CIA chief (or is she?): how spies use disguises

Wired has an amazing video by the chief of disguises at the CIA – yes, that really is a job. There’s a lot of good spy tradecraft in the film if that’s the type of fiction you write, and the stuff about how her make-up specialists can easily make a woman look like a man but not visa-versa is… psychologically counter-intuitive, I guess, at least for me (I live in Brighton). And since I do live in the cosplay capital of Europe, I’ll be spreading her quick-change trick around my friends: imagine changing your complete appearance in twenty-five seconds! (Mind you, I do have one friend who changes her partner about that fast.)

Here’s the link:

One particularly salutary tip for writers is the spy chief’s emphasis on agents looking natural in their environment. Now, we’re all used to giving our characters mannerisms, affectations, or tics, and sometimes that’s just something we have in our notebooks that we fancied using and that seems to vaguely inform their personality: the stressed-out woman who’s always tapping her fingers and doesn’t even notice she’s doing it, for example; or the gourmet man whose sneezes explode so loudly everyone in the restaurant turns to look. On rare occasions these mannerisms might affect the plot – and those are the best stories, of course – but generally speaking they’re only there to round or colour the characters.

All this can be done subtly, and – through the homeopathy of the unconscious, where less really can be more – is actually better done that way. In the video, the spy says that Americans tend to stand leaning on one leg, while Europeans don’t; Americans (and Britishers) hold their cigarette sticking out, while Europeans pinch it and point it downwards. Little things like that make a difference, and onlookers will unconsciously notice and process them and prejudge people based on them; but then would be hard pressed to say afterwards what there was about the person that made them think the way they do. The actor – and apparently the spy – has to know all this. Writers tend not to, but since their medium is more aural than visual, they need to find aural ways of doing the same thing. We all depend on this prejudice, a bad thing in law and society but essential in fiction and drama. For example, imitating accent with phonetics (see image). That might be regarded as a bit patronising these days – more seriously, it is a bit cliched -, but there are plenty of other clues you can use.

All this comes back to what I mean by “Martian” on this blog. Professional actors look at their fellows’ performances and notice things like stance and mannerisms and tics that no one else in the audience see, and they notice the actor is doing them deliberately to create an impression. Presumably real professional spies also look at the world differently – when they’re not leaping from helicopters onto plane wings, of course (real spies do do that, don’t they?). And serious writers have to look at the people around them and do the same. We don’t have the luxury of normal human interaction, we have to be constantly thinking of psychological causation and ulterior motives and guessing at relationships we don’t know about. And we have to be watching every second – watching and stealing. Fun is for other people: we have work to do.

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