Q&A: Superspies, REALISM, and the Ethics of Stale Beer

I would just like to ask about the super spy genre. The one where the character-usually an attempt at grey morality and a failed one at that-is a spy and has to deal with some sort of espionage or generally cool, badass stuff. James Bond, for example. The character that started it all off. I’ve always loved reading the genre, trying to get into writing it. I’m just terrible at writing action realistically, and wanting to ask if you had some helpful resources for making it realistic and engaging.

The superspy is an awkward creature. The genre is another flavor of pulp. I realize this may seem pejorative, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with the genre. It’s how we got the first superheroes after all. However, unlike the spandex and leather crowd, spies come from a very unheroic reality.

So, let’s step back for a second and talk about where it comes from.

The gray on gray morality you usually find in spy fiction comes from some realities of being a spy. We’ve talked about it before, in depth, but being a spy is not a job that rewards being, “a good person.” Ultimately, it’s a job where you’re manipulating other people into completing your goals, often at their expense.

John La Carre’s is still my first recommendation for that kind of realistic espionage fiction. (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is probably his most recognizable work, even though it’s in the middle of a series.) The Sandbaggers, a British TV series from the late 70s is another favorite, though that one’s a little more difficult to source.

While it’s a little reductive, it’s not completely inaccurate to say that a spy cannot be heroic on their face. The context around them allows us to rationalize their actions as heroic, but in the moment, it’s dark stuff.

Put another way (and to paraphrase Burn Notice‘s narrator), a spy is a criminal who preys upon others. They justify their actions because they’re working in support of a higher calling (whether that’s patriotism, ideology, or some other group that has their loyalty.)

This does not mean that a spy is automatically unethical or evil, however many of the tools they will need to employ do come with a real human cost on the people around them.

And then we drop a superhero into the mix and ask them to do it instead.

Make no mistake, the superspy is a superhero. They probably benefit from the demigod durability of a conventional action hero, and they usually supplement it with an array of advanced gadgets.

It’s worth noting that the gadgets that superspies like Bond play with are, in fact, rooted in a degree of reality. Tradecraft has resulted in a lot of very specialized espionage tools. Micro-cameras and highly concealed weapons are two of the big examples. You’re not going to see a car mounted with concealed machine guns and an ejector seat, or a laser watch, but you could certainly find a watch designed to conceal a garotte. If you’re looking for a realistic take on spies, I would recommend researching these tools. It’s not only a fascinating rabbit hole, but it can help you get into the mindset.

So, what we have with the superspy is Batman in a tuxedo. (Ignoring for a moment that a tux is going to limit your mobility. You can still walk around, but as a tailor once told me, “you’re not going to be doing cartwheels in [your suit].”) So far as it goes, that’s fine. That’s the genre, and it embraces the absurdity. Realism becomes a becomes a minor trap, because you’re not going for the real world. You’re writing a comic book or action movie (in prose.)

When writing anything, the only way to learn is by practice. As writers, we write so much garbage that no one else sees. It’s a stepping stone as we’re learning what works and what doesn’t. There’s no shame in it. If you read something you wrote, and you’re not happy with it, wipe and rewrite it. (I know I’ve said, “keep your old drafts around,” and that remains true; you don’t want to lose something that worked.)

When you’re looking at something you wrote, and it doesn’t work for you, try to figure out why. “Why?” is the most important question. “Why?” will tell you what you need to correct. If you don’t know at first, give it some time, roll it around in your head, do other things, and come back when you have an idea. A strength of writing is that you do not need to have an answer ready the moment you see a problem.

With that in mind, you don’t need a superspy to be realistic. You want them to be consistent. You want your reader to be invested, that means you need to give them challenges that are comparable to how powerful they are. Spies (and superspies) as a genre create a wonderful shield to abuse the hell out of your protagonist because the spy genre tends to be pretty bleak.

Finally, you’ve done one of the most important things, you’ve read the genre. (More than I have. I could probably count the number of superspy novels I’ve read on one hand.) So, you need to ask yourself, “why?” Why does this appeal to you? What parts of the work catch and hold you? This can give you a good idea of what you want to do and how you want to approach the superspy. Remember that there are multiple genres of spy fiction, and keep those separate when you’re analyzing a piece. Decide what works for you, what you want to do, and what fits in a different genre. (As a quick aside, it doesn’t matter if your categories match anyone else’s. This is to extract as much useful analysis for you and your writing. For example: You don’t need someone else to sign off on whether Jason Bourne is a superspy, a regular spy, or an assassin. Pick what you want from it, and run with that.)

If what you create is interesting and fun to read, it will engage readers. I realize that can feel like a, “just draw the rest of the owl,” answer, but keep working at it and rewriting it. Don’t expect perfection on your early passes. You’re learning, and you can always improve further.

-Starke

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