Tag Archives: writing spies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

I’ve recently started re-watching Burn Notice to help with a story idea I have. What other recommendations do you have on how spies fight?

For spies, combat is an absolute last resort. They’ll use it because they have to. When they do get into combat, what they’ll do will be heavily dictated by who they’re masquerading as.

If they need to eliminate someone to avoid blowing their cover, they’re going to need to take them down as hard and fast as possible. Preferably in a way that doesn’t point back at them. Sometimes this means killing their opponent, but as Westen points out throughout the series, leaving a dead body behind can actually draw more attention in the long run.

Like most genres, spy fiction ends up on a spectrum between formalism and realism. The issue is, at the extremes, they’re almost different genres, so I’m basically going to have to write two separate recommendation lists.

The formalistic genre is your superspies. This ranges from espionage themed action to comic book level insanity. Your spies are a different flavor of superhero. As a tonal element, formalistic spies actually work better when placed against supervillains, because you get a nice parity between them.

The realistic genre is the brutally bleak tradecraft. These are settings where spies will die if they get into actual fights with trained opponents, and saving the day often means outmaneuvering your opponents without resorting to overt action. At its extreme, the realistic genre can actually get bleaker than espionage in the real world, and that’s saying quite a bit.

The best material in the genre finds a mix between these two points, and stays there. So, you’re going to get two separate recommendation lists, just remember to take elements from both.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke