Q&A: The Perils in Writing Spy Fiction

I’m writing a James Bond-esque spy (excluding the misogynism). I know full well that real spies aren’t as chic and cool as the percieved image of them are, so how do I write a spy that is more realistic but still retains the cool spy image? She (yes it’s a woman) works for the MI6.

What is, “cool?” I don’t need an answer, I need you to ask that question of yourself.

The problem with Bond isn’t that he’s a misogynist, it’s that he has a casual disregard for everyone around him. James Bond is not a good person. He’s vicious and vindictive. Some adaptations try to soothe the edges, but at the character’s core, Bond is a sneering imperialist. (Ironically, the 2006 adaptation of Casino Royale even comments on this in passing.)

My intro to American Politics instructor started her 100 level course with the comment that, “everything is politics.” James Bond is a character that carries a very potent, and political, statement baked right into the core of Ian Flemming’s power fantasy. Bond is the last gasp of the British Empire insisting that it, alone is suited to rule the world. Bond’s anglocentrism isn’t cartoonish, but it’s always there, and it informs a lot about how he behaves.

The worst part about Bond is how the fantastical elements further this. It’s easier to couch the semi-fictional SMERSH (СМЕРШ) as simple cold war posturing. However, in an effort to make the novels, “apolitical,” Flemming transitioned to SPECTRE, an organization that was patterned heavily off the Italian mob.

Anyone else see the problem here?

By making Bond’s foes into cartoonish supervillains, it endorses his worldview.

How do you deal with this? By necessity, spies need to have a functional understanding of international politics. If you’re wanting to work around a real place, take some time, and read up on the background. Some of that is the basic demographics, and culture, but also get conversant in the history, and current events. It’s what a real spy needs to do before operating there, and as a writer, something you need to do as well. Ironically, the CIA Factbook is still an excellent overview. and can be a starting point before digging into more specialized sources.

Stepping back, James Bond, as a character, isn’t the problem, it’s the genre that Flemming created. I would actually argue that, in spite of being a detestable piece of shit, Bond is actually a fairly well written character (mostly.) (There are some details that don’t work, or are downright comedic, such as the sheer amount of alcohol he consumes on a daily basis, or comparing his daily athletic regimen with how much he smokes.) The real danger (and this has plagued the film adaptations) is lifting the character without really ripping him apart to figure out what’s going on under the surface.

If you’ve never read Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country, it is an excellent spy comic. Granted, it’s about as far as you can get from a James Bond superspy series. Worth noting that series protagonist Tara Chace is a Special Operations Officer for MI6.

Beyond that, the early seasons of Burn Notice do an excellent job of blending practical tradecraft into a fairly slick spy series. It rarely trends into international man of mystery territory, but there are some discussions on the subject. Really, if you want an easily digestible spy primer, you can learn a lot from Burn Notice.

Finally, John le Carré is another easy recommendation. Usually, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is people’s introduction, but that’s actually halfway through a much longer series.

It may occur to you that none of those series are even in the same genre as Bond. There’s a reason, if you want to write a spy, you need to understand who they are as a character. The problem with Bond is that he almost never breaks from his cover identities. You can’t get an honest answer out of him about, basically, anything. Most of the superspy genre (and a depressing number of the Bond films) run with that, and accept the cover at face value. So you’re left with a character who only makes sense as a complete sociopath.

So, what you probably want to do is come to grips with the kind of person your character really is, and then you get them to pretend to be someone else on top of that.

Spies are difficult characters to pin down. The superspy genre tends to gloss over the surface read and leave you with superheroes and unfortunate implications. There’s isn’t a quick route into the mindset of a spy, but, stepping back from Bond, and looking at more grounded spy fiction, before continue will help you find that mindset.

-Starke

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One thought on “Q&A: The Perils in Writing Spy Fiction”

  1. Piling on, I’d say SMERSH was a lot more than routine Cold War posturing. The thing is that while they’re ostensibly a Soviet black ops agency, Bond almost never fights actual Soviets. All the bad guys he meets are Westerners recruited by SMERSH, who happen to embody a particular danger to the traditional social order that a mid-twentieth-century British Imperialist would find disturbing – labor unions (Le Chiffre), black power (Mr. Big), Irish nationalism (Red Grant), or, and here’s where he’s especially old-fashioned, the nouveau riche (Drax, Goldfinger). SMERSH is basically a plot device to tie all these things together into some sort of massive Kremlin plot.

    … Which becomes interesting when you remember how many of the people running intelligence and security agencies really wanted to believe that these kinds of movements or parts of society were under Soviet control to justify cutting loose on them (see J. Edgar Hoover’s crusade against MLK and any kind of black activism, in the United States).

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