The Spymaster a.k.a. Why Intel is Important Even to Fictional Armies

Team Fortress 2 Spy

In the War of Nytefall series, Kai Stavros is the acting spymaster working under Xavier Tempest.  His job is to gather information on enemies, handle assassinations, and report on potential dangers to his master.  Kai isn’t much of an infiltrator in terms of mimicking enemies, but he uses invisibility as well as various relics.  There are also some animals that he has enslaved to do his bidding.  Yet, he still tends to stay in the background because that’s kind of where he belongs.  Spies that end up in the foreground come off less stealthy and more destructive like James Bond.  Sure, they get the job done, but some of the mystery is lost.  This brings up the question:

How do you write a spy, especially one for a fictional army?

The reason I’m focusing on the army part is because I’ve read a lot of stories and watched a lot of shows where intel gathering is glossed over.  Sometimes, the leaders just find out through a message that happens to show up.  Other times you get a traitorous enemy or a person who happened to see something.  You also see a lot of scouts getting used, which makes sense when you’re on the march.  It isn’t very common where a fictional army gets information from a spy.  Typically, this is what will come in prior to taking action, but many writers kind of start with the soldiers already moving.  They happen to know what they’re up against too.

Again, we find a small issue here.  The spy needs to be a focal point in order for the character to have any impact.  You can get away with noting that they exist and then just have intel show up, which is an easy way to do it.  Yet, this can lead to several convenient plot actions or the dread Deus Ex Machina.  On the other hand, you can’t expose the spy too much or they lose something.  For example, Kai is called a spymaster, which shows that he orders the other spies around.  This gives him a little more leeway, but he’s rarely entered actual combat.  He has lost something since he isn’t a shadowy figure who shows up.  I’ve tried to minimize this by having him be sneaky and not always share what he’s up to.  Making him a character with a secret plan up his sleeve helps to retain some level of mystery and cunning.

Now, one could argue that this type of character is not necessary.  I would agree.  You can find many other explanations for the uncovering of information.  Spies are very complicated to write because people have expectations.  Many readers will want them to be cunning, charming, manipulative people who will kill either from the shadows or without letting their enemies make a sound.  Ninjas, hitmen, and assassins tend to be lumped in with the spy category to the point where people don’t really think beyond these three.  So, what can you do?

Well, that’s when I’m going to open it to the floor.  What do you think about writing spies and how important are they?  What about having them involved in fictional military systems?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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16 Responses to The Spymaster a.k.a. Why Intel is Important Even to Fictional Armies

  1. I like your notes about them; thorough, as usual. I’ve liked how rangers in The Ranger’s Apprentice series are sneaky and collect information but are rangers and not just spies. That’s one way to do it: a side job of a main fighting career.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Guess it depends upon the story you want to tell. If it’s about Space Marines, just having the intel show up might work well. Leah and R2D2 sold the point pretty well without giving us Rogue One. If the story is about the spy, then obviously you’ll need a lot more.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. L. Marie says:

    Your spies are well thought out. Spies seem very necessary whether the series is fantasy or realistic fiction. I can’t help thinking of Harriet the Spy (yes even kids fiction), Ally Carter’s teen spy series, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, and some Jedi. I’ve never questioned the use of spies in a book, especially when the author helps me to understand what order or nation employs the spies and whether or not the spy is a double agent. As for expectations, each series is different.


  4. I haven’t really written about spies per se but I must say you’ve done a great job in scoping yours.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. L. Marie says:

    Chelsea Owens, yes, I meant you. The placement of some replies on WP is weird.


  6. Staci Troilo says:

    You raise an interested point. Intel gathering is something we don’t often consider. Norman Mailer wrote at 1,300-page novel called Harlot’s Ghost (and that still wasn’t enough; he had a book two planned that he never completed) about a CIA spy, and it was in large part about intelligence. I found it interesting, but later frustrating because I never got to see how the series would end. All that said, it would have been a very different book if it focused on ninja ops rather than intel. So I suppose it depends on the kind of book you want to write.

    As to how to do it? Well, that probably depends, too. And I’m no expert.


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