To Let Them Get Away With It
The appeal of the heist story.
I love cybercrime stories. Not made up ones but real ones, where some 17 year old latch key kid gets bored and learns how to use an exploit script from some tor website to sniff credit card details off shopify sites. Or when a disgruntled ex employee’s account wasn’t closed so they start deleting things or selling sensitive user data. Or the really fun ones when someone is asked to spy for agency A to report on agency B only to be recruited by agency B and now it’s a double agent thriller that goes horribly wrong.
Because that’s the thing, and the reason we have these real world examples of these stories, something eventually goes wrong. The spy agent gets caught. The ex employee is doing everything from their home wifi connection. The kid bought an xbox with the stolen credit cards and had it shipped to his own house. It get’s a little spicier when our thief isn’t in the US and we can’t exactly run over to NK or Russia to throw them in cuffs. It also throws a wrench in the concept of a heist story, you want to root for the bad guy, we want to see them pull it off without getting caught.
When I’m reading about real world cybercrime, I want to know what wild measures were taken and extreme lengths were met to pull off whatever the job was but I’m not as invested in the aftermath. This is probably because I already know they were caught and the element of risk is now muted in some way. Sort of like watching a DBZ movie, I know Goku is going to defeat whatever the new ultimate bad guy is with some new final form and hair color — but I still want to see how he does it. I know Sailor Moon is going to defeat the latest cupcake shaped demon lady in the last five minutes of the show — but I want to see how she does it. I know if I’m watching an Ocean’s movie that the guys are going to walk away with millions of dollars even after getting caught in the process — but I want to see the shell game they put me through.
So I have to ask myself, is this expected outcome for the reader worth the attempt to subvert? If it’s not a deal-breaker for our protagonists to get away with it, if they can still be caught and they end up paying for their immoral choices like some 1950’s pulp mag is it worth the headache of coming up with some realistic way for them to be successful? It’s ten thousand times harder for me to make the criminals job fool proof than it is for me to set it up perfectly only for that one slip up that brings things crumbling down after the fact. In a way does the reader expect that as well? Do they also want to see the aftermath and their payment for the crime?
I think this has to do with how realistic I want to make the story. Realistically they would come up with some high stakes plan, execute it at the last minute due to obstacles thrown in their path, and ultimately succeed only to be awakened by the feds the next day. If the story is already set in a speculative setting with made up technology or the character is simply unreasonably good at what they do then they can — due to those established parameters — get away with things because the reader is already in a state of suspended disbelief.
If I give the protag something like super intelligence they can do impossible things because the reader is willing to forgo me writing out specifics when I can handwave things like the ability to come up with high level solutions. But are the stakes the same when the genius protag can write a fully functional exploit from scratch in three hours or would they get more enjoyment from watching someone who is reasonably good stay up all night and be trashed the next morning while watching their code correctly compile at 5am? I think you know the answer to that.
Just the same, if our super genius hackerboy gets caught and put in prison — were they really the super genius we claimed them to be? Have we just lied the whole time to the reader? (Totally doable in first person but would get narcissistic way too fast.) I get that they might be on to us about the way the story is going in regards to the protags immediate success but in this case that might be an expectation.
On the opposite end of that stick you have the bozo kid who picks up an exploit only to get away with things because they have rolled a 21 in luck and it’s just an exercise in them constantly slipping through cracks. I think both of these extremes are lacking in entertainment value and mental stimulation for the reader. We want them to worry a little bit about the protag’s success, we want them to question right and wrong in regards to who the protag’s victim is, we want them to contemplate what they would do in this situation. But we also want them to enjoy the ride.
I guess it really depends on the protagonists intent. If they are stealing stuff from a worse criminal or foreign adversary then yeah, we don’t seem to mind if they make off with the goods undetected. However, if the protag is just some scumbag stealing money from the bank accounts of fixed income grannies then we have a much harder time letting that slide. Typically something bad has to happen to our protag first, allowing the crime to be considered an act of retaliation or just getting their stuff back in some shady way. Life dealt them a bad hand so they take it out on someone who is innocent but has it better than they do. That or they are helping a buddy who has been wronged in some way.
I’m not as big of a fan of these Robin Hood type heists, while it does give them more logical relevance and allow you to look the other way as to what they are doing I like a story where one or two people are doing something for purely selfish reasons. I want to be dragged into their head; taken on some unhinged ride through the mind of someone with a nearly impossible goal. To let them get away with it all.