Tag Archives: writing assassins

Q&A: The Stress Limit

Low-priority question that I’m just asking out off curiosity: what is this psychological “break” that you keep mentioning?

It’s a psychotic break. Everyone has a mental limit to the stress their mind can handle before it becomes too much, and they have a psychological break. This isn’t the fictional “sexy” psychotic break where they turn into some kind of animal. This is just the mind temporarily losing contact with reality. It’s a period of high emotional stress where the mind reaches a limit to what they can handle. In a combat role, the individual can no longer handle what you’re asking them to do. They can still go on with their lives, go home, get treatment, and, possibly, recover. However, they can’t fulfill their combat role anymore. This isn’t the kind of injury you tough your way through, either. The damage is, for the most part, permanent.

From a martial perspective, the psychological break is when a combatant is stressed beyond the limits of what their mind can handle. Whether that is in training or on the battlefield itself. The kinds of abusive training scenarios that many writers envision serves only to hasten this break by layering so much trauma on the trainee so quickly that they’ve no time to adjust to the new stress levels. This is usually because the writer in question has limited experience with any sort of training, much less martial training.

The problem with having a character kill a friend or even just a training partner during training is it’s traumatic. This won’t actually make it easier to kill people you care about less in the long run, especially since killing people you don’t care about is, usually, less traumatic. Your trainee could kill their buddy and be fine, but they could also end up grieving, depressed, guilt stricken, and suffering from PTSD. They might be pushed to the point where they’re no longer suitable for high stress situations. You’re gambling a lot of effort on their mental stability, especially when there are plenty of other methods available to test whether their personality is compatible with the role they will be assigned. (Like the training itself.)

You see, killing someone at the end of your training is not a test so much as its an initiation ritual. If your character succeeds they will be welcomed into a new brotherhood, a graduating class among which all of whom share their experience and their sin. This post-trauma love bombing serves as a means of lowering their stress, and adjusting reality so what they did becomes normative. The kill feels like an accomplishment, paling in comparison to the goal they’ve spent their whole lives working towards. They’re not unique, and they’ve a whole collection of new brothers and sisters who can help them work through it. That’s ultimately what binds them to whatever group or organization they work for, and not the kill itself.

If your character is part of an organization like this, you can guarantee they’ve been mentally worked over and prepared for this point during the course of their training. Morals are fluid, ever shifting, and entirely adjustable. After all, the point of training is to teach your student how to handle more stress and avoid an overload.

Your mental limit isn’t a hard one. In fact, your mental and physical limits can be moved. They’re not static. This is one of the purposes of training, so you build yourself up over time by learning to handle more and more stress. The goal is to prepare the student for the crazy training they’ll see five years down the line by teaching them how to break through the mental barriers they’ve set for themselves on their physical limits.

The mental limit and the mental barriers are in two separate categories. The mental limit is the point their mind can’t go past and that’s much further out than the mental barriers. Mental Barriers can be broken because those are based in what the student believes they can do versus what they actually can. An example of this is that most students in high school, for all their moaning, can actually run a mile. Their bodies can handle that, but they don’t think their bodies can or they don’t want to. Unless they’re part of a sports team or run a mile regularly, most of them will end up walking the minute they’re outside their teacher’s sight.

The good trainers understand the difference between the mental limit and physical limit versus the “I can’t” mental barriers. Over time, you teach a student to push past the barriers they’ve internalized. Those are what they believe is possible for them to do, you move their mental limits and physical limits forward.  This allows you to push them to perform more challenging actions and pursue tougher training. The student learns to discern the difference between discomfort and actual pain, and then they are the ones who are figuring out when enough actually is enough. The elite fighters we talk about are the people who are constantly pushing those barriers forward on their own, they are finding their boundaries and working to break past them. That is the major difference between them and the more average trainees around them.

The crazy training most people imagine is a point we work towards, not where we begin. This isn’t these teachers “going soft” on their students, it’s acknowledging that everyone has limits and we’re going to work them toward that point rather than throw them at it.

If you asked a guy who just signed up to go through Special Forces training of seven days of constant work without  sleep, the vast majority are going to crack. They’re not mentally or physically prepared for it. They could be, though. If you gave them the time and training they needed to get themselves ready.

Like every other type of physical training, martial combat is a staircase. You are climbing toward specific goal points, these points allow you to take on more stress than you did before. This includes tougher training, more dangerous techniques, tougher conditioning, more reps added, more responsibility, and even teaching younger students as a means to improve your skills.

In this way, the stress your mind and body can bear is strengthened. You come out of it a stronger person.

This is especially important to understand when working with children. Children are still developing, their brains are making patterns, and this means they’ve a chance to go much further in what physical stress they can take when they reach adulthood. Properly conditioned with not just faster reflexes but reflexes honed specifically for martial combat. They’ll also be in peak physical condition.

However, the manner in which you could hurry an eighteen to twenty-one year old who signed up for the military through extensive and rigorous training and quickly escalating over a matter of weeks can’t be done with a child of nine. Their minds aren’t developed enough yet to handle that kind of stress, much less the murder party stress some writers imagine.

This is when emotional or psychological trauma comes in. When we reach a point where the mental limit breaks, the trauma endured puts them into a state where they can’t function, at least not in the way you want them to. Everyone has a mental limit for what they can endure and when you push them past it, especially with extreme situations, they break down.

Trauma is the main issue with most fictionally imagined abusive training scenarios. You can’t traumatize people into being better soldiers. Trauma specifically is putting intense pressure on that mental limit, this training is not attempting to forcibly push it forward but actually break it within a short span. The way abusers want to break their victims, so it’ll be easier to make them behave how they want. The problem with this mindset, especially when turning out combatants, is that you need your soldiers to be able to make decisions in the field. Extraordinary skill is all well and good, but that’s all it is. What makes a combatant truly great is their mind, their willpower, and understanding they can push themselves farther than they might ever be made to.

With children and violence, they don’t understand what they’re doing in the moment. The ability isn’t there to process what’s happening. Grief in children is different than with adults, and the true weight often hits as a delayed reaction at some point later in life. So, when you put adults through traumatic events the emotional and psychological bill for it will eventually come due.   With kids, they’re still developing as people. They don’t know what normal is.

You can ask kids to kill people. The problem is they will, eventually, realize what they’ve done and they’re not absolved within their own heads just because they didn’t know what they were doing at the time. That’s a bill coming due, and ultimately will affect the long term health of your fighting force. Worse, you have no idea when or how it will manifest. The goal is to get your trainees through their training without giving them a nervous breakdown.

This is actually even more important with warriors who need to operate anywhere on their own for prolonged periods of time, like special forces, spies, and assassins. They need to be stable enough to do their jobs and what their jobs ask of them, make decisions, plan operations, and act as their own agents where there’s no possibility for backup.

You can have a guy who just does what he’s told as a regular soldier. That’s a good grunt, he’s not going anywhere up the ranks but he’ll serve his purpose and may take on more responsibility if he manages to survive. His job isn’t to do any thinking, but to follow the orders he’s given. The issue is you need your warriors who work in isolation to be able to think. They have to plan, problem solve, and create their own initiative. They don’t sit around waiting for orders. Even when they’re given an assignment, told to go somewhere, and kill someone, they’ve got to do the ground work themselves. This means establishing their cover, do their scouting, build on the information they’ve been given, and perform all other work associated.

You actually have to train them to think. If you never contemplated the idea that your assassin or covert operative as a highly driven and intelligent individual, you probably should consider it. If they’re used to working solo they could break from whatever organization they’re in, provided they’re willing to accept the associated risks. They’d be looking over their shoulder for the rest of their life, but they have all the skills they need to create a false identity and just go teach at a primary school somewhere or work as an office bureaucrat. Lots of spies end up working for corporations as security services. Your hitman easily could land a cushy office job somewhere with a major company cleaning up small problems on their dole. If they want to lay low, they could land a job as a small time bounty hunter hunting down bail jumpers.

Always remember, whenever you’re writing training sequences, these characters have options. Also remember: their teachers know they’re imparting a useful skill set.

For certain personality types, assassination is going to be one of the most stressful kinds of work. Not just as combat work, but getting close to people, earning their trust, and ultimately breaking that trust wears on the mind over time. This is a stressful job with a lot of responsibility where you’re constantly simulating connections that you don’t feel. There’s no reason to jumpstart that stress during their training outside a set of limited and controlled circumstances. It won’t help them do their job. Worse, it could sabotage their development in the end.

When working with training for field operatives or real world combat, trainees are always prepared on the assumption they may die. This is already a fact of life for soldiers throughout history, and the idea they may watch their friends die is going to be a given. This is going to be a major source of trauma. Survival is just as much luck as it is skill. Abusive training methods won’t change that.

The mental limit is when the mind endures so much psychological trauma they have a nervous breakdown. You can’t psychologically scar someone past that damage. People don’t tough their way through it, they can work through it with the aid of therapy but not on the battlefield. On the logistical side, someone who has been mentally compromised to that degree is unlikely to be making sound decisions. That, or the trainee breaks for freedom at first opportunity. This is also a bad thing. They’re taking whatever knowledge your organization gifted them with into the wild.

Again, abusive training is ultimately a form of self-sabotage. This is why smart people don’t do it. The people who are good at combat are ultimately the people who want to be there. Loyal combatants are better combatants. If they’re part of an organization, assassins aren’t just making themselves money. They’re making their organization money.

Always ask: why is my character fighting? Why are they here? What are they getting out of this? Why are they doing this?

If they answer is “they were forced to”, you may want to think on it further. Human beings aren’t automatons who blindly do what they’re told, and anyone who’s been in business for awhile will know incentivized training is more effective than forced. Students work harder when they want to be there.

Why grab kids from nice suburban homes when you can grab runaways and orphans from the gutter instead? They’ve already got the mental outlook you want, no one will miss them, and they’ll be happy to have three square meals a day. Worst case you’ll have to dry out the drug addicts. This was actually the plot of the original La Femme Nikita and the film(s), by the way. The government pulled runaways and drug addicts off the street,  cleaned them up, and taught them to be assassins. No one was going to miss them, and if they died? Well, they link back to no one.

-Michi

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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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I have a character who’s a pacifist yet trained from birth as an assasin. The guilt built up so he stops fighting altogether. But a situation crops up where he has to fight to defend. But he doesn’t want to kill anyone. How to deal? Can he untrain?

He can be a true pacifist and choose not to fight.

Let me be very clear, fighting is a choice. No matter what those reasons are, even when they’re good ones, it is still a choice. There is no such thing as “have to”. It’s “choose to”.

One of my favorite quotes from Babylon 5 episode Point of No Return,

“There is always choice. We say there is no choice only to comfort ourselves
with the decision we have already made. If you understand that, there’s
hope. If not…” – Lady Morella

When you say, “my character is a pacifist but he has decided to fight” then what you’re essentially saying is that, “My character is a pacifist, he believes in peace and non-violent solutions, but only when it’s easy to be one”.

Being a pacifist isn’t easy, it is actually very difficult because it requires using your words, to attempt to deescalate situations, and not fight even when it looks like you’ll probably die. It’s hard to believe in the best of other people, especially when those people want to kill you.

There’s a difference between a character who says, “I won’t fight under any circumstances because I believe violence only begets more violence.” And the character who says, “I don’t fight anymore, but I will if you press me.”

One of these is a pacifist and it’s the former.

See, the thing about pacifism is that it’s a belief system. One that says all violence is unjustifiable, this includes war and, in some cases, even self-defense. You don’t fight because fighting only creates more violence. Disputes must be settled by peaceful means with non-violent solutions. It means refusing to fight, even when you’re being forced to. In some cases dying to defend that ideal.

I’d think long and hard about whether or not you want this character to be a pacifist because writing one is exceedingly difficult. Look at the situation you just posited, a situation crops up where this ex-assassin has to fight in order to defend. You’re attempting to justify him taking a violent action in defense of someone else, like that makes it okay. However, because pacifism is a belief system or an ethical/moral stance, this is him breaking with his belief system and compromising his ideals.

Pacifism isn’t about not killing. It’s about no violence.

None.

Nada.

Zero.

Zilch.

Whether someone dies or not, the violent action itself is the root cause of more violence. Cliche as it is on the surface, your assassin has been in the perfect position to see the effects of violence up close and personal. Violent individuals isn’t something we are, but it predicates on the idea that it’s what we become. Someone who has been bullied is more likely to be bully in turn. A victim of abuse, whether emotional or physical, will often become an abuser and are more likely to than someone who never experienced that violence. The longer and more persistent the experience, the more likely it becomes. This expands to large scale conflicts too. Where a country or civilization that is victimized by violence will turn around and revenge themselves in yet another war.

We can dance back and forth like angels on a pinhead about what violence really means and you’ll find martial arts like Aikido that do split the hair about when is it okay to fight. The entire point behind codes of honor like Chivalry, Bushido, and others is about deciding when violence is socially acceptable and when it is not, about who should be hurt, and who is fair game. It’s a code of behavior that defines how one should interact with the world.

This is why Kenshin from Rurouni Kenshin is not a pacifist, he’s someone who refuses to kill. He’s trying to be, but he will fight to defend himself and fight to defend his friends. He believes that situations should be solved primarily without violence, but will still fight if pressed or to uphold the law. What he’s refusing to be, technically, is a vigilante. He’s refusing to take the law into his own hands or determine who has the right to live and who should die. He’s not a pacifist.

When faced with a situation where they need to defend someone else, the pacifist may interject themselves and use their own body as a shield. They may allow themselves to be beaten up, even though they could fight back. It is the Jesus “turn the other cheek” line.

Pacifism is a concept mocked by the culture at large because not fighting is vastly more difficult than fighting. Because to someone who sees violence as the way of strength, the one who follows the path of peace just looks weak to them.

You should also be careful with pacifism. While the assassin/soldier/blood soaked veteran redemption arc is a powerful one, it’s also one of those great cliches seen everywhere in literature. True redemption arcs don’t work when you woobify a character and attempt to depreciate what they’ve done by saying it wasn’t their fault. It deprives them of their agency, their ability to see their path was wrong and choose to change even though it goes against everything they were taught to believe.

Changing your path only has meaning when you were a believer, when you chose to do what you were doing in the first place.

And a child who has been raised as an assassin, left their compound, and worked as one out in the world for any period of time? They’re a believer.

If they weren’t, then the people who raised and trained them would never let them go.

The Assassin

An assassin is not like a soldier, where they thrust you out into a hectic environment with twenty other guys and say: “go! Kill!”, where it’s hectic and terrifying with guns going off every which way. Where you’re so scared that you’re working on the instincts they trained into you so that you’re not even thinking when you see an enemy moving in the bushes, point your gun, pull the trigger, and end up shooting a small child.

It’s best to think of an assassin as a stalker because, in a lot of ways, they are. The assassin knows their target, does their prep, follows the guy or girl or child to get a beat on their personal habits and where they go to find the exact precise moment where there’s a weakness or hole in their security. Sometimes, there’s a specific way in which the target needs to die or a specific place where their death can make the most impact. The assassin has ample time to think about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what it’s going to affect.

You’re writing a character who has potentially, quite literally, stood in someone’s kitchen in the middle of the night while their target, their husband/wife, and their children are all upstairs slumbering away. All the while he’s going through their possessions and their trash in order to get a better sense for who this person is with no intention to kill them that night. He’s just there for prep and to get a working layout of their house.

This is someone who has been trained to work alone, be self-sufficient, and who has the skill set to simply ghost off into the long good night. They’d be running for the rest of their life, but they were also never on the grid to begin with.

They can go if they want and it’ll be difficult as hell to track them down.

The assassin can’t work in the world if they don’t understand it, much like the spy, their job is heavily reliant on being able to both blend in and manipulate people into giving them information. It’s more complicated than just show up, point, and click. They need come in with a plan and with a way to extricate themselves from the situation.

We’re talking about someone who is very organized and highly disciplined. The successful ones are anyway.

This isn’t a job that can be done because you “have to” or someone “made me do it” or “it’s all I know”. Those are ultimately just convenient excuses that serve to shift the blame away from the character. There was a level for this character where they did enjoy it, where they believed in it or in the people they worked for,

What makes an Atoner work and the subsequent redemption arc that follows is them owning their guilt. They don’t pass it off onto anyone else. They stand by their beliefs. They have conviction, and they acknowledge that they weren’t a good person. They’re still not.

They’re trying to be.

That’s where the tension is.

It’s what makes an Atoner compelling as a character. The belief that we can ultimately become better is what makes redemption arcs compelling. We can be forgiven. We can become worthy of forgiveness.

The Assassin can lie all they like, about themselves, about who they were, about what they did, they can try to mitigate their own responsibility, and run away from it, but ultimately for a redemption arc to work then they have to stand.

Talking it out is more dangerous and more difficult for someone who has been trained for violence to be their first response. It’s where they want to go first. It’s their primary means of problem solving when they or anyone they are about is really in danger. They’ve got to choke it down. Go against everything they’ve been raised to believe, raised to do, trained to react.

For an actual pacifist, violence represents a complete and utter failure to resolve the situation. For him, fighting is a failure.

It’s him returning to what he knows and there is no nice way to do that. No convenient way, other for him to fight against what he’s been trained to be.

He’s trapped between two starkly opposing opposites, possibly without the communication skills or emotional understanding to really get across what he wants.

The Child

One of the main problem with the whole “raised to be an assassin and kill” trope in literature is that many writers often use it as an easy out for their characters. “They don’t know any better”. “They were taught to be this”. “It’s not their fault”. This ultimately robs a character of their agency and when you rob them of that, then the entire plotline ends up a cliche. More than that, their choice to change has no meaning because a character without agency has no choice. They turn to pacifism because it’s “the right thing to do” and utilizes the writer’s morals/way of seeing the world as the default. All they had to do was be exposed to it and they flipped.

Except, a child who has been raised to be an assassin is one that has been prepared by their society for the world that they’ll encounter outside their compound. What they were taught to believe inside their compound is their definition of normal, their values, their ethics, and their morals.

The world outside isn’t some strange or alien environment that they don’t know how to deal with. They aren’t emotionally stunted. They can interact with other “normal” people because they have to and they’ve been trained to.

Someone who gets taken by their parents to a stranger’s house in the middle of the day while their at work, taught how to break in, go through their things, search their particulars, and leave without a trace isn’t someone who has the same morals and ethics as someone who grew up in a “normal” nuclear family in the suburbs with two cars, a white picket fence, and a dog.

He may actually look at that idea and want that, because the greater surrounding society when he chooses to embrace it says you should want that. He might embrace that in the same way he embraces pacifism because he doesn’t know how to not live in extremes or choose what he wants for himself.

If this character really is turning to pacifism, then that will actually be a constant struggle that may last most of his life. He’ll be fighting his own instincts, and everything he’s been trained to do. Pretending to be a pacifist will be easy, lying to others and even himself because that comes naturally. He’s been trained for that. He’s been pretending for most of his life.

Actually being one will be difficult.

Again, it’s a stark contrast. Not only is it against everything he’s been trained to believe but it’s the polar opposite. Pacifism is weakness, not strength. It is a hard switch to the other end of the spectrum.

Try not to remember that there’s no such thing as “have to”. It’s always “choose to”. Even when your life is in danger, it’s a deciding action. It’s a choice.

What makes redemption stories powerful is that they’re also about choice. Choosing to change is difficult, realizing we were wrong is difficult, stepping back and looking at the situation in a new way is difficult.

-Michi

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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

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’m trying to make a group of assassins for a story, but I’m somewhat lost in the process. I wanted to know: what would make a well round team for a three-man group of hired killers? Such as, should one person be better at something then the other, does gender change interaction, etc.

This is going to be a little speculative. As I mentioned in the post about types of assassins, this stuff is very hard to get solid information on, so I’m guessing here.

The credible information I’ve read on assassins doesn’t really talk about teams. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t any out there, but at the end of the day it doesn’t take three people to pull a trigger. Now, a support team makes sense to me. You need people who interact with the client, a source of equipment, prep work (which would include research on the target, schedules, means of gaining access, and other intelligence that could be useful). None of this is stuff that would, automatically be something your assassin would involve themselves in. And, when the hammer falls, their ability to disappear is critically important.

Thing is, a lot of these people would, ultimately, be disposable. Think about it: You’ve been hired to kill someone, you need to know where they go in their daily life. You could do it yourself, and after the guy’s dead, you run the risk of someone remembering you were there… or, you could hire four or five people, each one tails your target on specific days and reports to you. Then, after the target’s dead, the chances that anyone will realize, “wait, there were a bunch of different people following the victim” is almost nil.

There are more specialized skill sets that you can’t just pick off the street. If you need a keycard to a construction site, you can’t just grab someone off the street. If you need a fake ID with an actual history and a dead drop inside a guarded fundraiser, you’re probably not going to be able to use the same guy who got you that keycard. You would need specialists, but not the same person.

Also, long term interaction with someone in criminal enterprise (any long term interaction) is a risk. One of the big things with these top tier assassins is avoiding risks. If you’re working with someone for twelve years, there’s a permanent risk that one day they’ll turn on you, for whatever reason. But, if it’s some random surveillance tech you hired for a job, the risk they pose is much lower.

The professional hits we know about tend to be from snipers. This makes sense, long range precision shooting is a relatively safe way to eliminate someone, and in an urban environment, you have all the time you’d need to clean up your area before you wander off. Also, it’s a really blatant way of killing someone, there’s no question, it’s not just a murder, this was an assassination.

This leaves a question, do these guys also engage in frame executions, staging suicides, or arranging accidents. Killing someone as part of a string of unrelated murders is an old literary trick, but it is a valid tactic if you don’t mind collateral damage. Then, while the police are trying to tie the victims together, the assassin can just wander off.

Street level executions are incredibly hard to pin down, fact is, with most homicide investigations, if there’s no connection between the killer and the victim, and the killer doesn’t leave any blatant evidence, it is almost impossible for police to identify a suspect. This is actually what distinguishes a lot of unsuccessful hitmen from the professional assassins. The amateurs tend to take jobs close to home, making it fairly likely they have some connection to the victim, while the professionals are outsiders that arrive, kill, and leave.

Arranging accidents, is another classic literary trick, the murder that looks like a fatal fluke of circumstances. I’ve never seen anything concrete on these actually happening, but as the article I liked a couple days ago pointed out, it’s almost impossible to prove it doesn’t happen. Even something as simple and blatant as a hit and run. It doesn’t have the, “this was an assassination” plastered all over it in 30.06 shell casings, so, odds are, it will never be tied back to the assassin.

It’s probable that assassins have people they work with, representatives and contacts, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call that a team. But, again, this is speculation on my part, and I really could be wrong here.

If your assassin is part of a government sanctioned operations team, then most of that goes out the window. They would be working with a tightly knit team of operatives, but they’d also have a larger resource base to call on. Their legends would be professionally crafted by whatever agency the worked for, not a convenient forger that could get the job done. Their access to critical intelligence and locations would be handled by actual intelligence officers. Even if they’re alone in the field, they’d still be in contact with their chain of command.

Does gender matter? We don’t know of a lot of female assassins, which suggests that the ones who are out there are incredibly good at their jobs. Also, would you really want to get mouthy at someone that kills people for a living, regardless of their gender? This does end up as a general question about who your characters are, and not a training or background question.

As before, I recommend looking at Michael Mann’s crime films, particularly Heat and Collateral. Then, watch them again with the director’s cometary turned on. Mann has done his homework, and you will learn more about professional criminals than you probably wanted to.

-Starke

I love your post on the personality and psychological makeup of spies. Would you consider doing a similar one for assassins? Would there be a lot of overlap?

It depends. When it comes to the real world, spies are much easier to get solid information on. There’s a fair number of autobiographies, and interviews, to say nothing of confirmed former intelligence officers like John Le Carre and (ironically) Ian Flemming, who went on to become published authors.

But, assassins? Not so much.

A couple months ago, The Howard Journal of Criminal Science published a fairly interesting analysis of assassins in the UK. And, this is honestly the best source I’ve found to date.

They break assassins down into four groups. The Novice, Dilettante, Journeyman, and Master.

Novices make up the bulk of contract killers. These guys aren’t really assassins. They like the idea of getting paid for killing someone, but that’s their only claim to the title. In reality, we’re just talking about petty criminals here. They have no specialized training, and tend to be hires of convenience. They also, usually, strike targets in their own community. For police, this makes them very easy to identify.

Dilettantes are another variety of amateur assassin. These are older individuals, who will take a contract opportunistically. They’re not, nominally, criminals, and come from a wide variety of backgrounds. We’re talking about the Walter White of contract killers here… only, again, these guys aren’t very successful. There’s actually an example, where a dilettante was unable to carry out the hit after he spoke to the intended victim. As with novices, there’s no specialized training, and they tend to stay close to home.

Journeymen are getting into actual assassin territory. These are professional, methodical killers. They’re more likely to make repeated hits successfully, but they’re also likely to get caught. They come from a mix of backgrounds including ex-military, and career criminals. As with Novices, they rarely travel for a hit, so police can usually find them during the course of their investigation.

Masters are the assassins you’re probably thinking of, and, like I said at the beginning of the post, there isn’t actually a lot to go on. They do exist, but they’re contracted, travel to a location, execute a hit, and leave. Which makes them very hard to identify for a criminal investigation. The assumption is these guys are ex-military or career criminals, but a lot of this is supposition and guesswork. Ideally, this means you’re looking at normal ex-military personality types, with a bent towards the kind of goal oriented ex-special forces outlook.

Unfortunately, as the article points out, a lot of research into assassins is built off of failure, and the master specifically exploits weakness in law enforcement investigation techniques to avoid detection. I’m actually making this sound more dramatic than it really is; if there’s no connection between the victim and their killer, any criminal investigation is going to be dependent on the killer making some forensic mistake, or being identified by other means. When we’re talking about masters, there is no local connection, so there’s no real way to identify them.

So, ex-special forces: I know I’ve talked about these guys before, but the most common personality is very disciplined and goal oriented. While ex-military can encompass a wide array of personality types, special forces programs demand soldiers who can operate autonomously for extended periods of time. Without exception, we’re talking about people who can set goals, determine the best means to achieve them, and then formulate and execute a plan. The ones I’ve met that I know actually were special forces were extremely laid back and reserved individuals, (the ones I’ve met, that I’m not sure about, weren’t.)

If your assassin is a master, then you’re not going to be looking at an unstable psychokiller. These are people who kill someone for their job, and go home.

The article excludes state sanctioned assassins and political assassins, and I get why. They were looking at killers for hire.

With state sanctioned, we’re talking about the exact same kind of special forces outlook that you get from masters, so that much is easy. With political assassins, we actually are talking about zealots and fanatics, some of the time.

Unfortunately, a lot of state sanctioned assassinations are politically motivated, so you have a professional targeting someone for a political foe.

There’s a fair amount of material on fanatics targeting political figures, from Hinckley’s attempt on Reagan’s life because he wanted to impress Jodie Foster… no, seriously, that was why, to the assassination of Lincoln, there is a massive range for the psychologically unstable to the politically radicalized, with a little bit of everything in between.

These guys are pretty easy to research, they get a lot of attention regardless of success or failure. I’d caution against using a master in that role, simply because the attention the hit would generate isn’t in their best interests.

-Starke

Hey! I’m writing a character that will be attending a fancy ball undercover and will be carrying a concealed firearm. What would you recommend for her to carry and where should she put it? I know the stereotypical place is on the leg, but I don’t think she would be able to draw it quickly enough, unless she wears a dress with a split, and in that case it might be revealed accidentally when she moves…

This one’s actually simpler than that. If the gun is not mission critical, don’t carry it.

If your character’s cover won’t allow them to carry a gun, then they shouldn’t have one. This may sound risky, it is, but it’s a lot safer than risking their cover by carrying equipment they don’t need.

It doesn’t matter if your character’s a spy or an undercover cop. If finding a gun on them would blow the operation, they won’t take it.

Here’s the thing. If your character manages to sell their cover, they won’t need the gun. If they fail to, six rounds will not save them. And, if someone does find the gun, it could make selling their cover much harder.

If it’s an assassination, or a smash and grab, then things get a lot more complicated. In situations like that a gun may very well be mission critical, and your character’s going to need a way to get it in.

If there’s no security cordon, then she could probably get a Glock 33 or any other subcompact pistol in by sticking it in her hand bag. (I’m picking the 33 because it fires a SIG .357 cartridge, but the subcompact Glocks come in 9mm, .40, and .45.) Worst Case, she might be restricted to something like a SIG P232 or P230.

If there is a security cordon, her best option will be a dead drop or using a different venue for access.

With a dead drop, she’ll need to have the gun on her for as little time as possible. This means the drop needs to be someplace that security didn’t check. Somewhere she can easily and quickly gain access to, and someplace close to where she’s going to use it. Combine this with a need to ditch the weapon as quickly as possible, and an exit option, and you’ve got a rather annoying list of requirements.

The better someone’s security detail is, and the more control they have over the event will dictate what is a viable hiding place. With little to no security, anyplace could be a viable hiding location. In tight security, they may even take down the sub ceiling long enough to verify that nothing’s been stashed up there.

Also, remember, even if the target isn’t the person the cordon’s being set up for, they’ll still benefit while they’re in it. This could make a party like this a spectacularly poor time to execute a hit, unless generating a high profile is the point.

Finally, the other option is to go in as someone in building maintenance or catering. This would afford your character clothing options that allowed for them to more effectively hide a weapon on their body, and it would make them harder to identify before and after the hit. Also, clothing your character could actually fight in. Fighting in a suit isn’t fun, but it’s preferable to fighting in a dress. In some cases, it would even put them under less security scrutiny. It’s easier to disguise yourself as a member of the waitstaff, and retrieve a handgun from behind the dumpster, where security hasn’t checked, and wander back in, if they think you were just going out for a smoke break.

Another possibility with a hit would be to trade up the handgun for a garotte. Wires are much easier to hide, can be made from materials that won’t show up under most detector systems, and won’t draw nearly as much attention as a gunshot. The trade off is, they take longer to use, and your character needs to be right next to the target.

-Starke

Assassination is one percent shooting, ninety-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.

Michael Westen, Burn Notice 110: False Flag

Got any tips for a character whose an assassin and uses underhanded tactics when fighting hand to hand?

othersidhewriting:

howtofightwrite:

I’d start by going through The Only Unfair Fight is the One you Lose posts:

Here, http://howtofightwrite.tumblr.com/post/52349151535/fight-write-the-only-unfair-fight-is-the-one-you-lose and here: http://howtofightwrite.tumblr.com/post/52428049557/fight-write-the-only-unfair-fight-is-the-one-you-lose

Beyond that, keep in mind, that for an assassin, they’re probably going to be killing any opponents as quickly as possible. Frequently, this means dispatching their foes before an actual fight can start.

If they do end up in combat, your character’s probably going to be looking for weapons to end a fight. If that’s a chair, lamp, toaster, or a handgun, then so be it.

I’m going to throw this one out there, since I don’t think we’ve mentioned it before: the head twist and break isn’t really a thing. Theoretically you can kill someone that way, but it takes a lot of force. And, from that position, it’s a lot easier (and quieter) to execute a choke hold and strangle someone to death that way.

Also, strangling someone takes a while. (And, no, this isn’t from personal experience.) Even after the victim goes limp, the character needs to keep choking them until the brain actually shuts down. Otherwise, they’ll just start breathing again, and recover.

I’d say look at Val Kilmer in Spartan and Tom Cruise in Collateral. Cruise is actually playing an assassin, while Kilmer is playing a government operative. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but the Thomas Jane Punisher film might also give you some ideas, there isn’t a lot of hand to hand, but that’s kind of the point.

If you have a lot of spare time, I’d recommend looking at 24. Kieffer Sutherland looks like he’s using a mix of Krav Maga and some miscellaneous CQB training. The problem is, there’s a lot of show (about 18 hours per season), and only a tiny fraction of that is combat.

There’s some good stuff in Burn Notice, so long as you remember that the only real difference between Michael and an assassin is that the latter is getting paid to kill someone. On the whole, the show is a good primer for tradecraft, which is useful for writing an assassin. Also, it’s entirely plausible to have an assassin that’s unwilling to kill people (outside of a contract), simply because it would draw more attention onto them, in which case, Michael is a very good character to look at.

Anyway, hope that helps.

-Starke

Michi wants to add Karl Urban’s character from Red, and Bruce Willis’ character from Lucky # Sleven. Fact is, we have a wall of DVDs featuring hitmen and assassins of all stripes, so this is by no means a comprehensive viewing list.

Hmm I think time period and world setting out have a very big impact on it, like if it’s my mage that’s an assassin… hm… he’d have to go for quick and deadly spells.

While establishing how an assassin kills in their own setting is important, there are underlying principles in how assassins work that are actually much more important to getting a handle on than the surface dressing. Here’s the thing that’s most important to get a handle on when working with an assassin: they are not professional killers, they are professional murderers.

This is where we go: but isn’t all killing murder? Yes, but in the context that we’re talking about, it’s important to remember that an assassin’s kills are always premeditated. Their job description involves stalking their prey, getting to know them, their habits, their favorite foods, their friends, their families, their preferred way of getting to work, what buttons to push, while they look for the best method with which to dispatch their target. They will probably break into their house and their place of work, rummage through their personal effects, their mail, even their target’s trash if necessary, much in the same way a spy would. Except, of course, a spy’s goal is to acquire information and an assassin’s is to acquire knowledge of the target with the express goal of personally murdering them. Depending on who it is that they are being sent after and how easy they are to get to, the assassin may very well know their target better than the target’s own family does by the end of the experience.

An assassin’s kills are personal, even when they seem incredibly impersonal. They get to know their target as a person (whether they think of them that way or not) and that’s what makes them different from other the other professionals including your general SEAL wet-work teams.

Assassins don’t generally have a certain “style” or preferred method of killing someone. A good assassin is one that is capable of working through a variety of different methods and weapons, these will run the gamut from multiple different kinds of weapons/martial styles to a variety of poisons and bombs. Depending on what their client may want or what they assess to be the best route available, an assassin may become anything from the sniper on the clock tower, the terrorist planting the car bomb to send a message, or they may lay their target out in a bathtub with their wrists slit to make it look like a suicide. A good (if extreme) example from Elementary was the assassin in one of the later episodes who worked by killing people via “accidents”, he hacked a pacemaker to give a man a heart attack, he killed a man via pushing an air conditioning unit off an apartment rooftop, and finally (funnily) planned to kill a woman with a crippling bee allergy with her personal variety of kryptonite.

Flexible. Professional. Personal.

The reason why I suggested R.E.D. is for the Karl Urban sequence at the beginning is for the (very obvious) dichotomy present when he’s on the phone with his wife discussing their domestic concerns while he’s in the process of kicking the chair out from under a man he’s hung from the rafters.

The other important aspect of an assassin’s job is not just to kill but to remain anonymous during and after the killing. Assassins trade on their anonymity, people may know that someone killed their target but they won’t be able to pin down who it was or even prove that anyone did it at all. This is why the mage analogy doesn’t make sense, because you’re working under the assumption that a the kill will revolve around what skills the assassins have overall as opposed to the skills they need to get this particular job done. Depending on the setting, directly using magic to kill someone could be akin to setting off a nuclear warhead in their living room (I mean that via the spiritual impression left behind in it’s wake), it’s big, fairly flashy even at it’s most subtle, and easy to detect once you know what your looking for. More importantly, most spells will tie back to their owner in some way and by tracing that link in the energy remnants left behind the caster can become easy to locate. Even in a setting where magic is common, an assassin may choose a physical approach because it’s the best way to bypass the attacks their mage target is expecting.

If you really must couple magic with an assassin, I’d suggest choosing spells that don’t take the direct death approach. In the best scenario, the character will probably use spells that won’t directly effect their target but instead work subtly on the people around them, on random strangers, or lay the spell through inanimate objects that can be easily discarded during cleanup after the kill. This is, of course, still risky because there’s still a chance that even with the triggering object gone, the spell itself could still be recovered and traced. The assassin could use objects that were prepared by someone else, but similar risks apply. Most likely, if they do use magic at all, assassins will use spells that primarily enhance themselves such as nightsight, heightened senses, etc and probably ones delivered into their system via a potion of some sort.

The problem is that magic isn’t like a gun you buy from an arms dealer or with cash using a false identity from a WalMart two states over and dump into the Potomac after plugging some poor bastard in the back of the head. It’s a little more intense than the bullet or fingerprint left at a crime scene.

The best advice I have for writing an assassin is:

Don’t start with the assassin saying: how can my character kill someone? In fact, don’t start with the assassin’s character at all.

Start with and develop their target. Who are they? Where are they located? What under circumstances does the client wish for them to die?

It’s cliche to say that it’s business, but it’s also true. An assassin is a professional and their business is murder. Once you grasp who they are when they work (by planning out a fictional murder for yourself), figuring out who they are in their personal life (and the dichotomy between those two selves) will be much easier.

-Michi