On writing

Secondary characters and the dangers writers put them in

You’ve seen it in the movies, you read about it in books, particularly whodunits and thrillers. The hero needs information. This information is hard to get. It’s on a government computer somewhere.

Our hero goes to a friend or a workmate or a relative who, just coincidentally–or not so coincidentally if the writer has laid the groundwork well—happens to work in the department that can give him the information and says, “Please. I need this.” Sometimes, depending on the movie or the book, it’s a matter of life or death.

So the friend/workmate/relative goes off to get the information for them.

And that’s where my credibility stops and something inside of me starts screaming, “Do you realise what you have just done?”

Nowadays information is better protected than it ever was and in any big company, and in many small ones, there’s an audit trail of who accessed which bit of data and when. Not only that, you can’t look up just anyone’s data. If the friend/workmate/relative goes outside their need to know they start tripping security flags. Someone is going to investigate.

The penalty for accessing data you’re not allowed to is instant dismissal.

Even if the breach is small. Even if it doesn’t hurt anyone.

What can the secondary character say? “But it’s life or death for my friend.”

Most bosses would reply something along the lines of, “He should have gone to the police then. Or come to the boss here and explained the problem.” Which of course, the hero can’t do because a) no-one would believe him, and b) they still wouldn’t give him what he needed to know, which is why the hero got his friend to do it in the first place.

Collateral damage to secondary characters is a fact of fiction.

I accept that.

I don’t know why this particular case bothers me more than most. Maybe it’s because it’s such a thoughtless thing to do and because the consequences for the secondary character can be devastating. Maybe (probably) it’s because I and many of my friends work in environments where data is protected and we have seen first-hand the effects of even minor security lapses.

To me it makes for a selfish hero, so focused on his own problems that he doesn’t consider anyone else. That always makes me like him a little less.

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