Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Hapless Female Assassin

Recently I've come across a lot of female "assassin" artwork that, with the combination of the equipment and armor presented in the illustrations, persuaded me to comment on them in the hopes of starting a meaningful discussion on what assassins actually do.

I didn't get what I wanted.

Instead I engaged in some confusing discussions-turned-arguments that left me feeling like decoration was the ultimate goal for these ladies. "Fine" I thought "but then why do more or less the rest of the female assassins in the universe who populate worlds of varying plausibility look the same as one that exists only as eye candy?" Because that's all female characters are expected to be? Not exactly, since now it's thankfully fairly popular to point and laugh at the scantily-clad female warriors who receive bikinis where their male counterparts enjoy the benefits of plate armor.

It gave me the feeling that while female warriors are more often being expected to wear reasonable armor (you know, the kind that actually protects you) the poor female assassin is still getting issued an ill-fitting set of clothing. I kept thinking and thinking about it to the point where I wasn't sure if the points I was raising in my own head were even valid anymore. I just like for things to WORK regardless of style, I don't like to see female characters get the short end of the stick and I really don't like to be pandered to. I won't reveal what designs specifically are irking me, but simply google image-searching "female assassin" will yield enough examples of the type of thing I'm talking about.

So... yeah. Strap yourselves in, this is going to be a long one.

--- I'll note ahead of time that I'm talking more about female assassins as characters or character classes in video games, rpgs and books rather than pin-up images, mainly because pin-ups don't really have to conform to an established setting or try to create a suspension of disbelief. I'll also take this time to say that no, I don't think that all assassin art is bad or that what I'm talking about needs to be applied to every setting. Lastly, draw whatever the hell you want. I'll never tell you what to draw or that what you're drawing is "wrong." This is about what I want to see more *and less* of---

Now I know what you're thinking - "Hey, it's fantasy. If it looks cool it's fine and no one's going to put that much thought into it." Well, the current growing trend is that it's not really fine for female warriors to go around with exposed stomachs or chain-mail bikinis. People want to see actual strong female characters and the reasonable equipment helps us relate to them. It seems like female assassins aren't getting the same treatment, and I just don't "buy" these characters because of it. Also, while a lot of my gripes can apply to male assassins as well, female assassins seem to have more problems because they need to display "the sexy." I'm actually fine with female characters looking attractive, but I'm not really ok with it when it serves no purpose or hinders them in their activities.
It might have to do with the fact that it's easy to apply form-follows-function to warriors (add more armor, cover things up) since the warrior has a nice, clear-cut function; get into scraps.  Assassins obviously assassinate, but what does that mean in game terms, in narrative terms? We know that they need to kill people, we know they do so using subterfuge and we know they're not meant to take a pounding in a fight, but the how is ill-defined. So what's the assassin's function?

When you think about what an assassin (lets stick with medieval fantasy assassin) needs to DO, what's the first thing that pops into your head? Mine is of a person sneaking through a building, avoiding guards and other people within, dispatching her target stealthily (slitting of the throat while they're alone, poisoning food etc.) and making a quiet, unconventional escape out of a window or over a wall. Chances are you thought of something similar. The first thing usually isn't fighting an epic fight or having to dispatch every guard in a well-defended building in order to carry out her mission. The assassin (generally) needs to;

- Remain unseen
- Remain unheard
- Climb
- Squeeze into small spaces (to gain access or hide)
- Jump
- Not draw attention to themselves when approaching or leaving the area of the assassination

I can think of a number of things that a lot of female assassin designs share that can disrupt (or even make impossible) this scenario:

-Leather clothing or armor

Leather is pretty much the go-to material for most characters (and the artists that draw them) who want relatively light armor for speedy or stealthy characters. The problem? Leather is actually pretty noisy. Anyone who's worn a leather jacket can tell you that it "farts" whenever you move around in it. Lamed leather armor (on its own, we'll get to that later) is still a problem as the tightly overlapping segments will rub against one another and let one rip for all to hear. Even just thinking about leather clothing makes me think of that sound, and no one nearby is going to think it's just the wind.

-Metal anything

Belt buckles, weapons in scabbards, studs and especially metal pieces of armor are probably the last thing any fantasy assassin in their right mind would carry on them. They clink and clang easily and reflect everything. They catch the eye and ear like nothing else.

-Things sticking out

By that I mean anything that extends beyond the person's silhouette such as scabbards, silly armor etc. Not only will these things increase the assassin's visual profile and make them easier to spot, they can also catch on objects while they're trying to sneak. Knocking over a pot with the eight swords on your back is not an acceptable excuse for blowing a mission.  This is also a problem when dealing with disguises; good luck tossing a simple dress over your spiky armor.

- Cloaks and capes

I'm going to catch flak for this especially but hear me out; a cloak or a cape is a disguise, like a dress, tattered rags or a suit of motley. It conceals the assassin while they're getting to the location of the mission, it doesn't follow them INTO the mission. Why? if I had to think of the worst thing to wear while I needed to crawl, climb, tumble, sneak, squeeze through, run, remain silent and generally not brush against or knock over things, it would be a nice big billowy cloak I can get tangled up in.

- Carrying every item you own

Eight throwing knives, small crossbow, ten bolts, rope, grappling hook, climbing claws, blow-darts, main dagger, off-hand dagger, long-sword, buckler, backpack, pouches and pouches filled with stink bombs, smoke bombs, stun bombs, poison, acid, etc. etc. etc... if the kitchen sink was a common murder weapon I'd imagine they'd strap that to their back as well. The argument is that assassins need to be ready for any contingency, but a better argument is that a good assassin knows their mark and plans ahead. Who needs poison when the mark has taste-testers? Who needs throwing knives or crossbows when the mark never leaves the house? Who needs daggers when the mark never leaves the park? Who needs rope if it's not an urban area or there are no walls? Each item is another thing that can get in the way, weigh you down, or make noise. I'm not advocating being stupidly under-equipped, but a lot of assassins seem too loaded down to LOOK stealthy.

And lastly, most prevalent, and most relevant

- Random skin, random armor

A boob window serves no purpose. I've actually gotten the argument that "the assassin is just expressing herself and wants to be sexy/noticed!" If she was at a party, sure. If she did anything that an assassin is supposed to do? Nope. On the way to the mark she'll catch the eye, and if she's recognized for what she is that boob window becomes a heart target. Then there's the assassin that wants to wear armor... but nowhere near her vital organs. She'll wear metal armor on her limbs, the things that need to move deflty and quietly. If you want my opinion, the best assassin, one that's never seen or heard, is actually NUDE with camo body paint and slippers (to eliminate and "sticking" sound the feet may produce when walking on smooth surfaces).
Kinda like this... but less messy

Even your own clothing makes sounds when you move, and in the dead of night a simple ruffle can undo hours of cautious sneaking. This however is no excuse for a two-piece bikini with fully armored arms and legs. The intent is pretty clear.

So what does this all add up to, and what could be a possible solution? I know that sometimes showing "the sexy" is sometimes unavoidable. Sometimes it's even appropriate. My gripe is that the sexiness shown generally has no purpose and actively hinders the feeling of a stealthy character. I also know that strict realism is sometimes not an option; actual ninjas probably didn't wear black and probably couldn't sneak though a populated building and silently murder someone "video-game style". They usually wore civilian clothing, mainly performed espionage and when they did try to kill someone, historically some the most solid examples are of them trying to shoot people in the face. With guns. Not exactly the type of nail-biting sneak-fest we want to imagine.

With all that in mind we have a female assassin who is wearing an appropriately stealthy but attractive set of clothing or armor, equipped with the things she needs to perform a fantasy type assassination, and lacking most if not all of the things that will hinder her in reaching her goal.

Here's what I came up with as a general archetype:

I can hear it already - "It's too revealing!" "It's boring!" "how's that an assassin!" And that would be true, if the assassin wanted to get into fights, impress her targets and be recognized as an assassin, but she DOESN'T! The assassin is the one class that doesn't want to be intimidating, because the assassin doesn't want to be seen, period.

Then again, she's not real, she's a piece of art that's meant to engage us. So why do I also feel that this works as good illustration and interesting art?  Because no medieval characters are wearing a tight leotard, which instantly sets her apart as a fast non-combat character, and the female form is interesting enough on its own; I feel this is a way to accentuate the form in a non-trashy way that also supports the character's activities. No clothing around the major points of movement means on swishy sound. This also makes swimming easier. The large simple shape of the clothing creates a silhouette within the body that highlights the curves of the torso. Note too that this is just a basic archetype, a simple design of equipment that works. Make some allowances for style and there a lot you can do. Lastly, this is a design that would work just as easily on a male. No boob windows, no bikinis. In fact I'd go even further and eliminate his top as well.

Let's get specific about sound for a moment here, and why this person is showing skin; Stand up and try to find a place that as quiet as possible, turn off appliances/music if you can. Chances are you're wearing a t-shirt, but regardless of what's on your body - raise your arm up as high as you can, somewhat quickly and listen to the sound it makes.


That sound is why it's easy for you to actually hear people try to sneak up on you when it's quiet enough (ever pretend to be asleep when you're a kid and hear someone get close? Likely you heard their clothes) Pull up your sleeve beyond your shoulder and try it again. Damn near silent. Now imagine that it's the middle of the night, the manor you've snuck into is completely still but there are still guards here and there that are alert. Would you rather have on some clothing (or worse yet, armor) that could betray your presence at the slightest movement, or would you rather have the freedom to perform actions silently and quickly just like.... an assassin?!

This design is fine when an assassin wants to be heard less, like indoors during the day, but what about being seen less, like outdoors or in the dark where her skin might set her apart from her surroundings? What about disguises, or even armor?  What if you feel like the original design is too odd or bland?

Now we're getting more into the traditional ninja look, but with an important difference; tight clothing, tied off at the major points of movement. Baggy clothes will definitely increase the assassins profile, make more noise and make it easier to be grabbed and held. The basic design of the assassin makes it easy to hide underneath almost any sort of costume, costumes that they'd be wearing almost nonstop except during missions. The only sort of armor I can think of that the assassin could be wearing would be lamellar leather armor (hardened leather straps or pieces layered on top of each other) with each individual piece wrapped in cloth. The overlapping nature of the armor means that nothing gets squeaked as it's folded, plus the cloth prevents clacking and rubbing noises.

Is this too much to go through? Is it too nit-picky? I don't think so. For me this is going beyond the symbols that we've gotten so used to and trying to visualize these characters as real beings with real goals. For sure this is not really applicable to the incredibly far-out assassin designs mostly seen in pin up images or tongue-in-cheek settings but more and more popular games are taking some weird licensees with the assassin that they don't with female warriors. I'd like for realism, however much is applied to the fantasy setting in question, to be consistent. If female warriors are expected to be outfitted to do their job, why not the assassin? If assassins need to be sexy, can't the be sexy in a way that doesn't earn them an oubliette in the castle dungeons? What about style? I think that even just a little bit of effort can turn this new archetype into anything the artist wanted, retaining elements of the original to influence the overall plausibility and look.

I remember Matt Rhodes, in a post on his blog, lamenting the fact that it's becoming harder to create character designs that haven't already been done. To be fair, part of that is true; most fantasy assassins, especially female ones, blend together with their seemingly necessary cloaks, leather armor, boob windows and spiky accessories. Then again, none of those assassins look like they could actually do their job. Sometimes when the flow of ideas begin to trickle and stop, you need to get back to the source. I'm probably the last person who should be giving someone like Mr. Rhodes advice, but if he asked I'd say;

Start with what actually works well, then turn it into what looks good.


  1. Nice post :) There are a few things I would add. First, the choice between loose and tight clothing is somewhat more of a trade-off than you might think. If the assassin has to escape quickly, tight clothing can be a problem because it can restrict motion heavily in the elbows and knees. loose clothing, on the other hand, is easy to grab at the lapel or the sleeve, in addition to its stealth issues. I know a few female martial artists who prefer to spar and exercise in a tank-top and shorts cut above the knee rather than the traditional gi, to avoid those two problems. Thus, as you said, an outfit like a leotard would be rather ideal :)

    Second, there's a common misconception about all assassins wearing black. Black clothing actually stands out quite a bit in low-light environments; for urban stealth, mottled greys and browns of varying dark shades are ideal.

    Third, just as a random bit of trivia, I *think* the cloak thing rose out of a misconception regarding something that some assassins actually did. In the Italian city-states, one form of assassination historically involved closing with the target in a crowded street (or, better, a back-alley) while wearing a half-cloak over one shoulder to conceal a rondel dagger belted at the hip. When the assassin walked past the target, they would draw the rondel dagger and bring it down next to the collarbone, driving deep enough to cause major damage to the lung. The cloak would then be immediately discarded and the assassin would try to meld with the nearest crowd. Of course, this is a rather different form of assassination that doesn't rely on stealth, but I believe that's where the "all assassins wear cloaks" belief stemmed from.

    I really enjoyed reading this. I'm not an artist by any means, but I do get tired of the "obviously visible female assassin" cliche in fantasy art. Well spoken :)

    1. Thanks! Great points, RE the cloaks specifically; I actually took out a section that dealt with specific examples since I didn't want to praise or call out the specific work of other artists, but one thing I commented on was the "Assassins Creed" Assassins. Like you said, the cloak is fine in their case since it's about moving with the crowd and assassinating in plain sight, I don't think they ever ended up moving inside. I did however include as a disguise the standard cloak since it can definitely be helpful in crowd situations.

    2. I love this article. Re: colors: Yes, pitch black stands out except when it is already pitch black. If it is night, dark red actually works VERY well.

    3. You're being way too hard on cloaks; breaking up your silhouette is camoflage 101. A cloak also helps conceal movement of the limbs. You're putting too much weight on the size of the assassins profile; any reductions here really won't make that big of a difference, she'll always be big enough to be seen. Fortunately, it's fine for an assassin to be seen, though, provided she's not seen for what she is. The silhouette created by tight-fitting clothing visually shouts 'Hello! Person over here!' to anyone glancing in the right direction. The risk of the cloak snagging or being grabbed is not a big deal either, owing to the fact that they're pretty much just draped over the wearer. Cloaks are very easy to ditch. They're also good for distraction and misdirection in a fight. If you consult medieval fencing manuals, you might find lessons on how to wield a cloak as a defensive, off-hand weapon.

  2. Nice post. Just something to add to that design.

    I play airsoft with friends once every two weeks and we have to deal with camouflage quite a bit. The most problematic and visible part of the body when sneaking so far has always been the face. It's easily seen when you stick out your head from behind the tree. When you have light complexion the face contrasts strongly with dark hat. Probably the best solution for that would be camo body paint. I would add it to that head covering for non-public version.

    Of course it would probably work better in the wilderness beacause escaping into streets with whole face covered in dirt or paint would look suspicious.

    As for the classic medieval style assassin. I always imagined it just like Spencer Hepp described it in the previous post. It was just regular city person who would approach his/her target on the street, stab it with dagger and then try to disappear in the crowd. Not much of a sneaking ninja look.

  3. Hey Jason! Thanks for posting this! I've always had a problem with the under-dressing of female characters. I mean yes, they looks sexy and all but still ridiculous in the situation given.
    This is a great and entertaining post! :)

  4. Really great article you got there. I can totally see an assassin of yours being more successful at the job than the others I have seen.

  5. I had similar thoughts in my mind when I was working on my webcomic featuring a female assassin (sorry for a plug. Not a not-particularly-stellar comic either. Never really had any audience =).

    One of the thoughts that crossed my mind fairly early on is that the protagonist should be pretty average looking, and not make her stick out too much. In other words, if she wants to kill anyone without anyone noticing until it's far too late, she can't look like an assassin. People would just see a fairly normal person doing fairly normal-persony things, annnnnd then there's a dagger slicing through their throat somehow. The only thing that would cause notice would be her bright red hair, but that's not a crime, is it? I even gave her light grey clothing. People think "okay, all that blood would show up on her clothing, but there isn't any there, so maybe she didn't do it". =)

    Another thing to think of was that killing people stealthily can be a very, very complex operation. I definitely agree that it's not feasible or realistic to have the characters carry everything with them. An assassin could easily lead someone into a huge death-trap.

    Thank you for the article - it really got me thinking about how to continue my comic soon.

  6. I felt like adding something that stuck with me from the Fables comic miniseries Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love. Cinderella is a super-spy, which is more or less the same job as an assassin. She doesn't mind facing off with enemies unarmed, because (and I'm paraphrasing here) "The bad guys bring enough for everyone." She's talking about guns here, but surely a fantasy setting will have cutlery aplenty for someone who knows how to find it. Why bother with bringing your own?

  7. I have one major, major complaint with your design: her thighs, with some of the largest veins in the body, are comepletely unprotected. IF-nto saying she does, but if-she gets attacked, the attacker will most likely go straight for that area, and she will bleed to death.

    1. I wouldn't recommend that strategy. If you do manage to make her bleed, while she may be dying eventually, she'll still be conscious, armed, and probably more than a little upset. Since she's not conspicuously well protected anywhere, something like a knock-out blow to the head would be preferable. But then again, I suspect with this lady we'd be beggars rather than choosers when it came to ways of bringing her down.

  8. This is an excellent look at what would work, and what doesn't. Thank you for posting this - it's especially useful to an amateur/student like me. :)

  9. It is generally very hard for anyone who has grown up in the modern, industrial world to imagine just how dark it can get in areas where there is absolutely no urban light "pollution". People - the pre-industrial world on a cloudy, moonless night was DARK. PITCH BLACK. The medieval assassin has LOTS of shadows to hide in and any light present is coming from an open fire, torches or candle/s. Shadows thrown by these light sources are uneven and flickering except in the stillest air. So if we suppose an assassin who has to get into some secure place under the cover of darkness, be it a castle or manor house, we need look no further than the Japanese Ninja. The traditional outfit (everybody knows what it looks like) is tight or loose where it needs to be and reinforces or armors only the spots most vulnerable to what the assassin expects to encounter on that particular mission. So in a fantasy context you would have at it's core a woman in a cloth catsuit of varying shades of black and very dark grey or brown. Bye the way, her hair is braided up because a short-haired woman is going to stand out like a sore thumb in most fantasy medieval settings. Now anybody who watches a lot of Asian cinema can tell you just how alluring an attractive woman can be in such an outfit but it won't be a skin parade or have a boob window. Deal with it.

    1. But again, the outfit that people associate with ninja isn't what they would have historically worn. It's based on the fact that when they needed a ninja in kabuki theater plays they used a stage hand who wore all black to signify that they were supposed to be invisible. It was a big thing back then that an "invisible" stage hand would suddenly reach out and "murder" the guy that had a price on his head. Actual ninja wore plain peasant clothing to blend in better, likewise a lot of their weapons and tools were modified from farm equipment.

  10. I don't think pants are that noisy. Male assassins or people doing that sort of job like certain kinds of soldiers, can usually get their job done without taking off their pants. I'd imagine that if you wanted to show her in less than that for some reason, you would just have her in a sports bra and underpants. I can't imagine she would care if someone saw her like that if she was a badass. And to pee in a leotard you need to take the whole thing off. Just a sports bra and underpants would probably be better. The clothing is probably very dependent on the setting and how exactly the assassins usually operate. Do they just sneak in by hiding in the shadows or blending into the crowd? One would be uniformy and the other would be as generic yet practical as possible.

  11. Well, historically, most assassinations were performed by bands of thugs anyway -- no sneaking involved, just mobbing the target (and any guards/associates) with enough people to make sure that one or more would get through. Think of it as the mafia or a rival gang sending thugs to "off" the mark. So most of these concerns would have been irrelevant, since the average "assassin" would look just like an ordinary person -- they _were_ ordinary people after all, albeit with less reluctance to crack a skull or shed some blood when the boss says so.

    The _other_ kind of assassin -- the ninja-like type -- looked nothing like fantasy assassins either. They would probably have worked their way into the target's household as a servant, a bona fide messenger, or some other sort of role that would naturally put them close to the mark without arousing suspicion. This would obviously involve them wearing perfectly ordinary civilian clothing; whatever weaponry or poison they planned to use had to be easily concealed beneath the outfit or be an absolutely normal part of it (such as a gardener carrying a scythe or bill all over the place because it'd be stupid if they _didn't). Again, sneaking wouldn't have been that important, and most of the work would have involved social engineering instead. This is what special forces and intelligence agents still do when they have to take down particularly difficult targets, anyway.