Tag Archives: spies

Hi there! I love your blog! I’ve seen you mention a few TV shows and movies for research, and I was wondering what your opinion is on the show Leverage and it’s accuracy for social engineering in potentially violent situations. I remember one character saying that “Thieves look for entrances, but grifters create them.” They’ll often use approaches like this to avoid violence.

If the question is: can you use social engineering in order to defuse or avoid violent situations? The answer is yes.

Grifters are conmen, and like spies, they don’t want to fight unless it is absolutely necessary. Whether they can fight or know how isn’t really the point: combat makes messes, big messes, and draws the kind of attention they don’t want/can’t afford.

As for the line, “thieves look for entrances, but grifters create them” the point of it is that grifters focus on people as the exploitative aspect to get what they want. After all, it doesn’t matter how good your security system is if your infiltrator is expected to be there. When someone opens the door for them, they didn’t have to break in.

It is worth pointing out though, being able to stop, defuse, avoid, or redirect violence via social engineering (especially when the character is the target) is very difficult and requires someone who excels at rapidly changing their story/manipulating under life or death pressure while also maintaining their consistency/re-establishing their innocence/regaining their target’s trust.

That’s masterclass social engineering. The average person, even the average grifter can’t do it. When we see Nate Ford, Sophie Devereaux, or Michael Westen on Burn Notice socially engineer their way out of potentially explosive and violent scenarios, we’re supposed to understand this level of manipulation is very difficult. You need a solid ability to read people, predict their behavior patterns, understand how to shift your role so you suddenly seem trustworthy, confuse them, and then redirect their anger somewhere away from you.

You can see another variant of this kind of social engineering on display in The Negotiator. Samuel L. Jackson’s character is a hostage negotiator. Deliberately maneuvering a man who’s taken a child captive around his apartment so he can be taken out. You can see him joking with the target, gaining his trust, distracting him, and guiding him off topic until he’s in a position to be neutralized.

The Grifter is not a fighter, they are a talker and their trick is getting people to move however they want. A skilled grifter can slip in, turn the best of friends against each other, and walk away without a care. Grifters don’t punch. They trick other people into doing the punching for them. When sitting down to write a Grifter, remember: their first instinct is getting others to act in their place, to create the openings they need, and be their fall guy.

On the whole, I’ve liked Leverage ever since the episode where Eliot pointed out that guns are ranged weapons, and the most common mistake people make is giving up the distance advantage by getting in too close. However, I’ve only watched the first season. I liked what I saw, it’s an enjoyable caper show in a similar vein to The Equalizer, Person of Interest, or Ocean’s Eleven. Not quite in there with the original Law & Order when it comes to accuracy (in this case for cops) but certainly better than White Collar, which uses similar techniques (though never, ever pay attention to White Collar’s usage of the FBI… ever). The X-Files, meanwhile, fudges a bit but it’s pretty good when you’re wanting to get a grasp of the FBI’s culture and what happens to someone who doesn’t come from a military/law enforcement background.

Of course, the patient zero for these types of shows is the original Mission: Impossible. The television show, not the Tom Cruise movies. Mission: Impossible is all about flipping people and manipulating them into positions to do what you want. The A-Team is its slightly more pulpy counterpart, but its a similar (though far less subtle) deal.

On the whole, Leverage tends to explain itself better, which is helpful when you’re trying to learn or take techniques from a television show rather than just absorb.

The reason why I often suggest Burn Notice and Spy Game is not necessarily just because they’re good, but also because they teach. The narrator on Burn Notice, especially in the first season will offer up a lot of helpful/beginner tradecraft for a variety of situations. This, ultimately, will help you more for taking pieces and creating your own characters than a show that’s trying for smoke and mirrors like White Collar. The same situation is there with Spy Game, where Robert Redford’s character is teaching Brad Pitt’s on how to be a spy. Ultimately, more helpful in the long run than just watching The Recruit. The Michael Mann films like Heat and Collateral are exceptionally good for learning tradecraft, but you have to know that’s what you’re watching/looking for. You’ll learn more by watching them together, rather than separately. The Borne Identity novels are also very good at showing the tradecraft, while the Le Carre ones tend to be a little more hit and miss.

When you’re new, you want sources that are free with their information. Who are good at getting you to think, to take what you’re seeing and apply it to new settings. You may not ever figure out how to build a car bomb, but learning about how the thought process of a spy, criminal, or conman works will serve you better for your writing than a hundred other movies that only show.

After you’ve drawn back the curtain then you can turn to those other shows, novels, and narratives with new eyes. Once you see what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why when they don’t explain you’ll get more out of those other sources than you did before.

When you’re watching a well put together show like Leverage, start questioning character motivations. Not just whether the social engineering there works, but why the characters are choosing to go that route or which routes they prefer. Leverage gives you five characters with different specialties, four thieves and the guy who made a career catching them. They all think in different ways and have different approaches when it comes to problem solving. Leverage offers up a heist per episode, so you have lots of opportunities to see the characters in action. Evaluate their problem solving methods and you’ll come away with more than just questioning whether or not it works.

How and Why.

Then, go find a good video on YouTube where a professional magician explains pickpocketing. It’s the art of misdirection.

Once you understand basic theoretical underpinnings (whether or not you could ever actually pull the real thing off) then you can apply it to many different situations in a fictional context.

When it comes back to applying this to the combat arts, learning to see the big picture is the first major difference between trained and untrained. The untrained only copy surface level, singular techniques, while trained delves deeper to understand how these techniques work together.

My advice for when you’re wanting to pick and choose television shows for accuracy is to check who their consultants are/were, and what experts in the show’s chosen field say about it. That doesn’t always guarantee accuracy, but it will help you flip through the rave reviews.

If you want to watch more fun shows with Timothy Hutton or just like detective shows, I recommend Nero Wolfe.

-Michi

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Do you have any advice for writing characters undercover? Thanks!

So, we’ve covered this topic a lot in the past. Undercover operatives, intelligence agents, black ops, assassins, and spies I’d start with a spies search on our website, as that’ll get you started. The really good references will be there. My
big advice for writing any kind of spy fiction is to have a clear idea
of what you want and which genre you’re chasing. Do want James Bond or George Smiley? You can blend these genres, but it’s a good idea to have a clear idea as that’ll define your narrative.

The first thing to understand about spies and any sort of shadow operative is the Burn Notice quote: “A spy is just a criminal with a government paycheck.”

Take a look at this passage. This is a character (Thirteen) trained as
an undercover operative exiting a bad situation. What do you see?

Limping down the hall, I forced one foot before the other. Slowly, my stride lengthened. The silver door at the end didn’t open, so I pushed it, and stumbled out onto the launch pad. My gaze fell on a string of oval automatic airstreams parked all in a row. No, I frowned, eyes sweeping to street and the vehicles winging by in the air overhead. No self-respecting AI would let me drive in this condition. Robots always insisted on hospital, and I had no time to hack. To get out fast, I needed a human. A cabbie. Older, preferably female. Fingers to my neck, I tapped twice. Up came the ODS, my thoughts linking to: call a cab. Human.

A string of numbers and faces appeared before my eyes, the oldworld men and women working a dying industry. Better for No Questions Asked rides in our digital world, no one else called when they could pay a corporate run robot for half the cost.

I picked the first female face that flashed across my dash.

Time to pick up… thirty seconds.

I gripped my injured arm, and ran an analysis. Tucked out of sight, Sixteen’s pistol rested against my ribs. Ammunition at less than half a magazine, so seven rounds. Eight, if I counted the one in the chamber. The Uplink already registered the irreparable damage and severed the blood flow to the damaged limb. So, no more bleeding out. My upper lip curled. A bad trade off for no more arm. Damn, Sixteen.

Fifteen seconds.

I couldn’t hide in the shadows. Needed to seem desperate, distraught. Call up tears.

Ten seconds.

My blurred gaze flicked to the skyline, watching for black. The Ghosts wouldn’t appear in the datastream. Still, NIS hadn’t cut my access. Not yet.

Five.

A beat up airstream in ruby red dropped out of the sky to the left, pulling up to the curb. They were early. From the shabby state of their car, probably desperate. Good.

I limped over quickly. Even if they weren’t my ride, they were human and sitting in the driver’s seat. A car enthusiast who needed no AI systems to handle the steering. Likely to have built in cameras. More likely to possess a slow Uplink. Slow data received poor police service. My fingers seized the handle, flung open the door, and threw myself inside.

“Need a ride?” the voice was sympathetic, unfamiliar.

I slid across the bench into the seat behind the driver. My free hand tight on my damaged limb, couldn’t do much about my nose. So, instead, I tilted my head and caught her reflection in the mirror. Younger. Mid-thirties. Red hair worn short with one gray streak, tied back in a severe bun. Clear hazel eyes. Talk like you’re in pain, scared, but putting on a brave face. Tears. I wiped the blood from underneath my nose, sniffling. “Y-y-yeah.” I cleared my throat. “Yeah. Thanks.” I tried for a half-smile, half-grimace, and leaned on the window. “Just looking to get away. The address should be—”

“You don’t need to worry, I have it,” the driver said. “Came in with your order. Grace, right? You want to go downbelow, the Rep Shop.”

“Yeah.” Resting my cheek against the glass, I closed my eyes; Uplink sizing up her car’s systems. Automatic turned off, but easy enough to hijack. My free hand drifted off my injury, and moved near the pistol hilt jabbing my ribs.

“I’m Marla, I’ll be your driver today.” A pause followed. “You sure a pretty girl like you wants the Rep Shop? Not a hospital? You look pretty banged up.”

“No,” I replied. I got what she suggested, this was a nice neighborhood. “I just need… need to go…”

“Boyfriend trouble?”

I grimaced, eyes squeezing shut, and wished I felt a twinge of guilt. It’s like the Overseer always says, love is just a cover.

“Don’t worry, no need to say it,” Marla said as the engine revved, the floorplates shook, and the airstream lifted skyward. “Shipped enough victims out of here to know.”

Notice, she pays attention to her surroundings and makes choices based on her condition in service of her needs. She needs to get out quickly, but would run into more trouble stealing a car so she calls up a cab driven by a human. Human’s are easier to manipulate in short order than code cracking. She specifically aims for a female cab driver, one preferably older than she is.

Why?

She’s female. Another woman is more likely to assume her injuries are because of a man, and a cab driver will have encountered this scenario often enough to not pry too deeply into it. An older woman is likelier to be maternal and protective, but not so protective that she’ll stay beyond when Thirteen needs her too. However, pay attention to the fact that Thirteen never verbally confirms it was a man who caused her injuries. She lets Marla assume, and fill in the blanks herself. This gives her an out later if she needs to change her story and place the blame on Marla’s shoulders for misunderstanding.

This is an example of what’s called social engineering.
Deliberately manipulating the people in your environment to divulge
confidential information or getting them to do what you want.

Notice also: After getting into the vehicle, Thirteen’s hand goes to the gun she stole. As she is playing to Marla’s sympathies, she is also assessing the possibility of killing this woman and taking control of the car if things don’t go the way she’s planned. Thirteen would prefer to exit by the easiest means possible, but a good spy always has a contingency. She won’t compromise her safety, and civilian lives mean next to nothing. A dead body is one more problem to deal with, one more attention getter that she doesn’t want, but she’ll go there. Violence is messy, and sometimes necessary.

There’s no real difference between a spy and a conman. Still, if you want to trick people there’s a few rules to follow.

What a spy isn’t:

A compulsive liar, an overseller, or lies all the time. An undercover operative needs to maintain their identity, that is one identity, singular. While a spy can create many false personalities, they should only be using one at a time with the goal of giving away as little information in trade as possible.

Notice: Thirteen does not tell Marla a story, she lets Marla create the story and then plays along. It is easier to convince someone of a lie when they’ll craft it themselves. Why say something when you can get just as much by saying nothing at all?

“You’ve told her three lies. Suppose she’s an asset, now you have to make all three lies true.” – Spy Game

Your character can’t just lie, a liar will be caught after a prolonged period of time. They need to manipulate the truth by creating a fiction. A cover is a fictional person with a fictional job who people think really exists when they check the character’s identity. Assume their identity will be checked, re-checked, and checked again. They are not maintaining a cover to a singular individual, but multiple ones. Their assets are the locals they are manipulating in order gain access to information, and who often run the jobs for them. These assets will, most of the time, not know the truth or not know the whole truth about who the spy really is.

Assets can be friends, business associates, girlfriends/boyfriends, wives/husbands, disgruntled employees, janitors, etc.

Your character can’t enter a business or government agency as a pretend janitor if they’re also going there everyday as a reporter or contractor or some other job. They must maintain the fiction of their identity.

This is the biggest problem most authors will get into when writing spy fiction. The concept of telling lies is something that comes easily to most of us, the problem comes in with keeping up a fiction over a prolonged period of time. The next step is to be able to lie without guilt and throw over people who help you without remorse. Crafting that dual identity of a person who genuinely cares about their friends and allies versus the real one who… really doesn’t.

You need a solid grasp of social functions, mores, and conventions in order to write a spy because a spy is manipulating all those points to gain access. You also need to understand these rules change based on what society your character is entering. Social rules change based on social groups, be it economic or cultural. The expectations for a man or woman in Mexico City versus Seattle are vast, and your character needs to be versed in the world they’re walking into. They need a cover identity to suit their work. Someone who has the freedom to go many places without being questioned, but unimportant enough to be neither needed nor remembered.

A spy is always looking for a way in, to slide into your confidences or sympathies however they can. They are going to use you to get where they need to go. They are very convincing actors and they are changing, modifying themselves slightly for each person they encounter. Not so much though that their falseness becomes obvious to the other people who know them.

When we’re working with a female spy, for example, all the “bad woman” societal traits you’re inclined to throw away are exactly what she needs to succeed. She will flirt, and flatter, and seduce, and manipulate the men (and women) around her to gain entry. She may rotate between being a gorgeous woman and an unremarkable one by the use of fashion and makeup. She is exactly what so many men are afraid of, a social climber who is manipulating their feelings and her attractiveness in order to get what she wants because it is the most expedient method to get what she needs. The one who is manipulating society’s view of women as nonentities, nonthreatening/replaceable objects in order to do her job.

Don’t be afraid of these characters. Don’t be afraid of “unlikeable” characters.

Spies are bad people who do bad things. They are often cold, calculating, impersonal manipulators looking for the most expedient method to get what they need. Your spy’s cover is just a cover. Never forget the real person underneath, especially when they’re lying to themselves.

-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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Hey friends! I just wanted to say that your posts on spies have been so useful to me. Anyway, I have a character who is an ex-soldier (infantry). For various plot reasons, he needs to infiltrate a very secretive group and gain info on them. He has a mentor, who is an intel agent. Question is: what would a crash course on infiltration look like? They don’t have much time, and my solider is a very straightforward person and has some problems with deception. What does he need to know?

Well, one thing he really should not know, under any
circumstances, is that his handler is setting him up as a sacrificial lamb for
the other guys to capture and interrogate. A “spy,” who is bad at deception,
and very straightforward? He has “doomed spy,” written all over him.

The Doomed Spy is a concept from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. This
is a spy you send in, explicitly, to be captured. They don’t know it, but their
real job is to feed misinformation to the enemy, either through shoddy
tradecraft or under direct interrogation. This could range from something as
simple as a false flag operation, where the spy is told and believes they’re
working for one nation or faction, when in fact, that entity has no knowledge
of their actions, and their handler’s loyalties actually belong elsewhere. Or,
it could be as complex as an entire operation, designed to provide the targets
with false intelligence.

So, your ex-soldier, who’s bad at lying, and thinks he’s
working for one group is, in fact, working for a completely different group that
wants to provoke action against the people he’s (probably) loyal to. This may
go a step further, where his handler recruits him, specifically because of his
prior ties to the faction the handler claims to represent.

Something else that’s kind of important to understand about
intelligence work, or at least direct human intelligence work. As a spy, your
job isn’t to sneak into an office, or even talk your way in. Sometimes you need
to be there personally, but most of the time, you can get someone else to do it
for you. Why sneak into an office building, when you can pay a member of the
cleaning staff to pass paperwork to the trash, where you can get someone to
pick it up later?

At that point, there isn’t a lot of reason to train assets
(the people a spy uses as intermediaries to get their information). In theory,
they already know how to act in their native environment.

Getting someone into some kind of secret society is going to
be a lot trickier, but at that point,
your spy’s best cover may be going in as themselves. Okay, up front, this one’s
a kind of weird situation, so let’s parse apart how this works.

Normally, a spy’s best option is to get other people to work
for them. It creates a layer of insulation, so if something goes wrong, they
can get out, and take any intelligence they’ve obtained, before the authorities
manage to close in on them. This doesn’t always work, but, the separation
between an actual spy and their assets is vital to effective tradecraft. It
also means that the spy’s identity isn’t immediately known. There’s a huge jump
between walking into a place, and having your face on security cameras, and
getting some poor schmuck no one knows to do it for you. This also leads to a paradoxical
situation with intelligence work. Spies tend to deal with their most
immediately critical cases early in their careers, when no one knows who they
are, and then spend the rest of their career working on much less important
cases, when getting exposed would be less harmful.

What we have here sounds like a slightly different situation
that doesn’t really pop up in the real world, where a spy’s anonymity wouldn’t
work.

If we’re talking about some supervillain’s secret society,
where they already have intelligence gathering on par with some nations, and
have moles in your spy’s intelligence agency, then, as I said a minute ago, the
answer may be to go in, “as themselves.”

With one exception, you wouldn’t likely see this in the real
world, but a veteran spy, looking to infiltrate some kind of Illuminati/Majestic
12 style, “secret rulers of the world,” type conspiracy, may be better off poking
them with a stick and asking for a job. They’d already know who the spy is,
there’s no real point in pretending to be someone else. Their own skill set
wouldn’t raise any questions when that’s who
they’re supposed to be anyway
. Once they’re in, they’d probably act as a
sleeper (an agent who does not engage in any intelligence activities) to build
up their cover, increase their access, and only act when they have the opportunity
to fully achieve their goals, (which could take years).

Just to be clear, you could shove an entire series in here,
about a spy who infiltrated some conspiracy, and is building their cover and
working their way up through the ranks while wrestling with their ethics and
what they’re having to do.

In that context, it’s possible they may pick an ex-soldier
off the street to send in, in order to get the organization’s people knocking
on their door.

In general, you’re not going to see this with national
intelligence services, because no one trusts defectors. But, if you’re talking
about an extra-national service, they don’t really have the option of producing
their own talent (at least, not at first). They’d also be more likely to poach
members of their host nations’ intelligence communities.

The one real world example where you might see a spy walking
in the front door without a cover would be in dealing with businesses. Companies
who are concerned about corporate espionage have a real incentive to hire former
intelligence officers as security consultants and advisors. At the same time, this
isn’t an extremely likely outcome for a couple reasons. First, private sector
jobs like this are a very lucrative gig for ex-civil servants, meaning going
after one would be biting the hand that (would have) fed them. Second, they’d
still be in competition with other ex-intelligence officers for the position,
people with the same kinds of training they received, which would make getting
in tricky. Finally, when it comes to the business world, you rarely need a spy;
it’s overkill. Most of the things a business gets into would be better suited for
investigation by normal law enforcement channels.

Come up with a situation where a spy would need to tear into
a company’s actions, and they’d benefit more from directing police action
against it, rather than going in directly.

In all of this, I don’t think I’ve answered the direct
question. The kind of videogame, sneaking in through the vents, infiltration
approach doesn’t (usually) work. Infiltration, in the real world, is more about
walking in and looking like you belong there, not hiding behind crates and
climbing the drainpipes. (Somewhat obviously, this isn’t going to work out for
your straightforward ex-soldier who has hang-ups about lying to people.) The
biggest lessons are in social engineering. Learning how people function
(psychologically), and exploiting inherent vulnerabilities in “normal” social
structures.

Social Engineering often gets broken down into individual
tricks, that play with expectations, for example: using a business card as
false identification when making an introduction. This would never get you
through a security checkpoint, but it might get you in the building to talk
with someone, and give you access to information they normally wouldn’t.

As a gestalt, social engineering is fairly complex, but the
basics are looking for ways to get people to give you information they really
shouldn’t, by making them think you’re someone who is supposed to have access.

But, that’s what a spy’s job is, getting people to tell you
things they shouldn’t, usually by misdirection and deception.

– Starke

Two films that come to mind in this specific genre which may be worth watching are The Recruit, and Spy Game.

The Recruit (2003) focuses on a programmer (Colin Farrell) who is tapped by the CIA to become an agent, and the film spends a lot of time working through the training of prospective CIA Officers.

Spy Game (2001) focuses on a retiring CIA Officer (Robert Redford) discussing the training and career of his

protégée

(Brad Pitt). To a degree, this is probably the most on point to what you’re after, so if you’ve never seen it, it should be part of your lit review.

As always, Burn Notice’s, “when you’re a spy” routines may also be useful. The show spends a lot of time on social engineering (though it rarely uses the term). The discussions on how people normally behave, and how to work around, or exploit, their expectations are what you’re looking for.

You may also want to pick up and watch Ronin (1998). This is more about veteran spies interacting, but it has a very slick approach to tradecraft that may be useful.

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Hello! Say a spy was sent to operate in a country and gather information, and that that spy was successful. Though the spy interacted personally with many people and many people saw their face, the spy was under an alias and their actual identity was never revealed. Could that spy be redeployed back into the same country again?

If the spy was successful, why were they recalled?

Or, think about it this way; if you’re spending the time to build a credible cover identity, the agent is able to use that and doesn’t blow it, how do you decide that they have nothing more to offer, and yank them out.

Usually, it’s better to just leave them there, pretending to be a normal person, you know the kind of person who doesn’t wander the streets hiding their face or pretending to be a ninja in their off hours. Gathering information and feeding it back to their handlers.

Pulling them out, when their job is to collect intelligence, is a waste of resources. If you do, you’ll just have to set someone else up to take their place. At that point you’re literally just making work for yourself.

This is especially true if your spy managed to get into a position where they have direct access to classified materials. At that point suddenly disappearing would be more suspicious than quitting their job and making table candles.

Creating a non-official cover identity requires a fair amount of work, so it’s not something you’d want to abandon unless you had reason to believe it was exposed.

If a cover is intact, and was abandoned for some reason, it could be picked up and reused, if the task at hand supports it. A cover your spy has been using will be inherently less suspicious than a new one, because you can point back to their past and say, “yes, that is a real person, and not a fiction that Legends and Missives cooked up last week.”

In this sense, cover identities actually become more valuable as they’re used. A spy creates a paper trail supporting the idea that their cover identity is a real person and not a spy’s masque.

Of course, once someone’s exposed as a spy, that identity is done, and you’re probably going to need to yank them out, and everything they’ve done under that identity is blown. At that point your best bet is to quietly shuffle them off somewhere, give them an official cover (assistant to an ambassador, a diplomatic security adviser, or something else that provides diplomatic immunity, and keeping them as far from anything they used to do.

What you wouldn’t want to do is give a spy a cover identity, recall them, give them a new cover, and then send them out to someplace where they’re likely to encounter people from their earlier cover. That’s a recipe for disaster, with a real risk that both covers would be exposed. You’d use a different spy, or use the same cover (if it applied).

Also, something that is probably worth saying about spies that jump between covers: The most significant work will usually be at the beginning of their careers. Being a spy isn’t like flipping burgers. While you do learn as you go, the more you’ve done, the greater your reputation, the less useful you are in the field. So, when assigning spies for very high profile or high risk assignments, it’s far better to grab recruits who have just finished training than someone with 30 or 40 years of experience. Because with the newbies, other intelligence agencies won’t already have an open file on them. So, while your veteran will have more technical experience and proficiency, the newbie will be more effective, and better able to actually do their job.

This is less of an issue with an agent that simply sits in one place collecting information for years, or sleeping, but if you’re looking at the James Bond, Jason Bourne, Michael Westen, or Robert McCall style spy, those are all characters who are dangerously close (or well past the point) where they can actually contribute anything meaningful in the field.

-Starke

What would be the appropriate fighting gear or outfit for a female agent/spy? Most of the ones I’ve seen in movies seem unlikely/uncomfortable to move or fight in, especially if the woman is flexible or acrobatic

You know the phrase, “dress for the job you want”? Kind of like that. Spies need to dress appropriately for whatever their current cover is.

If that’s an official cover (someone who enjoys diplomatic immunity) then it’s probably going to be normal business attire.

For a non-official cover (someone who is not stationed in an embassy) it’s going to depend on exactly what their day job is. For someone who’s working as a lobbyist or corporate head hunter, then you’re still looking at business attire.

Also, forget about skin tight cat suits. Those are just about the worst thing a spy could wear. Nothing screams, “I don’t belong here” like an outfit that makes you look like a D-grade superhero reject. (Obviously, if you’re actually aiming for the superspy genre, then your character is a D-grade superhero, so you should plan accordingly.)

There are few things as embarrassing for a government as getting caught spying. Wearing an outfit that advertises covert action is a fantastic way to destroy your government’s soft power.

Usually, the justification given is that the spy/infiltrator/whatever is engaging in behavior that’s so dangerous, it won’t matter if they’re caught. But, that’s just an excuse to give a character cool toys. If your character is caught breaking into a government office in a turtleneck and jeans, the assumption will be that they’re a common criminal. If they’re breaking in with high tech IR goggles that can scan through walls, a three thousand dollar assault rifle, and a black cyberninja jumpsuit that blocks their own thermal signature, building security will know they just caught someone with serious backing. And the police have a lot more incentive to start peeling your character’s life apart until they find who sponsored them.

The other side of this is, a spy who has to revert to violence is doomed. (Not in the Sun Tzu sense; but they are not long for this earth.) Violence attracts attention. Attention makes it impossible for a spy to do their job effectively. Their job is social engineering, not playing James Bond.

Incidentally, even non-violent attention can also make your spy’s life a lot harder. A character who dresses to be the most attractive person in the room will find it much harder to slip away unnoticed. Especially if they’re trying to get away from someone determined to get in their pants. (Which we can add onto the pile of ways that James Bond as a wish fulfillment character sabotages his ability to function as a spy.)

Best case; your spy’s job is to get other people to break the law for them. Worst case; it’s to break the law in ways that will look innocuous until the last possible moment, and get out without anyone realizing something is off.

If you haven’t checked it yet, we’ve already written a fair amount on spies; some of that might be useful to you. Granted, our spy fiction recommendations do start to look fairly consistent over time. Also, given that the question started with (I assume) spy catsuits, you might also want to look at our stealth tag, it’s a lot shorter, but it might give you more useful information.

Burn Notice is still a really good primer on basic tradecraft. Pay more attention to the narration, Jeffery Donovan is, effectively, playing two different characters, and the Narrator is the one dispensing useful information.

The Sandbaggers is a little dated, and unfortunately expensive, but worth watching, for a more realistic look at spies. The show is based pretty heavily on the CIA’s special operation structure, rather than MI6′s. But, otherwise it is still worth watching.

Queen & Country by Greg Rucka is a modern homage to The Sandbaggers. The comic loses a lot once you’ve actually viewed the source material Rucka was pulling from. But, it is also a lot cheaper and easier to find.

In spite of (basically) being a James Bond fanfic, The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum actually has a surprising amount of useful observations buried in there. Ludlum takes pains to explain the ways Bourne blends into his environment. Some of this is fairly obvious, but it’s worth seeing in action anyway. The films are entertaining, but not particularly useful, however. Also, I could never really get into Supremacy, so I don’t know if the later books are worth looking at.

John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the opposite of Bourne (and Bond, for that matter). If you’re wanting to write a spy that actually manipulates the people around them, Le Carré’s work is something that needs to be on your radar.

-Starke

i’m writing a story set in a victorian-esque fantasy world, and i was wondering what sort of unique weapon i could give my protagonist? (she’s a snarky, agile con artist who later develops a dark form of pyromancy, if the detail helps.) it gets boring reading about the same old pistols or swords.

Well, she’s got her razor wit, right? If your character is a confidence artist, that is her weapon. The way she defends herself is by lying. Bringing a weapon in is going to actively make her job harder while simultaneously functioning as a security blanket for the audience. So, the real answer is to start playing without a net.

This is one of those truths for spies and con artists. If the job doesn’t require a weapon, and your cover doesn’t allow for one, you don’t bring one. If your character is bringing a sword or revolver into a meeting while pretending to be a betrayed heiress, or officer’s widow, it’s going to raise some serious questions.

If she’s pretending to be a returning war hero, a police investigator, or some kind of bounty hunter, then that’s different, and the weapons are part of her cover. At that point she needs to know enough about the weapons to look like they’re a natural part of her day to day life. But, the weapons she carries will be defined by what her cover identity would need, not what she wants to carry.

Also, for a con artist, roles like that are better suited to corroborating another character’s con, not running their own. She’s there to put pressure on the mark suggesting that the real con artist really is being framed for murder/the relative of an unjustly disgraced soldier, or something similar.

What your character really needs is the ability to talk their way out of trouble, especially when their plan starts to fall apart. It takes a lot more guts to walk unarmed into a place where the residents will kill you if they realize you’re deceiving them. And, that’s the kind of brinksmanship a good con artist narrative thrives on.

If things start to go sideways, her recourse needs to be lying, not shooting her way out. That is her area of expertise, after all. She needs a convincing explanation for everything, especially after her lies start to come to light. Things that rationalize them, make them look like they are really are the truth. To paraphrase Burn Notice, the solution to a blown cover is to play it harder, go deeper and own the illusion, because it’s the only way to make it real enough to save her life. In that moment she needs to believe her lies, without forgetting the truth.

Writing a character that lies isn’t about someone who fast talks their way out of problems. It’s about writing a character who can keep their eye on the objective reality, and twist it just enough to leave other characters a little off balance, second guessing what they know, and lashing out at the wrong people. Your characters can tell big lies, but when they do, they need to do the work to support it.

Someone who is a pathological liar will make a terrible con artist or spy. The ability to keep one eye firmly fixed on objective reality, is a vital compass for them to gauge what they can get away with. They need to keep their lies within a narrow range of reality or the characters around them will start to pick up on something being off. For someone who lies pathologically, that’s just not possible. Their lies are a defensive mechanism, that has more to do with keeping them “safe,” and people do pick up on that over time, no matter how badly they want to believe.

The problem with pathological liars ultimately boils down to a truth about con artists . What your con artist does and says isn’t about them. The role they choose to play is defined by who the mark is, not your character’s preferences. The lies they tell need to be tailored to the victim, not what your character wants. The con artist needs to understand the social rules for the society they’re infiltrating, which for a Victorian setting is a fairly impressive skill set in its own right.

Someone who lies about who they are is, paradoxically, easier to write than to actually do. This is because you’re already engaging in this behavior, as the writer. You’re putting yourself into their life. You just need to write two characters instead of one; your con artist, and the person they’re pretending to be. Again, it is just one more character in your story. If your con artist isn’t a PoV character, this becomes even easier, because you need to keep a rough idea of what their real goals are in the back of your mind, but they should just play their cover on a scene to scene basis.

So, some good con artists in fiction to look at.

The Talented Mr. Ripley. I’ve only ever seen the film, though I’ve heard very good things about the original novel by Patricia Highsmith. Either way, the story focuses on a sociopath that manipulates the people around him to get what he wants, its half serial killer in training half con man.

Burn Notice, is technically about spies. But the ultimately this is almost a how-to on manipulating people without resorting to unnecessary violence. It offers some good explanations on how to provoke people into doing what you want, and keeping them on the hook, even when things start coming apart.

Payback: The Director’s Cut. This is one of those rare cases where the difference between the theatrical and director’s cut is flat out a different film, not just one with some extra bits tacked on, that probably should have been left on the cutting room floor. The lead character is, primarily, a con artist. I wouldn’t list it, but it does a pretty decent job of presenting someone juggling a lot of other characters simultaneously.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre is another spy piece. But, the focus is on identifying and outing a mole. I’m recommending it, because you should pay close attention the the lies the mole used to keep himself from being exposed.

Finally, read up on the social structures of the Victorian era. This is one of those things that sounds intuitive, but it’s really not, and we’ve both seen a lot of writers try to mimic it without research to terrible effect.

I’d suggest starting with the original Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories. None of the adaptations will give you what you need, trash them right now, don’t even think about them. Pay attention to what Holmes is looking at, and the social systems he’s examining and prodding, not what you think is normal, or his behavior, because the character is extremely eccentric for the world he’s navigating.

If this is aiming to be a professional piece, it might be worth digging up The Norton Anthology of British Literature. Specifically the second collection. This is far more useful for the footnotes and commentaries that explain the state of the world during the Victorian era, and events in it, than just sampling some lit from the period. Remember, the time frame you’re looking at was dominated by massive upheaval. The selection of lit from the period is a massive jumble of discussions on different issues. From Austen to Gaskell to Dickens and beyond, these stories revolve around a radically changing world.

You have the Industrial Revolution, Slavery, Child Labor, Women’s Rights, Colonialism (This was the height of the British Empire, including India, Australia, China, portions of Africa, and beyond), Mass Migration, the development of a true Middle Class, Education, extreme poverty, Worker’s Rights, Unions, Poor Houses, Work Houses, Displacement, and the list goes on. It was not a pastoral, “things are as they’ve always been,” fantasy, even though there were people trying to shove their fingers in their ears and pretend the outside world wasn’t happening.

It’s a fascinating period in history, but also a difficult one to get right. Police, Criminals, the Penitentiary system, it all looked very different during the Victorian period. Even if this is “fantasy”, you need to understand the systems at work and what your character will be facing if she gets caught.

Incidentally you might also want to research the etymology of “con artist,” I have the suspicion that the abbreviated form is early 20th century slang, and inappropriate for a faux Victorian setting.

Similarly, unless there’s a Queen Victoria somewhere in your setting, establishing the tone for that era, the term “Victorian” is going to be alien to your characters.

-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

Re: your post on spies: You should probably note that you are talking specifically about covert HUMINT operatives. There are a lot of other types of spies out there, most of whom don’t fit your profile.

If I seem overly harsh here, I apologize. My doctor just cut a piece of my foot off, and it hurts like you wouldn’t believe.

We used a very strict definition of spy, for a couple simple reasons: one, we’re a writing blog, so this is intended for people who are, well, writing Spies, and second, because anyone can fit the definition of a spy, depending on who’s making the accusation.

A spy is an opportunistic title. When you’re looking at literature, and media in general, a spy is going to be either a HUMINT operator or a James Bond super-ninja. Thing is HUMINT are an extreme minority of the intelligence community.

Intelligence gathering gets split under two large banners, SIGINT and HUMINT.

HUMINT is short for Human Intelligence, if you’re thinking of writing a spy, then you’re probably thinking of a HUMINT operator. These are the characters that Michi detailed in the psychological outlook. It’s the kind of spy that John Le Carre actually was. In broad strokes, it’s where 95% of the espionage genre exists, or where it tries to exist.

HUMINT can refer to deep cover agents, but more often, it refers to officers that recruit and use others to do their spying for them. This is part of why they end up with the incredibly cold outlook they do. Burn Notice’s Michael Westen and Le Carre’s George Smiley are both examples of HUMINT Officers.

SIGINT is Signals Intelligence. This includes anyone that gathers intelligence through electronic means without involving real people. These are surveillance techs, radio operators, sat techs, computer programers, IT guys. Anyone who sits in an office, and collects intelligence via the internet, sat feeds, or wire taps. This is the kind of spy that Ian Flemming was in real life, and you can start to see why James Bond split off from reality so egregiously.

There are circumstances where you’ll need to stick a SIGINT officer in the field, but, even then, defining them as a spy would be a bit tenuous.

After this you have Analysts, who take the data that’s been collected and use it to generate a coherent picture, and figure out what the intelligence means. Jack Ryan in the early Tom Clancy novels is one of these. Analysts are people who have to have a fairly deep understanding of their field, and they’ll look more like academics than spies.

There’s also a lot of support personnel, military intelligence and special forces, who all have intelligence roles.

As I mentioned earlier, the problem with the term “spy” is it can apply to anyone.

Is Edward Snowden a spy or a whistle blower? Uncomfortable as it is, the difference is just who’s making the accusation.

There’s also a long tradition of charging foreign visitors as spies because “reasons.”

There were the programers from Bohemia Interactive who were arrested in Greece for being spies. Their crime was they had cameras and were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Iraq and Iran had a long history of arresting any foreign national they found near their shared border and labeling them a spy. Sometimes even crossing over the border and hauling them back. This included fishermen, farmers, and of course a trio of American hikers.

North Korea has also been known to cross the Chinese border in search of “spies” that never set foot in North Korea.

And, of course, Iran is now going to execute an American programmer because of some tenuous connections between his employer and the DoD.

Welcome to the wonderful world of espionage, one execution at a time. If you’re setting out to actually write a spy, it’s probably going to be a HUMINT Officer.

On Spies (Personality)

“Intelligence work has one moral law—it is justified by results.”

-John Le Carre, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. (10)

Spying is a difficult business. Writing about spies with any accuracy is also an incredibly difficult business; this is why the foundational giants of the genre from Ian Fleming to John Le Carre have been ex-intelligence. Without that background, it can be easy to misunderstand that the ability to be a spy comes from the tradecraft and the training. It’s common among writers to build the character first, then give them their skill set. While this will work for a vast number of different character archetypes, functional spies require a fairly specific outlook and it is developed by a specific type of background though that comes from a generic set of circumstances.

Spies can’t be good people and that’s okay, because good people can’t be spies.

 

As much as James Bond has become a joke and a power fantasy over the years, when you strip it all away what you find is a dysfunctional human being who uses sex as a cover for avoiding an emotional connection. The seduction is part of the tradecraft, but the inability to truly connect with someone (man or woman) on the level of one human being feeling something for another, that is what makes him good at being a spy.

“People with happy families don’t become spies. A bad childhood is the perfect background for covert ops. You don’t trust anyone, you’re used to getting smacked around, and you never get homesick.”

-Michael Westen, Burn Notice 1×01

 A good spy is one who has an innate distrust of other human beings. They are not pathological liars. Pathological liars don’t make good spies because their lies inevitably become easy to spot. A spy doesn’t have the luxury of getting lonely, of wanting to be with others of their kind. They can’t afford to miss home because it becomes one more passage into their psyche that an enemy operative can use to exploit them. Their personal connections, the people they care about, will inevitably be drawn in as pawns in the international espionage game of cat and mouse.

A spy knows this well, because it’s a spy’s job to do this to others.

A spy has to be comfortable with betrayal. They have to be comfortable with betraying the people who trust them. They have to be comfortable with convincing people to trust them with the knowledge that they will betray them and their confidences constantly and consistently, sometimes over years, even lifetimes. It won’t matter, really, what they feel about the people that they are betraying because a spy doesn’t have the luxury to feel guilty or the luxury of the morally “right” choice. The divorce rate among CIA agents is somewhere around 80%.

The job of a spy is to destroy lives. I don’t mean that from the intelligence gathering perspective, but from the way a spy interacts with their assets. A spy goes into flipping someone with the knowledge that they are going to destroy their life whether that takes the shape of a bullet in the back of the head or a suicide later in life. A spy must coax an enemy agent through the full mental breakdown as they tear themselves apart running up against their own ideology and betrayal of what they may stand for.

Spies are not nice people, they are not good people, and nothing you do will make them a good person. They aren’t fixable. They need to be the way they are to survive in their job, to stay sane. You can justify what they are doing, you can give them a background that explains why they have evolved to be they way they are, but in the end, deep down, they are nasty, cold hearted, deceitful people. They have to be, it’s the only way a spy can survive.

Unlike other forms of combat, you can’t train a spy from birth in the traditional sense. A spy, in fact, requires a very generic and very specific childhood to be able to make it the espionage business. However, that does not require any combat training. Tradecraft is easy to pick up and easy to master at any age, the ability to use it successfully starts early with abusive and neglectful families. A spy who is raised to be a spy in a happy family will come to associate their sense of home with the behavior of other spies. This includes enemy agents. Stop and think about all the ways a spy getting homesick for the company of other spies is a horribly bad idea. (Ninjas only work within the context of feudal Japan.)

Spies are broken people and begin as broken children. Abuse can take many forms and come from many different angles, but the end result is fairly similar: a person who has difficulty connecting with others on an emotional level and who has learned that trust and friendship only lead to betrayal, so betray early and viciously before they have the chance. Better yet, never care at all.

However, an abusive family can come from anywhere. A good spy can be the daughter of a wealthy business man just easily as they could be a hungry pickpocket on the streets. It’s best not to assume that because someone comes from a certain social position in society that their growing up experience was not its own kind of hell.

If it’s a question of whether or not the spy will be likeable, don’t worry about it. There’s a difference between a character that you would sit down to have a beer with and one that you enjoy reading about. Dysfunctional people, broken people are incredibly interesting to read about. Spy fiction is a form of voyeurism and tourism much in the same way fantasy is.

The question for you, if you are looking to write authentic spy fiction, is do you have the stomach for it? Can you write a character that will knowingly create orphans by subverting a single parent?

(One brief caveat: this is a breakdown for professional spies, if you’re writing an amateur spy such as Harriet the Spy or another kind of story where the main character doesn’t need to worry about being murdered, betrayed, disappeared, or executed by a foreign power then don’t worry about it.)

Suggested Reading and Viewing:

John Le Carre. Anything by him, really. Actually read all of it. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, A Perfect Spy, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, etc. (tradecraft and personality)

The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum (not a spy, but good tradecraft)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) BBC miniseries with Alec Guinness.

The Sandbaggers (1978-1980)

Queen and Country by Greg Rucka

Spy Game (2001)

The 4th Protocol (1987)

-Michi