Tag Archives: writing assassins

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.


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.


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?



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.


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.