Spies: A Few Things Writers & Roleplayers Should Know About Them

Spies are pretty popular characters both in fiction and in roleplays, but there's quite a bit of confusion on what spies are supposed to do and exactly how they might go about doing it. So here's a basic look into that.

Table of Contents

Spies and assassins are not the same thing.

Many people treat spies and assassins as if they're one and the same thing. In fact, spies and assassins perform different functions, even if assassins must occasionally rely on subterfuge to see their goals met. Where assassins are hired to kill people, spies are hired to collect and relay information to someone else. That's it. A spy who killed someone would be at even greater risk for being discovered and arrested, as investigations of the murder might lead up to the spy. Even if investigators only discover that the spy committed the murder and didn't find out about the spying, the spy's employers might not easily be able to get someone else inside.

While it might be tempting to justify a spy doubling as an assassin by saying that the spy needs to be able to get rid of of people who get too suspicious or nosy, mysterious disappearances and dead bodies are about as suspicious as it gets, especially if they have connections to highly sensitive things. That, along with the subsequent investigation and increased attention, would only put the spy into an even more awkward position. So while a spy could hypothetically also be an assassin, it probably wouldn't be all that helpful or useful in the long run.

The techniques and tools are often less exciting and glamorous than Fictionland portrays.

Rather than climb twenty stories up a building with suction cups and stick a listening device onto an office window, or slip through an air vent wearing a catsuit to listen in on a conversation, a real spy is more likely to slip a recording device into the office while dressed as, if not actually employed as a custodian. (Also, while we're here, a stealthy climb through an air vent - assuming that for some freakish reason the air vent is consistently large enough to fit through - is impossible, and a sustained climb up a glass building without being noticed on the way up is highly improbable.)

While fictional spy gadgets are often top-of-the-line, sometimes custom-made tools that can do almost anything you can think of, real spy gadgets are often fairly simple off-the-shelf affairs with fairly simple functions - video and audio recording devices, listening devices, cellular jammers, and the like. Of course, your universe may justify something more fantastic - but, you might consider taking a look at Creating Plausibly Functional & Useful Tools, Gadgets, & Weapons For Fiction and ask yourself whether your fantastic gadgets really are justified, or whether you'd be reinventing the wheel or using something pointlessly complicated.

Many of the skills that fictional spies have aren't actually necessary for real spies, and real spies require skills that fiction often overlooks.

Many people seem to think that having exceptional fighting skill is part and partial to the spy package, likely due to so many fictional spies being crack shots and martial arts masters. Likewise, there's a perception that spies all need to be attractive and suave. But as the point of a spy is to collect and relay information, these aren't necessarily that important. Skills that are important include:

The most effective spies are the ones you never knew were there until it's too late.

Optimally, those being spied upon will never know a spy has been in their presence until it's impossible or at least very difficult for them to retaliate. Otherwise, the discovery of a spy may put the hiring party in a lot of hot water. For example, a company that's been discovered to have been sending spies out to competitors will likely face legal repercussion. If one country's spies are found in another country, then the spied-upon country will lose trust in the spying country (if it was there to begin with), and may withdraw or withhold any alliance or support it had or had considered giving, or may even see it as reason to take aggressive action against the spying country.

Even if those spied on can't immediately figure out exactly who is spying on them, as soon as they realize someone is spying on them they'll start trying to figure out who and will take whatever measures they can to tighten security, thus making the spy's job harder. So, good spies should do whatever possible to make sure that whoever they're spying on has no reason to suspect a spy in the first place.

Other things competent spies will do:

You might also be interested in:

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Plotting, Conniving, & Manipulating - What It Isn't, And What It Is
Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations
Things About Computers & Hacking Writers Need To Know

Tips To Write Better Royalty, Nobility, & Other Upper-Class & Important Characters
On Writing Sympathetic Morally-Ambiguous Characters
Assassins: Tips & Guidelines To Write & Play Them More Believably
On Writing & Roleplaying Mysterious Characters
Writing Characters Who Work Behind The Scenes & From The Shadows

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