Thursday, July 2, 2015

Writing assassins for fun and profit (but mostly fun)


Today we're talking about writing assassin characters! (first post here).

Diamine Oxblood ink looks exactly like blood btw.

How to write assassin characters

Everyone has a different aim in writing their characters and I'm not any kind of expert so I'll refrain from telling you THE RULES. You're not here for a general "what makes a good character" spiel and I'm not giving you one.

Instead, what makes assassin characters special? What considerations do you have to pay attention to for an assassin that you wouldn't for, say, a mercenary? What makes an assassin character ring true?

To find out (puts on safari quest hat) we'll have to delve into The Life of An Assassin.

"On your right, a Hopelessly Romantic Assassin sits by the watering-hole and angsts about his life."
It's just a job--or is it?

Does your character party by day and assassinate by night? Or are they a lifer--a person whose entire being, entire future, and entire aspirations center on their identity as an assassin?

Great benefits, like lifelong enemies. Never be bored!

While most of us can't relate to murdering people for profit (I HOPE *stares at everyone meaningfully*), perhaps we can relate to the simple dichotomy of Why We Do Our Job. Example: I'm gonna be a scientist. I'm most definitely not doing it for the generous (*dies laughing*) payout. I'm doing it because science is such a central part of my life that I will GO INSANE IF I DON'T DO IT EVERY DAY. *coughs*. The payout is secondary. Whereas for other people, their job is mainly a source of income that they use to do stuff that they like in their off time. How does your assassin see their job?

DO THEY EVEN HAVE ONE? *dramatic music*
Maybe they're a lifer who's in it because they love dangerous challenges. Maybe they love slipping in and out of "secure" buildings unseen. Maybe assassination is higher paying than spying. Or maybe they're poor as hell and bizarrely good with a knife, but too scrawny to become a gang tough. Who knows?

Figuring this out for your character will give them more depth than just "I'm an assassin because I'm an Assassin Character Type."

An Assassin's Life for MC

 So you wanna be an assassin, MC? Well, have you got what it takes?

Have you considered that assassination is more than just killing people and getting paid?

Here's some considerations you should be thinking about before you sign on the dotted line:

Are they really cheering YOU on? (source)
Your Associates

Assassination is probably not the most legal thing, so you gotta know your criminal underworld. Where do you fit in? Are you a loner? How do you keep good relations with the gangs? In a gang? How much choice do you get with your contracts? In a Guild? How does the Guild stay afloat--how much freedom do you get? Can you leave? If you kill a mark who's big in the underworld, how do you avoid getting assassinated yourself? Or do you just not kill anyone whose death would be problematic for your day-to-day life?

No one, not even loners, works in a vacuum, so you want to know where your friends are and how much they can help you--and how much you'll have to help them.

Just watch your kidneys.
Your Business 

Who pays your coin? If you're in a Guild, maybe the Guild takes care of the tiny details of tracking down the customer and making them pay if they try to cheat you. If you're working alone, how do you ensure you're getting paid?

How do you get word out that you are looking for contracts? What's your marketing strategy, and how do you make sure it doesn't backfire and burn you when the King's Guards get wind of your little business and decide to come calling?

You're going to make enemies in this life--no question about it. Do you know how to keep those revenge-seekers off your back while not disturbing your profits? What about other assassins--are they cool with competition? Or are you going to be fighting tooth-and-nail for every contract?

Do you think assassins would play video games?
Levelling Up

Let's say skillful assassination is kind of a niche market. How did you learn this pretty taboo business? Did you have a Master Assassin--did you learn in the Guild--did you pick it up off the streets to keep from starving--were you forced into it by your gang? Your style, your skills, and your confidence will depend tremendously on how you first learned the job.

Skill stagnation is bad for any freelancer--you can't just be satisfied with your current level of murderous ability if you want to move up, get bigger contracts, or feel your way into more stable markets. Who do you go to when you want to learn more? Or do you figure it out by yourself (somehow)? How?

I think I'm more North-by-West. Compasses: more complicated than you'd think.

Your Own Personal Moral Compass

Unless you're a granite block, you're not going to have 0 psychological consequences from willfully murdering innocents (and you'd be a pretty bad assassin too). You've probably, consciously or not, made a deal with yourself or found some kind of justification that allows you to take on this job. But you've got to know your limits.

Are you cool with blackmail and corruption? Will you blackmail a witness--will you kill the princess and steal her jewels too?

Your limits may be different than your friends, but you've got them too. What are they, and how will they affect your job?

Great, you just erased the wrong person. Well done.

What happens if you get caught? Something pretty nasty, huh? Something you probably want to avoid. You're an assassin, not a lawyer. If they catch you red-handed (literally), you're in for it. You've got to know who's doing the catching, how good they are, and how to avoid them.

You've got to avoid leaving unwanted witnesses, but mistakes do happen. What will you do with them? Kill them? They might be on guard. Leave them be? Your security and secrecy might be out the window.

What if your mark is damn good at playing dead and you're in a rush? What happens when you f--k up a contract, and how do you fix it?

I have to keep ALL THAT IN MIND while writing? *sets manuscript on fire*
No one is expecting you, The Author, to have answers to all of these questions. But your character will (whether you know them or not). Just like you the writer know the writing business. Doesn't your work sometimes get affected by the Winds of the Publishing Industry? Your Assassin MC's work also gets affected by the Winds of the Assassination Industry. And the Criminal Industry. And the Winds of the Political Backstabbing Industry. And they'll react accordingly. (They're also awesome ways of adding interesting conflict to a story, or deepen the character).

Well, that was long. I promise the next section will be shorter [future Si falls over in disbelief]. Because it's--

How not to write an assassin character

Until it ended in fire a sentence later.
It's way less fun to talk about Bad Writing than it is to talk about Awesome Writing so correspondingly I'm not going to expand on much stuff here [future Si dies laughing] because 5 mins on TV Tropes (which I will NOT go on) will explain it with much more colorful examples than me.

Let's start with the worst offender.

The Invincible Assassin

 NO ONE, let me repeat, NO ONE will give a shit about your character if they are a Mary Sue Powerhouse of Incredible Talent and No Real Faults.

You know how there's always ONE perfect person in any class that gets straight 100%'s without studying, is the teacher's favorite student, wins all the awards and has the neatest handwriting ever?

And you, slogging through your textbook with your smudgy graph paper and barely-B's, studying like your life depended on it and only scraping through?

Do you seriously like Miss 100%?

Do you want to read a story about her perfect life?

Sorry, dying giggling.
Then why do you think someone wants to read about your assassin character who spars for 1 hour and becomes Blademaster Extraordinaire, who kills 20+ guards without blinking an eye, who is never rushed and never messes up anything significantly, and who never really struggles.

Yes, assassins are awesome, but the danger is that Awesome is a continuous scale. At the left end you've got Failure McIdiot, who can't do anything and probably gets beat up by the neighborhood pre-schoolers. At the right end you have Invincible No'One'Cares.

The thing is, you can't have a character be consistently Epic without having Epic become the new normal. And then we readers get bored.

Don't lie to yourself and have your character's Biggest Fault be "Honesty" (though if you write a tale where Honesty legitimately f--ks up your char's life, that is Cool and not Lying). Don't make them be That Guy in the interview.

If your assassin is going to be a Blademaster and a Master Magician, consider arranging their life so it sucks anyway. Dynamic characters are born of lives that suck majorly. Mary Sues get life on a platter.

Overdoing the Angst

Why me? Why?
Yay, your character isn't a block of granite! Oh no, now the entire book has become a series of whiny "Why Me?" monologues that any Half-Elf would be proud of. Darn.

How much your assassin regrets being an assassin depends, of course, on you and your character. But if they hate it with the fire of a thousand suns, it would be great if they did something about it, instead of lecturing the reader via passionate self-hate soliloquies.

Not cocaine.
Use angst like salt. No angst (aka The Emotionless Assassin), and the dish is bland. Too much angst, and you're throwing your dinner in the trash. Both extremes are bad. But used just right, and you can really enhance the quality of your creation. (I made a metaphor! Yay! This doesn't work with cocaine, btw.)

Stupid Decisions

You have disappointed Elrond.
Hi, I like throwing knives.

But my assassins don't try to throw knives at well-armored guards pacing parapets while they cling to the craggy surface of the castle wall, inches from death and discovery at all times.

Black cloaks are cool.

But maybe a bit out-of-place at that Royal Ball where your assassin is trying to murder the King?

Everyone needs friends!

But does Assassin MC really trust their spy-informant friend with news of their latest contract, even if Spy-Informant promised really, really sincerely not to tell, and has deep blue beautiful eyes that MC just can't resist pouring out their secrets to?

Stabbing people in alleys is boring.

But smarter than following them into their ultra-high-security Castle of Protection, where their Wizard Guards are waiting at all times with special assassin sensors and InstaDeath Fire Cannons. Maybe Assassin MC likes pointlessly complex and difficult plans. But do they like living more?

Stupid decisions make stories exciting when natural consequences arise. But when MC repeatedly does stupid things and sails through life anyway ... the reader might be raising their eyebrows incredulously. Or headdesking. Ow.

The Assassin that Learned Too Fast

*coughs loudly*
Is your assassin infiltrating a Rival Assassin Guild and posing as a novice? Did they spend their past life merrily killing off aristocrats for profit? Cool, they can learn the trade in 1 hr.

Anyone else--remember Miss 100%?

Remember the previous post, where I flailed about how awesome assassins are because they had to actually take effort to become awesome?


It's too much! Go ... without ... me ...

In the end, you're the author. You make the decisions.

But be honest with yourself.

This has been an episode of Si's Least Favorite Things: Assassin Char Edition.

How to write whatever you want  

I'll never be not amused by this meme.


Ah, the SFF genre. Where we can get away with all kinds of fantastical settings & characters. Where we're free of the dreary reality of people's boring lives.

Why can't we have black-cloaked Blademaster Spy Assassins, who are beautiful and beautifully flawed, who are never defeated but still remain humble somehow?

The answer is: sure we can! Power to the authors!

You have nothing to lose but the chains of writing advice!
The dismal answer is: We have to still make them relateable. And most normal readers aren't going to relate to perfection.

I'm giving you shit about black-cloaked invincibles, but truth is I have (more than one) dark souled stabby MC who hasn't been defeated on-screen and who inspires terror in The Peasants by their very name.

And that's okay. Because there is balance.

How REAL writers build characters.
It's kinda like creating an RP character. You've got 100 possible points to make up their skill stats, but you can't give them 80 in Wisdom and 80 in Charisma both. Yes, simplistic character creation. But it makes you aware that sometimes, your imagined character is just too good. That they can have significant advantages but also need significant disadvantages.

The reader wants to be swept off into a fantasy realm of amazingness and magic, but also wants to be fooled into it. Realism is the authors tool to fool the reader to believe hey, this is real. Yes it is. Right now. Real stuff. 

Use realism as a tool to sell your awesomeness to the reader. It's good for both of you. You can get away with quite a few "Mary Sue" characteristics if you make MC's life suck anyway--and suck for real. Those are the stories we want to read.

And that's okay!

If you read good assassin fiction, you'll find that a lot of these characters, on the surface, have a lot of those Unforgivable Tropes. But they're still awesome anyway! And not irritating! Why? Because their struggles are real. When we read assassin fic, we're not thinking "Yes, I totally relate to the difficulty of murdering a King using only medieval weaponry and no Google." We're thinking, "Ugh, I know that feel when your boss tells you to do something freaking impossible and you have to deliver anyway." The problem with Too Awesome Assassins isn't their skill at parkour, it's their skill period. If that makes sense.

Don't blame the black cloak, blame the idiot inside it I guess?

So go forth and write fearlessly! Be free of trope hate! Build strong characters!

The First Cliche.
And if you want to throw all that out the window and write an epic about Invincible the Best, no one is standing over your typewriter with a taser.

(Once I wrote an entire 20k story about an assassin whose ENTIRE PURPOSE IN LIFE was to be the amoral counterpoint to the Super Moral Adventurers she was travelling with. The angst! The transparent symbolism! The rants-disguised-as-arguments! I should have just titled that story Angst in Long Form. But I did write it (no one has or will read it). And I DIDN'T DIE. SO in the spirit of NaNo--GO WRITE THINGS.)

Join me and a lot of other writers! NOW.
Up next (in MUCH SHORTER FORM I PROMISE YOU) is Examples from Real Live Writers--and their Real Published Books! Assassins in the fictional world!

And finally ... RANDOM MEMES.


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