Take a casual flick through the fantasy section of this site and you will not have to look very far to find a story that has an assassin mentioned in the summary, frequently as the main character. I would say that I don't understand the appeal, but that's not entirely true. I do understand the appeal, I've fallen for it myself in my younger day, but these days, I can't help but find something a little disturbing about the black clad stealth demons that prowl through the shadows of so many fantasy worlds.Point the First: Murder is Not Big or Clever
When you get right down to it, assassins kill people for money. Somewhere along the line this has entered the popular unconscious as "a cool thing to do". Just think about it for a second. Killing people for money. What the hell kind of person chooses that kind of lifestyle? Furthermore, what kind of person thinks that the kind of person who would choose that kind of lifestyle is likely to be in any way sympathetic?
Of course I am, in a way, oversimplifying. There is a strong and in many ways terribly powerful tradition of antiheroes, characters we sympathise with who we really shouldn't, who we love in spite of ourselves. The difference, however, between these figures and the traditional sleek, unstoppable assassin is that we so often aren't asked to like them in spite of the fact that they do something which is basically distasteful, rather we are asked to like them because of the fact that they do something which is basically cool, and this is rather the heart of the matter.
Murder is not cool. It is nasty, brutal and callous. It's messy, both physically and emotionally. More importantly, from the point of view of a writer, if murder in a story does not feel cruel, brutal and violent then maybe, just maybe, there is a problem with your characterization. If your readers can watch characters – even supporting characters – get casually snuffed out without reacting with even a little distaste then perhaps those characters don't feel properly real, and that, if you're trying to write something serious, is a problem. Similarly if your assassin at no point thinks to themselves "hang on a second, this is one ****ed up way to make a living" (irrelevant aside: it's remarkable how many stories will cheerfully show black clad antiheroes slitting the throats of members of the general public, but will shy away from swearing) the perhaps that character isn't going to ring entirely true.
Point the Second: Never Give a Six Year Old a Crossbow.
In the mid eleventh century, a man who may or may not have been called Hassan i Sabbah founded the original society of Assassins, and basically they were a paramilitary unit. They were scary, dead scary, and all sorts of stories abounded about them – that they would leap out of windows at the command of their masters, that they took hashish to make them fearless (and presumably giggly and with a terrible case of the munchies) and so on. They were, however, something of an aberration.
If you look through the history books you will find precious few records of assassinations that involved locked doors and single sword thrusts or telltale calling cards on the pillows of emperors. Rather most historical – or indeed great fictional – assassinations have been nasty brutal affairs and, crucially, have usually been carried out by thugs, soldiers or simply ordinary guys with weapons. Saint Thomas a Beckett was killed by three knights who dispatched him brutally with swords, Julius Caesar was knifed repeatedly by a gang of senators and Kit Marlowe was stabbed in the eye in a fight over a bill, and whether you believe that to have been an unfortunate incident, or the orders of Lord Cecil, is entirely up to you.
So why, then, are assassins in fantasy always modelled on the legends surrounding the Hishashim? Why are people always "trained as assassins" (usually from birth – which raises some odd questions about martial arts techniques involving killing a man whilst crawling and wearing a nappy) rather than just, well, assassinating people, which seems to be the way it actually works most of the time. Of course the simple answer is that they're so much cooler that way, but this leads us back to my earlier point. Do we really want our murderers to look cool? Is that not, at the end of the day, a little bit – well – messed up?
Of course perhaps the real reason we remain so deeply in love with the assassin is the one we are least inclined to admit. The thing about assassins as they are always portrayed – sleek and black clad, slender and deadly – is that they look like us, and by "us" I mean "the under exercised pasty faced geeks that write this stuff". Lets face it, if you're reading this essay, chances are that you weren't the popular kid at school, you were the one reading The Earthsea Trilogy in the corner, or programming your calculator to play space invaders. Our fantasy assassins look like us. There is a little part of us that loves the thought that the skinny nebbish in the corner can – unbeknown to the louder larger figures that fill the hypothetical tavern in our heads – kill a dozen men using only a hairpin. Real assassins, of course, look more like the guys that used to beat us up and take our lunch money, and we don't want to read stories about those sorts of people.
Of course, as ever, I serve these observations with a large pinch of salt. There is a lot to be said for sleek unstoppable assassins, but it is important to realize where that place is. That place is in over the top action stories, in deliberately cheesy high fantasy. If you really want to engage with your readership on an emotional level, do yourself a favour, and pick a hero who isn't a serial killer.