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.
- The techniques and tools are often less exciting and glamorous than Fictionland portrays.
- Many of the skills that fictional spies have aren't actually necessary for real spies, and real spies require skills that fiction often overlooks.
- The most effective spies are the ones you never knew were there until it's too late.
- Other things competent spies will do:
- Killing a spy should be a last resort.
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:
- Inspiring trust and confidence. A spy needs to appear to be the kind of person that one could trust with sensitive information, which means behaving in a responsible and trustworthy manner, or generally appearing to be the kind of person one could open up to. (On the other hand, being snarly, contrary, and obstinate with the people one is trying to get information from would be counterproductive and wouldn't get the spy very far at all.)
- Being able to keep secrets. This not only means having the ability to keep one's mouth shut, but also being able to keep one's activities from being noticed and one's spy-related stuff from being found.
- Being able to avoid drawing attention to oneself. One of the best ways to avoid being found out is to make oneself uninteresting or innocuous enough that nobody starts looking one's way very much in the first place Thus, a dumpy middle-aged woman could potentially be a much more effective spy than an attractive young coquette.
- Self-control. Related to the above, a spy will have to be able to stay out of trouble in order to avoid attracting needless attention. Plus, a spy may have to play nice with someone who is really obnoxious for a fairly long time in order to gain access to desired information.
- Having a lot of patience. It can take months, even years to get the information that one is after; a spy needs to have the patience necessary to see a long-term job like that through.
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:
- Avoid claiming to be things they can't play out. For example, a spy who claims to be a medical doctor while lacking the knowledge a real medical doctor would have risks exposure if someone starts asking too many questions relating to the medical field, or asks the spy for assistance in a medical emergency.
- Keep false identities simple. The simpler and less detailed an identity is, the easier it is for the spy to remember and the harder it is for others to falsify.
- Give plausible and innocuous answers when asked questions. Avoiding answering questions is a surefire way to raise suspicion, so spies should try to give something that answers the question without raising more.
- Volunteer no more information than necessary. When people receive simple and vague (yet plausible) answers to their questions, they'll generally fill in the blank spots themselves with whatever makes sense to them, and simple answers are easier for the spy to keep straight. On the other hand, a more complicated answer is more likely to have a factual error that can be caught, and will be harder for the spy to remember the particulars of.
Killing a spy should be a last resort.
One major problem with killing a spy upon discovery is that you don't have the spy's handler, nor do you know how (or from whom!) the spy was collecting information, nor do you know what the spy and the spy's people do and do not know at this point. If you really want to protect your assets, this is all critical information to find out. (One way that this information may be discovered is to essentially spy on the spy for awhile.)
Spies can also potentially be made into assets. A turned spy can be very valuable, as you can potentially learn a lot about your enemies and have the spy feed them false information. Thus you can keep your enemies in the dark about what you're really doing while possibly tricking them into wasting their own effort and resources on a pointless endeavor. Failing that, one can also feed the spy false information to achieve the same ends.
Another problem with killing a spy is that the spy's agency might very well start sending down spies in pairs and have them take extra precautions to avoid getting offed or to make sure that their intel reaches its target. This could very well be what leads to a collection of very damning evidence. And if one spy gets caught, the other spy might be somewhere nearby recording the whole thing or might be off delivering the damning intel to HQ.
It must also be noted that killing a spy is not likely to protect a secret location the spy has infiltrated. Whoever the spy is working for probably knows where this location is already - that's most likely how the spy found it in the first place! If the spy actually did track this place down, then odds are that the spy's employers still know where you are because the spy most likely had that very juicy tidbit relayed back to mission control ASAP for just in case the spy got caught and they needed to send someone else in.
In many cases, getting rid of a spy can be done through perfectly legal and non-murderous means. Corporate spies, for example, can simply be arrested as their actions are illegal already. And when it comes to spies hired by governments to spy on other governments, they're actually more likely to be deported than killed.
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