Tag Archives: assassins

Q&A: Shooting Strung Up Humans Is An Ineffective Training Method

Until what age would a responsible adult wait to give a kid real bullets to shoot? The kid is training to be an elite assassin/met/hitman and begins target practice at age 5 with nonlethal laser guns that mark where on the target they hit and are gradually introduced to recoil to prepare them for real guns. Not long after switching to real bullets, they switch to living targets (the organization training them buys people who have been sentenced to death and uses them as targets).

Stringing people up for target practice and putting bullets in them is a pointless exercise, especially with children. It won’t make them better at killing people, or less likely to hesitate. All you get is a shattered psyche and a nervous breakdown not long after they reach adulthood. That, or they’ll be a sociopath and lack the necessary emotions to be good at the social engineering. Unlike the fantasy sociopath, the real life sociopath has a great deal of trouble functioning when among neurotypical people. If a child soldier was your end goal then this method will work great, and they’ll be broken by the time they’re twenty. That’s a lot of effort to put into someone just to break them before they make their first kill as a working assassin.

This is probably the best advice on assassins you’re ever going to get, so it’s best to internalize it:

Assassination is one percent shooting, ninty-nine percent preparation: anticipating moves, devising approaches, recruiting sources, finding the perfect opportunity so the bullet’s almost an after-thought. Usually that’s when a target’s on the move, when there are too many variables to control them all… There are ways to lessen the risk: an armed escort, taking an unpredictable route to your destination, having back-up in a trail car. But ultimately, as long as the assassin knows where you’re going, they have the upper hand. – Burn Notice, “False Flag”

When it comes to writing children and their training, the trick is understanding they’re children. Unless you want to have an “elite” assassin who is a “one and done”, their teacher must be very careful with the pace.

The point of an assassin is not to be good at fighting. They are good, but that’s an extra component. Assassins are covert-ops, and they function like spies. The difference is in their end goal, but they aren’t like a regular soldier or even special forces. If you’re going to structure their training then it isn’t about killing off their emotions or making it easier for them not to hesitate. You’ll get that recruiting young adults from rough backgrounds and broken homes. What you need with an assassin is preparation and, like with Batman, that prep work is what elevates them to elite.

Assassins use people the same way spies do, they assume false identities, they make contacts, create assets, observe the situation, scout locations, all in order to find the best way to their target. They don’t just sit in a watch tower waiting. They’ve got to learn about the person they’re going to kill. This includes their schedule, and where to find them. They need to plan their method of attack. They might walk into the target’s house when they’re not there or even when they’re sleeping, hack their computer, stand over their kids in the middle of the night, look through family photos, steal their datebook, stalk them on social media via some internet cafe, and go through their trash.

Whatever helps them figure out how to make the kill, and pass the blame off on some other poor schmuck in the target’s life.

They need to be able to use their emotions, learn how to turn them on, learn to shut them off, and distance themselves from what they’re doing. They are actors. They need empathy, they need compassion, they need to understand their emotions so they can manipulate others. This can’t be forcibly taught by asking them to shoot people strung up for target practice. That teaches all the wrong lessons.

A basic rule of covert ops, is let someone else do your dirty work. Let someone else find the guy you want to kill. It’s a great technique… as long as you’re not the someone else. – Burn Notice, “False Flag”

If you’re going to train kids to be assassins, then combat training comprises about 25% or less of what they need to be learning. The ancient order of Assassins, from where we get the term, were for the most part what we’ll call “one and done”. The expectation was they’d die in the attempt to kill their target or afterward, which is exactly what happens with most assassins. They may make their kill, but they’re going to die on the way out. This is why the preparation component is so important. Beyond just making the kill, the assassin must have an exit strategy.

When working with individuals who begin as children and whom you plan to keep using, you need to ensure they’ll be functional adults at the end of their training. This is why starting with adults is generally preferable. They’re fully developed, they have the ability to make choices, it takes less time to train them, and you can push them a lot harder. With kids, one must go slowly. We’re talking a time investment of nearly two decades per assassin.

Focusing on your would be assassins killing people in order to kill off their feelings is nice and sexy, but that’s not great for long term health or sanity. If you’re going to spend lots of time developing assassins, you want them to keep working for at least a decade rather than burning out or having a mental breakdown to compromise your organization.

Most kids in this situation don’t get to do any murdering until the final test. This is the first of two, usually. One test happens in a controlled environment and then when they succeed, they get sent out in the world with their first contract.

Depending on the motives and methods of the Organization, that first kill will be them killing a comrade they trained with (the way of true sadists is with their roommate) or running down some person provided for them by their trainers. Or, both.

The first contract happens under the supervision of another more experienced assassin (or two), who will take over if the new assassin proves unable to finish the job. If they succeed at that, they may then serve as an apprentice to this other assassin for the duration of their apprenticeship and learn about functioning in the real world from them. This is the culmination of their training though, and they’ll be somewhere around sixteen to eighteen by the time these events occur.

Children need to be given the opportunity to grow up before they’re put on the fast track to killing. Children are still developing as people, both their minds and their bodies. You can’t force them to do anything. You encourage them with rewards. You push their bodies and their minds, develop their self esteem, provide breaks in their physical training with the education they’ll need to be able to pass themselves off as an actual human being. This education is going to comprise most of their training and act as a way to give their young still developing bodies necessary relief time. For extra motivation and fun, you provide them with games like you would any other child.

These games are going to be structured training, putting them in a controlled environment where they learn and practice their new skills while having fun. One example is Viking children throwing spears back and forth as a childhood game, which graduated to them catching Roman javelins as adults and throwing them back. There are plenty of games we have today from tag to capture the flag that will work when training children and adults.

Fifteen to twenty years of training is a long time, the purpose of a prolonged training period is not to break your trainees by moving too fast. Instead, you want to push them so they are slowly breaking past their internalized physical and mental limits. When you’ve got a character pushing themselves past what they believe is possible, tapping into their desperation, anger, fear, to force themselves beyond their physical exhaustion then you’re at the more advanced methods of martial training. This is the extreme end purpose behind conditioning like running, sit ups, push ups, etc. This is not just to build up your body, but also your mind. Conditioning teaches us how to work through our exhaustion, when we’re tired and want to quit, and find the fortitude within ourselves to keep putting one foot in front of the other. How to find that last spurt of energy, even when we believe there’s nothing left.

You can’t start a child in extreme training, especially since this extreme training isn’t a learning component. This is a pushing component. You can build them toward it, but you need to train them up first. Training them in the physical techniques and all the boring stuff which goes with it. You also need to include the necessary spy school stuff such as infiltration, surveillance, pickpocketing, breaking and entering, chemistry, general education skills like reading, writing, arithmetic, languages, politics, etc, all while slowly pushing them harder bit by bit beyond where they’re comfortable.

You can teach a kid how to make poisons, for example, without actually hurting their mental development. There was a ninjutsu master who talked about how when he was a child, his father would take him around to houses in the neighborhood while the owners weren’t home and he’d have to break in. (Also go through their things, memorize the original positions, and then put the objects back exactly as found.) Supervised at all times, of course, but this is also something you can do with a child that won’t cripple their emotional development.

Even when they do reach the point when they’re ready to make a kill, a responsible/clever organization or handler is going to be there to support them through it which further binds the trainee to their trainers. These children are valuable, and they know it.

Guns will comprise a (comparatively) small part of their training. They don’t take that long to learn how to use. We’re talking a couple months here at most, and after that its just drilling.

You can give kids real bullets at almost any age, so long as they’re not shooting another human being. You want them on the gun range and under supervision with an adult who knows what they’re doing. There are plenty of parents who train their kids kids to shoot, either for hunting or for other reasons. The trick is understanding the supervision component. This is going to be the same in any martial system where children are given live weapons to handle. Supervised at all times is what a responsible adult does, and drilling weapon safety as the first lesson before they ever learn to point and shoot.

Again, killing is potentially damaging to the human psyche at any age, even when we know that the person who is being killed is objectively “bad”, an enemy, or we feel they deserved it. Some people genuinely are fine with it, others aren’t. The difference is in the individual, however these people are all adults. An adult can rationalize killing, they can understand it, and they can make peace with it. A child can’t.

The biggest mistake in fiction is treating children as little adults. Children lack an understanding of permanent consequences, and they cannot rationalize in death in the same way an adult can. They lack the tools to process these complex emotions because their brains are still developing. You can’t treat them like adults because they’re not, and if you do you’ll break them. A broken child or broken adult is too unstable to be a good assassin, much less an elite one.

Even then, killing a “bad person” who “deserves it” is the wrong motivation for an assassin. Assassins kill for money, they kill for country, or they kill because they’re told to. You can get the rogue assassin who has turned on their organization and is seeking redemption as a vigilante, killing the people they think are bad. Still, that’s not how most assassins function and certainly not the ones who survive for extended periods. The organization might hold to some higher principles, but at the end of the day their killing has nothing to do with a moral good. Righteousness from a world of black and white will break someone who must function in shades of gray.

An assassin needs to be able to make the choice of who will die. They must decide how they will die, and if anyone outside of the contract they’ve been given must die. They have to do a lot of groundwork before they ever fire a bullet. They may need to do unsavory things like arrange a kidnapping, or murder the spouse or children of some target’s family. They may be hired to target children. Their job is to identify and create the situation where they can make their kill.

Learning to accept that part of who they are can be difficult if the writer is looking for a way to morally justify their behavior or excuse it. Assassins are, at the end of the day, like every other hired gun.

They’re a hired gun.

Assassin is a nice way to phrase it, but they’re just mercenaries skilled at targeted killing and social engineering. That’s what these kids are in training to be: killers for hire.

-Michi

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So I got a question about the sparing and padding post that you recently made. I like to read Assassin’s Creed fanfictions that shows Altair (the main character) in his early years, which often includes his training to be an assassin. In most of these fics they focus more on the sword and knife fighting but some does include the hand to hand fighting too (without protection). So realistically what kind of injuries would someone training without any kind of protection should expect?

Death.

I’m only sort of kidding, because I know the kinds of fanfics you’re talking about and like every writer trying to be edgy, they have them spar without protections and with live weapons. There’s a reason why we use practice weapons during training and in sparring matches, where rules are in play. 

Now, the Assassin’s Creed variant of the Hashashin live for that super edgy, very stupid state of supposed badass where one must constantly prove their worth so I totally believe they’d do it. I’d also believe this would lead to an incredibly high turnover with their recruits, which is not sustainable in the real world.

I’m going to point out here that the “Asassins” or Hashashin were real. That’s the etymology for the word. The suicide jumping is also real and, instead of landing on bales of hay, they jumped to their deaths. There are a couple of stories about that piece of the order. The real Assassins were religious fanatics. These stories are not so much a testament to the quality of their training so much as their fanaticism.

For what it’s worth, the Knights Templar were also real and a prominent militant order up until they were excommunicated by the Pope.

The history of both groups is actually far more interesting than the Assassin’s Creed franchise. This is a persistent problem with the games, they invariably include historical figures who are far, far, far more interesting, competent, and badass than we’re presented with. If you encounter a historical personage in an Assassin’s Creed game, remind yourself of this simple fact: the real one is about 200x more awesome. It’s this weird inverse where the reality consistently surpasses the fiction.
(Black Flag, I have my eye on you. Honestly, how do you mess up Stede Bonnet, The Gentleman Pirate? And that’s the least of your sins!)

The more serious answer is that unless you’re training with weapons or making an active effort to hit each other, in the real world we don’t train using pads on the regular. The pads are so you can essentially go full out against another person under controlled circumstances and then come back for training tomorrow. If your students are constantly getting injured that hampers their ability to train, then they fall behind and you turn out fewer fighters. Injuries on the training floor should not be a common occurrence.

Barring accidents and mishaps, if you’re simply practicing your techniques on your own or against a wooden dummy then all you should expect afterwards is standard muscle pain (maybe some bruising). The same should be true for practice with human opponents (which is not sparring) and sparring itself.

Anything else is a waste of time, energy, and resources.

Remember, injuries take time to heal and if you’re prepping someone to go out and murder that’s time you don’t have.

In the land of “edgy training”, try to remember that you want evil as opposed to incompetence.

The vast majority of training, like the kinds you listed, are edgy incompetence. They don’t serve a purpose other than sadism and your students don’t learn anything. Unfortunately, cruelty on its own doesn’t teach much (the Spartans were abusive jerks, but their methods worked). The beat up, abuse them, cruelty methodology simply doesn’t work unless you understand the kinds that work and, from a storytelling perspective, it also isn’t interesting.

The kind of “edgy training” you see in most stories is a round of Kinder’s First. People mimicking what Hollywood has taught them or what they’ve seen in fiction elsewhere. The assumption in this line of thinking is that the more brutal the training then the more dangerous the fighter. This isn’t true. More importantly, there are much better ways to sadistically mess with your students’ (and audience’s) heads.

1) Depending on your teaching style, you may murder a student on occasion to motivate the others. However, the control over who lives or dies remains with the instructor because the instructor is god. If a student gets a bright idea to kill another student without your approval, kill them.

2) Live weapons should never be used by students on each other except as a graduation gift. The graduation gift being only one of them will be accepted into the Order, so prove your worth. (In the real world, you’ll probably need them both but in fantasy land… why not?)

3) Use the threat of death to keep your students from getting comfortable, make good on this promise every so often. Bring in an established warrior to kill off your best student in demonstration to the others. (Why? It reminds them at no point are they safe.)

4) Encourage your students to break the rules, punish them severely if caught. (Playing favorites? Punish them more, push them harder.)

5) Limit their resources. Make them fight each other for their food. Survival isn’t a given. It’s earned.

6) In the early days, force them into physical exhaustion. Keep them up late. Wake them early. Limit their sleep to the minimum of hours they need to stay functional. Tired minds are easier to manipulate.

7)
Force them into direct conflict with each other.

There’s never a solid baseline they can achieve, and they’re always watching over their shoulder. Furthermore they never become loyal to each other. They are only loyal to you. Appeasing their teacher is their only means of survival.

8) Got a problem child who won’t play along? Don’t make an example of them. No, no, make them your new favorite. That’ll turn the others on them, and they’ll solve the problem for you.

9) Change the goalposts regularly, so they never know what to expect.

10) You’ve got someone who doesn’t want to participate? Say okay. When others move to join them, punish those students viciously instead. Do it in front of the class and for everyone to see. (This is called: creating heroes and wrecking them.)

11) Have your students inform on each other.

If this is starting to sound like abuse, well.. you’re right. It is. It also very successful in terms of achieving its goal. The goal is attacking the student’s perceptions, beliefs, and their understanding of the world while reshaping them into who you want them to be.

Real cruelty is clever and inventive. It is also patient. Like a good interrogator, this teacher will leave their students so they’re never sure of exactly what the teacher wants or how to please them. They give them hope, then snatch it away. Someone who excels at social manipulation will use this position of power to maneuver their students feelings and their expectations, indirectly point them at certain targets by stoking negative feeling such as jealousy, paranoia, anger, or fear. In the other hand, those rare moments of kindness offered will ensure gratitude. When a good teacher wants their uncooperative students to band together, they make themselves the target the students need to fight against. The abusive teacher does the opposite. They ensure they are the only boat in the storm and turn their charges on each other. They make sure their students never know what to expect. This includes going hot and cold. They change up to batter expectations, handle some problems themselves and let the students handle others.

An experienced teacher will have seen plenty of student characters, all the versions you can imagine. A good one will break the problem kids to bridle without them ever realizing it happened, and they exit the experience more hardcore than the ones who invested themselves honestly. The purpose of “brutal training” isn’t to churn out a better warrior. It’s to break the individual down so you can reshape their mind and ensure the weapon you’ve created is loyal to you. That level of conditioning is very difficult to break. You’ve re-oriented their entire training into status positions they’ve fought for and earned. This training becomes a foundation for their identity, and you’re not going to get it out of them.

So, before invoking the trope, choose wisely and understand the purpose for what it is. Actively abusive training is done with the express intent to recondition and brainwash. More than that, in competent hands, it’ll snap the “rebellious teenage hero” contingent like twigs.

As a member of a fanatical cult, Altair is a direct example of this sort of training writ large.

-Michi

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How realistic is it for the retired agent/spy/assassin to come back and kick just as much butt as they did years before? Does such training come back to you easily if you haven’t used it in a long while or will you be rusty enough to get killed?

Parts of this are realistic, others not so much.

If you’ve spent enough time training techniques, this stuff
gets baked into the way you move. It’s not, “oh, I’ll do this to someone;” it’s
just there. Training can also affect
how you look at the world; this is true as a general statement on life, but it also
applies here. Again, as with muscle memory, this is always there, always affecting
how you view your surroundings and the people in them.

So, in that sense, yes. A veteran character coming back after
years away from the job will still
have their skills and training. Some of that will be rusty, but this stuff
sticks with you. Especially if you were maintaining your training for years.
That said, they’ll still get their teeth kicked in.

Ironically, one of the more realistic takes I’ve seen on this
was in the middle seasons of 24. In
the early seasons, the protagonist, Jack Bauer, is a federal counterterrorist
agent. After the third season he’s basically on his own, and no longer a part
of the agency that trained him. By the fifth season (about 3 years later) he’s
at a point where he’s getting his ass handed to him by a security guard.

The problem is something we’ve explained, repeatedly. Hand to
hand combat is not static. The training I got 20 years ago doesn’t apply now.
It will work against untrained
opponents. Basic physiology doesn’t change. However, going up against opponents
who’ve been keeping their training up to date, (or are some of the people
responsible for updating the techniques in the first place), is not going to
end well.

Something I know we haven’t discussed on this subject is how
this updating happens. It requires contact with people who are actually using
their training practically. Seeing what people are doing isn’t something that
you can do sitting on a mountain top. You need to actually be immersed in the
community. You look for how people are adapting to the techniques you’re
training others in, and look for ways to get around those counters.

In the case of law enforcement, one major source if
intelligence to guide updates is watching what criminals are teaching each
other in prison. Career criminals will look for ways to counter police hand to
hand, and once they have that, will (usually) share it with people they work and/or
socialize with.

A veteran coming in after years away may be able to execute
their training perfectly, and still get taken down by a rookie who received
their training last year, because they were trained to counter the veteran’s
approach.

Updating is about looking for the things that are most prevalent,
and finding ways to defend against them. It’s very likely your veteran will
understand this concept. Whether that affects their behavior is more of a
characterization question.

Incidentally, this doesn’t just apply to hand to hand, it’s
also a relevant concept when you’re talking about things like tradecraft.

Tradecraft is the shorthand for techniques used in
intelligence gathering. It’s (somewhat) all encompassing. So, anything from
social engineering to dead drops or even the way you set up surveillance could
be lumped in under this header.

Just like hand to hand training, this stuff does go out of
date. Usually once someone’s actually exploited a method and gotten caught
doing it. Though, sometimes it’s preventative.

The irony is, when it comes to being a spy, the biggest
problem is being a veteran, not being out of practice. It’s being a veteran. When
a spy starts their career, no one knows who they are, they have no reputation,
they’ve never turned up in strange places, they’re just someone walking around,
taking in the sights, maybe doing a job for some NGO.

Even if a spy is never caught, as they work, their name will
start ending up on desks, in lists of witnesses, employees, or whatever. Once
is not a pattern, but as their name keeps coming up over the years, it becomes
easier to identify them. Potential enemies start keeping files, and gradually
filling them with what they know. This means it is much harder for a veteran spy to operate in the field undetected,
than it is for a rookie.

There’s a similar issue for assassins. Either they’re a
complete ghost, no one knows who they are, and may not even believe they ever
existed, or (more likely), if they were working for a government (or any other
large, overt organization, like a corporation), they’re in the same boat as a veteran
spy. People may not know your character is an assassin, but they will know that
they worked for someone. Which in
turn, will put them on guard, and make your character’s life much harder.

There are concepts a veteran will have internalized, which
someone without training won’t understand or grasp. Thing that just don’t go
out of style. For example, bullets will blow through most residential walls and
furniture. So, if someone’s taking cover behind a couch, kitchen wall, or car
door, it’s far more expedient to simply shoot through whatever’s in your way.
Another concept is one I’ve mentioned recently, you reload when you have the
time, not when you’ve run your gun dry.

Similarly, experience they’ve learned from may still be relevant.
Being able to read someone’s intentions, know when they’re about to resort to
violence, or simply knowing the value of good intelligence aren’t going to go
away because your character spent the last five years pretending to be a well-adjusted
human being.

-Starke

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How realistic are assassins? Can they be professionals? Is it actually possible to kill a high priority target and get away or do most assassins get caught? Many famous assassins were ones who were caught though; Brutus, Booth, Oswald, Princip.

Every name you listed there was a political fanatic. I don’t mean this to be dismissive, because, that is one kind of assassin, but they’re not professionals.

Those are people who have a political message and were willing to die to get attention. (Oswald’s a little of an edge case there. But, the basic idea stands.) These are people who wanted to send a message. That’s completely different from someone who is paid to kill a target and disappear.

Someone screaming “Sic Simper Tyrannis!” before taking someone’s head off, is a very different breed of killer from the kind that sits in an office building and takes a single shot before vanishing.

We’ve talked about assassins at length before. There’s a classification of types, a further discussion that dips into avoiding detection and discusses the difficulty inherent in actually researching real assassins, and a suggested media list that should also serve as a primer to other things we’ve written on the subject.

To be honest, I’m not sure what else to say on the subject, that we haven’t covered already. Though, we probably should do a piece on the psychology of terrorists and fanatics, but that’ll have to wait for another day.

-Starke

I am wanting to write a assassin/spy type novel which I’m still in the very early stages of outlining. I’ve set aside a few months for intensive research, as I want to be knowledgable on what I’m writing about to produce the best quality manuscript I can. Long story short as a writer with practically no knowledge on the subject what websites, articles, movies, books do you suggest as a must. Thanks in advance!

We’re both a bit under the weather at the moment, so I’m going to try to put together a comprehensive link set off our articles. Sorry about that.

We’ve covered both assassins and spies in the past.

Starting with assassins, I wrote a very basic primer about assassins here. It’s also probably pretty important to read that before going into this question about a team.

Michi also wrote the basic methodology primer, and a list of things to avoid doing with the genre. Just, general cliches and bad ideas. And of course, what to do when your assassin in training accidentally kills somebody.

For spies, we don’t have quite as much stuff out there. Michi wrote a psych profile on spies, and then I followed up with some additional details on the limitations of that profile.

Finally, I’m going to fish out the recommendations list from this article, since it’s probably the most comprehensive one we’ve done for spies, and update it a bit. It was formatted with lighthearted super-spies first, and more grim and bitter approaches second.

Burn Notice’s is a bit schizophrenic. The narrator isn’t just a completely different character from Michael Westen, he’s actually at a different point on the spectrum. The show itself is fairly formalistic, while the narrator is talking about concerns and behavior from a realistic perspective. It’s part of why the show worked so well, but when you’re drawing from it, remember to keep those elements separate.

If you’re wanting to go more in the superspy direction, James Bond is the gold standard. License to Kill and Casino Royale are probably the most realistic (which isn’t saying much). If this is a good thing or not is a matter of taste.

The Bourne Identity (the first film only) is another solid formalistic example. (The second and third film have better fight choreography, but they suffer from a terminal case of shaky cam; which requires you already have a solid grasp of hand to hand to really follow.) The only part of Legacy I’ve seen was Jeremy Renner’s fantastic hand to hand work. It’s more cop than spy, but if you have the time, it could be worth looking at.

The novel is actually much closer to an American James Bond, with the serial numbers filed off. You can pick up some basic tradecraft from it, particularly Bourne’s thought process about blending into his environment can be very useful, and it’s something the film does skim completely over.

Salt is solidly in the superspy genre, the sleeper agents demonstrate supernatural resilience to damage, and the entire premise is a little crazy. But, if your spies aren’t really human, you could probably get some ideas from this.

Red is basically in the same vein, fun, but equally ludicrous. Again, if your spies have actual superpowers, go ahead and watch it. Karl Urban’s character might be worth looking at even if you are pushing for a more realistic bent.

Chuck wore thin for me. There’s stuff to like, so, it might be worth your time if you want to mess around with superspies interacting with the normal world.

The original Get Smart TV series is freakin’ brilliant. It’s a parody of the superspy genre that was partially helmed by Mel Brooks. Obviously, it’s not even remotely serious, but if you’re wanting to mock that genre it’s a must see.

If you’re wanting to run harder into the realistic genre, then you’re going to be looking at a much bleaker recommendation list. I’d start with The Human Factor by “Ishmael Jones”. This an ex-CIA case officer’s memoires, it’s easily available and deals with the current state of the American Intelligence community.

Blowback by Chalmers Johnson isn’t actually about spies per say, but it is about the political consequences of espionage (and foreign policy in general). This might not be something you want to delve into, but I’ll leave it on the list.

With the non-fiction reading out of the way, John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a classic in the genre with good reason. The novel’s been adapted twice, with Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman playing George Smiley. I haven’t seen either, but the novel is a good primer for writing spies.

Having since seen the mini-series with Alec Guinness, it is fantastic, and worth watching.

The Fourth Protocol follows a retiring spy who’s investigating a Soviet plan to detonate a nuclear weapon on an American air base. Bonus points, in that the Russian agent is played by Pierce Brosnan. If you want to see how a realistic spy fights, then he’s probably the single best example. That said, it’s been about ten years since I saw this, so I could have accidentally slipped on rose colored glasses. I haven’t read the novel it’s based on.

I’m sadly scratching this one out. There’s actually two different versions of the film. The theatrical cut, and an extended cut that was used for some TV broadcasts. The theatrical cut is a mess, and the extended cut is basically impossible to obtain now.

Although somewhat dated, The Sandbaggers was a British TV series in the late 70s. Though the answer it gives on how their spies fight is “as little as possible.” Historically the show is actually based on how the CIA would task agents, rather than MI6.

Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country is a modern update of The Sandbaggers in comic form. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’ve already seen Sandbaggers, but if you don’t have access to the show, then this is much easier, and cheaper to find.

Ronin is a mix of formalism and realism. It’s still an action film, but the tradecraft the ex-spies use is remarkably solid. Given that you’ve started with Burn Notice, you should have a pretty good frame of reference to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Also, I’ll say it again, this is also one of the best films you can watch for car chases, almost every shot in the film was done with stunt drivers on actual streets, and it shows. If you want to get an idea of what a trained operative could actually do with a car, this isn’t completely off base.

Spy Game by the late Tony Scott is a rather hectic mix of realistic elements. I’m more comfortable dropping it here because of how heavily cut together it is, and elements of the film’s plot. This is a very dense primer on tradecraft.

The other mix of realism and formalism is the Mission: Impossible TV series. Not to be confused with the film franchise, the TV series focused on characters actually being spies, infiltrating and manipulating organizations or individuals to achieve their goals. There’s a heavy focus on supplementing their operations with gadgets, but it’s one of the forerunners of the modern genre divide.

AEG’s Spycraft RPG was written so it could be played as either a realistic or cinematic (formalistic) game. It has a lot of resources for both superspies and real operatives. In a rare moment, the character creation system is also useful, as it illustrates the different specialties that are intrinsic to espionage.

Spycraft’s World on Fire supplement is insanely useful, it’s also incredibly hard to find. It was about blending one of the Spycraft settings with the real world, and it has an absolutely staggering amount of information on actual espionage in the 20th century. Unfortunately, a lot of it is mixed in with World on Fire’s six fictional factions. So, it’s useful, but tread carefully.

This one’s also available as a PDF from DriveThruRPG.

If you’re wanting to do a spy story set in a science fiction setting, I’d take a look at The First Line from Last Unicorn Game’s now defunct Star Trek RPG. Be ready to parse the Trek out of it, if your setting isn’t similar, but it does offer some fantastic thoughts on espionage and counterintelligence in a spacefaring civilization.

Finally, the line from Burn Notice, that “Spies are just criminals with a government paycheck” is entirely on point. You’re probably tired of me recommending Heat every other post… So I’ll recommend Payback instead. The lead character is a con artist, not a spy, but the general “messing with people” approach is very spy like. (If you’re digging this up, make sure you grab the director’s cut, it’s actually a different, more consistent, film.)

One of the posts above has our most comprehensive writeup of assassin recommendations. The only overlap seems to be Red, and Ronin, which kind of surprises me. But, anyway.

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

For Your Assassins:

Ronin, I know we’ve plugged this one a bunch lately. It’s not a fantastic film, but it is a fantastic thing to watch to get a look at operational preparation. That is to say, the things your assassin needs to do in order to get access to and kill their target.

Collateral is a pretty good look at both assassin and general criminal psychology. Again, we’ve plugged enough lately you should be familiar with it.

Lucky Number Slevin is a bit off-beat, but the entire film sets up a shell game to hide what’s actually going on. It’s a decent example of someone getting close to the target without blowing their cover.

Hitman: Blood Money is a murder playground. This is one of the very rare times I’ll actually recommend a video game for anything. There’s some seriously puerile elements, but it does basically leave the player with free reign to deal with the environment as they see fit. If you’re wanting to see why someone might try to pass themselves off as a member of the cleaning staff to get into a facility instead of camping outside with a rifle, this might be a good thing to look at.

For Your Investigators:

Elementary,Technically almost any faithful representation of Sherlock Holmes will work, but if it’s not Elementary then your best bet will probably be the Jeremy Brett series from the 80s and 90s. Also, if all else fails, and you’ve never read them, you should probably look at the original stories.

Law & Order is an absolute must view, probably in binges, for getting a feel for your cops. The show is slathered in it’s New York City identity, but a lot of it carries over elsewhere. In my opinion, the series really gets going in the third season, but feel free to look at some of the other seasons for a different mix of Police and members of the DA’s Office. Southland is a decent primer to update you to the current climate.

Homicide: Life on the Street is the unpleasant cousin of Law & Order. Again, you’re looking at street level detective work in the mid-90s. But the show is focused more on the psychological strain of the job, as opposed to the procedural techniques. These shows should really be watched together as two sides of the same coin. I’m told The Wire is the decent update to 20 years later, but I’ve never gotten around to it.

Not So Helpful, But Good Movies Anyway:

The Professional is like most most Luc Besson films, not terribly realistic, but it entertaining and quite good. Jean Reno’s character is, unfortunately, a major part of the modern myth of a professional assassin.

Red, this is actually an adaptation of a comic by Warren Ellis. Keep an eye on Helen Mirren and Karl Urban, they’re good references, and their characters don’t really exist in the comic. Especially the way Urban’s character preps and cleans crime scenes.

-Starke

So, today, I had the idea of a professional hitman who would routinely replace the barrel of his gun after a job in an attempt to keep the bullet’s rifling from being matched to his weapon. Would this be viable?

Yes, well, sort of. The ballistics on the bullets would change, but the markings on the spent shell casings wouldn’t. These are things like extractor, firing pin, and ejector all leave unique markings on the shell. This isn’t quite as accurate as bullet striations, but replacing the barrel won’t affect them. To get rid of those you’d basically need to rebuild the gun from scratch each time.

Swapping out weapons would create a situation where, “well, people are getting shot.” Swapping out barrels creates a situation where, “well, there’s this guy who really likes P99s/USPs/whatevers out there shooting people.”

As an investigator, digging through looking for someone who’s chewing through guns like crazy, you’re more likely to find someone who’s just going through the barrels constantly.

With shotguns (loaded with shot shells), there’s no real forensics from the shot, but the shell casing is the forensics. In those cases, swapping out the barrel would be pointless. (There’s a longer discussion on the subject here.)

With high end precision rifles, you can swap out the barrel, but the weapon’s accuracy will suffer for it. If the marketing claims are to be believed, anyway. Which means if you’re character’s a sniper, that’s out.

That wouldn’t matter with a cheap, off the shelf hunting rifle, though, again, replacing it wouldn’t really be that much more expensive.

With automatic weapons, and semi-auto pistols, policing his brass is going to be basically impossible, so the spent shells would expose that it was still the same weapon, even if the barrel was swapped.

Revolvers step around the spent shells issue nicely, since they only eject shells when you empty the cylinder, but you can’t replace their barrels, at least not in most cases. So that’s out.

Also, with some heavier automatic weapons, including LMGs, they actually ship with replacement barrels, because you will overheat them during normal combat use. So this isn’t that strange a concept, really.

Once the ruse is exposed, tying the rounds back to the same shooter in court wouldn’t be that difficult. He’d actually be making the prosecution’s case easier, because forensics with shell casings aren’t as precise, but then he wouldn’t be able to challenge that, “no, the ballistics on the rounds themselves don’t match.”

It’s just safer for your hitman to dispose of used weapons and get a clean one for each job. He might carry a personal backup, that he only uses and replaces in an emergency. But otherwise keeping a weapon around would be a liability. It’s one more thing that ties him back to a corpse, if something goes wrong.

-Starke

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

Okay, so this probably sounds like a really silly question, but I have to ask. Why do assassins get close to their target before killing them? Isn’t it more efficient to kill their target immediately?

Depends. Okay, so there’s actually 3 different possible meanings of “getting close to their target,” and I’ll hit them in turn.

If you just mean physical proximity, then, they usually don’t. A trained, professional killer isn’t going to want to be anywhere near the victim when they’re dropped unless it’s absolutely necessary.

If the target can be dropped with a high-powered rifle six blocks away, that’s a much safer option than going in with a garotte. No matter what popular fiction, like The Professional or the Hitman games will tell you. (To be fair, The Professional is a fantastic film, but as with most of Luc Besson’s work it’s not terribly realistic.)

Getting physically close to the victim is about making a statement. The assassin is declaring they’re untouchable, or trying to tell the world, “hey, I did this thing!”

It’s not a silly question. A great deal of modern spy fiction and most of the action adventure genre dealing with professional assassins prime the audience to view them in a way that is inherently unrealistic. This also involves burdening them with approaches to their kills that are unsustainable without the aid of authorial fiat. The general emphasis ends up being on the assassin killing, not on all the other aspects of the job needed in order for them to be successful. This approach generally relies on negating or outright ignoring the police and the protectee’s security service in order to present the idea of “badass superkiller1!1!!!!!!1”. If your primary view of assassins is as the Anime Ninja, or the action adventure heroes from R.E.D., or even the Hitman games where an assassin is just the new code word for “human killing machine” then I can see where it might be confusing.

If the kind of assassin you’re planning on writing fits into the categories above then you can feel free to ignore this post.

In a world that takes into account all the people out there (including law enforcement) willing and able to get between an assassin and their target, the game of cat and mouse an assassin has to play in avoiding the local authorities, and finding an opening to take a shot at an important person who may have upwards of twenty bodyguards watching their every move then the prospect of actually murdering them (much less getting away afterwards) becomes much tougher.

Besides what some video games and books might tell you, walking into a house and murdering everyone inside is the sort of action which makes everything worse. It doesn’t make it better and it’s not even viable in the short run. Bodyguards don’t line up in a shooting gallery, instead they’ll do their job. Taking the time to deal with them (and it does take time) will end with the assassin missing their window of opportunity as the rest of the security detail gets their boss to safety. Once the window of opportunity is gone, the mission is over. Your assassin has one chance to dance, if they blow it then it’s over. The more people the assassin fights on the way to their target, the higher the likelihood the assassin will get made. If the assassin gets made then there’s a good chance they’ll either end up on the law enforcement radar (lucky) or a criminal organization’s (incredibly unlucky). Either way even if they do escape, they’ll spend the rest of their life running.

This is why you get “close” to your target.

Getting Physically Close: Hallmark of the Political Assassin

The guy who walks up to the President and puts three bullets in his/her chest only to get tackled by some very angry members of the Secret Service is a person who wants to get caught. This is the standard conventional assassin and the one we understand best because there have been so many of them. They do it because they want to make a political statement, their imprisonment or death will lead to them becoming a martyr. In the grand scheme, there’s no difference between John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln and an al-Qaeda suicide bomber. Both acts are politically motivated and both are types of assassinations meant to draw attention to their cause (whatever cause that is). Getting physically close to the victim is about making a statement. The assassin is declaring they’re untouchable, or trying to tell the world, “hey, I did this thing!”

It’s worth remembering that President Obama gets 30 death threats a day, that’s 210 a week, and somewhere around 900 a month. All those threats must be investigated by the Secret Service. The more powerful a person is, the more enemies they accumulate, and the more people there are who want them dead. This counters all the people surrounding them whose job it is to keep them alive. The act of killing is the simple and easy part, it’s everything leading up to it that’s difficult.

Preparation is Key

A trained, professional killer isn’t going to want to be anywhere near the victim when they’re dropped unless it’s absolutely necessary. If they can manage it with a high powered rifle on a rooftop six blocks away then they will. It’s cleaner, easier, and safer that way. Still, being in the right place at the right time involves knowing their target, their habits, their security plan, and where the holes are to find the opportunity necessary to take the shot. They also have to scout the environment ahead of time, locate a place to prepare their setup with an understanding that their target’s security will be looking for exactly that. You might think sitting up on rooftop with a rifle waiting to take a shot would be easy, but it’s not and, unlike in most movies, there’s no one who will do the work for them.

Your character will not automatically know where to go or what to do. The more they know about their target the better they can predict their movements, the better they can predict their movements, the more options they have if or, really, when things go wrong. An assassin must always be one step ahead of their target and they can’t stay ahead of them if they don’t know them.

Preparation is the key to success.

Is it really more efficient?

There’s a choice every character must make for themselves: do I want to kill the once or do I want to kill multiple times? If you decided to become an assassin tomorrow then you’d probably follow the protocols that media has prepared for you as do most would be assassins. It’s what gets them caught. “What would I do if I were an assassin?” is a great opener for crafting a newbie.

Ignoring law enforcement agencies and desire for retribution on the part of the surrounding individuals who might not be too happy that their friend, loved one, hero, or source of paycheck just got offed is a mistake and it’s an easy one to make.

Take some time and investigate the other side of the equation. Watch some Law and Order. Then think about it from the perspective of all the people who are going to investigate and hunt your assassin down. Collateral and Lucky Number Slevin are great movies to watch on this account because they’re all about the shell game involved in an assassin covering their tracks or getting close to their target. In Collateral, the assassin (Tom Cruise) pays cab driver (Jamie Foxx) to drive him around the city as he performs his hits. While the assassin’s behavior toward the cab driver is friendly and amiable, we learn from the cops investigating the initial murders about a cab driver who went nuts and killed a whole bunch of random people in one night before committing suicide. I’ll give you three guesses for who really killed those people.

The goal is going to be get in, get out, without anyone the wiser. Often leaving a fall guy to take the blame (like the cab driver) or covering the killings by using another rational explanation. The first season of Elementary for example involved two assassins who covered their tracks in different ways. The first one murdered people in the exact same way every single time in order to make it look like a serial killer doing the deed, some of the people he killed on his spree were his targets but others were just random innocents who fit the profile. He only popped up every few years and each time in different places. Because the cops were looking for a serial killer and not an assassin, they missed the key motivations necessary for uncovering his identity. Thus, the assassin was able to continue his business while the cops chased their tails looking for a pattern that wasn’t there.

The second assassin covered his kills by using conveniently timed accidents to do the deed. He pushed an air conditioner off a three story building onto a passing man below (freak accident), cultivated a colony of particularly nasty bees along the workout route of a woman who had a deadly allergy (natural death), and murdered a man by disrupting the signal to his pacemaker and giving him a heart attack (hardware failure). If you look at all these victims as individuals and not at their relationships to each other then each appears to be a random accident. In that case, there’s no need to investigate further. (It’s always worth remembering that most law enforcement agencies are buried in cases that cross their desk. Homicide is a great look into the life of a homicide detective and the world of unsolved cases.)

Of the three, Collateral is the most realistic which is why I recommend watching it once and then with the commentary turned on. It’s very helpful.

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

For Your Assassins:

Ronin, I know we’ve plugged this one a bunch lately. It’s not a fantastic film, but it is a fantastic thing to watch to get a look at operational preparation. That is to say, the things your assassin needs to do in order to get access to and kill their target.

Collateral is a pretty good look at both assassin and general criminal psychology. Again, we’ve plugged enough lately you should be familiar with it.

Lucky Number Slevin is a bit off-beat, but the entire film sets up a shell game to hide what’s actually going on. It’s a decent example of someone getting close to the target without blowing their cover.

Hitman: Blood Money is a murder playground. This is one of the very rare times I’ll actually recommend a video game for anything. There’s some seriously puerile elements, but it does basically leave the player with free reign to deal with the environment as they see fit. If you’re wanting to see why someone might try to pass themselves off as a member of the cleaning staff to get into a facility instead of camping outside with a rifle, this might be a good thing to look at.

For Your Investigators:

Elementary,Technically almost any faithful representation of Sherlock Holmes will work, but if it’s not Elementary then your best bet will probably be the Jeremy Brett series from the 80s and 90s. Also, if all else fails, and you’ve never read them, you should probably look at the original stories.

Law & Order is an absolute must view, probably in binges, for getting a feel for your cops. The show is slathered in it’s New York City identity, but a lot of it carries over elsewhere. In my opinion, the series really gets going in the third season, but feel free to look at some of the other seasons for a different mix of Police and members of the DA’s Office. Southland is a decent primer to update you to the current climate.

Homicide: Life on the Street is the unpleasant cousin of Law & Order. Again, you’re looking at street level detective work in the mid-90s. But the show is focused more on the psychological strain of the job, as opposed to the procedural techniques. These shows should really be watched together as two sides of the same coin. I’m told The Wire is the decent update to 20 years later, but I’ve never gotten around to it.

Not So Helpful, But Good Movies Anyway:

The Professional is like most most Luc Besson films, not terribly realistic, but it entertaining and quite good. Jean Reno’s character is, unfortunately, a major part of the modern myth of a professional assassin.

Red, this is actually an adaptation of a comic by Warren Ellis. Keep an eye on Helen Mirren and Karl Urban, they’re good references, and their characters don’t really exist in the comic. Especially the way Urban’s character preps and cleans crime scenes.

-Michi

So my character, who’s a retired hitman but still practices his martial arts -such as muay tai, tae kwondo, jujitsu- and works out religiously is faced with fighting against a group of hired muscles who all differ from him in terms of body mass. How can I write this realistically and not make it seem too outlandish?

Well, not trying to collect unrelated martial arts like some kind of overly aggressive Pokemon trainer comes to mind.

Situations like this are what tactical batons and pistols are made for. A hitman is not the kind of person that’s going to be blindsided by random street thugs, no matter how awesome said thugs think they are.

A hitman is someone who, by definition, understands how fragile people are, and one that was smart enough to survive a career in that field is not going to be dumb enough to get into an unarmed brawl with shifty looking guys.

They need to have a functional grasp of threat assessment. That means knowing where someone’s likely to ambush you and not walking into that.

They need to understand that any fight they do find themselves in needs to be over as quickly as possible. That means using whatever tools are at their disposal. Fundamentally assuming your character will be mixing multiple martial arts styles together to deal with a couple opponents is missing the point. Your character has chosen to descend to their level for no legitimate reason, and it will get them killed.

Your hitman was learning skills necessary for them to do their job, that didn’t include hand to hand because the kind of exposure hand to hand kills require wouldn’t allow them to finish their career outside of a prison cell.

So, we’re back to, he’d just kill them, and move on with his day. No complex choreographed fifteen minute fight, he’d waste them, avoid them, or bait them into getting arrested. Things that wouldn’t put him in any more jeopardy.

I know our spies and assassin recommendation list varies a little, but here’s some relevant suggestions:

Ronin (1998): The characters are technically spies turned mercenary, but a lot of the basic advice, and outlook, is in line for a retired assassin.

Collateral (2004): Michael Mann’s crime films, in general, are pretty good about getting the right outlook, but Vincent (Tom Cruise) does an excellent job of presenting the kind of could, almost reptilian, view of the world you need to kill people for a living, while also demonstrating a shocking degree of competence in protecting himself, while still getting the job done.

Heat (1995): Somewhere between the two above examples. It’s a Michael Mann film with Robert De Niro. Again, this one isn’t about assassins per say, but it is about professional criminals, which is ultimately, what you’re talking about. Your character just used to kill people, instead of robbing banks.

With both Mann films, I really recommend watching them with the commentary on. There’s a real wealth of information on criminal psychology on there.

-Starke

When writing an Assassin, is there anything you would recommend us not doing? Like should we avoid having a stereotypical assassin who hates the world but when another character comes into their lives, their view on the world changes? Trope wise, is there any that you would like to see more of? Thank you :)

Ah, assassins.

The Ninja: I don’t mean actual historical ninjas. This is the cultural perception of guys in black masks who leap between buildings like Spider-Man. The Assassin’s Creed assassins a.k.a the guys who can’t kill their way out of a paper bag. The supposedly human character whose training gives them a hefty dose of superpowers with a side of Orientalism and fetishizing of “insert Eastern culture here”. Believe it or not guys, people do look up.

The Forced Prodigy: “My character is a super awesome killer, but they were forced to learn these skills”. No. In order to be good at something, you have to enjoy it and you have to want to be good at it. You have to want to learn. An assassin is a hired killer, they kill people for either money or a cause. They stalk them, they invade their lives, they learn everything they can about their target, and then they hunt them down. It’s not the sort of profession you thrive in if you’re squeamish. More, the sorts of organizations we’re talking about aren’t going to take someone who doesn’t want to learn or train someone who actively resents them. Talent isn’t everything, in the long run it actually means very little. Someone who wants want you’re offering, who sees this new addition in their life as an improvement, is much more valuable. The individual who chooses the life, even if it was originally chosen for them, will always beat out the unwilling no matter how much natural talent they possess. There are plenty of other candidates where your character came from. If you want them to succeed, they’re going to have to prove themselves.

Undone By Love: You mentioned this one. The Best Assassin in the World is undone by… a pretty face? What? Seduction is a standard part of the assassin package for men and women. It’s a lot easier to kill someone by attacking their blind spot and history proves sexual attraction is a great one. Assassins are going to be deeply screwed up individuals, their understanding of normal is nowhere near the standard cultural baseline. It’s easiest to start understanding it by assuming everything you understand is inverted: kindness is a lie, interest means you want something, trust is a sign of an inevitable back stab. When you live in a world of shadows and lies, paranoia is inevitable. “Normal” people are either background noise or enemies in disguise. Staying one step ahead is how you stay alive and if you can do this to other people then it can also be done to you. So, someone who shows them kindness? Why would they ever trust that?

The Oliver Twist: This is like Undone by Love. The idea is that once the assassin gets a taste of real life outside the walls of their compound, once they experience kindness, once they experience normalcy, they’re going to want that and realize their life has been a lie. “I just want to be normal’. Well, this comes from a mistaken assumption on the part of the author about the character because they’re assuming:

1) that they’re baseline for normal is normal.

2) that once exposed, everyone is going to want to have what they have and be like them.

An assassin is trained with the understanding that they will eventually go out into the “real world”. Part of their job is infiltration and that means learning how to fit in, perhaps in a multitude of different cultures. Psychology, human behavior, seduction, and general social skills are going to be part of the package. You can’t manipulate individuals without understanding them, understanding their concept of normal is going to be necessary. Normal is relative. It’s important to consider that a character who kills people for a living may not want to be like the people they kill or like their creator (you).

Biting the Hand That Feeds Them: The assassin goes out into the world, realizes what they are, has an epiphany, and says “I must stand against the evil!”. This is an assumption about morals. Killing is wrong, ergo the assassin must be wrong, when they realize they are wrong they will want to make it right by… killing more people? Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoon morality, where things are black and white and everyone is immortal until someone slits their throat. Death is the natural conclusion to life. People die. In fact, they die all the time. If your character is a professional assassin, they’ve made peace with murder and the muddy waters they wade through. They kill. Death is part of them. Why is one person more or less worthy of life than another? In their mind, some of the people they kill may indeed have it coming. What makes their organization and what they do so much worse than the good guys?

Writing any character who fights involves wrestling your personal philosophy and your morals. Why we fight, why we kill, why we commit atrocities have been a central focus of human philosophy throughout history. There aren’t any easy answers to those questions, nor are there universal ones. Like spies, assassins are among the hardest to understand because of the manner in which they kill. They have to be able to empathize with their target, they don’t have the same luxury of dehumanization that a soldier does. They get to know people with the intent to kill and if you’re not able to get comfortable with that then writing it can be very hard.

The Assassin With A Heart of Gold: The assumption that turning around on their masters makes them a good person, or that doing the right thing somehow absolves them. Black Widow’s “red ledger” line from Avengers. Essentially, the Atoner. I’m sick of the Atoning Assassin. “I’m doing the right thing because I want to make up for my past mistakes” by killing more people. I mean, sure, it’s funny but really. They’re essentially doing the exact same thing they did before but this time it’s okay because of authorial fiat. They’re working for the good guys now. That makes them a good person.

No. They may have changed sides, but if they’re still killing then they’re still the same person. At it’s heart, killing is killing. There is no good killing and no bad killing, there’s just killing. Every person is someone’s mother or father, brother or sister, aunt or uncle, niece or nephew, every person your character kills matters to someone. It’s not people in general, or those people over there, the person being killed is an individual. Your assassin knows they’re killing an individual, they know that because it’s part of their training.

So, why does this individual matter? What is it about this one that made them change their mind? They go through all their training, fully understanding what they’re being asked to do because it won’t work if they don’t, kill all those other people and then they get to this one person who makes them realize their entire life is wrong? Why? It’s not because they’ve suddenly realized killing is wrong.

Figure it out or become an internally inconsistent cliche.

So, what would we personally like to see more of?

Well, don’t do the above and you’re well on your way to what we’d like to see. The Professional Assassin, The Cheerful Assassin, and The Gleeful Assassin, so long as they aren’t presented as villains. Personality types that go in for something other than “sour, dour, moody, broody” and “angsty, whiny, poor me, victim”. Characters who don’t sit around talking about how awesome and dangerous they are or make grandiose claims about their skill set while never backing it up.

What about you, followers? What assassin archetypes do you hate? What would you like to see more of in fiction?

-Michi