This is the espionage rant. And most of this does assume fantasy worlds, yes, so I expect that a lot of what I’m saying wouldn’t apply in straightforward spy novels/SF.
1) What makes your spy a good one?
One of the favorite ways to make a protagonist a spy, it seems, is to seize on a person the bad guys will never expect. “Oh, you’re too young, they’ll never think a teenager is the King’s trusted new spy!” Or “A woman can get in more easily than any of our men.”
And they really would have seized any random teenager or woman to fulfill this role, right? They don’t have any trained spies who just look young, or who are women?
This is the part that bothers me, because since spy missions have an element of danger and are almost always important, you should, well, send someone who has a chance of not giving him- or herself away the moment the bad guys spot ‘em.
Now, this doesn’t mean that a seemingly unlikely person can’t be a spy. I enjoyed Danilo Thann, in Elaine Cunningham’s Elfshadow, because he’s a bumbling idiot whose spells always misfire at parties—on the surface. Beneath it, he’s someone who listens carefully to all the gossip that people repeat in the presence of bumbling idiots, and he’s a talented mage whose misfires might take more actual work than more carefully-crafted spells. Both of those are carefully cultivated masks. They draw a lot of attention, but none of it is attention that’s harmful to his cause.
I fail to see how sending someone who has a hot temper, is prone to blurt out unfortunate facts and not look before leaping, and has little to no information on what she is actually supposed to be doing is the same as sending a credible spy.
I suppose this might make a good comedy of errors, but I think it would make an even better plot if the stupid spy is just the fall guy or the distraction, and the real one moves past while everyone stares at the girl screaming her lungs out over a political opinion that she was supposed to pretend to agree with. I’ve seen a few too many “naturally talented” characters who somehow, wow, turn out to be great spies!, usually because the author dumbs down the bad guys.
2) Have the smartest spy, if you must. Just don’t have the only smart one.
I read an alternative history recently where the author exalted his hero as the only competent spy in the British Intelligence Service. Yet, somehow, the British Intelligence Service also ruled the espionage world.
No, actually, I don’t think that you can build up a good protagonist by tearing down the other characters who share his profession. I think I may possibly have mentioned this at some point.
The best way, as always, is to show the protagonist as first among equals (or even as an equal, which is really not that hard. I think it would do some fantasy heroes some good to get honestly, fairly beaten by someone who’s a rival rather than an enemy, and not soothed with useless platitudes about “It’s not about who lost or won, it’s about how you played the game”). That only makes sense. If the spy service is a massively sprawling and yet also massively competent thing, that cannot solely be the work of one person. The competent person would surely have trained others to the same standard, for one. And if he’s competent as a result of training he received, then explain to me how those training methods somehow managed to produce one miracle and a whole lot of duds.
So. If you want a spy service rather than someone who’s learned to act as a spy on his own, perhaps as a mercenary, then make it a service—a community, not a bunch of dunderheads focused on worshipping a genius.
3) Show how spies filter through information to find the useful stuff.
I love watching characters as they think, love watching them go in some false directions, find this out, and then start off in new ones, and love it when I can follow the logic and leaps of intuition they use to figure things out. (This is one reason why the huge “explaino” scene at the end of so many mystery novels frustrates me. If the author hasn’t showed me how the detective reached his conclusions, I sulk, and if she has, then I don’t have to see it again).
But stretch this too far, and you’ve got characters putting together conclusions they never should have. It gets especially ludicrous when a spy looks at a knife and “somehow, she just knew that this meant Old Man Pardis wanted to start a war with Ithuka.”
Huh? What about the knife told her that? The forging, the blade, the hilt? Old bloodstains on it? The owner’s initials? A secret message in code on the back of the knife saying “Mwaahahahah! I am Old Man Pardis and I intend to start a war with Ithuka!”?
“Somehow” isn’t going to cut it, especially when you have people who are supposedly trained to rely on evidence and reasoning their conclusions out rather than wild leaps or guesses.
I think it’s fine to have contacts or minor spies who just report everything to the spy protagonist, whether or not it’s useful. They’re not as trained; something might be important, so they report it. But the main one should reach a conclusion that’s reachable based on what’s actually in front of him.
Also, while this is a minor point, it is a pet peeve of mine: can we please stop having spies reach some important conclusion, sprint out the door with it, and then wind up dead before they can tell anyone the information? The only exception is if they were on their way to report the important information when they got caught. Otherwise, I think at least telling the other trained spy standing right the fuck beside them when they figure it out is the top priority, not trying to stop the bad guy they have no training to stop.
4) Figure out the spy’s skills early on.
Yes, James Bond can tug out a new technological development every time he needs one in the movies; his training is less important than his gadgets. However, fantasy books that are written like movies and work are rare. I happen to think most of this is due to the fact that every other genre is currently represented better in movies than fantasy is. Most attempts to create, oh, CGI dragons don’t look anywhere near as good as the things that a fantasy book not written with cinema in mind can conjure.
Also, it’s hard to hit the exact mixture of serious and smartass that the James Bond movies aim for. They’re an established tradition. A fantasy novel that’s working outside a certain narrowly-defined subgenre is not, and has to set everything up on its own.
So, please, decide on the amount of these things available to your spy:
- Magical gadgets or objects.
- Technological gadgets, down to the simple things like rope. I object to the spy suddenly having a grappling hook to climb the castle wall when the author detailed the contents of his pack earlier and there was no such thing.
- Observation skills. Sure, there are rookie spies participating in less dangerous missions as well as experienced spies on more dangerous ones, but if he’s a rookie, why is he suddenly seeing things the trained spies would miss?
- Hand-to-hand combat or other fighting skills. I’ve seen a few fantasy novels ruined because the spy has no way to take on the bad guy because he can’t fight, knows it, and yet tries to attack the villain bare-handed instead of using the skills he does have.
- Allies in the area, including contacts and other spies.
- Enemies in the area, including enemy spies and the people he’s spying on.
This way, you won’t find yourself with a nice, calm, sane story that suddenly mutates into Inspector Gadget halfway through. If nothing else, I’m going to be wondering why the spy wasn’t using those nifty toys earlier, at the beginning of his mission.
5) Keep the danger factor as well as the cool factor in mind.
Rogue stories, of which stories about spies are a part along with stories that have thief and assassin heroes, often shed the danger factor in favor of the cool one. The heroes do insanely risky things for the pleasure of getting away with them. All the plans are complicated, nothing is simple. They have to follow long, tangled trails of intrigue laced with dark secrets, and then there are lots of explosions.
However, a spy protagonist has one very great difference from a thief or assassin. They are usually doing things that society at large disapproves of, and at most they’re responsible to a guild or a single patron who might have hired them. However, at least one society approves of spies—as long as they’re their spies, of course—and the arena in which they move is political, with responsibility and the weight of others’ lives, or at least their purses, hanging off their shoulders. I can accept a spy doing an insanely risky thing when it will further his mission or serve whoever hired him. I cannot accept him calling attention to himself when it will serve no purpose—look at point 1 again—or when he knows that it would be counterproductive to the purposes of his mission in the long run. And if he turns against the people he proved willing to risk life and limb in the first place for, he’d better have a good fucking reason.
Okay, so you might have a mercenary who works as a spy and would abandon his employers the moment he was in danger to save his own skin. But in that case, a) he’d probably have a reputation for doing so, and no one would hire him, and b) that would mean he’d underestimated the danger he was in in the first place, which does not indicate high observational skills. And please, please, please, no more “hardened spy looks at a child and is suddenly redeemed to the side of Light [the side that would never hire spies]” stories. It’s so fucking irritating when authors think people have to be ‘redeemed’ from the ‘crime’ of doing things for pay. I suppose that all the good country’s soldiers and artisans serve for free, then?
I’d like to see some more spies who are actually principled badasses, not just badasses.
6) Make sure the situation requires a spy/the kind of spy you send in.
In some cases, I’m really puzzled as to what the country could gain from sending in a spy. Okay, so this country is mysteriously withdrawing troops from the border. When the concerned neighboring country asks why through their ambassador, the first country admits there’s been a plague, they need the soldiers to help bring in the harvest now that so many people are dead so there’s not a famine on top of it, and oh, by the way, can they borrow some money? And the ambassador does see the signs of plague, and sees the soldiers working frantically in the fields. And this country has always had good relations with its neighbor, and nothing has happened lately to strain them.
Maybe it’s all a big, elaborate scheme, and the “dead” people are really hiding underground and training as horrible, death-crazed shock troops. And maybe there are pigs flying in Brazil.
Even if there’s reason to suspect that the situation is more complicated, the ambassador’s already on scene. Why not instruct him to keep a close eye on things instead of sending in some stranger who’s going to get weird looks, or possibly accusations of being a bastard, when he starts nosing into the plague-denuded areas? At least show why the neighboring country would have some reason to distrust its ambassador, or think this is all part of some elaborate plot. Having paranoia turn out to be 100% right all the time, on “a feeling,” is also getting old. (See point 3 again). Sometimes, they really aren’t out to get you.
Then there’s the case of having a spy in an organization that the protagonist works for. He’s leaking information to someone in the outside world about how many magically enhanced carrots the protagonist’s organization grows in a year.
Show why this information is important. This is what most frustrates me about “mole” stories: so many times there seems to be no one who would care about the information he’s leaking. But, ohmygod, there’s a traitor! Let’s hunt him down!
Priorities, priorities, priorities, people. Governments, the most frequent employers of spies in fantasy, consist of people, but they are also governments. They shouldn’t send spies on long journeys with complicated missions just because some minister had a bad dream. At least make the minister a seer.
7) Take precautions that are actually precautions.
Contacts, false names, passwords, and ciphers are among the most frequently-mentioned. There could also be magical safeguards, such as seals on letters that refuse to open until the proper song is sung to them. But then these are all forgotten at the crucial moment, of course—usually when the author wants the enemy to find out information and put the spy in danger. She just forgets to explain how that was done.
So there’s this unbreakable cipher. How was it broken so that the enemy could learn about the spy’s mission?
No, not mentioning it won’t do, not when you went to such lengths to emphasize that the cipher was unbreakable. Neither will saying that the enemy could have broken it all the time, because why the hell would they let the spy keep passing vital information out of the country for as long as they did?
Bad author. No cookie.
Then there’s the famous overheard conversation. Bad guys just walk into some room, don’t even check that a servant might be dozing behind the curtains of the old four-poster in the corner, and start yapping out complicated, detailed plans to each other.
This is lazy on at least three counts: the bad guys are stupid, the bad guys are holding infodumping monologues (often “As you know, Bob…” conversations, with villains asking for information they already know), and the person who overhears them usually does it entirely by chance, not careful planning. I object to calling a hero a hero when he only wins based on coincidence. Someone hurtled into an adventure they never wanted and filled with terror by what they overheard is one thing, but also a different kind of story. A trained spy should know better, and make more effort to actually discover what the villains are doing.
God, stupid spy stories annoy me.