Avoiding Abusing the Secret Service

Discussion in 'World Building' started by MiguelDHorcrux, Jan 19, 2016.

  1. MiguelDHorcrux

    MiguelDHorcrux Master

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    Hello, all.

    Have you guys encountered this problem whereas some of your characters has access to spies and secret service and whatnot and you just feel like abusing it to advance your plot and overcome obstacles? Consider Varys in A Song of Ice and Fire. All we know is that he has little birds/spies, and he simply tells the small council what they want to know. Do you consider this as another form of deus ex machina? In my story, the protagonist is backed by his grandfather who was a retired statesman and one of the most powerful mages in the world. And as such, he has a network of spies all over the world. The antagonist has his own network. Is it cheating if, since my character is looking for this sword in a faraway land while receiving updates from his grandfather every once in a while, I just present to him the location in the form of a scroll or a letter from said grandfather?

    And of course espionage is prone to counter espionage. Ugh. Any thoughts on this?
     
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  2. TheKillerBs

    TheKillerBs Grandmaster

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    Strictly speaking, a deus ex machina is an unexpected, convenient intervention from someone or something that resolves your current dilemma, so in that sense, no, abusing your spy network is not a deus ex machina. Like any other abuse of a resource, though, it can feel cheap, especially if the audience doesn't perceive any drawbacks from using that resource.
     
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  3. KC Trae Becker

    KC Trae Becker Lore Master

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    Great thread here. Thanks for starting it.

    In my WIP, my ancient, magical people have spies all over the place from all sides. After reading this topic I realized I need someway to limit the flow of information somehow. Draw backs and payouts are going to need to be built up. Hopefully that will stem the tide.
     
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  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    Spies don't always get reliable information. You could establish some uncertainty earlier, so the information about the sword doesn't feel like a done deal from the start. There could also be the possibility of the message being misinformation from the enemy.

    My main objection to spies in fantasy novels is that they aren't really needed. A spy is more or less a modern invention. Much more common was simply the use of locals for information. For example, merchants from City A could be expected to provide information to the City Council upon their return. Venice did this, but so did other cities. Any visiting prince would be expected to keep eyes and ears open.

    More common for actual spying would be during a war, sending someone into enemy lines to gather information. That was done right back into ancient times.
     
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  5. DMThaane

    DMThaane Mystagogue

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    While it's true that military intelligence was always common civilian spy networks have existed just as long. Hadrian turned the frumentarii (wheat collectors) into a spy network, the use of spies and assassins is detailed in the Indian Arthashastra which was most likely written around the 2nd-century or 3rd-century BCE, and ambassadors habitually spied on the countries they were sent to. More modern and well-documented examples include the work of Francis Walsingham and the Culper Ring. Modern human intelligence may function on a different scale but in many ways it is not fundamentally different, and why would it be? Paying disaffected people to give you information or stealing/recording written correspondences could be life or death in politics as well as war.

    Incidentally, here's a quote from the translation of the Arthashastra I have on hand.

    Not exactly wartime intelligence gathering but it does resemble modern counter-espionage.
     
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  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    Much depends here on definitions of terms, so I won't quibble. Except on one point. The office of ambassador doesn't appear in Europe until the late 15thc. I reference Donald Queller's book The Office of Ambassador in the Middle Ages.

    But, honestly, I don't fret over such things when reading a story, at least not if it's a good story.
     
  7. Ban

    Ban Staff Article Team

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    Finding secret knowledge will take even a spy some time, considering the fact that secrets are secret for a reason. So you can just say that this secret service only lends its knowledge once to the protagonist, without making it weird. No necessity to abuse the secret service I think.
     
  8. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Dark Lord

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    If you throw in the possibility of spies and other agents of espionage being treacherous and changing sides for ideological or economic reasons then they become a resource that must be used wisely.
     
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  9. Drakevarg

    Drakevarg Lore Master

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    Could just ask yourself HOW the spies would've gotten the information in the first place and perhaps more importantly, why that doesn't render the hero totally irrelevant. Like if Grandpa Spymaster has an agent in the inner court of the Dark Lord Mustachetwirl who can report on his every move... why not just have that spy assassinate Lord Mustachetwirl and solve everyone's problem?

    I found Dragon Age: Inquisition kind of annoying in this respect as every last one of Leliana's options on the strategy board began with "our spies have..." or "our spies can..." Started to make me wonder why we didn't just immediately end all of the side conflicts instantly since we demonstrably have a crack ninja squad on-site already. Let them handle it while they're in the neighborhood and just call me in to fight the elder evils or whatever.

    Spy networks are a useful narrative tool like any other, but if they either make the story come off as unsatisfying or unnecessary they should be scooted off the board.
     
  10. psychotick

    psychotick Dark Lord

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    Hi,

    One of the most difficult continuity issues in writing in my view is working what each character knows at each point in the book. Spy networks are a convenient way of making your character know what he needs to know at a point in a book to advance the plot. But actually one of the most fun things I like to do is use them to give characters wrong or limited information. Things that cause characters to act in certain ways which aren't actually merited by the situation.

    So for eample in my latest work my character / villain is a king and his spies have reported that the elves are marching west towards his realm. They don't know why, so he has to deal with the thought that it may be some sort of attack, when in actual fact they're fleeing an enemy.

    In my view, you can have fun with spies!

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  11. DMThaane

    DMThaane Mystagogue

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    If I may quibble your quibble, I never said that ambassadors predated the 15th century. I took 'modern' to refer to the late modern period but if you were referring to early modern than it is debatably true that ambassadors are a 'modern' invention. Regardless, diplomatic envoys have existed for considerably longer and also habitually saw use as spies.

    And yet they were never quite good enough to stop the Inquisitor from being blindsided by Venatori/Red Templar/Qunari. Maybe Leliana should've spent less time monitoring the average pie consumption of Orlesian nobles and instead kept an eye on the mass mobilisation of enemy resources and personnel. Dragon Age: Inquisition pulled a neat trick in making the spy network simultaneously too powerful and yet almost completely ineffective.
     
    MiguelDHorcrux likes this.
  12. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Dark Lord

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    I personally cannot stand Leliana. She was tolerable in the first game but in Inquisition she's just a waste of space.

    I like the idea of a thieves guilds and city dwelling peasants that will spy for the right price, as opposed to some fancy schmancy royal spy group.

    When dirty work has to be done it's better that it doesn't trace back to who is ordering it, so using outside talent is advantageous. The only problem is how easily information is extracted from them if they are captured.
     
    Last edited: Jan 22, 2016
  13. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Lore Master

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    Having your protagonist rely on his grandfather use spies etc for information about the sword in a faraway land is a great idea and in the real world people often take advantage of such contacts.

    However, having your protagonist's grandfather give him the information would be boring. What if the grandfather is a alienating figure among the spies because he has often misused his position to advance the interests of his family? Seeing this sword quest as just another self-serving quest a faction of spies could decide to provide misleading information to undermine his credibility in the eyes of the protagonist. Make sure that some of the information is correct, otherwise the protagonist would work out something's wrong.

    Alternatively the grandfather could be just a little too keen to help his grandson locate the sword. The quest is shaping up to be just a little too easy and, as this quest progresses, the protagonist becomes suspicious. Maybe the grandfather is helping the protagonist so he can get the sword for himself or someone else. Maybe he wants the sword so he could destroy it because he thinks its too dangerous.

    Check out the history of the Abwehr (the German Wehrmacht's intelligence service), the East German Stasi and other spy agencies to get a feel of how these organisations worked and learn what was behind some of their greatest successes and worst failures.
     
  14. D.G. Laderoute

    D.G. Laderoute Apprentice

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    What many people forget about spies and the information they provide is that, generally, efforts are made to corroborate their information other ways. The trouble with spies is that they're people, and subject to all the things that affect people--they can be lazy, incompetent, careless, corrupt...they can be compromised in a variety of ways and turned (or forced) into being double-agents...they can report information that is wrong or incomplete. In my military days as senior officer on a deployed operation, we received a fair bit of HUMINT (human intelligence)...and we took it ALL with a VERY definite grain of salt. Generally, we wanted corroboration from other sources--especially non-HUMINT ones. If a HUMINT source said that Bob the Baker was hiding ammo somewhere for a dissident group, we'd like to find some email, social media or similar traffic that, taken with what the source had told us, would cross-corroborate the two sources.

    In a lot of fiction, a report from a spy comes in and everyone tends to immediately believe it, and act upon it as though it's true. Part of this is because of the reality of writing i.e. you can't burn a bunch of word-count describing how every spy's report is confirmed some other way. But part of it is just the mystique of spies. Popular culture has trained us to treat them as mysterious (and often somewhat sexy) figures that slide through the shadows, gathering information and quickly and accurately reporting it back to their handlers. I've met a few "spies" and, believe me, they weren't mysterious or sexy at all; moreover, I had trouble, in a couple of cases, really believing this person was a worthwhile asset to begin with.

    Spies just aren't the rock-solid sources of information they're often made out to be.
     
  15. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    How does one confirm reports from spies in an era before high-tech? A second report, I suppose, but that starts to get really expensive.

    Also, speaking very generally, "spy" wasn't exactly a profession. There was something like it in the American Civil War, but that's about as early as I can push it. Prior to that, you simply had people in foreign countries who reported what was happening there. Venice had a whole system for this. There were the official dispatches, of course, but if sensitive information needed to be passed, there were codes. The one I know about is 15thc Milan, but I'm sure there are other examples. (just try reading a hand-written, coded document in 15thc Lombard or Tuscan dialect!)

    Again speaking very generally, the line between spy and ambassador or diplomat, or even merchant, was very blurred.

    Given that, I do wonder how information got confirmed. It's one thing to report that the sentiments at the Court of Burgundy seem to be turning against the French. It's quite another to report that two thousand horsemen left Dijon yesterday. By the time the confirming correspondence went back and forth, even by post horse, it might be too late to respond.

    I know, I know: send a crow. :)
     
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  16. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Mythic Scribe

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    I would make the distinction between 'spies,' 'scouts,' 'secret police,' 'informers,' and 'rumormongers.'
     
  17. Malik

    Malik Shadow Lord

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    I write fantasy spy thrillers. OTOH, I work in intelligence. I have the opposite problem from what the OP posits: I have to be cautious to not divulge classified tradecraft even when I'm building human intelligence networks in a pre-industrial society. I specifically have to keep it vague on several points. That said, I do a lot with uncorroborated information, and source validation gets hazy at points so they never quite know if they're chasing down a solid lead or not. I never once have a spy deliver "the answer." That's just not how it works, and television depictions of intelligence work are the worst for this. Every piece of information that my characters receive answers one question but raises several more, and when they finally find out what's going on, they're as surprised by it as the reader is. In my entire career, there's never an "A-HA!" moment. Intelligence work is not like solving crimes. There is never a hard and firm answer. Imagine assembling a jigsaw puzzle missing half the pieces and without seeing what the box looks like. So, you put everything together that you have, and then you guess what it it's supposed to be. That's this.

    This is the issue that I see with espionage in fantasy novels; many authors try to build up to a "Colonel Mustard in the Library with a Wrench" moment and that's just not how it works.
     
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  18. D.G. Laderoute

    D.G. Laderoute Apprentice

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    Going back to my own experience with HUMINT, to be honest, I found that the incoming info from sources was often of only marginal value, and sometimes actually less than useless. I remember a case in which two sources, both considered reliable, gave what amounted to contradictory information. Not only was that a problem in that particular instance, it cast doubt on both of these sources, upon whom a certain amount of reliance had developed. That then propagated backward in time, casting doubt on other pieces of information delivered from these two. It led to a lot of angst and debate and wasted time.

    But, from a writing POV, this is good. All of this friction makes for good story, or an element of good story, anyway. As you note, unreliable and contradictory reports from spies can add dramatic tension; corroborating or refuting an apparently pivotal piece of info could even become an entire subplot in a larger work.
     
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  19. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Lore Master

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    I've never worked in any type of intelligence agency but I have worked in a job where extracting information of a sensitive nature to determine entitlement to government assistance was part of it.

    For a bureaucrat determining whether or not a person is entitled to assistance generally knows what information they need to make that decision. Anything other than the relevant information can be discarded.

    In the case of anyone infiltrating an organisation (as an example) they often don't know what information is going to be relevant so they tend to either supply the information they think is the most important to their handler or they hand over all the gathered information, regardless of its worth. The handler is then expected to sift through the information and make a judgement call on what is, or isn't, relevant. More often than not the information they decide isn't important is the information that people who will be acting on that information need the most.

    Intelligence gathering can also be heavily influenced by the political climate in the country the intelligence agents are supplying information to and the prejudices of the people receiving the information. The most infamous example of this were the weapons of mass destruction that George W Bush used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Everyone except the handful of Iraqi exiles and intelligence cronies that told George W Bush and his mates what they wanted to hear informed Bush Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction but he ignored them. He even went so far as to claim the Iraqis were involved in the 9/11 attacks despite the fact the organisation that carried out the attack had no operatives in Iraq at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

    Any story that involves any form of spying or intelligence gathering must bear in mind that all information is subject to interpretation, judgement calls and differing views as to how important or relevant it may be. It can also be manipulated or fabricated to serve political or other interests.
     
  20. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Mythic Scribe

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    These two quotes remind me very much of a minor rewritten scene in my 'Empire: Capital,' second in the Empire series. In the first book, one of the protagonists, Sir Peter Cortez, comes into possession of an enchanted knife that once belonged to a religious order. The means by which that weapon came into his possession was convoluted, involving a priestess called 'Sister Miriam.' In 'Capital,' the Church decides that Peter was intended to have said knife. He asked how 'Sister Miriam' was, a bit curious about her prior activities. Instead - well, I'll just quote the relevant section:

    The people Peter is talking with are high ranking members of a Church with substantial authority and resources - yet, for all that, the best they could come up with on one of their own clerics was mere fragments.

    I should point out two other things here:

    first, 'Empire' is not primarily a 'spy' type tale;

    and second; much of the time the characters are caught up in a swirl of gossip, rumor, and anecdotes. They have only hazy ideas what is really going on.
     
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