I have to confess being a bit squeamish writing this article. It doesn’t seem right providing you with information on ways to kill. But in fantasy novels, readers expect something a bit outrageous or extraordinary when an assassin is on the loose, so I’ll bury my discomfort and try to provide you with some useful information on this topic for the sole purpose of helping you with your writing. However, I will wimp out in some respects and point you in the direction of some particularly good books (both fantasy and mainstream) where the assassins are really creative at what they do – so I’ll let the writing do the talking. But inspiration can also come from the movies or TV, such as good old James Bond films, intense thrillers like Se7en and TV murder mysteries.
Note, when I say “assassin” I mean someone hired, forced or simply intent upon killing others (usually a VIP) for fanatical or political reasons, or the need for power, fame, noteriety or money, often directed by someone else higher up in the food chain, but they may also be led by their own objectives. I’m not talking about people bent on murder for murder’s sake, instead those who have a very clear and cold blooded reasoning for carrying out an assassination.
Who is your assassin? – An assassin needn’t just be some silent killer who creeps about in the shadows. They can also “hide” in plain site. Some of the most satisfying murder mysteries are those where the killer ends up being right under the noses of the other characters, smiling away with the innocence of a saint. Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori trilogy is based in a fictional ancient Japan where one of the main characters has night vision, can make himself invisible, has supernatural hearing and create a second self while fighting – which all helps in the work he does as an assassin. But this particular character walks around in around daylight, initially as part of a type of circus – so he is very unassuming. Also his lady-love in the story has the unfortunate reputation of bringing death to those who desire her, but she’s not an assassin – however she is used as one, by hiding a slender needle up her sleeve with the intent of piercing it through the eye of a different man she is forced to marry.
What is driving your assassin’s actions? – Are they being forced by circumstance, bribery or blackmail? Do they have a political agenda or a strong religious bent? Has someone sent them? Have they been chosen because they are so good at what they do, or expendable because they’re not? Are they being framed? It’s much easier to “believe” the story if there is a strong driving force behind an assassin’s actions. In fiction, an assassin may be someone you empathise with and feel that their actions are justified, while there are others you hope will fall foul of their own methods of killing, and more again who you’re not sure if you should side with them or not. It all depends on their reasoning. Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy is a good example of this where the trained assassin Fitz is sent on various missions to kill political threats to his father’s kingdom – and there is always that little question mark as to whether he’s being set up to take the throne (he is the bastard son of a king). Some of the techniques he uses are ingenious, such as a little sachet of poison up his sleeve which he releases into someone’s dinner.
What is your assassin’s modus operandi? – How does your assassin operate? Alone or in league with others? Do they use ingenious tools, poisons, magic, special abilities, etc. to carry out their assassinations? Do they have access to other people, creatures or locations that will help them carry out the murder? Assassin’s in fiction usually have a “toolbox” of techniques that provide a signature of their work. Your other characters may make note of this, “Ah, this is the work of the white ghost.” Or their work may be a complete mystery, baffling those left with the body, although they are likely to recognise why the killing occurred. If you look up the table of Roman emperor’s on Wikipedia it’s quite extraordinary as you go down the list, how many were assassinated by poisoning or a knife in the back (quite often by the Praetorian guard, bizarrely) – but for some there is a question mark, were they assassinated or not? But you’d understand why such important people may be “done away with”, particularly if they were cruel or corrupt.
What’s in your assassin’s toolbox? – Stabbing, strangulation, asphyxiation, clubbing, stoning, pushing someone over a cliff on a foggy day, poisoning, drive-by shootings, etc. – I’m sure you’ve read it all in the papers, and although it is grisly, that’s usually where you’ll find the greatest inspiration. Before the advent of firearms, electricity and automated machinery, the tools of the assassin were normally quite physical (think ninja) or very discrete (poison in your soup) or you could have a trained animal/pet do the dirty work. But you’re writing fantasy so your toolbox is only limited by your imagination. The assassins in my novel In Sleep They Come walked in dreams to kill discretely. While in Cry of the Elemental the bad guy magically mutated innocents into animals or hideous creatures, transforming them into killers who could carry out their tasks in rather dramatic ways such as dropping the Empress from a height. But if you like assassinations on a particularly ruthless scale, the master is Wilbur Smith – he simply does not hold back when it comes to blood curdling ways of organised killing. Any book he’s written has more than enough to give you nightmares, but his Egyptian series (which started with River God) is a good example as it also delves into fantasy – and it does contain numerous assassinations. A more recent novel Vicious Circle is not one of his best works, but the methods of assassination in the book are many and varied, making it a very unsettling read. If you read it you will not look at pigs the same way again.
What can the target do? – If your fantasy story is a thriller, you want your characters under constant threat of the assassin, but finding brilliant ways to evade the killing stroke. Apart from physical barriers, guards and body doubles, which can provide interesting devices in writing, your character may have other special abilities to keep themselves in one piece. Wilbur Smith is again a great one for getting his main characters out of a scrape in ingenious ways, but will usually kill other main characters leaving a central character standing (with the odd scar). J.V. Jones is a great fantasy writer with numerous assassinations in her stories as well, but in the Sword of Shadows series one example is the family of the Ranger who are trapped in a burning house set alight by an assassin, who then kills each of the inhabitants as they flee the building, but one of the family entraps the killer by tempting her to a different area of the building where she is able to kill her. It’s a powerful scene firstly because the assassin is female and you wonder how she could kill so many innocents, but it does leave one strong, emotionally charged character with a strong desire for vengeance.