So you want to write about money – or rather, someone who commits crime for money. Where do you start?
Financial crime, or the fraudulent acquisition of property belonging to someone else, is a vast topic. We don’t read novels to learn about suspicious anomalies on the company balance sheet – if we’re not careful, dialogue can morph into info-dump, and characters can be dwarfed by organisations and governments.
So how do we avoid this? How do we strike the right balance between “too little” and “too much” information?
As I’ve mentioned before, crime writing revolves around psychology. Our characters must have varying and contradicting understandings of greed, rooted in their specific culture/environment.
For better or worse, most of us spend our lives chasing the almighty dollar. Some writers, like Dickens in Hard Times, deplored this pursuit when it stood in the path of social welfare. Others, like Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged, celebrated the strength of human innovation and liberty to make one’s fortune.
Either way, accumulating wealth often involves great sacrifice. Those who can’t (or choose not to) pursue traditional employment may turn to “easier” methods. Not all of these are criminal, but many are problematic. Multi-level marketing is perfectly legal, for example, but often criticized as unsustainable and exploitative.
Of course, both legal and illegal methods share a common trait:
This should be our starting point as writers. Why is it so difficult for our character(s) to resist temptation? How far are they willing to go to make a quick buck?
Types of Criminals
A white-collar criminal is no different than a pickpocket. The only thing that sets them apart is the scale of their crimes. According to a 2016 estimate reported by HedgeThink, white-collar crime damages the global economy to the tune of $1.2 trillion a year. It also harms national security, obstructs justice, and even damages the environment.
Common forms of financial crime:
Fraud, Money Laundering, Embezzlement, Cyber Crime, Market Manipulation, Forgery, Counterfeiting, Tax Evasion, Scams, and Bribery.
Don’t worry – you don’t have to tackle all of them at once! Choosing a financial crime is like buying a car: you’ll want one that fits your character’s personality along with their skill set and overall goals. It’s best to develop the criminal before you decide on the nature of their crimes.
Having multiple criminals will make it easier to tackle larger, more complicated crimes such as money laundering, embezzlement, cyber crime, and market manipulation. If your criminal is an individual, it might be more feasible to focus on low-scale fraud, forgery, scams, and bribery.
Of course, if your character is a “Professor Moriarty”, you can have them commit a range of crimes, revealing different skills/talents throughout the story. This is a great way to keep your readers on their toes!
Non-fiction research is essential. Read up on the Anti-Money Laundering legislation in the country where your story is based. If you’re writing contemporary crime fiction, Financial Crime in the 21st Century is a great place to start. Make a mindmap of the key areas. Read case histories. You’ll be astonished (and perhaps even depressed) by the ordinary nature of financial criminals.
When writing about financial crime, avoid lengthy explanations. This isn’t nonfiction – your reader doesn’t require in-depth knowledge of technical jargon. They just need to know that your character is committing a criminal act, placing their freedom or perhaps even their lives at risk should they get caught. Focus on that, raising the stakes while delving deeper into your character’s psychology. That will intrigue your reader much more than pedantic details you’ve come across in your research.
Financial crime offers great opportunities for structure, too. I personally favour the “howdunit” structure, in which the criminal is known to the reader from the beginning, but not to the detective. If you don’t favour this set up, try delaying the introduction of your detective. Set the scene, establish the criminal(s) without revealing them as such. Let your reader follow the money.
Either way, take care with your pacing. You’ll want to show the build-up to financial crimes, especially those that require a large amount of planning. Remember that crimes don’t happen in a vacuum – you’ll want to show calculations and motivations, emphasizing high stakes should the criminal(s) lose. They must stand to lose everything – anything less is anticlimactic.
No two characters will have the same motivations for committing financial crime. Greed might be the overreaching theme, but the reasons behind that greed might be very different. Some criminals just want to be rich. Others might use their ill-gotten gains for a purpose they consider justified (e.g. religious extremists and/or terrorists). Criminals can be lifelong sociopaths or perfectly normal people who somehow lost their moral compass. They can even be antiheroes – morally ambiguous, but not necessarily bad.
In this series, we’ll examine a number of financial crimes through creative prose. We’ll explore topics like story structure, combining knowledge with entertainment, using both fictional and real life examples to build a stronger story. I’ll give you prompts to work on, as well as a fun quiz to test your knowledge!
Do you read or write financial crime? What do you like best (or dislike) about your favorite novels?
Feel free to leave your comments below!
Deborah blogs at Story Scribes. She loves Victorian murder mysteries, steak, and Mathematics. Not all at the same time.