Rooting for the Rule-Breakers

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Frank Abagnale is a man who stole millions of dollars by cashing fake checks. Not content to forge checks, he also produced a counterfeit doctor’s license and passport. He used these phony documents for further cons. As it often goes, Frank was eventually caught, tried, and convicted. He managed to escape prison twice. He’s also a genuinely likable, charismatic, and unexpected hero. If you read his autobiography, Catch Me If You Can, you’ll probably end up rooting for this con man for most of the book, even while imagining ways he could effortlessly rob you blind.

There’s something exciting about mores being violated in fiction, or fact as in Abagnale’s bio. Maybe it’s just the spectacle of the thing, the fun of rubbernecking at the scene of the crime. We like to read about sociopathic, unsympathetic leads doing heinous things, as in books like Gone Girl, but we also like stories that let us root for the rule-breakers. Maybe it appeals to deep-seated rebellious streaks we carry; we get vicarious thrills reading about antiheroes doing things we’re not brave enough to try. It’s probably a nebulous combination of things that makes these stories so appealing, but whatever it is, it’s a damn lot of fun.

Cybercriminals Are Our Friends

The hackers you know are probably decent people. They’re siblings and friends who can comprehend programming languages, and use their skills to make a bunch of money. They don’t usually spend their time breaking the law via their laptops. The hackers who do get into that stuff are the ones you have to worry about. They’re the reason you can’t open email attachments if you don’t personally know the sender. They’re the reason your grandma calls asking for help getting rid of the porn pop-ups grandpa claims he doesn’t know anything about. They’re responsible for leaking your personal information in massive data breaches that affect millions of people at a time.

An interesting thing happens when hackers are represented in fiction. They tend to be the kind who like cracking into unauthorized systems. They’re generally not the bad guys, though. They don’t smash through firewalls and deploy Trojan horses for nefarious purposes. They do it to help people.

Lisbeth Salander, who you may know as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is a perfect example of the hero hacker. She’s actually a great example of the antihero archetype in general: Lisbeth doesn’t adhere to social norms, and she doesn’t see the law as some kind of moral barrier not to be crossed. She breaks the rules a lot, sometimes in elaborate revenge plots, and sometimes accessing personal files on remote computers. There tends to be moral justifications for her actions. Even when she steals a few billion Swedish kronor (about $260 million in American dollars), we’re happy because the victim is an evil man escaping justice. Sometimes when the official system fails, an antihero needs to step in.

Even Young Adult books run with the theme of the hero hacker. Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is openly subversive in this respect, going as far as including afterwords by noted cryptographers and hackers. In the book, the Department of Homeland Security is waging a war against basic human rights. It’s exactly the type of near-future dystopia that calls for tech-savvy good guys willing to break the rules.

Those Lovable Murderers

Logging into someone else’s email might seem relatively light in the grand scheme of things. While the end result might be catastrophic, it’s impossible to hurt somebody directly and physically through cybercrime. At least, not outside of a cyberpunk future where people are literally connected to their computers.

We root for violent characters, too. Given the right circumstances, we’ll cheer on their punching, shooting, and stabbing.

Rorschach of Watchmen fits the archetype of the hard-boiled pulp hero. He’s damaged as a result of a traumatic upbringing, which really affects his outlook and his methods of dealing with problems. Rorschach is quick to use brutal violence to bring about what he sees as justice. In one scene, he handcuffs a man in a burning house, leaving him with a hacksaw as an escape option. It’s not for the cuffs. Rorschach is the hero here.

Some authors have pushed the limits further. Thomas Harris created Hannibal Lecter, a character we all know to be a sadistic and deranged serial killer. Somehow, we love him. Jeff Lindsay did a similar thing with Dexter. Both of these extremely violent characters have been so popular they’ve traveled outside of their books into other realms of media, with great success.

Hackers and serial killers are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the rule-breakers we’ll root for. I could write a book just listing examples that fall in between. Some say rules are meant to be broken. I won’t say that’s true, but I love when it happens in books.

George Billions is a freelance writer and the author of several books, including Fidget Spinners Destroyed My Family and Buying Illegal Bugs with Bitcoin.

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