On Spies (Personality)

“Intelligence work has one moral law—it is justified by results.”

-John Le Carre, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. (10)

Spying is a difficult business. Writing about spies with any accuracy is also an incredibly difficult business; this is why the foundational giants of the genre from Ian Fleming to John Le Carre have been ex-intelligence. Without that background, it can be easy to misunderstand that the ability to be a spy comes from the tradecraft and the training. It’s common among writers to build the character first, then give them their skill set. While this will work for a vast number of different character archetypes, functional spies require a fairly specific outlook and it is developed by a specific type of background though that comes from a generic set of circumstances.

Spies can’t be good people and that’s okay, because good people can’t be spies.


As much as James Bond has become a joke and a power fantasy over the years, when you strip it all away what you find is a dysfunctional human being who uses sex as a cover for avoiding an emotional connection. The seduction is part of the tradecraft, but the inability to truly connect with someone (man or woman) on the level of one human being feeling something for another, that is what makes him good at being a spy.

“People with happy families don’t become spies. A bad childhood is the perfect background for covert ops. You don’t trust anyone, you’re used to getting smacked around, and you never get homesick.”

-Michael Westen, Burn Notice 1×01

 A good spy is one who has an innate distrust of other human beings. They are not pathological liars. Pathological liars don’t make good spies because their lies inevitably become easy to spot. A spy doesn’t have the luxury of getting lonely, of wanting to be with others of their kind. They can’t afford to miss home because it becomes one more passage into their psyche that an enemy operative can use to exploit them. Their personal connections, the people they care about, will inevitably be drawn in as pawns in the international espionage game of cat and mouse.

A spy knows this well, because it’s a spy’s job to do this to others.

A spy has to be comfortable with betrayal. They have to be comfortable with betraying the people who trust them. They have to be comfortable with convincing people to trust them with the knowledge that they will betray them and their confidences constantly and consistently, sometimes over years, even lifetimes. It won’t matter, really, what they feel about the people that they are betraying because a spy doesn’t have the luxury to feel guilty or the luxury of the morally “right” choice. The divorce rate among CIA agents is somewhere around 80%.

The job of a spy is to destroy lives. I don’t mean that from the intelligence gathering perspective, but from the way a spy interacts with their assets. A spy goes into flipping someone with the knowledge that they are going to destroy their life whether that takes the shape of a bullet in the back of the head or a suicide later in life. A spy must coax an enemy agent through the full mental breakdown as they tear themselves apart running up against their own ideology and betrayal of what they may stand for.

Spies are not nice people, they are not good people, and nothing you do will make them a good person. They aren’t fixable. They need to be the way they are to survive in their job, to stay sane. You can justify what they are doing, you can give them a background that explains why they have evolved to be they way they are, but in the end, deep down, they are nasty, cold hearted, deceitful people. They have to be, it’s the only way a spy can survive.

Unlike other forms of combat, you can’t train a spy from birth in the traditional sense. A spy, in fact, requires a very generic and very specific childhood to be able to make it the espionage business. However, that does not require any combat training. Tradecraft is easy to pick up and easy to master at any age, the ability to use it successfully starts early with abusive and neglectful families. A spy who is raised to be a spy in a happy family will come to associate their sense of home with the behavior of other spies. This includes enemy agents. Stop and think about all the ways a spy getting homesick for the company of other spies is a horribly bad idea. (Ninjas only work within the context of feudal Japan.)

Spies are broken people and begin as broken children. Abuse can take many forms and come from many different angles, but the end result is fairly similar: a person who has difficulty connecting with others on an emotional level and who has learned that trust and friendship only lead to betrayal, so betray early and viciously before they have the chance. Better yet, never care at all.

However, an abusive family can come from anywhere. A good spy can be the daughter of a wealthy business man just easily as they could be a hungry pickpocket on the streets. It’s best not to assume that because someone comes from a certain social position in society that their growing up experience was not its own kind of hell.

If it’s a question of whether or not the spy will be likeable, don’t worry about it. There’s a difference between a character that you would sit down to have a beer with and one that you enjoy reading about. Dysfunctional people, broken people are incredibly interesting to read about. Spy fiction is a form of voyeurism and tourism much in the same way fantasy is.

The question for you, if you are looking to write authentic spy fiction, is do you have the stomach for it? Can you write a character that will knowingly create orphans by subverting a single parent?

(One brief caveat: this is a breakdown for professional spies, if you’re writing an amateur spy such as Harriet the Spy or another kind of story where the main character doesn’t need to worry about being murdered, betrayed, disappeared, or executed by a foreign power then don’t worry about it.)

Suggested Reading and Viewing:

John Le Carre. Anything by him, really. Actually read all of it. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, A Perfect Spy, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, etc. (tradecraft and personality)

The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum (not a spy, but good tradecraft)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) BBC miniseries with Alec Guinness.

The Sandbaggers (1978-1980)

Queen and Country by Greg Rucka

Spy Game (2001)

The 4th Protocol (1987)