I have a character in my story for whom being computer savvy is supposed to be a major personality trait. The character works with computers for a living (even if their side job they do as part of the plot is almost purely physical) and considers being a white-hat hacker as one of their hobbies. However, I have noticed this trait almost never seems to impact the story and as a result negatively impacts their characterization.

Given this, I have been trying to figure out how to write a character that is skilled at programming or a hacker and show how they would approach the world. Overall, I am trying to go for a more realistic depiction of a computer-savvy hacker, rather than the unrealistic "hack all the Internets by typing really fast and uploading viruses of laughing skulls to Area 51".

One would think that being familiar with computers and programming would affect the way a person/character sees the world, specifically how they approach problems, the personal skills they learn, and the points of reference they have (and the references they make), just like how being skilled in any given field makes people contextualize the world in terms of knowledge in that field. I've noticed something similar in how I see the world with my professional expertise versus how other people do with theirs. Being a fan of xkcd and familiar with that site's style of humor, it has become very apparent to me that being computer literate does affect one's worldview (xkcd comes across as funny, but very alien to me). However, I have been unable to find any good advice on how to depict a computer literate character on the Internet. Again, xkcd is about the closest I have come in terms of understanding the mindset. Compared to a lot of other subcultures, there don't seem to be a lot of guides to get into a computer literate mindset.

It's not even clear what a reader would accept as constituting being "computer literate". From my experience the way people define "computer literate" can be anything from "can use Powerpoint" to "can give you a detailed rundown as to the differences between Python and Ubuntu". As an example of how varied definitions can be: a lot of people in my life have described me as computer literate because I know how to use Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop, but I wouldn't because I don't even know how to write a line of code! On top of that, it's not clear how to describe someone as computer literate without running the risk of horribly dating the character. One might depict a character as being savvy with a specific programming language or operating system that within five years of publication is completely dead.

Given these problems, how would one go about portraying that a character is computer savvy or a hacker?

  • 1
    Have you considered looking at this chat, where actual computer-savvy people chat to non-computer savvy people and other computer-savvy people? – ArtickokeAndAnchovyPizzaMonica May 25 at 22:12
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    Does this answer your question? Character is an expert on something I'm not – Laurel May 26 at 2:16
  • @Laurel It seems related but a little different. That character seems to be a professional spy rather than someone who does IT or something similar for a living. I'm looking for more how it would influence the character's approach to non-professional issues. Most of the answers are also "how to do research in general" rather than "how to find information on this one specific topic". – user2352714 May 26 at 2:53

First off, "Computer-Savvy" and "hacker" are not the same thing - especially nowadays, with computers being more mainstream. Early days, most people became computer-savvy because they were "hackers", experimenting with new-fangled technology.

A 'proper' hacker - not just a Script-Kiddie - is going to have a related mindset, especially if they do this regularly. They will be looking at rules and object for interesting loopholes, or unusual ways to put them together and achieve a task. Their "hacking" will most likely not just be limited to the cyber-world - and, many "hackers" work 'offline', rigging up unusual physical contraptions. It is, in essence, a sub-set of "tinkerer". A famous example of a "physical hack" is when Homer Simpson uses a nodding bird toy to keep hitting the Y key. Hacking and Programming are about problem solving.

These are the people who will look at a special offer in a shop, and work out how to get paid to buy bananas. The people who will realise when it's cheaper to buy a "family" rail package and discard the fourth ticket, instead of paying for 3 people individually.

Give them a list of orders in a restaurant, and they can tell you "if person A and person B order each others' starters instead, then they can use these 2 special offer meals, and we save 5 bucks."

Here's a couple of examples: First, chocolate digestive biscuits. Tasty, but the chocolate melts and gets your fingers messy. Simple solution: eat them two at a time, with the chocolate sandwiched in the middle. Second, I once saw a video "article" about dunking biscuits in tea (as you may be able to tell, I am feeling slightly peckish at the moment!) - how long to do so without the biscuit getting soggy and breaking up in the tea, etcetera. At the end, they turned to the scientist they had had on the show, and said "So, that's how to solve it with science!" - to which, the scientist replied "well, no", and proceeded to dip the flat side of the biscuit, so that it had a dry / solid backing to hold it together.

This is, in a way, a bit like how a 'proper' Martial Artist (trained in self-defence, rather than just sport) will almost instinctively check a room for exits and potential threats as they walk in, and take a seat where they can see most of what's going on. Or, how a professional thief will automatically "case the joint", spotting security and potential opportunities.

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My best guess would be to hang out with computer-savvy people for several months. Make friends with the techies where you work (assuming you work around anyone like that.) I worked for decades with computer-savvy people in my career as a Systems Analyst and Programmer. Every one is different, but they all have traits in common as well. You might pick up on those traits by hanging out with several people like that.

You could also try reading the profiles of Stack Exchange users who have high reputation scores in communities like Unix & Linux, Ask Ubuntu, Server Fault, etc.

Another guess would be to do a Google search on psychology sites.

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There is a problem with the work "hacker"

If you are using the work "hacker", you need to also specify the timeframe. In the sixties and seventies, "hacker" was a word of praise used to describe someone who was able to creatively see through complexity and find ways to do things that other found to be elegant. To be a hacker was to be at the top of the craft.

That changed to the point where "hacker" is often associated with "criminal", and the practice is more like breaking and entering that elegant solutions to very difficult problems.

Speaking as one such "hacker"

Personally, I am a deeply formed engineer. My ex-wife commented that I see the world as blue-prints. She is not wrong. I see time sequence diagrams. I follow stress lines in structures. I visualize HTTP packets flowing as I type this answer.

You want to write someone who sees the insider workings of things. It isn't that they possess occult knowledge of mystical scripts and secretive root-kits. It is that, to them, what is hidden (yes, I know that is a synonym of occult) to some is exposed to them.


There is a story in Richard Feynman's book that covers this: A boy fixes radios with his brain. The cartoon "Dilbert" also captures it well. I found the YouTube version: The Knack.

I wish you the best, and I would like to meet your character.

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Well, let's look at the basics.

What is a hacker?

hack·er /ˈhakər/

noun 1. a person who uses computers to gain unauthorized access to data.

That's the simple definition, but what does it tell us about the overall mindset of a person who is defined by hacking? How do they think?

A hacker looks at the rules and either a) exploits them to their own ends or b) finds a way around them c) creatively uses those rules in a way that the rulemakers never thought of or intended or d) figures out weaknesses in those rules.

Personalitywise, that means that there are as many types of hackers as there are people. Your hacker can use all of those or they could rely on just a few.

Here's what wikipedia has to say about hacker culture:

Before communications between computers and computer users were as networked as they are now, there were multiple independent and parallel hacker subcultures, often unaware or only partially aware of each other's existence. All of these had certain important traits in common:

  • Creating software and sharing it with each other
  • Placing a high value on freedom of inquiry
  • Hostility to secrecy
  • Information-sharing as both an ideal and a practical strategy
  • Upholding the right to fork
  • Emphasis on rationality
  • Distaste for authority
  • Playful cleverness, taking the serious humorously and humor seriously

You can subvert those, but, that's where it began.

As to writing it, well, look at the tropes and decide what you are going to do differently/"more realistically". Above all, research!

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Read other works written by people who understand the same kinds of things that their hacker characters do, and see how they do it. Examples could be Neal Stephenson (eg Snow Crash) or Cory Doctorow (eg Little Brother). Also read non-fictional works by well known hackers (eg Kevin Mitnick), which should give a good idea of what is really possible and what isn't, as well as giving a good grounding in the language and lifestyle of this subculture.

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Suppose you needed money to run an organized crime ring. Would you get the money by hacking into a bank's network and wiring yourself cash? No! Not only is that extremely difficult to do, but you're almost guaranteed to get prosecuted because the bank will track you down.

So, it's very very rare for hackers to infiltrate high profile networks. They always go for the low hanging fruit first.

Suppose a small 12-room hotel in the middle of nowhere keeps their guest information in a Google Doc, and the owner accidentally enabled global sharing. A hacker would eat that up in a heartbeat. Or, suppose another small business registered their domain name with GoDaddy and didn't use a secure password. Now, it's just a simple matter of logging in and editing the DNS entries. I can redirect traffic to the wrong server and grab credit card numbers whenever anyone orders. Easy peasy.

My point is that the vast majority of hacking operations are very small-scale.

Movies make hackers do big-scale operations... but why on earth would you break into an armored fortress when the guy down the street doesn't lock his doors?

So, if you want to make your novel realistic, your hackers should try to find ways around super secure networks, rather than breaking in.

Suppose I want to steal social security numbers. If this was a movie, I'd hack into the IRS's supper secure network and pull up tax returns.

But that's too much work!!

Easier: Hack into TurboTax's website.

No, that's also too hard.

There's a security vulnerability in older versions of Internet Explorer that will let me do a buffer overflow and essentially track data sent over the device for the remainder of the browser session. So, I'll steal social security numbers of everyone using old browsers.

Hackers usually go for the weakest link.

These are all black-hat examples, but I could just as easily list their white-hat counterparts... like scanning GoDaddy accounts for weak passwords and changing them to more secure ones. (This would protect these people from becoming easy victims of the black-hats)

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