Spy Novels: How to Nail The Character of an Espionage Hero

Great treat for you today–Piper Bayard (of Bayard & Holmes) is digging into what an espionage character should look like. And she should know, because her co-author, Jay Holmes…well, read on to find out!

James Bond, Jason Bourne, Sydney Bristow, Jack Bauer . . . Nothing thrills like a well-crafted spy. However, most of us haven’t served in the Intelligence Community (“IC”) to have experience to draw on, so it helps to talk to someone who is the real deal. My writing partner, Jay Holmes, is the real deal. He’s a forty-five year veteran of field intelligence operations and a senior member of the US Intelligence Community.

So is Holmes a spy? No. Holmes is a “spook.” As he says, spying is seamy. The preferred slang among American intelligence operatives, particularly older operatives, and in the American IC in genera is “spook,” not “spy.” Usage of the term “spook” in the Intelligence Community dates back to the 1800s and is derived from “a ghost that haunts people and is considered undesirable.” It has nothing to do with the racial slur, and operatives of all races are referred to as “spooks.” “Spies” are the agents of foreign countries that are spying on us, or they are foreign agents who are spying on their own countries on our behalf.

Now that we’ve settled that, let’s take a look at some character traits that all spooks share.

Character Traits

While members of the IC can have an infinite variety of personalities, religions, political opinions, and backgrounds, American spooks all have some character traits in common. These traits will be similar to greater and lesser degrees in other countries.

1. Highly Developed Mental Discipline

Members of the Intelligence Community must be able to compartmentalize information, as well as their experiences. They must mentally wall off the work life from the personal life, and vice versa. Otherwise, they would talk out of turn, get burned out, or worse, if a field operative, they would get dead.

2. Love of Travel and Experiencing Foreign Cultures

One reason spooks are drawn to the work is an abiding interest in people, cultures, and experiencing their world.

3. Recognition That Diverse People Actually Are Diverse

Anyone can talk about diversity. Talking is easy. Those in the Intelligence Community, on the other hand, must live those differences, and they know that recognizing and understanding the contrasting values, personalities, and customs of other cultures is paramount to both their survival and the success of their missions. They must work within that kaleidoscopic framework on behalf of American interests.

4. Superior Intelligence

Spooks really do have to be smart.

Holmes and I know what you’re thinking . . . But there’s this spook on [fill in the network] that says really stupid things. Yes. We often laugh at them and wonder what they’re up to. With members of the IC, as with everyone, intelligence is a tool that is dependent on the user, and it can always be limited or even nullified by character and hubris. The greatest mistake any spook, or any person, for that matter, can make is to think that because they know some thing, they know every thing. Falling into that trap is its own form of stupidity.

5. They Are Wholly Committed

Members of the IC are not wishy-washy people, whether they spend their career at an analyst’s desk at Headquarters or in Third World countries hunting down our enemies. They commit their time, their relationships, and even their lives in service to their nation. The clandestine services take a piece from everyone who serves. Everyone.

6. Good Sense of Humor

Even the field spooks like Holmes, whose spirit animal is Grumpy Cat, have a great sense of humor. Without it, they would go mad in short order.

7. Loyalty

US spooks are loyal to America and to the ideals of the US Constitution and US society. This is not a blind loyalty or a fanaticism, but rather a deep commitment that makes them willing to sacrifice their lifestyle and potentially their lives in service to their country.

8. Socially Accepting

Religion, race, ethnicity, first language, and financial background are irrelevant to US field spooks as compared to skill and loyalties. In fact, such differences are highly valued and useful as long as the individuals are first and foremost loyal to America and to American constitutional ideals. The field is a meritocracy, and what matters most is who can get the job done and come home alive.

9. Covert Action Spooks Can Get Wild During Recess

Field spooks, specifically, have a “certain skill set” that lends them to being a bit wilder than the average bear when letting off steam. Holmes and I aren’t providing examples in order to protect the guilty.

10. Counter-Intelligence (“CI”) Specialists Are Sober and Intensely Patient

CI specialists are looking for that one irregularity—that one glowing clue. Or to sink to a cliché because it is so apt, the needle in the haystack, and they have to sift through tons of hay. CI spooks keep track of mountains of information and are highly skilled at catching that one anomaly or inconsistency in evaluating a foreign agent or in locating a mole within their organization. That requires the soul of patience and attention to detail.

The overriding trait common to members of the IC, particularly to field spooks, is a farsighted optimism. It is a belief that what they are doing is helping to make their country safer for those back at home. It is the conviction that when they risk their lives, it is for a better tomorrow.

“If I didn’t believe I was helping create a better world, I would never jump out of the plane.”~ Jay Holmes

Any questions about the character traits of real life members of the IC? Who are your favorite espionage characters in literature and movies? What heroic qualities do you see in them?

Piper Bayard and Jay Holmes of Bayard & Holmes are the authors of espionage tomes and international spy thrillers.

Their latest release, SPYCRAFT: Essentials, is designed for writers. It addresses the functions and jurisdictions of the main US intelligence organizations, the spook personality and character, tradecraft techniques, surveillance, the most common foibles of spy fiction, and much more.

It is available in digital format and print at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.

Please visit Piper and Holmes at their site, BayardandHolmes.com. For notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing. You can also contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard or Bayard & Holmes, or at their email, BH@BayardandHolmes.com.




Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Character Traits, Characters, Cliches, Guest Post, Motivation, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.
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2 years ago

Hi! So I’m attempting to write a novel about a female spook who goes undercover. I am having a difficult time giving her depth and character. How do I make her convincing? How do I let my readers know she is the best of the best, but still human? Incorporating deduction skills and assets a spook would have is also a difficulty of mine. How do I convinve my readers that she has done some awesome confidential spy-like things while focusing in the story. Any recommendations or advice would be wonderful

– G

C Mcgovern
C Mcgovern
2 years ago

Thanks for the informative article. I’m wondering about recruits final exams—what written or practicum they have to pass in order to become full fledged operatives. I know there’s training, but is there an in the field mission final exam in which aspiring spooks have to demonstrate tradecraft, agent acquisition skills, etc? Is there a name/title for their final exam?

Piper Bayard
2 years ago
Reply to  C Mcgovern

Training depends on the mission and the spook. Most people aren’t starting from the same place. Field operatives may have military experience or other experience that renders further training unnecessary for the specific mission. Some may be native language speakers, and some may need to learn a foreign language from scratch. So in other words, the spook that is most appropriate for the mission will be the one chosen.

It sounds like you’re referring to training that takes place in what is known as “The Farm.” As for their training requirements and graduations, that would not be something we could discuss.

C McGovern
C McGovern
2 years ago
Reply to  Piper Bayard

Many thanks for your response. Very kind of you—and quickly too. Alas, I’m looking specifically for the name of the final exam or if there even is a final exam prior to graduation as they leave the farm. And if recruits, say those in the agent acquisition cycle, have to perform in the field as part of that exam before they join whichever unit to which they’re assigned. Thx again for your help.

Piper Bayard
2 years ago
Reply to  C McGovern

Most welcome! One thing I would point out is that if you can’t find that information, then it isn’t public, and you’re free to make it up as it suits your novel. 🙂

2 years ago
Reply to  Piper Bayard

Now that is very interesting! Thanks for the tip. I’ll be running with that to be sure!


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Piper Bayard
2 years ago

Great questions!

It’s logical from the outside looking in to think that most spooks would know several languages. However, the Intelligence Community is vast and varied, including analysts, finance specialists, human resources officers, construction workers, engineers, physicists, janitors, etc. If you can get a degree in it, it’s most likely useful to the IC in some capacity. Many of those positions are not helped by knowledge of a foreign language.

That being said, there is a preference for employees that do speak more than one language. Often I’ll see the CIA put out a call on Twitter for fluent Russian speakers who have college degrees and US citizenship. Some other languages actively sought are Chinese, Burmese, Pashto, Greek, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian, Thai, Turkish, and Vietnamese.

2 years ago

So fascinating, Piper! In most of our thesauruses, Angela and I are looking for ways to twist the stereotype and get authors thinking outside of the overused box. But most occupations do require a basic set of skills for a person in that field to do well. Thanks for letting us know the common factors here!

Piper Bayard
2 years ago

You are most welcome! Thank you to you and Angela for hosting me here at your excellent blog. It’s an honor.