Writers in the Storm

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September 30, 2019

10 Character Traits of an Espionage Hero

by Piper Bayard

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-plus-year veteran of field intelligence operations and a senior member of the US Intelligence Community.

Spy or Spook?

So is Holmes a spy? No. Holmes is a “spook.” As he says, spying is seamy. It’s what the Russians do. The preferred slang among American intelligence operatives, particularly older operatives, and in the American IC in general 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.

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. 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 Real Secret

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?

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About Bayard & Holmes

Piper Bayard and Jay Holmes of Bayard & Holmes are the authors of espionage tomes and international spy thrillers. For more on the personalities and personal challenges of those in the Intelligence Community, see SPYCRAFT: Essentials. It is designed specifically for writers, and it also addresses the functions and jurisdictions of the main US intelligence organizations, tradecraft techniques, surveillance, the most common foibles of spy fiction, and much more. It is available in digital format and print at Amazon.

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.

11 comments on “10 Character Traits of an Espionage Hero”

  1. Thanks for this. We often frequent a restaurant for Sunday breakfast, and it being a small town, it's easy to get to know the regulars. One man, when we asked what he did, said he was a spook--and he had some great stories he could tell. Definitely spot on with the sense of humor.

  2. YAY for Holmes, and all the warriors like him! It takes a massive amount of courage and character to put themselves in danger and do these behind-the-scenes jobs that very few people see. I salute them.

  3. Great article and perfect timing as I'm going through my MS where heroine is ex-CIA operative who is now working as linguist for the FBI. Your points means I can send to my editor on schedule rather than have to make changes. Whew! Thanks!

  4. This post reminds me of a fascinating client who had sadly passed on about 10 years ago. I'd been doing his hair for a few years when he told me he was retired FBI undercover agent. He never said much about what he did, but he did tell me they had an in-house drama troupe. He was so knowledgeable in so many things, and spent part his retirement as an artist.

  5. I had a friend who was formerly a spook. We lost contact after she moved, but she had a fascinating life before she married and had children.


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