16

My OC Edward, who I thought of quite a while ago but haven't done anything with, is a professional cyber spy and hacker. He's employed by an organization (in the future, of course) that is basically trying to curate all the data in the world, including that which is not readily available, which is where people like Edward come into play. This organization hires people who can access hidden data, like unreleased tax returns of corporations or deleted emails of suspicious politicians, and cover their tracks so that there's no proof that the organization is invading privacy or doing illegal things, and then anonymously release the data onto a site called Vox Populi.

Obviously, I'm not a hacker or a cyber spy. So how do I write this guy's profession? I've tried to research hacking and cyber warfare before, but I mostly get fake BS on conspiracy blogs or cliched portrayals of hacking in the media (nerdy friend taps on the keyboard a few times and exclaims, "I'm in!). I'm excited to expand on this character and plot line, but I can't do it if I'm totally ignorant of the whole theme that the novel revolves around.

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    "Obviously, I'm not a hacker or a cyber spy." You're not fooling us. That's the first thing a hacker or cyber spy would say! – Dan Jan 10 at 0:38
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    Don't go to conspiracy blogs (well, depends on what kind of book you are writing). Go to where real information security experts are talking to each other, like security.stackexchange.com – Alexander Jan 10 at 0:43
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    I'd suggest GURPS Cyberpunk as a resource; already researched and distilled down to core concepts. Also the book the U.S Secret Service thought worth raiding the company for. – nijineko Jan 10 at 2:01
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    Posting as comment because this is specific to researching hacking: if you're not afraid to get technical, look for "white hat hacking", "ethical hacking" or "penetration testing" (aka "pentesting"). There are beginners courses on udemy, for example. Also, owasp.org. The Amazon Prime show "Mr. Robot" is also suprisingly authentic. A lot of hacking is actually non-technical: convincing users to install viruses, guessing passwords, etc. Another tip: don't be too specific. A lot of hacking is "just" the correct application of a software or device. I can give more pointers if you want. – MadMonkey Jan 10 at 11:22
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    You can always go to hackthissite, look around on it and ask the people there questions on how to portray your character. I am sure they would love to help you if you ask your question in the right place ^^ – Noralie Jan 10 at 15:16
27

The answer is research, research, and more research. I'm not an expert on horseback riding, or sword-fighting, or ruling a country. The only way I can write convincingly about those subjects is by doing research.

Research can take many forms. It can be reading about the subject, both guides and first-hand accounts. It can be talking to people who do the thing. It can be finding the relevant experts on youtube. It can be going and doing the thing yourself, to get at least some idea of what it feels like. Obviously, not all methods are applicable to all things you need to research. I don't get to "try running a country". But you get as much tidbits of information as you can, and then fill in the blanks with good writing.

Things you want to focus your research on:

  • The big picture: how is the thing done at all?
  • Details: as many as you can. Small colourful details can make the picture come alive. For instance, a horse needs to be praised, and if you're doing a long journey on horseback, you're going to be alternating walk and trot. That's details writers who treat horses as "slow medieval cars" ignore.
  • Problems that might arise. Problems generate conflict. Conflict makes your story interesting.
  • Jargon. The very specific language of the particular field of interest again makes your work come alive. Your character would be using those specific terms. A knight wouldn't be talking of a "horse", but of destriers and rounceys.

For your particular character, you won't find anything useful by googling "how to hack a website". Or at least, I don't think you would. But try searching for the opposite - for how computer security works. Talk to someone who works in the field, or at least read up on that. By learning about the defence, you can learn about the attack.

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    "try searching for the opposite - for how computer security works" That's spot on. :) – Sara Costa Jan 10 at 1:13
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    "As many details as you can" is horrible advice. Have you ever been monopolized by an expert who won't shut up about their field the whole evening? An author can be just as obnoxious. Limit the technicalities to what the story and situation warrants. – Kilian Foth Jan 10 at 10:38
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    @KilianFoth When writing - limit the technicalities. Absolutely. When doing the research - try to find out as much as you can. Then you have an arsenal of things you can use or not use at will. It's especially useful for discovery writers - I can't always know in advance what tool might come in handy. (One can get bogged down in research, I guess. The idea isn't to research ad infinitum. But one can usually recognise when one has entere'd territory that's definitely not going to be needed.) – Galastel Jan 10 at 11:11
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    RFC 3552 is actually a good place to start. It's "Guidelines for Writing RFC Text on Security Considerations" and it nicely summarizes all sorts of information about various kinds of technical attacks and security concerns. – Wildcard Jan 10 at 23:00
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    One of my favorite discussions of "horses as living cars" comes from Paul Twister, where Paul has this big internal monologue, while he's preparing for a long trip across the kingdom, about all the things stories from our world get wrong in treating horses like living cars. And then his traveling companion, a Paladin, arrives and summons her mount--a supernaturally powerful horse--and Paul mentally facepalms as he realizes this thing could actually probably hold its own against a car for at least a while. :P – Mason Wheeler Jan 10 at 23:17
18

Ask an expert.

Obviously, research is an important first step. But there's only a finite amount of research you can do, and without intimate knowledge of the subject, you have no way of knowing whether the research you're doing is the right research.

So find an expert, and convince them to be a beta reader. They'll be able to spot the things that stand out as unrealistic, and give you insights into what would actually happen in those spots. As a bonus, experts are good primary research sources as well, but it's as beta readers where they shine, because the rough spots that are obvious to them won't be obvious to you.

Find a single detail, and explain it in depth.

If your readers see your character demonstrate a deep and accurate understanding of a small portion of their field, then they will assume that your character has a similar understanding of all the other aspects of their job.

As long as you don't make any egregious errors, the trust you earned from the initial proof will allow you claim that your character has expertise on similar subjects with very few details that you need to learn.


I heartily recommend the Writing Excuses episodes "Characters who are smarter than you are" and "Learning to listen as a writer", especially when Mary Robinette talks about how she wrote the Calculating Stars and dealing with the things she didn't know about. Each episode is 15-20 minutes long, and very educational.

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    I just read The Calculating Stars, and there's a really good acknowledgements section in it that also covers who she asked for expert knowledge and how they worked together. I imagine it includes some of the same content as the podcast you mentioned. – Guildenstern Jan 10 at 17:39
9

Whenever a character is an expert on something the author isn't, there is only one way out: research.

However, some expertises are easier to research than others. For example, one can much more easily research specific medical areas to 'fake' a doctor character than a hacker. I know, because I've been there. Although the question is not about what makes some areas trickier than others, I think looking at it will help direct us to the right path.

1) general vs. arcane knowledge
When a certain expertise is very common, it's easier for an author to have a general idea of what and where to research. Of course there will also be plenty of myths around, but there will also be plenty of texts and videos of actual experts talking about it and busting common myths. On the other hand, some areas of expertise are focused on things the average mortal has barely considered. The general public may have a tendency to imagine the silliest things about them.

2) true vs iffy science
Some areas of expertise are simply 'high brow' and generally deemed more worthy. Those will have a greater abundance of papers circulating, allowing amators and authors to get a more general feel for what it's really like. Then there are all the other so called sciences that are deemed subjective, inaccurate and, for some, barely science at all. Those underdogs may be under-represented in terms of papers.

3) jargon
Some expertise areas are heavy in jargon. To make it worse, that jargon is sometimes connected to hard to understand concepts.

4) fake facts
Some expertise areas seem to breed large amounts of 'fake facts' and myths, a lot of which may have their origin in the artistic licence of films and books. After all, what does the reality of a programmer (hours on end typing code) or a spy (95% of the time waiting and acting like boring normal people) have to do with a cool action story?

So, how to research the most arcane, iffy, jargonic, myth ridden areas of expertise?

With difficulty.

The first thing is to try and get a general feel for the area in question. Wikipedia may offer an overview that allows one to understand the core of the matter. The general feel should then be used as the starting point for a more in-depth research.

Secondly, identify why the area is looked down upon. This may help one spot blank statements that are less than true. For example, programming is often equated with 'not a real job', playing on the computer and hours of isolation in front of the screen. This ties in with the general misconceptions lots of people have about programmers (lazy, unhealthy, asocial geeks).

The third step concerns jargon and is trickier. The ideal would be for one to study the topic and learn as much as possible. Naturally, that is not always possible. Still, learning the basics is the minimum one should strive for if the main plot depends on the twists this particular expertise can spring up.

Once the basics are grasped, it may be a good idea to try and get an actual expert willing to work as a consultant. This option becomes a must if the plot relies on the 'science' of the chosen area. One wouldn't want our expert to say that the opposite of a proton is an electron (tip: it isn't) and then somehow use that 'fake fact' as the basis for dismantling an atomic bomb (because, you know, atomic bombs are about atoms and atoms have protons and electrons).

Where it comes to debunking myths and fake facts, you have to go to the source.

One could start by looking for blogs and videos of actual experts as they debunk myths. Or, if those experts simply use the medium to talk about their area, ask them specific questions (make sure you've understood the basics before, you won't help yourself if you ask a salesperson how they sell). Show you've done some research, be humble and always ask if they can point you to amator-friendly sources.

I also suggest heading to reddit or forums (inhabited by the experts one needs) and asking them directly three main questions:

1) what do films, stories, etc get wrong about your area (especially the things that really annoy you)?

2) what do films, stories, etc get right about your area?

3) what part of your job do people have more difficulty understanding?
(some people can't wrap their mind around some tasks that are part of a teacher's daily life which, keeping in mind how common teachers are, is quite strange... now imagine hackers!)

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    "the reality of a programmer (hours on end typing code)" ...and when you get good enough at that, you might end up being a senior programmer, which means hours on end in front of a whiteboard before typing code, or hours on end helping others who are typing code... – a CVn Jan 11 at 12:46
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    Even worse, often the reality of programming isn't hours on end typing code so much as hours on end trying to fix buggy code that only took an hour to type in the first place. – Dan Jan 12 at 19:53
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Others have said you should research the subject. I agree and won't waste space repeating what they've said.

But I'd like to add: You don't need to be an expert on a subject to write a plausible story about an expert.

Sure, if you don't know much about hacking, presumably you can't give a detailed, blow-by-blow description of how someone went about hacking. "Then he made a hex dump of the hard drive beginning at sector 04b7, carefully searching for the tell-tale interrupt 7 call that would indicate the beginning of the BIOS function to access to access the SATA controller ..." for pages and pages. Even if you knew enough to write that kind of detail, it would likely be boring to people who understood it, never mind to those who didn't.

But you don't have to understand the details of how a job is done to write in a story that someone did it successfully. Lots of sci-fi authors have written things like, "Dr Jones invented a time machine and travelled 50 years into the future." I'd guess that few of these authors have the vaguest idea how to go about building a time machine!

What you really need to learn is some idea of what's reasonably possible. Or for a story set in the future, what you might plausibly say is possible with the future technology.

I'm a computer guy myself, and I regularly laugh at TV shows where computers do impossible, or at least wildly unlikely, things. Like the crime shows where the detective gets the video from the security camera, tells the computer guy, "Zoom in on the rear-view mirror of that car outside in the parking lot" and then the computer guy brings up the blurry image of the license plate on the villain's car, the detective says "clarify", the computer guy hits a few keys and now we can read the license number. Umm, there just isn't enough data in the image to do that. It's literally impossible no matter what technology you have. Or, the hero gives the computer some information that contradicts what it was previously told, or that is paradoxical, and smoke starts pouring out of the computer and then it explodes. Like, umm, I give computers information that contradicts previous information every day -- I change a customer's phone number or tell it that the file it previously found in one place is now in a different place -- and the computer just uses the new information instead of the old. Nothing explodes. Etc.

Of course, in a fiction story we routinely accept the unlikely or impossible if the writer can tell it in an entertaining enough fashion, and give at least some vaguely plausible explanation for it. Like we accept that Superman can fly and has x-ray vision because we're told he's from another planet. A biologist or physicist could blow a thousand holes in that story, starting with, "Ok, Superman is from another planet. How, exactly, does he generate sufficient lift to fly? He has no wings, no sign of jet propulsion, etc."

Why do I accept that Superman can fly, but I don't accept that the computer guy can get higher resolution out of an image file than exists in it? Partly it's the genre and setting. If you tell me that the computer in a science fiction story set 500 years in the future can do things far beyond what any computer today can do, I might accept that. Who knows what advances will happen in the next 500 years? Even if I'm sure it's impossible, if it's intrinsic to the story, I might accept it for the sake of the story. But if you tell me that a computer at the police station in the early 21st century can do things far beyond what any computer today can actually today, sorry, I don't buy it. I don't believe that this police station has computers far beyond anything that exists in the most advanced research labs anywhere else in the world.

And partly it's how it fits in the story. If the basic premise of the story is that people can build faster-than-light ships to travel to the stars, I accept that for the sake of the story even if it contradicts what we (think we) know about physics. But if a love story that has no other science fiction elements suddenly tosses in that the hero jumps on a faster-than-light ship and travels to another star system, and then he comes back and this is never mentioned again, I'd say, umm, what?

  • Neal Stephenson went to some lengths to disprove your third paragraph. – Shadur Jan 11 at 9:02
  • I'm sorry, who is Neal Stephenson and what did he say, and where? – Jay Jan 11 at 16:18
  • Neal Stephenson is an author. He said it - at length - in Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver and The System of the World – Shadur Jan 12 at 8:14
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    Umm, okay. Sorry, I don't happen to have read any of those books, and frankly I doubt I will go out and buy and read 4 books just so that I can understand your cryptic post. Care to summarize the main point? – Jay Jan 12 at 15:28
3

Assuming your aim is to target as broad of an audience as possible, there's two ends to weigh. On the one hand, if you do some cursory research into cyber security and try to regurgitate something back, you might sound knowledgeable to a casual reader, but run a high risk of sounding foolish to people who are actually knowledgeable on the topic. On the other hand, you don't want to go overboard and inundate your non-expert readers with so much unfamiliar jargon that their eyes glaze over.

If you have at least some knowledge of the subject matter, then what I suggest you try is finding someone who is an expert to advise you on the finer points. That doesn't mean you won't need to research on your own, of course, but it does give you a place to refine your ideas and get advice on how to approach things. There is also a great Stack Exchange community here for network security topics; you might get some ideas from perusing it.

However, if you don't have any real knowledge about cyber security at all, try flipping through some rudimentary books on it. You may need to start with the very basics of networking before moving on to security concerns. In any case, you won't need to earn a certification yourself to write a character that's convincing enough to appeal to both ends of the spectrum, just be prepared to do a lot of learning.

Keep in mind that people who actually are experts in a field don't necessarily expect a work of fiction to blow their minds with advanced concepts. The key is being interesting and coherent, while avoiding mistakes and incongruities -- and one might say that of any story.

2

...Alternatively, if the story is a comedy or a parody, you could also portray the profession as absurdly and as unrealistically as possible, for laughs.

Some examples, whether intentionally funny or not:

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    Sad, but true. I watched a scene where a medical examiner says "I'll explain it to you sometime" right after detecting the thing that earlier in the episode they said would be impossible to detect....+1 for the red dot that says "KILLER". – wetcircuit Jan 11 at 3:58
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    @wetcircuit Well, there's only one input field, and that's "Enter IP of Killer", so obviously the red dot should be labelled "killer". – a CVn Jan 11 at 12:51
  • This answer reminds me of how Star Trek treats such a well-established concept as biological evolution. If you want an obvious example, try ST:VOY S3E23 "Distant Origin". (I won't suggest VOY S2E15 "Threshold".) – a CVn Jan 11 at 12:53
  • Yeah. As a computer guy I always get a laugh at how computers work on TV. It makes me wonder what other professions think about how their field is portrayed. Do chemists regularly find themselves laughing at the absurdity of TV chemistry, etc? Well, I'm quite sure police get a laugh out of TV policemen. Like, ever notice that the average cop on TV kills at least 2 or 3 people per week? I read once that in real life, the average cop fires his weapon at an actual person once every 30 years. – Jay Jan 11 at 16:32
  • @Jay I once heard a comment from a police investigator that if real police acted like they do on TV, they'd be out of a job before the day was over (or something very much to that effect). Probably true in quite a few cases. – a CVn Jan 11 at 16:33
1

Honestly, if it's far enough in the future, go nuts. Hacking--real world hacking--involves months of sitting in front of computer screens getting your soul sucked away by blinking cursors and reading dick-measuring comments on StackOverflow. It's horribly dull, and no one wants to read a thorough explanation of it unless they're at a USENIX Security conference.

One thing I will say (as a grad student in cyber security) is the vast majority of all data leaks and system compromises are not, in fact, due to technology, but due to people. Leaving passwords laying around written on paper, emailing yourself encryption keys/sensitive information, sending pictures of your credit card to your son so he can pay for that online service you forgot the password to... that sort of thing. As technology gets more advanced and more secure, more and more compromises will be due to human error and social engineering. I'd recommend making your hacker either really good at manipulating people and faking confidence (in addition to problem solving skills and writing code), or give them a colleague/partner that can exploit that human error with their own skillset. Note that you don't have to trick a high-level executive to get their information; a family member or secretary is often an easier target and any failed attempts are less likely to be noticed.

Lastly, there are tons of different coding languages, and no one will ever know all of them. However, you don't necessarily need to. Once you have a couple of languages down, you can start to figure out the rest. Hackers will know maybe 3-4 languages really well, and will be able to "hack" other languages together to do what they need. But they won't necessarily know the obscure quirks of those languages, and I wouldn't write them having to write code on the fly in a time-limited, high-pressure situation because that's just... not how it works. However, any hacker worth her salt knows how to use command line commands, and you can do a surprising amount just using basic Linux commands. Fudging a little there (for instance, your hacker has to quickly pull all data from a company computer she has physical access to for whatever reason--easy peasy).

But, here are a couple of good resources to give you an idea of what current day "hacking" is:

Computer Guys: Hacking: What you think it's like, and what it actually is. Things About Computers & Hacking Writers Need To Know

This is an amazing article about social engineering, hacking, and how an ethical hacker did his best to compromise a company network. I highly recommend reading this, because it tells things from the hacker's perspective and gives you some insight in how your hacker would use both his tech and social engineering skills to get data he otherwise might not be able to from trying online hacks. Since most sensitive data isn't actually accessible from the Internet unless the people who own it are ignorant or poor, most data breaches happen from within an organization (e.g., Edward Snowden).

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