Tag Archives: writing criminals

Q&A: How Not to Hire a Specialist

How do normal non-criminal characters hire hit men? I wanted my normal character to get mixed up with the mafia but I’m not sure to write my character contacting/meeting the right people in a way that is believable but not so difficult as to take up the whole story. Criminals for hire (hackers, hit men, etc) must have a way to be contacted but I can’t think of how a person with no criminal past and no government connections would do it.

They go to Craigslist. Then they get arrested.

I mean, you’ve heard the advice, “write what you know.” You don’t know how to hire a professional killer. That’s not a personal failure, that’s what a lot of people face. They may want to hire a professional hitter, but they don’t know how or where. Simply put, they can’t.

If you’re professional criminal, sticking your name and number out there to be cold called is a huge liability.  You don’t know who’s on the other end of that line. It could be a job that won’t pay enough to justify the risk. It could be the cops. It could be someone you pissed off, a family member of one of your victims, or someone who you’re currently contracted to kill. Lots of people have reason to want you dead, or in prison. So, probably best not to list your name in the yellow pages.

Police, shadowy government agencies, and professional criminals pull from separate talent pools. There’s some crossover, and someone could potentially be on the radar for all three.

Police have access to professionals. They’re not going to be hiring assassins, though a dirty cop may avail themselves of the criminal talent pool for special situations. Ex-military is a nice background, but for the most part, they’re going to be working internally, or pulling people from the normal job market. You want to work for the cops? It’s as simple as filling out a job application for an open position. Police hire for support positions, without putting someone through full police training. You’ll be expected to follow the law, so no off-the-books hacking for fun, but there’s pay and benefits. This is for things like forensics.

There’s a related group, with lawyers hiring computer forensics experts to assist in court cases (usually civil, though it may be a defense attorney.) The guys do get picked out of the phone book. They’re not going to engage in criminal activity, but they may help you track down evidence of criminal tampering. Some of these guys have history working the police, in computer forensics, but it’s not necessary.

Intelligence Agencies like to recruit directly. They’ll show up at job fairs at major technical schools, sometimes they’ll put ads in the paper. Ex-military is very nice. In some cases, like the NSA, the agency itself is military. This creates an alternate path, where people will come out directly out of special forces programs, into working for that agency. Possibly, working for them while they still served, and then transitioning over after mustering out. Needless to say, you’re not going to be hiring these guys for an off-the-books kill.

When we’re talking about criminals, it’s a little fuzzier. How does a mob boss know who to call when they need a freelance contractor? References and people inside their organization. These may include ex-military or ex-intelligence officers. It’s a way to make money, and there’s not a lot of use in the civil sector for being able to put a .338 Lapua Magnum through someone’s head at over a kilometer. In fact, some criminal enterprises, including drug cartels, actively court ex-special forces for use as training instructors and in wetwork.

If these all sound like closed systems, it’s because they are. There’s no real access from someone who doesn’t have the connections to find a specialist. As I mentioned, this is deliberate. It’s a safety consideration; an unknown individual coming through your door is a major risk.

So, you may have a civilian who has criminal ties and can hire someone. The connections are already there, so they know who to call. In some ways this is a cheat, because, while it’s real and it does happen, it looks more like a contrivance.

People who don’t have those connections, which is most of the population, tend to do stupid things when they’re looking for a hitman or a hacker. This includes the Craigslist ads I mentioned earlier, and that does happen. There are more than a few situations where someone tried to hire a hitman or hacker for some bit of petty revenge and instead ended up talking to a cop. Because, turns out, if you start asking friends and family for how to hire an assassin, someone’s going to call the cops. Then your dream assassin will call you up on a tapped line, meet with you wearing a wire, and arrest you. This happens. If there’s one takeaway from this: Amateur criminals are dumb. Really dumb.

The thing is, generating those connections is doable. It doesn’t even need to take up your entire story. It does require your character to take some time, and commit some resources, into cultivating them though. The danger here is that cops and criminals share most of the same social circles. Meaning, someone staggering in from the outside may very well run into the police, rather than finding a professional hitter, even if they do things, “properly.”

One of the advantages of prose is that you can glaze over some details. You can compact significant amounts of time into a few paragraphs. The exact process your character goes through to cultivate access to the criminal underworld can be covered in a few pages, punctuated by individual moments. Now, obviously, this can run up against stylistic choices. But, if you need to cover a drawn out, complex process, compacting it down is an option. Particularly one that will take months.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the issue is strictly a time issue. If you’re planning to have your character find an assassin in a couple hours, that’s not happening in any realistic context. Cultivating a network of criminal contacts that can put you in touch with an assassin takes time.

Hackers are a slightly different different story, but again, it’s a different set of connections. Probably not something your character could set up during an all nighter trolling forums. That said, some simple exploits which will work against non-hardened targets could be within your character’s grasp. Basic social engineering and script kiddie stuff is already out there. So, it kinda depends on what you’re expecting a hacker to be capable of. To be fair, there’s also a kind of approach to hackers as techno-sorcery that I’m honestly not fond of, so, again, looking at what’s possible as opposed to having an all seeing auger is probably a good idea.

Remember, whatever your character does to cultivate their network will, probably, show up when the cops start investigating. So, if your character suddenly started fishing around for a hitman, that’s probably going to come up.

When it comes to creating a character, having access to specific kinds of specialists is the kind of thing you need to “buy into” with their background. If they don’t have the connections to do it, then they don’t, and that’s simply not an option for them. If your plot needs this, then you need to change who they were before things got started. Otherwise, the simple answer is, “they can’t.”


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Q&A: Violent Escalation

My characters are criminals are associate with other criminals most of the time. (Think Sutherland) Their first instinct is to believe problems can be solved with violence (which often creates more problems). So the violence does have various consequences. How can I portray that violence/crime isn’t something that will solve your problems if I’m limited by POV characters who believe it will or that others ‘deserve’ violence.

The short answer is, “you’re not limited to your POV characters’ beliefs.” You can show the violence getting out of control. This is the natural consequence of people who believe violence solves problems.  Violence leads to reprisal, reprisals lead to escalation, and before you know it you’ve got a full on crime war on your hands, or the cops running surveillance. That’s your outcome.

These kind of brushfire crime stories are widespread, in both fiction and the real world. Someone thinks that a bullet will solve their problems, which in turn causes more blowback.

You’re not limited to your POV characters’ perceptions. You also control what happens to them. Just because your character believes killing someone will solve their problems, doesn’t mean that it will. Violence could easily lead to someone associated with the victim (or the victim themselves, if they slaying doesn’t go to plan), coming for their head later. Failing that, there’s also the police investigation to consider. The more force your characters use, the more attention they’ll be getting from the cops.

This is assuming that the violence doesn’t get out of hand in the moment. Sure, your protagonist only meant to rough them up, but now they’ve got a corpse. This was more than they were planning on, and as a result, the consequences will be significantly more severe. In some ways, violence is a binary choice: You decide to engage in it or not. You can try to moderate the outcome, but you have no guarantees. There are plenty of real world examples where a trivial scuffle produced a corpse, leading to unexpected consequences.

There’s a reductive, and somewhat moralistic, “crime never pays,” approach that is justifiable when done well. Your characters do bad things, bad things happen to them. It’s a valid approach, but not completely necessary. You can track cause and effect, without needing to turn it into a morality tale.

Also worth considering that a lot of these narratives do tend towards tragedy. The narrative will build to a climax mid-way through the story, and then things will start to unravel for the protagonists from there. Characters die or are apprehended, plans fall apart because of people who were wronged during your characters’ ascent to the top. Seeing the changing weather, allies may abandon your protagonists. Enemies who’ve been sharpening their knives finally see the opportunity to make good on their threats. All it takes is a single misstep at any point, and the story can quickly degenerate into a figurative feeding frenzy.

It’s worth remembering that just because your characters say something, that doesn’t mean you’re endorsing it as a writer. What they say, and what happens weigh on your position.

You can use supporting characters as the conscience for your protagonists, or as venues for your position. There are plenty of people who would argue caution in the face of violence. These could range from family outside of the life, to veterans who managed to escape intact, or even police offering honest advice. These discussions can risk being cliche, so, some care will be needed, to ensure the dialog is properly tailored to what they know and believe, rather than a simple, “violence bad,” skit. If your character ignores that, it’s on them; they were warned.

Tragedy feeds on character flaws. Someone who believes, in spite of all evidence, that they can force their will on the world around them is an excellent candidate for taking the fall.

How do you deal with characters who think that violence will solve their problems? You let natural cause and effect tear them down. In your story, you’re responsible for applying the consequences. Wreck them.


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what kind of sniper rifles would be used by americans? my characters are in a “”gang”” of sorts and one of their trademarks is having a member outside with one for headshots if a deal goes down. i haven’t been able to find information on what they would have access to, or even rare types of rifles that would surprise the police that they owned but still be in the realm of possibility

If it’s a “trademark,” that’s going to cause problems. People dealing with
them will learn they need to find and eliminate the sniper, and then they’re
free to screw over the other rep.

On the surface, this kind of contingency planning is a good thing. But, it’s
also important not to simply use the same tactic repeatedly. Eventually someone’s
going to want to rip off your characters, and at that point, if your character’s
backup is predictable, that becomes a known quantity they can neutralize and
get on with their day.

Someone who rigs the merchandise with explosives on a deadman’s switch one
day, has a sniper on overwatch the next, and rounds out the week with a hand off
in a public place is going to be a lot harder to screw over than someone who
sticks with a single method every time.

Incidentally, another fantastic way to screw your sniper plan over would be
to insist on the hand off occurring in a crowded public space like a train
station or inside the security cordon at an airport. Your sniper can’t just
start shooting into the crowd if things go wrong, and depending on the
population density, one guy with a 9mm there, specifically, to screw over your
characters will be able to walk away in the ensuing chaos.

Headshots are also a problem, though not exactly for the same reason. The
thing about shooting someone in the head, even through a scope, is it’s a lot
harder than putting a round in their chest. Professional shooters aim for the
torso, calling it “center mass.” The logic is fairly simple. You’re odds of
putting a bullet somewhere in their chest are much better than trying to put a
round through their head. Combine this with the fact that headshots are not always
lethal, and taking someone’s head off becomes a lot less appealing.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have a character that focuses on headshots
because they think that’s what being professional means, or because they’re a
showoff. But, they’re more likely to completely miss their target, especially
if they’re moving.

Like headshots, center mass hits aren’t completely lethal, but you’re far
more likely to hit something necessary on an imperfect shot, than a near miss
that was trained on their head.

In an urban environment, you don’t actually need a sniper rifle. At the
ranges your characters will be dealing with, your character could make due with
a scoped .223 varmint rifle. Really, the difference between a hunting rifle and
a precision sniper rifle is just quality control. If you’re trying to put a
round in someone a block away, slapping a scope on a civilian variant H&K
G3 or M14 would serve your character adequately. Failing that, they could get
the job done with nearly any off-the-shelf .30-06 hunting rifle. Which is
basically what you’re buying with most sniper rifles. An overpriced, QA
certified, hunting rifle.

If your character is engaging in criminal activity, that “overpriced” part
is just money down the drain. They don’t get anything for it, and the weapon
needs to be tossed after it’s used. That is; if they’re smart.

When the police investigate a crime scene they’re going to be looking bullets
and shell casings. The bullet will allow you to match to the barrel, while the
casings will allow you to identify the model of firearm used.

At this point, if you’re reusing a gun between multiple crime scenes, there
will be, easy to follow, forensic evidence that will tie your character’s
actions together.

This is more of an issue if they’re acting as an assassin, but if your
character is an intelligent, professional, criminal, they need to toss and
replace their guns after using them on a job. There are plenty of idiots who
will keep using the same guns, or don’t have the resources (and connections) to
replace their weapon on a whim. But, depending on how your characters are
presented, this is a serious consideration.

Either their gun is an element of their character, and a serious liability
moving forward, or it’s a tool they need for their job, and something they
replace as needed.

Similarly, if your character is focusing on exotic or unusual firearms, that’s
something that will make them much easier to identify and track, than someone
using cheap, off-the-shelf weapons they bought on the black market.

The goal for most professional criminals is to be as unremarkable as
possible. It makes tracking them down after the fact much harder. Conversely,
someone waving around a WA 2000 is going to be singularly memorable. It’s an
incredibly rare and expensive gun that, yes, you can buy, but there are only
176 of the guns in existence (and only about 15 in the United States). That
means, if your character is using one, they’re part of a very small group of
people, and much more easily identified than someone using a $500 Remington Model
700 they bought with a stolen ID at Wal-Mart last week.

This doesn’t mean your character can’t spend $40,000 on a WA 2000. It also
doesn’t mean they absolutely have to throw it in the trash if they use it on a
job. But, in both cases, it’s a very bad idea, for the reasons mentioned above.
As with headshots, this is a legitimate choice, it’s just a very poor one on the
part of a character, which illustrates that they’re an amateur pretending to be
a professional.

What your character needs is an accurate high power rifle. It can be
semi-auto, or bolt action. It needs to accept a scope, almost all will. But
that leaves a lot of options, ranging from civilian variant battle rifles to
common hunting rifles. The former are going to be slightly more “exotic” and
come with the benefit of being semi-automatic, with large magazines, but this
is something you’re going to need to nail down for yourself.


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