Writing Examples: Sizing Up Opponents (Assassins)

Description is important. It’s important for all the reasons we usually think of when we’re writing, from making our settings come alive to fleshing out other characters. However, observations made by a character are also important to telling the audience about that character. It’s an insight into how they think and what they notice in the world around them. However – while this works as a basis for most characters – when working with a trained combatant, or even a fighter, we need to take it a step further. What a trained combatant sees and relays to the reader can be an important tip off, not just to who they are, but what they’ve been trained to do and what kind of combatant they are. It’s also a good indication that they are actively participating and this can lend a sense of danger to an environment. If you’re good at it, it may help the reader come to view the world in a way that they hadn’t considered before.

All these things are important to selling a professional operative, but they are necessary when working with an assassin.  Well, they are if you want the assassin taken seriously. Below, we’ll talk about how to do that.

If you have a character who is supposed to be an excellent assassin then they should probably be thinking about killing people. You know the line: “be professional, be polite, and have a plan to kill everyone you meet”? Well, your assassin should literally be in the middle of planning or beginning to plot to kill everyone they meet, even if they aren’t intending to murder them. The more adept your assassin is then the more obvious disconnect between the way they behave towards others and what they are thinking about doing to them should be to the reader.

Assassins plot to kill people in the same way that spies constantly tell lies. It’s as easy as breathing and they do it to stay in practice. A well executed assassination is all about the prep work: getting to know the target’s habits, observing them in their native or non-native environment, finding the weaknesses in their protection, determining what they love, and where they are going to be most vulnerable. This can actually be very helpful to writing an assassin because the assassin must be constantly on the move, constantly out in tense situations, and working hard manipulating key assets to get what they need to do their job.

They do not want people to know who they are. The more people who know and the more they broadcast their nature then the more likely it is that someone will track them down or recognize them when they are on a job. Assassins work covertly, if your assassin is famous then it’s likely that people on the street, the criminal element, and other assassins will prioritize eliminating them. When an assassin reveals their nature or has their nature revealed then they lose their advantage.

Personality Traits:

Good assassins are patient, skilled at social manipulation (including seduction), are excellent actors, have great social and situational awareness, and they are very observant. They are also meticulous and methodical.

What an assassin is looking for:

Use and abuse is an assassin’s mantra. They are looking for assets who can provide information on their target, they may manipulate these assets for information about their target or even convince them to follow or find their target for them. So, when an assassin is assessing a person or an environment they are looking for traits and quirks that will provide them with an advantage or be potentially dangerous to them. That assessment may come from what the character is wearing, their looks, how they stand, and thousands of other things


In this setup, I’m going to borrow a situation from Sarah J. Mass’ Throne of Glass with a twist: eight assassins are called to the King’s palace to compete in a competition for the cushiest and most boring job of all time. The winner will become the King’s Assassin, a warrior of such renown that all they can do is distract the King’s political enemies while the real work gets done and provide the Ladies of the Court with more reasons to swoon. In this example, our brave heroine Kayla will be sizing up her first target, the effervescent playboy that, for the sake of this exercise, we’ll call Number Five (also Pretty Boy).

It was easy to see why Number Five had been picked. He was very pretty and stood with a courtier’s grace. He had an aquiline nose, a tall forehead that disappeared into his chestnut hairline, wide set hazel eyes that languidly surveyed the room, and, of course, pouty lips. It was the sort of visage any girl or boy in court might swoon for and the kind that could be considered aesthetically pleasing to those who did not find him attractive. In his face, he had cultivated the appearance of likeability. Under his clothes, it was probably another story.  His finery stretched the length of his body, soft calf-skin boots, tight cream pants, and a decorated over shirt with wide sleeves that ran the length of his arm. When he moved, she caught the vague impression of wrist sheathes just behind the tapered cuffs embroidered in gold thread.

There were no knives in those sheathes –like her poison ring, Pretty Boy could not have gotten knives, enchanted or otherwise, past the King’s Guard or the Magical Alarm – he simply wore them to make an impression. Perhaps his intent was to lend the appropriate air of danger? Yes, Kayla thought as she lifted a glass off a passing tray, this was a man who would seduce the servants first and that could be a problem for her. She lifted the glass to her lips, fluttering her eyelashes coquettishly at no one in particular. Tilting the amber liquid toward her mouth, she held her breath and pretended to sip. Her lips did not touch the rim. If she had to guess from the way his eyes followed the bustles of passing females, he would choose the women first. It could make him useful. If he proved to be a cad, then he would drive potential sources among the servants to her. Shared hatred was a wonderful access point when looking to make new friends. If he’s not…

Then, she had found her first target. Kayla lifted the thin stem of her glass to Pretty Boy and the corners of his tightened in return.

Game on.

You can do a lot of things with your assassins and, as always, this is just an example.


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