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I have a character that is a spy, and part of their job is sneaking around and getting into places without being noticed. However, in order to have conflict in the plot, have characters interacting to build character development, and the like, I need to have the protagonists and antagonists interact. If the spy character successfully Metal Gear Solid's their way through the entire plot, the antagonist will never even know they are there.

But to have the characters interact would mean that someone would have to notices the spy character, which in turn makes the spy character seem incompetent because they keep getting noticed or caught, and the character is supposed to be portrayed as good at their job. E.g., in one scene I have the character trying to sneak into a meeting and they get caught by a patrol which leads to a fight that furthers the plot. How can I make this happen without making the spy seem to be bad at espionage?

I know some spies like James Bond are frequently depicted as getting captured or getting spotted by guards, but I'm not sure how the narrative is able to counteract that and portray them as competent (I know externally audiences generally do regard characters like James Bond as good at their job, I just don't know the narrative techniques to achieve that).

How would I go about making a spy character seem competent while still allowing for conflict in the plot?

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  • Your spy does not have an alter ego, by any chance?
    – Alexander
    Jul 7 at 8:18
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    Are you going with a "Martini" Spy Fiction feel or a "Stale Beer" feel? The two terms in spy fiction denote the style and tropes, with the former directly lifting elements from James Bond... they have the cool gadgets, the cool cars with cool gadgets, and always get the girl. The latter is more Noir/Realistic and can ultimately takes a grittier approach. Also helps if you can show what's at stake. A spy in a small superhero group will have a different feel than one in international scale. Also, where is your spy's loyalties? Hero or Villain? Is he the protaganist?
    – hszmv
    Jul 7 at 14:28
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You have lots of ways to tackle this. Some are:

  • they could interact indirectly. Having the antagonists talk amongst themselves about something done by an unknown person and how frustrated they are will let you do character development for them, without them saying things to the protagonist. The protagonist working with someone else to get set for their next thing, or reporting back about the thing they did, will also give you that space.
  • if the spy has infiltrated an organization, there will be all kinds of interactions with antagonists who don't understand that's what's happening - but the spy and the readers will.
  • if the spy nearly gets caught, but brilliantly gets out of it with "these are not the droids you're looking for" or "look, an obvious distraction" or some other spycraft, you can have an interaction that reveals whatever you want to develop about either the spy or the people who nearly caught them. Or their organization or whatever. Being nearly caught doesn't mean you are incompetent, the Big Bad will have a ton of scouts and guards and things, what makes you competent is that you don't get caught, or at least not for long and not in any way that exposes you.
  • if you need a fight that furthers the plot, does it have to feature your hero? Could your hero not tell a colleague "be sure not to do X" and then the colleague does X, and gets in a fight, but then the hero shows up and does some brilliant spy thing (uses some tech, or uses their undercover role) and saves the day in a way that rescues the colleague, reveals whatever more you want to reveal about the characters, and leaves the antagonists still unaware that our hero is actually the spy?

When the premise of your story is subterfuge, disguise, and lies, you can't do things the usual way. But you can still do them.

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These cases often boil down to one of two things:

  1. The unexpected, where even with all their meticulous planning, something unforeseen happens. If it could not reasonably have been foreseen, it doesn't harm the competence or credibility of your character.
  2. The trap-within-a-trap, where the character feigns incompetence to get themselves into a better position. They could br caught on purpose to be taken right into the heart of an organisation, for example.
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I recognize the dilemma from my current WIP.

What I've decided, much like you, is that having characters sneaking around and being smart and cautious isn't going to work (there's a reason some advice that a protagonist should never be a coward).

A novel needs drama and the best way to get it is with a confrontation of some sort. (And as you mention, revealing and developing character won't happen in a virtual vacuum...)

How about changing the plot?

Instead of having a plot where your character sneaks around in the shadows, make it necessary for the protagonist and antagonist to interact, perhaps through infiltration or a con?

I think most "spy" situations in real life are less James Bond and more betraying people under their noses, in the same office meeting and at the same coffee break, and trying not to get caught...

It wouldn't be a confrontation per se, but done right it should give you much interaction... and suspense.

Or change the character?

In my case, it was very hard to find a change to the plot that would make direct interaction easier, at least with all that smart and caution, so instead I decided to make my main character confrontational (and not so cautious). As soon as she gets into the situation, she puts her foot down and demands things. This, of course, leads to a confrontation and much more drama...

E.g. while your character is supposed to be in the shadows they have an almost clinical need to "dance near the flames" or start an affair with the antagonist or befriend them etc. All to get "that kick" out of fooling them... or maybe the antagonist falls for the protagonist or needs to be their friend and not wanting to draw attention to themselves the protagonist agrees.

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A Few thoughts:

There are a wide variety of ways this has been handled in books and movies. Here are just a few of them. Appearing to do things that look a bit incompetent may just be a consequence of constantly having to improvise to get around bad situations, or it may be the spy is having to serve multiple incompatible goals/masters to make complicated situations work.

  • Chris-Cross: The protagonist and/or antagonist are double/triple agents, spying and double-dealing on each other. They may not know from chapter to chapter if they are actually enemies or allies. They speak, socialize, and interact in a multitude of ways without it being inappropriate. Both seek to manipulate the other side into inadvertently helping their own side's goals.
  • Neutral Territory: The story happens in various secondary locations where the two competing sides are not in control. The two groups may know of each other, and even have a friendly rivalry as they try to recruit each other's citizens, politicians, etc.
  • Mutual Enemies: Sides X and Y both hate Z. Your agent X and agent Y work together trying to undermine terrorist Z, and are aware of their actions due to the awkward alliance. This might even be historical - imagine two cold war spies who both fought the Nazis.
  • Unexpected Connections: someone on both sides of the spy relationship is in common - a family member (wife?), a mentor, an old friend. Despite the animosity, a different set of relations can make two people ignore certain details of each other while still being openly hostile (except when it comes to this one aspect of the relationship).
  • Debts: You saved someone I cared about, out of a personal sense of right and wrong. I now owe you a debt, even if you refuse to acknowledge it. This means the person themselves did nothing incompetent, but instead is dealing with the consequences of another's actions.
  • Incompetent Allies: Another variation on "It's someone else's fault," your super-spy keeps having the local spies screw things up or betray secrets, leaving super-spy to constantly clean up the messes. The allies are valuable enough that it is needed to maintain their favor, and politics gets in the way of James Bond-style super-spying.
  • Incompetent Command: If your bosses order you to do something, you do it. Even if they are clearly wrong, or possibly doing it specifically because they are trying to undermine your career (you think: Maybe they're simply incompetent). So the most brilliant super-spy will be revealed when trying to take really bad orders and somehow make them work. Perhaps your spy even needs the other side to help them do it (via alliance, common interests, or sheer spy manipulation).

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