I love your blog!!! I’m writing a spy fiction novel which requires a lot of details on combat and training – I’m planning to have weapons and also physical combat. Seeing as I know nothing of it, this blog is literally saving my life. THANK YOU SO MUCH!

You’re very welcome!

Starke and I are going to do some write ups on spies vs. assassins and spies in particular soon (ish?), we’ve got a lot of stuff we’re putting together. But in the mean time, let me direct you to some helpful media that’s both very informative when it comes to talking about what a spy is, because the way most folks (even really good writers) approach them in fiction is completely wrongheaded.

Spies are all about social engineering over combat, though they do have training, if a spy is forced to fight it usually means something has gone very wrong and shit has hit the fan. Here are some examples that I’ve personally found really useful for distinguishing the difference between a spy versus an assassin. For reference, James Bond and Movie!Bourne both fall into the assassin category.

Burn Notice, (2007-Current) The story of burned spy Michael Westin as he tries to survive in Miami and uncover who burned him, he helps down on their luck people on the side. The latest few seasons are kinda meh but the first two are an absolute must watch, Westin’s internal monologue makes the show pretty much an example of “How To Be A Spy”. It has the added bonus of all the advice being practical and all the devices working because they tested all of it. Some of the bomb stuff is wrong (chemicals mostly), but that’s to be expected. If you take a look at nothing else (or can’t find them) on this list, look into this one. (It’s also really good!)

Spy Game (2001) with Brad Pitt and Robert Redford. Half the movie is Redford’s character flashing back to training Brad Pitt’s character on how to be a spy (very useful and good information), the rest is him working using a variety of bluffing and social engineering techniques to secure the same character’s release from a Chinese prison without ever leaving his office. It’s worth a look on that alone, the training examples are also incredibly useful.

Queen & Country – This comic book gem by Greg Rucka is based, somewhat on Sandbaggers a British television show from the seventies (also on the list). It’s one of the only books I’ve ever come across with a realistic and believable female spy as it’s central protagonist (as opposed to non-believable and non-realistic). It’s also a good example of how intelligence gathering functions and how British spies work in particular.

Sandbaggers (1978) This British television show is going to be harder to find, but not impossible. It’s good to look at, not just for field agents, but also their minders and how spies are often caught up with their own country’s internal politics and bureaucracy. It’s a precarious balance between duty to their charges and their responsibility to their superiors and the good of their country. Even if this isn’t the central tenant to what you’re thinking about doing, it can be a great reference for creating background characters and tensions.

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum. The book, not the movie, where Jason Bourne is an amnesiac spy trying to convince everyone that he is an assassin in order to fulfill a mission he barely remembers in an attempt to uncover his past. It has some great stuff on how spies behave, social engineering, and a really solid female supporting character who is much more than just a love interest. (Marie rocks.)

Starke would probably have some more suggestions but he’s sleeping, if you need more information, our askbox is always open.

Some contrary examples for assassins:

Collateral (2004) with Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise. A cab driver is held hostage by a contract killer and forced to drive him around Los Angeles for a night. To get into the role, Cruise dressed in a FedEx/ UPS/Mail Order uniform and went around town delivering packages in an effort to get into character and see if most people really didn’t look past the uniform. None of them did.

Spartan (2004) with Val Kilmer, watch it. The investigation into a the kidnapping of the daughter of a high ranking government official. It’s got some good info and is great for comparison to the spies.

The Bourne Movies with Matt Damon. He’s an assassin and the movies are a little boring but it’s good for reference and he does some good work here and there with his avoiding detection.

Some Examples I’m not sure on, but you should watch anyway:

Ronin (1998) with Robert DeNiro and Jean Reno, a freelancing former U.S. Intelligence agent is trying to track down a package wanted by both the Irish and the Russians. This is another great example of social engineering and it’s a great movie!

I hope any and all of this turns out to be useful and happy writing!