The Ninja: I don’t mean actual historical ninjas. This is the cultural perception of guys in black masks who leap between buildings like Spider-Man. The Assassin’s Creed assassins a.k.a the guys who can’t kill their way out of a paper bag. The supposedly human character whose training gives them a hefty dose of superpowers with a side of Orientalism and fetishizing of “insert Eastern culture here”. Believe it or not guys, people do look up.
The Forced Prodigy: “My character is a super awesome killer, but they were forced to learn these skills”. No. In order to be good at something, you have to enjoy it and you have to want to be good at it. You have to want to learn. An assassin is a hired killer, they kill people for either money or a cause. They stalk them, they invade their lives, they learn everything they can about their target, and then they hunt them down. It’s not the sort of profession you thrive in if you’re squeamish. More, the sorts of organizations we’re talking about aren’t going to take someone who doesn’t want to learn or train someone who actively resents them. Talent isn’t everything, in the long run it actually means very little. Someone who wants want you’re offering, who sees this new addition in their life as an improvement, is much more valuable. The individual who chooses the life, even if it was originally chosen for them, will always beat out the unwilling no matter how much natural talent they possess. There are plenty of other candidates where your character came from. If you want them to succeed, they’re going to have to prove themselves.
Undone By Love: You mentioned this one. The Best Assassin in the World is undone by… a pretty face? What? Seduction is a standard part of the assassin package for men and women. It’s a lot easier to kill someone by attacking their blind spot and history proves sexual attraction is a great one. Assassins are going to be deeply screwed up individuals, their understanding of normal is nowhere near the standard cultural baseline. It’s easiest to start understanding it by assuming everything you understand is inverted: kindness is a lie, interest means you want something, trust is a sign of an inevitable back stab. When you live in a world of shadows and lies, paranoia is inevitable. “Normal” people are either background noise or enemies in disguise. Staying one step ahead is how you stay alive and if you can do this to other people then it can also be done to you. So, someone who shows them kindness? Why would they ever trust that?
The Oliver Twist: This is like Undone by Love. The idea is that once the assassin gets a taste of real life outside the walls of their compound, once they experience kindness, once they experience normalcy, they’re going to want that and realize their life has been a lie. “I just want to be normal’. Well, this comes from a mistaken assumption on the part of the author about the character because they’re assuming:
1) that they’re baseline for normal is normal.
2) that once exposed, everyone is going to want to have what they have and be like them.
An assassin is trained with the understanding that they will eventually go out into the “real world”. Part of their job is infiltration and that means learning how to fit in, perhaps in a multitude of different cultures. Psychology, human behavior, seduction, and general social skills are going to be part of the package. You can’t manipulate individuals without understanding them, understanding their concept of normal is going to be necessary. Normal is relative. It’s important to consider that a character who kills people for a living may not want to be like the people they kill or like their creator (you).
Biting the Hand That Feeds Them: The assassin goes out into the world, realizes what they are, has an epiphany, and says “I must stand against the evil!”. This is an assumption about morals. Killing is wrong, ergo the assassin must be wrong, when they realize they are wrong they will want to make it right by… killing more people? Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoon morality, where things are black and white and everyone is immortal until someone slits their throat. Death is the natural conclusion to life. People die. In fact, they die all the time. If your character is a professional assassin, they’ve made peace with murder and the muddy waters they wade through. They kill. Death is part of them. Why is one person more or less worthy of life than another? In their mind, some of the people they kill may indeed have it coming. What makes their organization and what they do so much worse than the good guys?
Writing any character who fights involves wrestling your personal philosophy and your morals. Why we fight, why we kill, why we commit atrocities have been a central focus of human philosophy throughout history. There aren’t any easy answers to those questions, nor are there universal ones. Like spies, assassins are among the hardest to understand because of the manner in which they kill. They have to be able to empathize with their target, they don’t have the same luxury of dehumanization that a soldier does. They get to know people with the intent to kill and if you’re not able to get comfortable with that then writing it can be very hard.
The Assassin With A Heart of Gold: The assumption that turning around on their masters makes them a good person, or that doing the right thing somehow absolves them. Black Widow’s “red ledger” line from Avengers. Essentially, the Atoner. I’m sick of the Atoning Assassin. “I’m doing the right thing because I want to make up for my past mistakes” by killing more people. I mean, sure, it’s funny but really. They’re essentially doing the exact same thing they did before but this time it’s okay because of authorial fiat. They’re working for the good guys now. That makes them a good person.
No. They may have changed sides, but if they’re still killing then they’re still the same person. At it’s heart, killing is killing. There is no good killing and no bad killing, there’s just killing. Every person is someone’s mother or father, brother or sister, aunt or uncle, niece or nephew, every person your character kills matters to someone. It’s not people in general, or those people over there, the person being killed is an individual. Your assassin knows they’re killing an individual, they know that because it’s part of their training.
So, why does this individual matter? What is it about this one that made them change their mind? They go through all their training, fully understanding what they’re being asked to do because it won’t work if they don’t, kill all those other people and then they get to this one person who makes them realize their entire life is wrong? Why? It’s not because they’ve suddenly realized killing is wrong.
Figure it out or become an internally inconsistent cliche.
So, what would we personally like to see more of?
Well, don’t do the above and you’re well on your way to what we’d like to see. The Professional Assassin, The Cheerful Assassin, and The Gleeful Assassin, so long as they aren’t presented as villains. Personality types that go in for something other than “sour, dour, moody, broody” and “angsty, whiny, poor me, victim”. Characters who don’t sit around talking about how awesome and dangerous they are or make grandiose claims about their skill set while never backing it up.
What about you, followers? What assassin archetypes do you hate? What would you like to see more of in fiction?