Do you have any advice for writing characters undercover? Thanks!
So, we’ve covered this topic a lot in the past. Undercover operatives, intelligence agents, black ops, assassins, and spies I’d start with a spies search on our website, as that’ll get you started. The really good references will be there. My big advice for writing any kind of spy fiction is to have a clear idea of what you want and which genre you’re chasing. Do want James Bond or George Smiley? You can blend these genres, but it’s a good idea to have a clear idea as that’ll define your narrative.
The first thing to understand about spies and any sort of shadow operative is the Burn Notice quote: “A spy is just a criminal with a government paycheck.”
Take a look at this passage. This is a character (Thirteen) trained as an undercover operative exiting a bad situation. What do you see?
Limping down the hall, I forced one foot before the other. Slowly, my stride lengthened. The silver door at the end didn’t open, so I pushed it, and stumbled out onto the launch pad. My gaze fell on a string of oval automatic airstreams parked all in a row. No, I frowned, eyes sweeping to street and the vehicles winging by in the air overhead. No self-respecting AI would let me drive in this condition. Robots always insisted on hospital, and I had no time to hack. To get out fast, I needed a human. A cabbie. Older, preferably female. Fingers to my neck, I tapped twice. Up came the ODS, my thoughts linking to: call a cab. Human.
A string of numbers and faces appeared before my eyes, the oldworld men and women working a dying industry. Better for No Questions Asked rides in our digital world, no one else called when they could pay a corporate run robot for half the cost.
I picked the first female face that flashed across my dash.
Time to pick up… thirty seconds.
I gripped my injured arm, and ran an analysis. Tucked out of sight, Sixteen’s pistol rested against my ribs. Ammunition at less than half a magazine, so seven rounds. Eight, if I counted the one in the chamber. The Uplink already registered the irreparable damage and severed the blood flow to the damaged limb. So, no more bleeding out. My upper lip curled. A bad trade off for no more arm. Damn, Sixteen.
I couldn’t hide in the shadows. Needed to seem desperate, distraught. Call up tears.
My blurred gaze flicked to the skyline, watching for black. The Ghosts wouldn’t appear in the datastream. Still, NIS hadn’t cut my access. Not yet.
A beat up airstream in ruby red dropped out of the sky to the left, pulling up to the curb. They were early. From the shabby state of their car, probably desperate. Good.
I limped over quickly. Even if they weren’t my ride, they were human and sitting in the driver’s seat. A car enthusiast who needed no AI systems to handle the steering. Likely to have built in cameras. More likely to possess a slow Uplink. Slow data received poor police service. My fingers seized the handle, flung open the door, and threw myself inside.
“Need a ride?” the voice was sympathetic, unfamiliar.
I slid across the bench into the seat behind the driver. My free hand tight on my damaged limb, couldn’t do much about my nose. So, instead, I tilted my head and caught her reflection in the mirror. Younger. Mid-thirties. Red hair worn short with one gray streak, tied back in a severe bun. Clear hazel eyes. Talk like you’re in pain, scared, but putting on a brave face. Tears. I wiped the blood from underneath my nose, sniffling. “Y-y-yeah.” I cleared my throat. “Yeah. Thanks.” I tried for a half-smile, half-grimace, and leaned on the window. “Just looking to get away. The address should be—”
“You don’t need to worry, I have it,” the driver said. “Came in with your order. Grace, right? You want to go downbelow, the Rep Shop.”
“Yeah.” Resting my cheek against the glass, I closed my eyes; Uplink sizing up her car’s systems. Automatic turned off, but easy enough to hijack. My free hand drifted off my injury, and moved near the pistol hilt jabbing my ribs.
“I’m Marla, I’ll be your driver today.” A pause followed. “You sure a pretty girl like you wants the Rep Shop? Not a hospital? You look pretty banged up.”
“No,” I replied. I got what she suggested, this was a nice neighborhood. “I just need… need to go…”
I grimaced, eyes squeezing shut, and wished I felt a twinge of guilt. It’s like the Overseer always says, love is just a cover.
“Don’t worry, no need to say it,” Marla said as the engine revved, the floorplates shook, and the airstream lifted skyward. “Shipped enough victims out of here to know.”
Notice, she pays attention to her surroundings and makes choices based on her condition in service of her needs. She needs to get out quickly, but would run into more trouble stealing a car so she calls up a cab driven by a human. Human’s are easier to manipulate in short order than code cracking. She specifically aims for a female cab driver, one preferably older than she is.
She’s female. Another woman is more likely to assume her injuries are because of a man, and a cab driver will have encountered this scenario often enough to not pry too deeply into it. An older woman is likelier to be maternal and protective, but not so protective that she’ll stay beyond when Thirteen needs her too. However, pay attention to the fact that Thirteen never verbally confirms it was a man who caused her injuries. She lets Marla assume, and fill in the blanks herself. This gives her an out later if she needs to change her story and place the blame on Marla’s shoulders for misunderstanding.
This is an example of what’s called social engineering.
Deliberately manipulating the people in your environment to divulge
confidential information or getting them to do what you want.
Notice also: After getting into the vehicle, Thirteen’s hand goes to the gun she stole. As she is playing to Marla’s sympathies, she is also assessing the possibility of killing this woman and taking control of the car if things don’t go the way she’s planned. Thirteen would prefer to exit by the easiest means possible, but a good spy always has a contingency. She won’t compromise her safety, and civilian lives mean next to nothing. A dead body is one more problem to deal with, one more attention getter that she doesn’t want, but she’ll go there. Violence is messy, and sometimes necessary.
There’s no real difference between a spy and a conman. Still, if you want to trick people there’s a few rules to follow.
What a spy isn’t:
A compulsive liar, an overseller, or lies all the time. An undercover operative needs to maintain their identity, that is one identity, singular. While a spy can create many false personalities, they should only be using one at a time with the goal of giving away as little information in trade as possible.
Notice: Thirteen does not tell Marla a story, she lets Marla create the story and then plays along. It is easier to convince someone of a lie when they’ll craft it themselves. Why say something when you can get just as much by saying nothing at all?
“You’ve told her three lies. Suppose she’s an asset, now you have to make all three lies true.” - Spy Game
Your character can’t just lie, a liar will be caught after a prolonged period of time. They need to manipulate the truth by creating a fiction. A cover is a fictional person with a fictional job who people think really exists when they check the character’s identity. Assume their identity will be checked, re-checked, and checked again. They are not maintaining a cover to a singular individual, but multiple ones. Their assets are the locals they are manipulating in order gain access to information, and who often run the jobs for them. These assets will, most of the time, not know the truth or not know the whole truth about who the spy really is.
Assets can be friends, business associates, girlfriends/boyfriends, wives/husbands, disgruntled employees, janitors, etc.
Your character can’t enter a business or government agency as a pretend janitor if they’re also going there everyday as a reporter or contractor or some other job. They must maintain the fiction of their identity.
This is the biggest problem most authors will get into when writing spy fiction. The concept of telling lies is something that comes easily to most of us, the problem comes in with keeping up a fiction over a prolonged period of time. The next step is to be able to lie without guilt and throw over people who help you without remorse. Crafting that dual identity of a person who genuinely cares about their friends and allies versus the real one who… really doesn’t.
You need a solid grasp of social functions, mores, and conventions in order to write a spy because a spy is manipulating all those points to gain access. You also need to understand these rules change based on what society your character is entering. Social rules change based on social groups, be it economic or cultural. The expectations for a man or woman in Mexico City versus Seattle are vast, and your character needs to be versed in the world they’re walking into. They need a cover identity to suit their work. Someone who has the freedom to go many places without being questioned, but unimportant enough to be neither needed nor remembered.
A spy is always looking for a way in, to slide into your confidences or sympathies however they can. They are going to use you to get where they need to go. They are very convincing actors and they are changing, modifying themselves slightly for each person they encounter. Not so much though that their falseness becomes obvious to the other people who know them.
When we’re working with a female spy, for example, all the “bad woman” societal traits you’re inclined to throw away are exactly what she needs to succeed. She will flirt, and flatter, and seduce, and manipulate the men (and women) around her to gain entry. She may rotate between being a gorgeous woman and an unremarkable one by the use of fashion and makeup. She is exactly what so many men are afraid of, a social climber who is manipulating their feelings and her attractiveness in order to get what she wants because it is the most expedient method to get what she needs. The one who is manipulating society’s view of women as nonentities, nonthreatening/replaceable objects in order to do her job.
Don’t be afraid of these characters. Don’t be afraid of “unlikeable” characters.
Spies are bad people who do bad things. They are often cold, calculating, impersonal manipulators looking for the most expedient method to get what they need. Your spy’s cover is just a cover. Never forget the real person underneath, especially when they’re lying to themselves.