Tag Archives: writing assassins

Q&A: For Fiction, There’s No Superior Fighting Style

slutside-out said to howtofightwrite: Are there any fighting styles that are vastly superior to others? In other words where one person’s very skilled in one form of fighting but would just be completely outclassed by someone who’s skilled in another form. I’m writing a story and there’s a scene where one of the best hand to hand fighters in the group is just completely ruined by an assassin sent after him.

“Superior Fighting Style” questions are one of those which can easily devolve into fanwank. (See: katana fans.) Basically, contextualize this question as any of the loaded questions you would avoid asking about like “who is the show’s best character?” or saying “this couple is perfect and all other pairings are trash” when discussing your favorite television show. Expect heated debate with some (or no) validity, littered with good points and many inaccuracies, that eventually devolve into ALL CAPS yelling on some distant forum board.

There is no vastly superior martial art. The military martial combat forms are kept on the cutting edge for warfare in the modern world. They could (depending on definition) be considered “the best”. (Even so, you’ll still be getting into arguments about various Armed Services divisions about who is the most effective, like SEALS versus Army Rangers versus Force Recon versus Delta versus the Green Berets, etc. That’s before we start comparing different countries.) However, these martial arts are superior because they have been adapted to serve in the current environment and not because they are all the best all the time. There are plenty of other martial arts which will work better as a reference point for the character and their outlook. There are a lot of martial arts and martial combat forms with stellar reputations. There’s no unified consensus.

The superiority answer will change depending on who you talk to, and usually they’re overlooking some crucial detail the other martial art they’re degrading offers. You’ll get a flavor of the month answer like Krav Maga, Silat, Ninjutsu, Muay Thai, which is a disservice to the others like Hapkido, JiuJutsu, Judo, Taekwondo, Sambo, Northern Shaolin, Eskrima, Capoeira, and thousands of others. Taekwondo gets derided a lot by Mixed Martial Arts fans for its popularity, but the truth is that when it works, it really works.

Ultimately, mindset makes the warrior. The answer is never in the secret techniques but in the skill of the individual who wields them and their ability to face the unknown.

I’m pointing this out because I’ve seen a lot of writers fall into the secret or superior martial arts trap. There’s an initial urge to ask for the best fighting style for a specific body type or the best weapon for a character to use that’ll give them some sort of statistical advantage. The practical answer of whatever works best for you is a freeing one, but not usually helpful when you’re in a state of not knowing where to turn. You have to start somewhere.

So, where do you begin?

Start with this: your audience will judge your character based on their ability to act in keeping with their profession.

“There’s no different angle, no clever solution, no trickety-trick that’s going to move that rock. You’ve got to face it head on.” – Avatar: The Last Airbender

The application in the above quote is that only you as the author can prove your character’s bona fides and establish them by their actions. The martial art they’re using doesn’t matter. The martial art and knowledge of it is a reference point for you while you construct your fight sequence. As a writer, you don’t have to worry about visual accuracy. You need to provide enough direction for your audience to imagine the scenario. Understanding practical application and theory will take you far, even if you don’t have the option to take up a martial art yourself.

So, pick what you like. Go on YouTube and follow different martial arts professionals who discuss practical application, there’s a lot of good short videos from professionals in the self-defense field. Lots of martial arts specialists in various fields post videos both of techniques and discussing them in comparison to what’s shown in movies and television. The Black Belt Magazine’s YouTube Channel will introduce you to a lot of professionals in various fields from self-defense experts to martial arts masters.

What you’re doing here is performing a classic narrative beat where you establish the danger presented by a new antagonist through their sound beating of the team’s strongest member.

Here’s a quick list of things to keep in mind:

1) Strategy and Tactics: Plain Clothes Ambush

While the Assassin Archetype fits a wide array of combat backgrounds and ideologies, they are usually portrayed as being underhanded and ruthlessly efficient. The group coordinating and working together is the Assassin’s biggest threat, not the technical skills of a single group member. The best way to impact squad morale is to first remove the one who is perceived as the toughest. The strategy is sound, you take down your biggest single combat threat (especially when supported by the others) and freak the squad out. The best hand to hand fighter might be viewed as their linchpin. Group cohesion fractures, they stop working together, they start panicking, and they scatter. It’s much easier to target or fight individuals one on one, if it becomes necessary.

Remember, assassins aren’t warriors. They don’t prefer fisticuffs. They like weapons. They strive for single strikes in planned ambushes from a previously scouted area where they know their target will be.

For maximum effect, this assassin starts with a walk-up ambush and doesn’t give the “best fighter” the opportunity to even fight back.

2) The Skill Factor: A Killer’s Instinct

For the sake of narrative, you want to establish that his assassin beats the group’s best fighter because they’re better. The assassin beats the group’s best fighter because they’re more experienced, they’ve seen a wider range of fighting styles and can derive better counters as a result.

I’m not going to ask why this Assassin is fighting with fisticuffs or going in hand to hand as opposed to carrying a concealable weapon like a knife or if this best hand to hand fighter survives.

It can be a huge blow to the Assassin’s credibility in their introduction (especially a violent one) if you don’t let them kill. Killing their assigned target is their job, sure, but a dead witness is better than a live one and can muddy the waters of an investigation. Assassins are professional killers and, unlike other combat professionals, their credibility is defined by the bodies.

Film usually introduces an assassin finishing a prior job (effectively killing someone the audience doesn’t care about) to establish their skill and credibility. In your novel, you can’t rely on hearsay.

You might want to consider driving the point home by feeding one of your characters to them. (This “best fighter” character, for example.)

3) Cost & Benefit Analysis: Death is Better

In every engagement, your combat oriented characters will be running a cost versus benefit analysis both before they go in and also during the battle itself. This asks if the risk of engagement is cost-effective for their goals, and if they do engage what they need to do in order to both win and undercut any potential fallout.

Cost = the energy and resources expended to achieve victory.

Benefit = what they get from fighting with or removing this individual.

Risk = the risk of injury, and other immediate dangers the engagement presents.

Fallout = this is the negative results. Alerting law enforcement to their presence, making the achievement of their overall goal more difficult. Fallout can come from the noise of the fight, the number of witnesses, accessible cameras, having nowhere to dump the body, etc.

Death removes the possibility of witnesses, making it more difficult to identify them. Death means they won’t have to deal with the same skilled combatant again, which benefits them. If the skilled combatant is dead, they can’t provide insights into the assassin’s methodology, fighting style, or strategies; keeping any others trying to protect their target in the dark. An assassin doesn’t want their target afraid, they want them complacent. If their target is aware of a threat, they don’t want them to know they are the threat. You can’t build an effective strategy for countering the unknown.

For an assassin, if they are forced into situation where they have to fight at all, killing their opponent is the best outcome. Assassins generally view bystanders as ambulatory obstacles in the way of their target instead of as people, making it easier to kill them.

However, assassins prefer not to kill anyone but their target. That is the path of least resistance and the one which is most beneficial to their future. Their goal is to complete their mission, escape undetected, and leave no evidence that they were the ones who killed the target. They want to retain their anonymity because anonymity is necessary to do their job. Their target is their goal, any cost/benefit analysis be calculated around the death of their target, and adjust based on how their actions impact those chances.

4) The Number of Moves: 1 to 3

In the world of film fight scene choreography (and real life), you signal one fighter is better than the other through the length of the fight. For maximum impact in a complete shut out, the fight part of the scene will last about a few sentences. “Getting wrecked” translates into your group’s best fighter being taken down in one to three moves. The three is part of the opening combination, rather than retaliatory. 1) Destabilizing strike, 2) Follow-up hits somewhere more devastating/sensitive, 3) Last hit (usually with the opening strike’s hand) is the due final diligence to make sure they don’t come back/puts them out of the fight.

For killing blows, this is 1) destabilize on the exterior/hit somewhere vital, 2) finishing kill/an even more vital place, 3) making sure they’re dead/another vital place.

You can do this with a knife in simple combination:

  1. Make a forward approach with the knife hidden by the body’s profile or the arm.
  2. When in range, slash on an upward diagonal across the throat.
  3. Rotate the knife (if the knife is in a forward position, not necessary if the knife is already in an icepick grip), and come back in to puncture the carotid with blade tip.
  4. Knife through the back of the neck as you move past, severing the spinal column.
  5. They collapse, dying. On to the next.

This is a simple combination which makes use of the blade’s position in the hand (the ice pick grip). You distract them with the first injury (slash) which likely landed painful but superficial injuries, to strike the vital point (the artery) ensuring a fast bleed out, and the final blade strike through the spine paralyzes their entire body. Paralyzing them ensures they cannot staunch the blood flow to buy themselves time. They have no choice but to lie there and bleed out. This strategy also benefits the attacker because the more emotional and less experienced members of the group might break to protect their friend.

This is also just one potential option, there’s a wide array of possibilities when ambushing or striking with a variety of hand to hand techniques/weapons.

The only problem with this scenario and approach is that if the assassin’s target isn’t the squad itself but a single member or someone they’re protecting then attacking head on doesn’t really benefit them. A competent group will sacrifice one or two soldiers upfront to stop the assassin, while they hustle the target to safety. Bodyguards always prioritize their protectees over stopping the assassin. Attacking this way, in clear view, the assassin reduces their chances of completing the job.

When setting up this scene, keep the assassin’s goals in mind. It can be easy to try and structure a fight scene around what you want to happen, but always make sure the character motivations are backing that up. If you’re imagining a Byung Hun Lee type assassin from R.E.D. 2. (By the by, that’s Taekwondo.) Or John Wick, both are the typical Hollywood badass assassins. (The first John Wick film is notable for its use of modern shooting techniques like CAR. (Center Axis Relock), it’s worth looking at if you want to write gunfights.) Or like Lucy Lawless in the Burn Notice episode False Flag, you want to watch the full 16 minute clip or the full episode for even more good tradecraft to build off of. This episode centers around what you can expect when dealing with an assassin in the real world, the tactics and techniques they use, along with how to counter them. Another really good example of an assassin hewing closer to what you’d find in the real word is Vincent from Collateral. (Michael Mann’s films are also really good examples of professional shooting.)

I really recommend watching the False Flag episode and Collateral even if you’re planning to go with a Hollywood badass assassin.

Be honest with yourself about the type of narrative you want to write and the violence you’re looking at implementing in your novel. Honesty goes a long way toward narrowing your search. There are a lot of different approaches which are valid, what’s most important is finding the kind which interests you and then learning the applicable practical theories.

Last Note: If you’re interested in learning more about US Armed Services training, all their manuals (including special forces) are available online for free. It may take a few internet searches, but you’ll find the right PDFs.

-Michi

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Q&A: Cleaning up the Cleaner

Hi! I really enjoy your blog and it’s always useful for my WIPs! I stumbled upon your assassins posts recently and I’m wondering, what is the way to kill an assassin, realistically? Maybe intentionally, or by accident? Thank you so much for all your helpful posts!

The good news is, your assassin is basically just another person. When it comes to accidental deaths, they’re as vulnerable as anyone else. A previously unknown food allergy, an auto accident, or any number of other things that could kill a random person will also end them.

If you’re talking about engineering an “accident,” then, the same rules apply, but this stuff is a lot harder to pull off in the real world, so it’s less of a consideration. Though, your characters who were hired to kill the assassin could start by engineering a car crash, to soften them up. Then, when they’re recovering from their airbag going off, execute them and leave.

As for the best way to kill an assassin? A rifle at long range. Preferably on a semi-auto with the ability for quick follow up shots, and a shooter who knows how to use it. That’s a lot of options.

Note, I didn’t say “suppressed,” up there. Even a block away, firing from a window, the sniper’s going to have time to vacate before anyone comes looking. So, the suppressor just buys time they don’t need, and messes with the ballistics. A couple clean shots and they’re done. Maybe have a support team on the ground closer to the target to finish them off if the sniper doesn’t get the job done.

I mean, ultimately, assassins aren’t superhuman. Even when we’re talking about the mythical master assassins that may not even exists, they survive because no one knows who they are. If you strip that anonymity, they’re as vulnerable anyone else to being killed.

So, let’s step back from tactics, you need an assassin dead. You have options. First, you need to know who’s hunting your assassin, this sets the ground rules that will determine how effective your assassin’s tradecraft will be. Second, your hunters need to ID your assassin. Finally, once you have those two pieces of information, your hunters need a plan.

There’s a lot of people who could want an assassin dead. Who they are will determine what they can bring to the table.

Private citizens are, probably, the least dangerous over all. If your assassin is no longer in the same zip code, their options are going to be limited.

A cop (corrupt or not) is a little more dangerous. If your assassin is operating in their jurisdiction, they can probably call in a SWAT team, or something similar. They’re also dangerous because they’re specifically trained to investigate crimes. They have the best training and skills to track down your assassin after the kill. They may also have the training to kill your assassin, but if they don’t they can make a phone call and get people who do, and they will. Police don’t operate alone. A stray detective figures out who your assassin is, and next thing you know, every cop in the city will be aware of this, and keeping an eye out.

Finally, while a cop can’t hunt your assassin around the globe, they can share their information with other police agencies. In some cases, they may even be able to travel and explain the situation to others in person. They won’t have enforcement authority, but when it comes to investigating your assassin, they don’t really need that if they can cultivate a good working relationship with the locals.

Also, since we’re talking about globe hopping, it’s worth remembering, INTERPOL agents are not an international version of the FBI, they’re liaisons between national police agencies. They have no arrest or enforcement authority. Their job is simply to alert and inform police about criminal actives that have jumped borders. They’re a recognized organ of the UN, but they are administrative, not enforcement.

Ironically, organized crime figures have similar limitations to the police. If the assassin stays out of areas they have influence over, they’re (basically) out of reach. They’re not as well trained to investigate an assassin, and they don’t have the same resources. The difference is, that organized crime figures may have access to corrupt cops. How much control may vary, but it’s possible they could point the police at your assassin, just to make things messier. They’d benefit from some of that investigation, and might be able to turn that into useful information.

A spy with access to their agency’s intelligence resources is probably one of the most dangerous foes to have hunting your assassin. They will have access to highly trained specialists, their investigative skills are probably on par with the local police. In some cases they may even be able to direct local law enforcement or military responses. Worse, these guys can go (pretty much) wherever they want to pursue your assassin. Your assassin hops a flight out of the country, and for most cops, that’s the end. An intelligence officer has people on the ground there already.

An intelligence agency also has the resources to start putting together the entire picture. If your assassin’s been flying under a dozen assumed identities, given time, and resources, an analysis team can blow your assassin’s covers, and find out where they’re going before they get there.

For an agency to get involved, two things need to happen. The assassin needs to target someone that warrants the agency to look into the killing. (Or attempted killing.) We’re probably outside of the range of simple political hits, or witness cleanup here. The assassin was paid to kill someone who was important, whether they succeeded or not. Also, the assassin needs to be exposed as an assassin. This might sound obvious, but when we’re talking about “master-class assassins” in the real world, there’s significant debate whether they’re even real. So, to get an intelligence agency hunting them, their existence needs to become credible, at least to the spy and the people they report to. (This second part isn’t a particularly high bar to hit, but it’s worth remembering this stuff, “doesn’t happen,” in the real world.)

Once you know who’s hunting them, you can start evaluating how hard it will be to ID them. The reason is because people hunting your assassin will have radically different resources and skill sets at their disposal. Much like the above groups, the kind of assassin we’re dealing with will determine how well protected they are.

I’m using the classifications from that UK article in 2014, (which was paywalled sometime in the last five years.) You can find an article we wrote on the subject here.

A lot of amateurs (both Novice and Dilettantes if you’ve read the link), don’t really hide their identity. You want them dead, you can just find and kill them. This includes most hitters working for organized crime. They’re only interested in hiding from the police, not from their own community. So, if you’ve got someone who was hired to kill a mobster without family approval, finding them is going to be relatively easy if you have mob connections. Ironically, in a case like that, the hard part would be getting to them before the cops.

Because they don’t travel, Journeymen are also pretty easy to track down and eliminate. If someone has a reputation as an assassin, you’re in the know, and recognize their work, you know where to find them and who to kill. These guys are legitimately dangerous, as they likely have a military background, but there’s not much one person can do against an organized squad with similar training, sent to kill them.

And before someone asks, yes, I’m entirely familiar with the cliche where one person picks off an entire squad of assailants. That’s mostly fantasy. A squad that actually behaves and moves like a squad, will be able to outmaneuver and eliminate any a single foe who lacks superpowers.

I’m guessing we’re talking about someone more insulated. If your assassin is one of these master-class types, who’s working through cutout connections, they may be pretty well protected. Your people never meet the assassin, they meet a representative somewhere. That representative passes the contract to the assassin, and there’s never any direct connections between them. IDing them later could be tricky. You can’t take a city like New York or London and scrutinize everyone that came and went on a given day.

You need a plan to find out who this is. There are options here. Luring the assassin into a situation where you might be able to collect evidence on them, leading to their identity. Trying to use them multiple times, in different places, while trying to collect evidence on people who were in all of those places. (Problem here is, like I mentioned, it’s hard to filter individuals out the mass of people moving around the globe at any given moment.

I’m making this more complicated than it needs to be, though. If you’re wanting to burn an assassin, all you need to do is make sure your people are there, and can respond, to take out them out when they strike. Put a hit on your friend, warn their security detail, beef it up, give them the time frame. Assassinating someone who’s well protected is dangerous work to begin with. A trapped contract is an entirely legitimate danger, and one that will be hard to account for before hand. Bonus points if you’re supplying the means to get through the security cordon, because at that point you can rig “silent alarms” to their access, letting security know that the assassin is on the premises, and it’s time to start clearing the place.

Another solution is to pull them out of their comfort zone, sabotage their exit strategy, and hunt them down. With enough corruption or the right incentives, this may be possible in some metro areas around the world. Though, the “standard” answer would be someplace isolated, in the wilderness. Send them out there to kill someone, then hunt them down using advanced technology.

Of course, you could just hire someone that knows them. Though, that could get tricky when you’re evaluating their loyalties. Will they kill for you, or will they just warn their buddy?

So, when I listed intelligence agencies earlier, this is the only kind of assassin they’re likely to be facing. Even journeymen can be dealt with by local law enforcement, someone operating at this level may warrant that kind of attention. This kind of a threat can bypass a lot of basic tradecraft that an assassin may employ. That whole cutout thing might not work if the people hunting them can set up a Stingray without oversight or pull their all of the cutout’s satphone data via a National Security Letter. The kind of security necessary to prepare for this kind of scrutiny would directly interfere with your assassin being able to do their job.

As for a plan to kill the assassin once you know who they are and where they live, that’s the easy part. They’re just human. Find them, put a bullet in them. Maybe put a few more in just “to make sure.” I mean, you can get more creative, but the efficient methods will, usually, be more reliable.

So, goals are to look for places where the assassin will be unprotected (basically outside of their home, and familiar haunts.) Hitting them on the road is a good way to achieve that, as everyone has to go somewhere sometime. You can also exploit this, if you have enforcement authority over a zone that normally prohibits weapons. For example: An airport; you can lock the place down, and hunt them in an environment where they’re not normally able to arm themselves, and they cannot flee.

Like I said, they’re not superheroes, you can gun them down like anyone else. The only hard part is finding the assassin, not the actual killing.

-Starke

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Q&A: Custom Sniper

setting aside the wisdom of “signing” one’s kills, how effective would a rifle chambered for a unique custom round be as a signature?

clarifying, i don’t mean like a special payload or anything like that. i mean like a rifle chambered for a bottlenecked 10x80mm cartridge

thequantumqueer

The issue is, you’re making a custom round for a custom built weapon. Because there is no existing cartridge, you’d need to make almost all of this from scratch. And, you’re doing all of this to create an (almost certainly) inferior analog to a CheyTac Intervention chambered in .408 (10.36x77mm.)

A 10×80 cartridge would be one of those hybrid sniper/anti-materiel rounds, along with rounds like the .338 Lapua, the .416 Barret, and at least a half dozen other relatively modern rounds. Designed in an attempt to bridge between 7.62mm NATO and .50BMG, a lot of these have been designed in the last 20 years. These are used at extreme ranges (around a mile).

This means your character, or their gunsmith, needs to be able to flawlessly design and fabricate the entire weapon from raw materials. Now, that’s not, technically, impossible, but it’s the next best thing. Converting an existing rifle to a custom cartridge is possible, but would also be extremely difficult. This is after you remember that messing around with any of these rifles requires a skilled gunsmith.

Doing full R&D to create a rifle like that from scratch would cost millions of dollars, and might be equal to an off-the-shelf L115A3. Also, bonus points in that, while the L115A3 isn’t civilian purchasable, .338 Lapua has made it onto the civilian market, so your character could get ammunition for their rifle without difficulty.

So, let’s step back from the 10x80mm for a second. If your character is using a milspec rifle chambered in one of these rounds, it’s very likely they’d be handloading their own cartridges. This can result in better performance than a mass produced shell, and gives the shooter the ability to fine tune a lot of factors in how their rifle will perform. In cases like this, the handloaded round will outperform off-the-shelf cartridges.

There are a lot of custom guns out there. In particular, some manufacturers offer high end custom pieces, so it’s possible you might see a one-of-a-kind rifle, usually modified off of a venerable pattern. Though at that point, it’d be extremely unlikely it’d be chambered in an experimental cartridge.

Realistically, there’s three combat applications for this kind of a round. Your character is a sniper, at which point, there are better, significantly cheaper, options. Your character is a government-backed assassin, at which point having any signature is a horrible idea, as it makes it easier to tie their actions together. Your character is a criminal assassin. I know we’ve talked about the problem for a hitman reusing the same gun, but, “there’s only one person out there who uses a 10mm rifle round,” is far worse. Though, to be fair, it’s not as dumb as someone blithely saying, “there’s only one man that uses a Walther PPK.” Fox Mulder? No, Robert McCall? No, wait, I’ll get this one eventually.

-Starke

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Q&A: Masks

I’m really sorry if you’ve answered a similar already and I’m just dumb but what do you think about a warrior who fights with a mask? I assume that even if the eye holes are big enough theres still a bit of an impediment but? Or the kind of mask that sits under the eyes and hides the lower half of the face? I really need my nano character to wear a mask for… reasons but she is a warrior first (assassin) so I want to make sure that it’s right

Masks are a thing. The only major issue is making sure the mask doesn’t obstruct their peripheral vision. Covering one’s face in combat isn’t that strange.

Even in the modern day, it’s entirely reasonable for combatants to wear bandannas or balaclavas when fighting in cold or dry environments. Or, when protecting their identity is a factor. So, in that sense, we come back to your original point.

Can someone wear a mask to protect their face in combat? Yep. No question, no ambiguity, this is an option. Particularly half masks. There’s normally no danger of these obstructing your vision, though, depending on the setting, separate eye protection may be advisable. Also, this won’t do nearly as much to conceal your identity, as the upper half of your face remains visible.

There’s also ballistic masks. These are armored face masks, though they are rarely strong enough to stop a bullet, however they can protect against flying shrapnel. Specifically, these are usually designed to avoid limiting the viewer’s vision as much as possible, and some are designed to fit onto a conventional combat helmet, with ballistic goggles to allow greater visibility.

One final possibility are face masks, like Corvo’s from Dishonored, which are specifically there to augment the wearer’s options in combat. This is more of a specialty case, but if your character’s wearing a mask designed to give them greater vision, or alternate vision modes, that might be a viable option within the rules of your setting.

The major consideration for an assassin is, if the mask can be easily hidden, of if it’s something that is socially acceptable. Otherwise they need to maintain complete invisibility, which is an unreasonable goal. An assassin needs to be able to blend in with their environment. So, let’s dig up an old joke:

You know ninja gear? That full body black suit, and full face covering? You know what that is?

It’s stagehand garb.

So, real ninjas would dress up as day laborers, servants, farmers, and other common professions. People who would not draw attention to themselves. No mask, no superhero costumes. Just, people that should be wandering around, wherever they were. They may be the courier, they may be a member of the cleaning staff. You wouldn’t know you were looking at a ninja until the last possible moment. Which is the point.

It’s far easier to pretend to be someone mundane and slip pass security, than to claim to be a super-secret assassin, bouncing in the shadows like a methed up squirrel. Best of all, when someone drops dead, security is looking for people who don’t belong. They’re not looking for the delivery guy.

So, why dress up a stagehand? Because, in Japanese plays that included ninjas assassinating characters, it became a kind of joke. The audience was conditioned to ignore the stagehands moving around the actors, they’re not part of the play, they’re the mechanics to make it happen. In that sense, it’s exactly what the ninjas would normally do, pretend to be someone that would be ignored until the last possible moment. Taken out of context, or dropped into a film, the ninja outfit is a joke. It’s a stagehand, someplace they shouldn’t be, but you’ll ignore them because they’re a ninja.

It’s also probably worth remembering that a warrior and an assassin are entirely different professions. Assassins aren’t combatants in the conventional sense. Their skillset is probably more focused on infiltration and quiet kills, rather than full on combat. It’s a minor point, that I’m not too worried about hammering on. It’s also possible you’ve got a character who does do both, maybe they served as mercenary before moving on to killing people. But, remember, these are different jobs. If your character is both, you may want to spend some time exploring that.

-Starke

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Followup: Mafia and Children: The Camorra

lirenel

Interesting, since I was just reading an article in the Economist about Naples’ mafia, the Camorra, using kids as hitmen: https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21723865-camorra-turns-teenagers-enforce-its-rule-organised-crime-naples-hit-men-are

Okay, this is worth quickly talking about, and yes it is interesting. The very short version is that, the Neapolitan Mafia (called the Camorra) has been pushed to the edge of extinction in recent years by police.

The senior leadership of the Camorra are in prison, and command has passed to their children, literally. This means that at present, segments of the Camorra are being run by teenagers. In turn, they employ other teens, and we get the headline up there.

There’s another wrinkle in that, In Italy, children under 14 cannot be held criminally liable for their actions. At the extreme end, that (apparently) means they cannot be charged with murder if they kill someone.

So, what we have is equal parts desperation by the Camorra, an unintended consequence of successful policing, and a lack of adult supervision (in the organization itself.)

Now, one thing that is happening here is a kind of Lost Boys effect, where you have kids leading younger kids. This has never been a factor in the American mafia, but it does appear with street gangs. I think Michi wanted to do a full post on that, so I’ll let this sit there. This is a good find, though, lirenel.

-Starke

Q&A: The Mafia and Children

On the topic of child killers, would a child who was raised by people in the Italian Mafia (and joined at 16) be more like a Child Soldier or a Gladiator as you described in your last post? This person is young but would be expected to kill. He wants to be in the Mafia. He isn’t forced. I’m having trouble because some of your post say children/teens will immediately be negatively affected later in life but what if the MC didn’t see it as wrong? What would be realistic here?

At the same time, witnessing violence IS traumatic and anyone involved might have psychological problems or know someone who does, especially if they aren’t shown how to take care of themselves. Believing what you do is right and having other criminals to look up to wouldn’t completely erase psychological trauma for everyone. So I’m not sure how much trauma (or what kind of attitude toward violence) would be realistic.

Most criminal organizations aren’t going to use kids for killing people. They’re too useful in other roles. (The exception here are street gangs, which use violence or killing as a right of initiation. There’s more here, but it’s mostly unrelated to the question at hand.)

From what I understand, historically the Mafia, at least in the US, used kids as couriers, lookouts, and in other support positions where a child would draw less attention than an adult rather than directly exposing them to the violence early on.

In particular, they’d pull kids in by offering the kid respect and a place in the family. To be fair, I’m calling them children, but realistically we’re talking about teenagers.

As they got older, they’d gradually transition into more important responsibility in their crew.

Now, I’m not clear on exactly how much of this was pragmatic (such as keeping them away from information that could truly damage family operations), or how much was a result of cultural norms that the Mafia was paying lip service to. I’m also pretty sure the line between lookout, and helping shake down a business was fairly slim at times.

Generally speaking, kids that get into organized crime (including gangs), aren’t really forced into the life. They often come from broken or otherwise dysfunctional families, where the organization takes the place of their parents and normal support structures. This results in members that are exceedingly loyal to their organization, because The Family is their family.

The mistake you seem to be making is thinking that a teenager would be tasked out as a hitman. To the best of my knowledge, that didn’t really happen. If you’re running a massive criminal enterprise, you don’t want to trust a high school dropout with something as potentially explosive as a contract killing. Most Mafia hitmen I’m aware of started working as killers in their late 20s at the earliest. A few did start out running errands for the mob as teenagers, and gradually moved up the ranks, but giving a contract to a teen is a huge liability that no credible Family would want.

The only thing a teenager in the mob would be expected to do is keep their mouth shut. Now, a teenager who spent a few years in prison because they took the fall for a member of the family would probably be well regarded once they got out, and might even be on the path to becoming a hitman later in life, but it wouldn’t be where their career started.

The irony is, that someone who joined the Mafia as a teen probably wouldn’t view violence as wrong. In theory the Mafia maintained a code of honor, though in practice the actual members were extremely violent individuals, and any sense of honor was, at best, a pretext they followed, lest they end up on the wrong side of it. Meaning you’re very likely looking at someone with an extremely cavalier attitude about violence and death, with little to no empathy for anyone outside The Family.

Any trauma would probably derive from violence directed at their friends or (biological) family. Watching their buddy being killed by another outfit would leave a mark. Violence against random civilians, not so much.

However, there was an entirely different “career path” for kids in the mob, or, more accurately, outside of the mob. Some mob bosses, would perform “outreach,” exercises to troubled youths. (The most famous case I’m aware of is “Whitey” Bulger, though his example doesn’t exactly fit the behavior I’m describing.) The boss would continue to provide support and cultivate a patron/client relationship with some of the children as they aged. The entire idea was to create family members with no criminal background, allowing them to infiltrate organizations that would normally be impervious to the Mafia. Particularly law enforcement and Family lawyers were particularly desirable, though political office was another potential goal. It’s also not entirely clear how well these efforts actually worked out. (In the case of Bulger, it started a friendship with John Connolly, who would eventually become a member of the FBI, and provided protection for Bulger from the Boston PD, and federal scrutiny.)

So, no, your Mafia hitman probably didn’t start pulling the trigger until they were in their late 20s at the earliest. Using kids as soldiers and assassins is for street gangs and despotic warlords, not for criminal enterprise.

-Starke

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Q&A: Assassin Career Counseling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: The Assassin’s Children

Would it be reasonable for an assassin to be able to raise a family? I’m currently writing an assassin in a world of superheroes who tends to specialize in taking down superhumans. Do you think he’d be able to balance a home life and his “night life” or is that nota possibility ?

I don’t see why not.

Okay, that’s not true, but I don’t see anything that makes this intrinsically impossible. Being an assassin doesn’t preclude the possibility of being a good parent. It’s just extremely unlikely.

Strip everything else down, and being a good parent means being there for your kids, and putting their well-being first. It’s not impossible for an assassin to do that, but that is one of those inflexible jobs, where sometimes, they really can’t be there, because of work. Not being there stacks the deck against being a good parent. It’s still possible, but the odds are vanishingly small.

There’s a lot of degrees here, and intent can outweigh the results sometimes. A parent who’s there but resentful, and passive aggressive isn’t better than one who would be there if they could, but really doesn’t have the option. For a good parent, even under the best of circumstances, there’s a balancing act between what you can do, and what you want to be able to do. Unfortunately, if you’ve got a high pressure job, that requires you keep a strict schedule, especially with lots of travel, that weighs heavily against your character’s kids.

There’s no, simple, yes or no, here. Plenty of parents in the real world fall short of the mark with less on their plate than your character, and some manage to excel in spite of far more trying circumstances. So, this comes down to a couple questions.

Do you think your character is a good parent? This can go either way, and this isn’t a simple pass/fail. If your character is a good parent, then there’s no shame in admitting that they’re not going to get the balance right every time.

Your character can tick the technical boxes of keeping their child breathing and still be walking human wreckage. They’re not a good parent, but again, intent can carry a lot of weight here. We are talking about a deeply personal relationship between (at least) two characters, and those rarely break down into simple black and white.

Remember, your character doesn’t evaluate how well they do as a parent, their children do. If he’s simply not there, because he’s hollowing out some arms dealer’s skull in La Paz, that’s not going to justify missing birthdays or other milestones. Also, it’s extremely unlikely your character would tell his kids that he was out there killing people. That’s the kind of information you really can’t trust to children, at least not when they’re young, so he didn’t miss a birthday because of that; as far as they know he was selling database software in Cochabamba.

Also worth noting, this applies to cops, soldiers, and spies. There’s some social structures to help with the former two, but, you’re still talking about parents who have a job that requires their primary attention. It may make for dramatic characters, but it creates shitty parents, and messy divorces.

Over time, it’s worth remembering that mistakes and poor choices do have consequences.

Do you know what a good parent looks like? This one is a much harder question than it looks like. A lot of people think they had a pretty clear understanding of what a good parent looks like. This isn’t always, 100% accurate. Also, when the answer is no, it’s not always consistent what will tip you off. Personally, it was this article on Cracked, six years ago.

So, do you know what a good parent looks like?

I have seen writers, who never stopped to ask that question, put forward some pretty messed up images of their parents. This isn’t intended as a critique of yours, but, at some point you do need to step back and really think about this going forward.

For example: having a parent who will immediately employ violence against unknown children their house is not normal. Yes, I’ve seen a writer hold that up as normal parental behavior. No, I don’t want to know what gave them that impression.

As with any high stress job, being an assassin is going to make being a parent harder. It makes it more difficult to be there physically, it makes being emotionally available more difficult, it means you’re always going to be under some threat, meaning you can’t ever really relax. Kids pick up on that. Not consciously, but in more of a, “that’s normal,” kind of way. Over time, this can lead to some serious psychological issues. It’s not completely inescapable, but no matter how hard your assassin tries, he’s never going to be able to give his kids a “normal” upbringing. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a good father, but he’ll have to work a lot harder to get there, and it may be impossible for him to do his job and take care of his kids.

Remember his kids are people, not pets. They cannot simply exist to indicate, “no, really, my character’s a good person.” That kind of behavior actually makes your assassin less redeemable. There are people, real people, who do use their kids as pets. They parade them around, and (figuratively) use them to say, “look how normal, and successful I am.” Those people are human garbage. Trust me, I know. Remember, the kids know. They may not realize how messed up the situation is until later in life, but they’re there. They know.

And, the other part is superheroes; that changes a lot of things.

The entire idea of hunting down some world class assassin and kicking down the door of his apartment, before handing him over to the local police is mostly a dream in the real world. In a world where you have superheroes, the risk of identifying and tracking him down becomes a much more serious risk.

Once someone knows who he is, his kids are in permanent danger. If your character is out there hunting down superheroes or supervillains, it’s very likely that someone will seek bloody retribution for his kills, or use the kids as leverage. That’s another horrific option.

At this point, you’re going to want to answer some world building questions, and decide what you want to look at afterwards.

Who your character works for is very important. An assassin for hire, that works with the League of Evil as a contractor is going to have a very different life from someone who works for a Federal Agency hunting down rogue superheroes. Either one can be as stable or unhinged as your story calls for (though, the latter would need to hide their derangement).

So far as it goes, there are plenty of examples of superheroes and villains with their children. Hell, two of the three Batgirls are the daughters of super villains. Cassandra Cain is the daughter of a professional assassin who seriously abused her, and is a mute killing machine, while Stephanie Brown is the daughter of a D-Grade super villain, who’s spurred to heroism in spite of (or to spite) her father’s legacy (and idiocy).

There’s a lot of room for the children of villains growing up to be their own people either in spite of, or in the model of their parents.

This may sound harsh, but if you don’t plan for your character’s children to grow up into their own characters, I’d strongly recommend using them. If you don’t have a plan, you’re running a serious risk of using them as pets, which, as I said, is something you do not want to do. (Even if your character does exactly that.) These need to be characters in their own right.

When it comes to injecting some serious weight into the modern superhero genre, my first stop would be Powers. It’s about cops, not assassins, but it does a fantastic job of taking superheroes out of context, and putting it against the mundane texture of a criminal investigation.

If you’re willing to spend 100 hours working through the narrative, The Witcher 3, does an excellent job of putting you in the shoes of a man searching for his adopted daughter. On the whole, I usually recommend Sapkowski’s novels over the games, but this is the rare case where I can say a game is doing exactly what you’re asking for (even if it is a fantasy setting), but I’m not really going into full detail here.

Another slightly odd suggestion is Millennium. Set in the late 90s, this series was a rare example of Magical Realism as a genre. The main character is a retired member of the FBI’s Behavior Science Unit, trying to protect his family from the apocalypse. As with The Witcher 3, this is probably more apropos than it sounds initially.

If you want to look at a shitty parent having their child leveraged against them, the first season of 24 is pretty good. If you’re left wondering, Jack Bauer is not a good parent. The first season has some rough patches, but it does kinda illustrate the problem with this setup.

I’d still recommend taking a look at Collateral. Tom Cruise’s Vincent isn’t hunting down superheroes, but it’s not hard to see where his methodology could have real application. Also, if you have seen it before, listen to the what he says about his father. It’s not much of a stretch to say this may be the future your character’s kids would find themselves in. Especially if he tried to bring them into “the family business,” or even if he just tried to teach them how to protect themselves.

-Starke

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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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