New Worlds: Bodyguards

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

If you’re wealthy, if you’re powerful, if you’re hated, if you’re famous — and especially if you’re several of those things at once — you may find yourself in the peculiar situation where you need someone whose job is to keep you alive.

Not everybody who could use a bodyguard has one, of course, and not everyone who has a bodyguard really needs it. As with any other kind of servant, having someone following you around looking menacing is a way of signaling your status. On the other hand, it’s also a bit like insurance: you don’t need anyone guarding your life, until the moment when you suddenly do. And since you may not see that moment coming, it may be wise to take precautions, just in case.

What a bodyguard does can range all over the spectrum. There’s a sense in which any kind of guard serves this purpose, e.g. the security staff at the entrance to a building, who prevent malefactors from getting anywhere near their targets. When we talk about a bodyguard, though, we usually mean more personalized protection: someone who literally guards your body, not anyone else’s, nor a place and everyone in it. This person may simply follow you around discreetly, not taking action until something happens . . . but when the risk is high, they may be a good deal more proactive than that.

The specific actions they take will vary based on the nature of the suspected threat, which includes what weapons are available. An archer can shoot you from a distance; an assassin with a sniper rifle can shoot from much further away. Both of those are different from the attacker with a concealed handgun, which in turn is different from the one with a bomb or a knife. Magic and/or advanced technology could change the game yet again. Depending on what the bodyguard is protecting you against, they may have control over your movements, instructing you to wait outside until they’ve checked a room for threats, or refusing to let you stop and chat with a friend because you’re in an exposed location. If an attack happens, they’ll shove you behind cover — which might mean behind their own body — and fight to defend you.

We might even extend this category to tasters, people whose job is to test your food for poison before you chow down. How effective is this precaution? It’s hard to say; we don’t exactly have good statistics. Contrary to what I’ve sometimes seen in fiction, tasters were usually not highly trained specialists with encyclopedic knowledge of poisons, much less a Mithridates-style resistance to such things; instead they were disposable minions whose job was to say “this doesn’t taste quite right.” You might wait to see if they suffered any ill effects — which, yes, meant that important people in the past rarely got their meals piping hot — but in reality, many poisons have a sufficiently delayed onset of symptoms that this wouldn’t be a good metric of safety.

How do you get somebody to do this kind of job? In the modern day, the answer is usually “money.” Which is only useful to the bodyguard if they’re alive to spend it, of course — so when things get really dangerous, will they actually risk their own life to defend you? The answer is “yes” more often than you might think. Habit can kick in, and they do the things they’ve been trained to do without stopping to think about whether that’s a good idea. Or they might trust in medicine (or in a fantasy world, magic) to save them from whatever wounds they take while defending you. Or they might misjudge how bad the risk is, or they might have family who will benefit from the payout even if they aren’t there to collect.

If money is the carrot, then the stick is threatening the bodyguard’s own life, or that of their loved ones. If you abandon me, you won’t live for long afterward. Roman law said that if a man was murdered in his own home, then his household slaves would also be put to death. They weren’t dedicated bodyguards, but the idea was to incentivize them to defend their master, even at the peril of their own lives. Otherwise (the logic went), the slaves might simply stand aside and let the murderer do as he pleased.

That points toward the final motivation, which is loyalty — a quality slaves were (with justification) assumed not to have toward their owners. Human beings are capable of remarkable altruism, and if someone believes sincerely enough that your life is more important than their own, they may willingly risk themself or even die to keep you safe. This kind of logic gets treated as natural in a society where ideology says some people are inherently superior to others; in a modern democracy that espouses the ideal of equality, it’s an uncomfortable thought at best.

But loyalty isn’t necessarily about saying one life has greater intrinsic value than another. An unmarried soldier may throw himself on a grenade to save one who has a spouse and kids back home, because the death of the latter would hurt more people. Leaders get greater protection because if they die, the groups they lead will be left in disarray, more vulnerable to enemy action. Someone who possesses vital technical or spiritual knowledge, or who has a skill crucial to dealing with the problem at hand, needs to be protected so they can use what they have to benefit others. At the extreme end, you’re sacrificing one life to save hundreds or thousand or millions more.

It’s still a very strange relationship, and for people who aren’t used to counting as “important,” it can be incredibly awkward to realize someone is prepared to bleed and die for you. Better to feel awkward, though, than to take such sacrifices for granted. In the moment when a bodyguard’s services are truly needed, and in the aftermath of that crisis, you can learn a lot about both the characters’ personalities and the society they live in.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: Bodyguards — 7 Comments

  1. There is an episode of the “Borgias” TV series where the conspiracy to poison Pope Alexander VI comes from within the clergy. They find a young monk whose faith is fanatical, convince him that the Borgia Pope and his family are the devil incarnate and insert him into the household as taster. He waits for months until someone slips poison into the wine. He declares it clean. The pope drinks and before he finishes the cup they are both in their death throes.

    The pope survived because of medical intervention. The young monk is reviled–but he did his job happily, believing he’d go straight to heaven.

    How do you protect yourself from that kind of fanaticism? It’s what fuels the suicide bombers today.

    • In a magical world, I could see a nondescript little bodyguard whose job was to watch for trouble. If he could see the future a big bodyguard wouldn’t be needed. Except for those who have bodyguards to show off.

    • Nobody’s safe from a competent assassin who’s willing to pay the price. Not even the president of the United States.

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: Bodyguards - Swan Tower

  3. “In the modern day, the answer is usually “money.” Which is only useful to the bodyguard if they’re alive to spend it,”

    Not true: family can be carrot as well as stick. “Save me and your family will be taken care of.”

    For an unwritten fanfic I’ve noted the difference in fear between hostile environments (especially with scientific understanding) and needing bodyguards. The former is “with enough preparation and caution you are probably safe”, from wearing a good winter coat to being on a space station. The latter is an adversarial situation: someone is *trying* to kill you, and no matter how good you are someone else might be better.

    In Bujold terms, Beta vs. Barrayar or Jackson’s Whole.

  4. Bodyguards are useful against preconceived and understood threats. The unimaginable (or at least unimagined) — not so much.

    Although not a targeted assassination per se, consider the use of smallpox blankets. Native American culture could not conceive of “a blanket” as “a deadly weapon,” and thus no matter how competent any bodyguards might have been they would have been useless against that threat. In a more-modern sense, how much luck will a bodyguard have protecting against, say, an active noncontact insertion of “disable the brakes under the following circumstances” subroutine into a “driverless” car? In a magical-context sense, how much luck will a bodyguard have protecting against, say, purposefully mislabelled magical ingredients?

    Bodyguards are most useful against direct, and especially unplanned, violence. Removing a disgruntled and just-fired midlevel manager from the CEO’s office without physical danger to the CEO is well within their capability. Protecting that CEO from a months-long plan of vengeance that does not depend upon sudden violence, however, is ordinarily not.

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