Spy Stories

Stories of secret agents, counter-espionage, international intrigue, secret formulas, political prisoners, passwords, and dagger-carrying assassins are perennially popular, though the audience for the form does peak and ebb. The heroes here are spies—usually for the United States or for Great Britain—and are developed in one of two ways: (1) as another James Bond superhero who has access to fantastic gadgets and whose physical stamina and moral resources are without limit, or (2) as a realistic character with his own personal problems, doubts, ambitions, fears, and talents, like the lead in John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Unquestionably, the second approach is more desirable.

When building a lead character for your spy story, you must consider the subculture in which he exists and understand what character traits that strange milieu demands and forbids. For example, a successful spy could not be scrupulously honest, nor could he be a committed pacifist; in the line of duty, he will be called upon to steal, cheat, lie, and kill. Because espionage agents travel all around the world and are familiar with many other cultures which they often respect, they are not so opinionated, racially or religiously, as the average United States citizen. Sexual and social relationships that cross racial barriers would not be thought "abnormal" or even unusual by a spy. Furthermore, the spy has seen, in his job, that

"moral" behavior is relative and that it rarely accomplishes anything, while Machiavellian techniques usually lead to the desired results. For this reason, he is not likely to subscribe to any formal religion. Unrestricted by religious taboos, and his sense of pleasure sharpened by the constant possibility of sudden death, the spy will usually be sexually liberated. If not, he may be the type of man who finds a sexual outlet in risking his life and in committing acts of violence. This type rarely makes a satisfactory protagonist, for the average reader has trouble identifying with him. Whatever the hero's sexual proclivities, he will never be a moralist who criticizes extramarital and pre-marital relationships, for such a hidebound attitude would be ludicrously antithetical to everything else he must be in order to survive.

Understand, all of the above are not restrictions of spy story characterizations, so much as fundamental, common sense requirements. If you are writing about a spy, he must be as much like a spy as you can make him. When writing about a great musician, you would not say that he had a tin ear. If your lead was a world-famous surgeon, you wouldn't inform the reader that he was terrified of the sight of blood. Likewise, a spy's personality must be true to his profession.

Once you've established your characters, you must give long consideration to the background. In a spy novel, the story will usually be set in a foreign country. You need not have visited Turkey to write of it, but you should be prepared to think Turkey before writing a word. Study travel and history books, learn the country's geography, customs, traditions, history, governmental system, family structure, and major religions. Only when you can name streets and create the mood of a foreign land are you ready to begin.

One of the most common background errors made by the new spy story writer is the misplacement of a hero in the bureaucracy of counter-intelligence. An FBI agent, for instance, doesn't work in other countries: he's limited to the borders of the U.S. Similarly, a CIA agent rarely works in the States, for his duties are more within the sphere of international intrigue. The British agent in another country will not be from Scotland Yard, but from M.I.6, British equivalent of our Central Intelligence Agency. The Russian version is the KGB. The famed United States Secret Service is only a branch of the Treasury Department and is not concerned with espionage, as many new writers think: its sole concern is the protection of the President, Vice-President, their families, and Presidential candidates/hopefuls. A few novels (Michael Mason's 71 Hour's, Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and almost any of Philip Atlee's Joe Gaul stories) and a few non-fiction titles (The Game of the Foxes by Ladislas Farago, most notably) should give the new spy story writer sufficient background data on which to proceed.

Once you've settled on the spy story sub-type of suspense fiction, you will want to decide what sort of plot you'll develop. Most every spy novel can be fitted into one of the following six plot groups:

Rescuing someone from enemy territory. The protagonist must cross into Russia, East Germany, China, or some other unfriendly country to rescue a fellow countryman or spy being held by the enemy. In some cases, the man to be rescued is a leading foreign scientist or political figure who has requested U.S. aid in leaving his own country and finding political asylum.

Stopping someone from reaching enemy territory. The protagonist must keep a defecting scientist or fellow spy from reaching his contacts and being whisked into enemy hands.

Stopping the enemy from obtaining vital data. The protagonist must foil enemy plans to obtain information which will improve their international position—usually, information that will increase their power to wage chemical, biological, nuclear, or psychological warfare.

Stealing data from the enemy. This is a reverse of the third type of plot: the protagonist is assigned to retrieve scientific data from the enemy. This form is seldom used, for two reasons: first, American readers don't like to think of their own spies initiating international trouble by stealing from the enemy, though, in reality, this is not uncommon; second, the reader likes to think that we have no need to steal data, because we are more advanced than they are—an abysmal misunderstanding of the world, but a common one.

Stopping the enemy from taking over another country. Again, the average reader doesn't like to think we would attempt to overthrow some other government or meddle in the internal affairs of a foreign power, despite historical evidence to prove that we have often done that and sometimes had considerable success.

Stopping the enemy from overthrowing our government. In this kind of story, the antagonists are usually domestic right- or left-wingers and most often a part of the government itself.

No matter which of the six kinds of spy plots you employ, you may either paint the world of international espionage as thrilling, glamorous, and desirable—or as a necessary but sordid environment where the souls of its inhabitants wither early. Any of Ian Fleming's novels about the

Suspense glamorous counter-intelligence operative James Bond would serve as an example of the first method, while John Le Carre's justly famous The Spy Who Came in from the Cold would make a fine model for the moody spy story.

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