In my comic fantasy novel The Sorcerer’s Lackey, I have a female assassin with all the right kit. She comes with a large number of knives and swords, dark inconspicuous clothing, and the like. She ticks all the cliché boxes of course, for good reasons that have to do with the comic nature of the story.
Following my lady assassin’s outing, I continue to be fascinated in many ways by the idea of a “femme fatale”. Not a comic personage, but a deadly serious character. (Pun intended.) A “Black Widow” as portrayed by Scarlett Johansson is captivating and certainly adds to the potential cast of characters for a story.
However, lately I have been thinking a bit about the “reality” of a woman taking on the role of assassin. Of course, from an entertainment point of view, a female assassin has the possibility of becoming enamoured with her target. Of being put in extreme jeopardy physically and, if captured, in a very dark way. Therefore, the emotional stakes can be high.
Nevertheless, how practical is it in an age before firearms (which can be seen as a great force leveller) for a woman, however well trained, to be an effective assassin as usually portrayed in fantasy stories and parodied in my comic fantasy novel? My thoughts on this come from the realisation that—in a fight or any physical contest—compared to their likely adversaries, they are at a serious disadvantage. Okay, not if the target happens to be a fat merchant who is looking the other way when she strikes.
Consider the following situation where she has to go up against the victim’s bodyguard to reach her target. Catch him off-guard and she can potentially deliver him a lethal blow (and it would have to be silent otherwise the target would be alerted and prepared). My research on knife wounds suggests that if she simply delivered him a body blow, it might wound him, but not necessarily incapacitate him. She might slit his throat—that would do it. However, if the guard is doing his job, that would be extremely unlikely and, personally, I don’t like my stories to rely on extreme skills or behaviours that stretch the bound of credulity. And getting into a one-on-one sword or physical fight does not bear thinking about.
If she only manages to wound him, then the game is up, no?
It all boils down to what I think is achievable for our female assassin without breaking the bounds of reality. Any successful attempt would have to be covert and with very limited or no violence. Stealth and seduction rather than brute force would be her weapons. So the stiletto and poison rather than the rapier and katana. And there would be no need for the action outfit. Looking like a walking arsenal would be a dead giveaway—for our assassin.
I am not suggesting here that—as mentioned above—having a female rogue/assassin is not a good story point. Far from it. I will probably continue to consider the possibility in stories. They provide a good source of conflict—and danger—for both the protagonist and their party as well as the antagonist. However, I think they need to be used in terms of what is realistic.
Someone is bound to point out that years of training and being a skilled weaponsmith would allow our femme fatale to go head-to-head on better than even terms with the most muscled of bodyguards of bad guys. Of course, as a writer one can go for that. In Mistborn, Vin is an innately accomplished fighter, her ability honed by both living in the gutter and having a great teacher. But does she do well against the opposite sex in a fight? Not at all, she really, really struggles and is mostly not successful. Brandon Sanderson could easily have made her engagements with other mistborn a fight between equals, but chooses not to. She is described as petite and agile. Her advantage is both her innate street sense and her dexterity. Not her strength. As such, she is all the more realistic for it.