s “normal”, why would they ever stop? I find it highly unlikely one person could just change their mind, so what could be the circumstances for the character to quit?

There are some legitimate reasons someone might want out, or would want to pass on a job. For example, John Wick’s backstory of leaving because he met a woman isn’t that far fetched. An assassin wanting out because he’s made enough to retire is another valid option, though this is often delivered as the cliche, “one more job and then I’m out.” It’s also entirely possible an assassin may choose to pass on a contract simply because it’s too high profile or dangerous. This gets into a general truth: If the pay and perks aren’t good enough to justify the risks, you’re not going to want to stay with an employer. For an assassin, that may simply mean looking for contracts from other sources, but it could also cause someone to leave the workforce. It’s also possible your assassin is simply a government employee, in which case, mandatory retirement will come for them eventually. Even if they’re freelance, age does take its toll inevitably, and if you’re engaging in violence, that will severely increase that.

Now, none of this really answers your question, because you’re asking, “what could change their mind.” Some of these could inspire them to “be a better person,” but more often you’re looking at more pragmatic considerations. If you’re sitting on five million dollars, there’s not a lot of incentive to spend your nights in the rain looking through an 8x thermal scope at people half a mile away.

The cliche answer you’re probably responding to is the idea that an assassin runs across a target who violates some code of honor they keep for themselves. This requires a very specific degree of cognitive dissonance. “Yeah, killing people is fine, unless they can’t legally buy Cigarettes in Missouri; that’s evil, and I’ll turn on anyone who violates my code of honor.” That’s not ethics, that’s someone who’s dangerously unstable.

It’s not completely impossible for a character to have a moment where they sit down and ask themselves, “the fuck am I doing?” This can, and does, happen. But, foisting that moment onto your assassin because they just encountered someone they consider utterly innocent is probably going to come off as cliche.

That cliche is also, often, used to present an assassin as, redeemed. “See, he’s not evil because he doesn’t torture puppies!” Which is hilariously reductive. It was okay that they used to murder people for cash, but here’s their line, which is still way past any kind of moral event horizon, so they’re not evil? No. They just have standards, like any self-respecting monster.

Now, contrasts like this can set the tone and distinguish characters. If you have two assassins with conflicting codes of acceptable targets, that can help to get your audience to empathize with one of them. Just, remember, that doesn’t make them a good person.

I should probably add, this extends beyond just assassins. Anyone who hunts down sentient beings for a living can land under any of these points. Including: Bounty hunters, cops (dirty or otherwise), monster hunters, spies (government backed or freelance), some varieties of special forces, and many others. It would probably also apply to fanatical cultists and wandering adventurers, just in case you felt limited by the previous list.

Another cliche probably worth addressing, because it’s somewhat plausible, is where the assassin is betrayed by their employer. There are setups for this where it makes sense, but, in general, this is an incredibly stupid move on the part of the organization, as they’re making enemies with someone who has the skillset to seriously harm their operations. (Whatever those may be.)

It may also be possible to flip an assassin using blackmail. This is one of those complex, and highly situational options. For example, holding their spouse or child hostage, in order to force the assassin could get them working against their own interests. I shouldn’t need to say it, but this is an incredibly volatile scenario, because if the blackmailers lose control, then the assassin will be coming after them.

It’s probably obvious, but losing friends or family could also cause nearly anyone to reassess their career choices. Not, necessarily, something unique to assassins, but it’s certainly one possible outcome.

So, why would an assassin stop killing people for a living? Because they didn’t want to anymore. No one else can provoke that choice for them; it needs to be a decision they make, on their own.

-Starke

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