I’m not sure if this fits your blog, but I’m also not sure where else to ask it, so feel free to disregard if you don’t have an answer. I’m planning out a mystery story, and in it, one of my main characters is a teenager on the run from some evil organization who wants him for information he doesn’t have. He’s survived on his own for 3-4 years while trying to piece together why the bad guys are after him. I don’t want to make him seem too competent, especially compared to characters who actually have training, but at the same time he obviously needs some skills in order to a) evade a somewhat powerful criminal organization and b) at the same time investigate them without them noticing. Do you have any recommendations for things that would help him without making him seem too competent? (sorry if my original message came through and this is redundant, tumblr is being weird.)
There’s a few problems here. First: you can’t be on the run and investigating the people doing the hunting at the same time. Second, you’re being vague about the organization, but depending on who they are, it might not be feasible for your character to do either. Third, three to four years on the run is a long time. Granted, this somewhat works to your benefit.
So, if you’re hiding from a covert organization, that kinda precludes taking the time to wander around publicly, asking people about it. Yes, investigations are more sophisticated than that, but the simple process of identifying the organization and getting access to people who know about it runs an extreme risk of being in the room with a member of that organization. If they don’t know who you are, that’s not a problem, but if they’re actively looking for you? You’re one phone call away from being cornered and captured.
There’s a related problem that a teenager will have a much harder time investigating a sophisticated criminal conspiracy, simply because it will be difficult to find people who will take them seriously. This applies to both gathering information, and being able to use the information they’ve collected. In extreme cases, it may even work against their ability to escape capture. If the character is a teenager and has spent three to four years on the run, that means that at best they were sixteen when they first went on the run. However, that could easily meant they had to flee when they were much younger. For example, if the character is seventeen now, and has been on the run for four years, they would have had to go underground at thirteen. Expecting a thirteen-year-old to be able to escape a conspiracy hunting them is much higher bar. This is also before you consider that an unattended, young teenager is potential prey for all kinds of opportunistic criminal groups, unrelated to the conspiracy they’re fleeing.
To be fair, for someone who’s in their mid-20s, and has the advantage of being legally recognized as an adult will have a far easier time escaping from a criminal conspiracy. They’ll have an easier time getting assistance. When the time comes, they’ll have an easier time investigating. This isn’t a competency issue, it’s simply the social and legal recognition of them as an adult.
The second problem I outlined is that you need to establish the scope of your organization. I realize you’ve probably already done this, but it does inform how well they’d be able to track someone. Especially if that person was trying to escape.
If you’re dealing with a “normal” crime syndicate, it’s possible that simply leaving the city (or their sphere of influence) would give your character a lot of cover. Obviously, making the news, or investigating the organization would get their attention. In turn that would probably draw people out to hunt them down.
At an abstract level, simply getting out of their sphere of influence and keeping their head down may be enough to protect your character, at least long enough for the syndicate to get bored and wander off. This means it’s possible the, “three to four years,” bit was mostly spent simply pretending to be a new person that the syndicate isn’t interested in. Again, this is easier for an adult, who can easily operate autonomously in modern society, but I’m not going to labor on that point.
If the criminal group is a vast conspiracy, hiding may not be an option, and those are going to be very long years, as your character struggles to stay one step ahead of the people tracking them. Surviving this gauntlet will require a lot of paranoia. Whether justified by their experiences or not. “Just because you’re crazy, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” Even for an adult, this is a character that people on the outside would have a hard time taking seriously.
If the conspiracy has contacts in law enforcement, your character is probably a fugitive. The conspiracy may have killed their family members and framed your character murder. They may have implicated them in some other crime (real or not.) This is without getting into really crazy territory, with things like them being spliced into traffic cameras, or operating their own version of Echelon; monitoring electronic communications waiting for your character expose themselves.
This stuff can get bonkers, and anyone without a background in tradecraft would be hard pressed to stay ahead of them. If this is your plan, you may need a new one. An untrained teen will not have the necessary skill set to avoid this.
There is a bit of salvage in here: If you have a character who’s being pursued by a shadowy conspiracy because they know too much, it’s entirely possible other protagonists would find out about this and the try to find them and learn what they know. Of course, having a character who can’t provide anything if they do track them down can provide more tension. So, there’s room for a character investigating the conspiracy, and another character on the run, without needing the latter to pull double duty for both.
One possible outcome for another protagonist hunting your character, upon learning that they know nothing, is to use them as bait. Just because they’re, “the good guys,” doesn’t mean they’re all on the same team, and a ruthless or desperate protagonist might put your teen in harm’s way to force the antagonists to reveal themselves.
I’ve sort of covered the third issue already, but three years is a long time to be on the run. While this will have a psychological impact, particularly if your character is in persistent danger, there’s actually a bigger problem here: Being on the run is expensive. You need food daily, and you need a place to stay. Both of these things require a constant cash stream.
Most legitimate forms of income will either require you to make yourself visible to some degree, or will require you having a line of contact that can be exploited.
For example, if your character is independently wealthy, that means they have an account somewhere. A criminal organization only needs to find out what bank, and get enough access to it to find out where your character’s been spending or withdrawing money. Worst case, they’d even have a current mailing address on file, meaning your character would have some unwelcome guests waiting at home. A full on conspiracy would be able to freeze those funds, and use any bank data to run down your character at any time. Of course, if your character was wealthy, that means there would be even more people looking for them. The one catch here is, it’s possible they could leave the country, and disappear overseas somewhere. That might even cause hickups for a conspiracy which lacks international operations.
Beyond that, your character can’t consistently make money legally without putting their face out there and hoping no one notices. They may be able to panhandle, but, that requires them to, literally, be out in high traffic areas trying to be seen. They may be able to get under the table jobs, but, again, they’d have to find those jobs, and then actually do them. Which leaves them immobile (or at least, predictable) for long stretches of time. Also, this works against the teenager bit. A young teen panhandling would draw the attention of law enforcement. A young teen looking for jobs would have a harder time finding someone willing to pay them. Depending on their age, it also may run afoul of child labor laws, meaning legitimate work may be impossible for them.
This leaves criminal enterprise, with things like theft. Again, your character’s age will work against them, and this will directly expose them to law enforcement. If the police are accomplices, that’s very bad, however, even if they’re not, getting arrested and thrown in juvie would immediately put them back on the organization’s radar. The problem is, eventually, your character will make a mistake, and doing this for years means there’s a real chance something will go wrong eventually.
How much money you’ll need varies. You can live on a couple dollars worth of food a day. This isn’t ideal, but it will keep you alive. Even a cheap burger could keep you going. Food, particularly for a teenager, is non-optional. As an adult you can decide, “yeah, I’m just not going to eat today.” It sucks, but the long term consequences are negligible. For a child or young teen, malnutrition means their growth will be impaired. This has permanent consequences. If they start missing developmental milestones because they’re simply not getting enough food, they can’t, “catch up,” later.
Finding a place to hold up is a little complicated. Hotels and motels are expensive, and require forms of identification that a young teen simply won’t have. Renting a cheap motel room, in a city, for four years could easily run upwards of $90k.
Squatting in an abandoned building may seem like a good alternative. After all, it’s free. Except, very few buildings are really abandoned. Even if it’s not in use, whoever owns it will probably have a security service do a sweep of the place from time to time. If your character knew the schedule they’d know when to fully pack up. Fail to fully pack up, and the security team will know that someone’s squatting, possibly involving the police. The problem is, the only way to learn the schedule is to be there. The only only way to evade an unexpected sweep is to know the route they’ll take, which isn’t possible. Just because they’ve followed one path for the last couple weeks, doesn’t mean they won’t mix it up without warning to offset boredom.
If the building isn’t patrolled, it’s because it’s too dangerous to enter. Problem here is, it’s too dangerous to enter. Spending years in there, your character will almost certainly run afoul of the decaying structure somehow, and because no one’s supposed to be there, there’s no way to get help.
Incidentally, this is also the problem with wandering out of the city into the wilderness and “living off the land.” Even if you have specialized survival training so you can actually obtain and prepare food, three years is a long time, and the risk of dying to an accident will always be there. Something as simple as a minor cut could lead to a death from infection. To say nothing of a broken limb, or illness. Rabies, in particular, comes to mind.
The safest route, feels like a bit of a cop out, but it’s one of the few legitimate options. If your character has family, or close family friends, somewhere else in the world, who’d be willing to take them in, that’s what they’d need to do. It requires they trust your character, and have the ability to protect and provide for them, but the only jeopardy would be on the trip. Once they’re there, they’d be, “safe.”
Now, I said, three to four years is an asset. On the other side, after years have gone by, that’s plenty of time for the syndicate to lose interest and move on. This means a character who went on the run years ago, is less likely to be recognized when they stumble in the front door. There’s still a significant threat to being identified, but it means the era of actively hunting for them has probably passed. Now, if a member of the syndicate realizes who your character is, that attention will come back.
Further, if your character went into hiding as an older teen, and is now in their early 20s, they’ll have grown out of most social stigmas associated with them being underage. This will open up a lot of options for any potential investigation.
If they were able to construct a false identity, it will have years of history, making it look more legitimate at a glance. (This won’t work with police scrutiny, or a background check, but it will help avoiding that scrutiny in the first place.)
Of course, if they’ve managed to disappear this completely, they’d need a real incentive to come back. Options that comes to mind are if the people they were hiding with were wiped out by the syndicate, or if a friend left behind in the city came under threat.
The odds for a teenager on the run, alone, without support, are bleak. It’s not impossible to survive, but everything needs to go flawlessly, because every minor failure or injury stacks up, and can quickly end them.
If you think your character would need more specialized training to prevail, you’re probably right. No one else understands your worlds as well as you do. You would best know what your character is up against. Your character may need a less aggressive approach to escape
One critical thing to remember in a story with multiple protagonists is that no individual needs to have the entire skill set necessary to defeat the antagonists. A normal-ish teen on the run from a criminal conspiracy isn’t likely to have the necessary tools to turn the tables and take them down. However, other characters in your story may be able to band together and accomplish something they could never have done on their own.