Hacking has always looked kind of exciting from the movies, but Chuck Wendig begs to differ. In honor of the release of his new novel Zer0es about a team of hackers, Wendig chatted with Bookish about what hacking really entails, and how to make it exhilarating on the page. We don’t believe it, Chuck! We are anything but bored.
In talking about my upcoming novel, Zer0es, where a group of five wildly different hackers have to band together to go up against a self-aware NSA surveillance system, everyone wants to know if I got hacking “right” or not.
Because most books and movies and shows get it very, very wrong. Let’s see if this sounds familiar:
Our Heroes have a problem. The Bad Guys are closing in. They’ve got an attack helicopter and the chopper’s cannon has spun up and seemingly infinite bullets are just chewing apart the walls and roof of the building. Our Heroes include one hacker, and that particular hacker is trying to get a signal from who-knows-where, and ding, he manages it, and then he Begins To Hack. And his hacking looks a lot like he’s just opening and closing windows in some version of Microsoft Windows, and we see maybe a few snippets of code and then—
A progress bar fills up across the screen. The bar reads HACKING! and it slowly fills up as the bullets begin to tear apart the room. The bar fills, fills, fills, 25%, 40%, 67%… and then, zing! The HACKING! bar reaches 100% and the hacker has somehow hacked the helicopter and the helicopter explodes. Boom.
I’m oversimplifying, I get it, but that’s often how fiction treats the act of hacking: by oversimplifying it. Which is true about a lot of things, one supposes, whether it’s discharging a weapon or training to be a spy. Facts fall prey to entertainment. You don’t want something on the page or on the screen that looks, well, boring.
And that’s the problem with writing the act of hacking—not writing about hacking, and not writing about the consequences of hacking, but actually describing the act (and some might say the art) of hacking: It’s incredibly dull.
It involves, unsurprisingly, a whole lot of sitting around at keyboards and typing things into keyboards. You code. You use software. You code some more. It’s about as interesting as watching someone log their daily caloric intake into a spreadsheet. Hell, it’d be about as interesting as watching me write a book about hacking.
So, when people ask how accurate the hacking in my book, I have to give a vigorous shrug. I didn’t go for factual. I went for authentic. And here’s what I mean by that: In fiction, something does not have to be true. It just has to feel that way.
It is our job as authors to convince you that the thing we are writing is a True Thing whether or not it’s true. It must feel accurate, not be accurate. The dinosaurs in both the book and the film of Jurassic Park are not scientifically accurate representations of dinosaurs. But Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg worked very hard to make them feel accurate, right? They feel authentic to the world and the world gives us details (via the storytelling) to backup the authenticity. It’s the fine art of combining actual facts with stuff we made up to make the story better. It’s a little bit of a magic trick, actually:We distract and misdirect with genuine information while, with our other hand, we spin a web of pure fiction.
With Zer0es, my goal was then to capture the spirit of hacking and make it feel true to form without having the main characters spend 300 pages sitting around and vigorously typing things. I wanted to acknowledge that, yes, it takes a lot of time at the computer, but I also wanted the results of that time to be interesting, compelling, exciting. And the personalities of the characters involved amp up the drama implicit in the act of hacking—so, it becomes less about the ritual act of the hack and more about the hackers themselves, and the results of their efforts.
Chuck Wendig is the author of the Miriam Black thrillers (which begin with Blackbirds) and numerous other works across books, comics, games, and more. A finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the cowriter of the Emmy-nominated digital narrative Collapsus, he is also known for his popular blog, terribleminds.com. He lives in Pennsylvania with his family.