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5 Things for Writers to Keep in Mind When Writing About Spies

A spy thriller requires more than a compelling story and clever plot twists—the characters need to feel real. Author Stephanie Marie Thornton offers 5 tips for constructing believable spy characters.

“No one is born to do spy work—it must be learned.”

-Jacob Golos, A Most Clever Girl

Elizabeth Bentley’s handler in A Most Clever Girl may have laughed at her for digging through her boss’ trash for important papers—she had yet to learn that important papers get burned, not saved—but there’s a learning curve to being a spy, or writing one, for that matter! For those interested in a career in espionage, or perhaps just writing a character who happens to be a spy, here are a few things to keep in mind.

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5 Things for Writers to Keep in Mind When Writing About Spies

1. Being a real-life spy isn’t always James Bond-glamorous.

I hoped when I set out to write about a real-life spy that I’d get to write high speed chases and daring shoot-outs, but in fact, the job of a spy—and especially that of a handler—mostly involves visiting contacts and sifting through a lot of static, like a pre-Netflix television station gone off the air. However, spies are typically brilliant when it comes to reading people—your spy character needs to be curious and patient, especially since a former-CIA handler informed me it takes seven years for a spy to get their footing!

2. Normal people make the best spies.

In real life, handlers are looking for a Regular Joe or Plain Jane with access—they don’t want someone who sticks out in a crowd or whose life is in disarray. They also want someone who is honest and immediately willing to own up to any mistakes they might have made. (Elizabeth Bentley may have had problems with this.) So, having a character who is bland as vanilla (at least on the outside) may work well in your favor.

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3. Your spy could be overheard at any moment.

I made the mistake in an early draft of having my spy argue with her handler in an apartment hallway, which was a total rookie error, especially given that they were arguing about a contact. (For the record, I would have made a terrible spy.) It’s a good idea to have your spy flip on the radio to cover important conversations, or meet in a loud restaurant. (Which also solves the problem of having a potentially bugged apartment.) Even better is to meet near a water feature—the sound of falling water is unique and difficult to filter out even in modern-day recordings.

4. Spy gadgets are really cool. Ticking off the KGB is not.

Let’s be honest—shoe phones and umbrella guns are just plain nifty. Over the course of writing A Most Clever Girl, I got to include clandestine watch cameras, chess boards with secret compartments, and Russian one-time pads. However, if your spy character runs afoul of the KGB (or one of its many predecessors), be prepared for creative assassination attempts that may or may not make use of more lethal spy gadgets. (Just ask Bohdan Stashynsky, a KGB officer who used a cyanide spraying spray gun to assassinate two Ukrainian nationalist leaders.) In a pinch, the Russians might resort to a tactic like Leon Trotsky’s ice pick to the face, but either way, it’s not going to be much fun for their target.

5 Things for Writers to Keep in Mind When Writing About Spies

5. You need a good reason to be a spy.

While being a spy ranks on the coolness factor with being a ninja or an assassin (or better yet, an assassin ninja), it’s a dangerous gig, and not just anyone is going to sign up. (Or make the cut, for that matter.) Idealists often make the best spies, but there are other motivations that might get your character to join up with the CIA, KGB, or some other spy organization. Does your character need the money being offered? Are they looking for a sense of purpose or belonging? Do they have an axe to grind with the government? Also, remember that the CIA doesn’t coerce people into informing for them. The Russians, on the other hand… Well, they’re a different story. 

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