Your Character has no Character

For over twenty years, I worked as a regulator and an investigator before deciding to write full-time.  Exposure to white-collar criminals certainly changed my naïve attitude that all charitable organizations are good, all investment advisors are thinking only what’s in their client’s best interest, and no one would think to steal from society’s most vulnerable citizens.  But that’s not true.  Fraud happens, a lot.

Dear friends recently were victimized by their tax preparer, a man they knew from church, well-respected in the community, who steered them into a Ponzi scheme he’d created.  This week, that person was arrested on a 35-count indictment charging securities fraud, grand larceny, and money laundering.  He’d gained my friends’ trust, as he had countless other victims.  By preparing their tax returns, he knew his clients, and he knew what kind of money they had.  In his press release announcing the arrest, the New York Attorney General said, “It’s unconscionable that many hard-working people put their futures in the hands of this defendant only to see their financial security destroyed by greed.  (He) stole his victims’ life savings, and forced some of them to re-enter the workplace or rely on government assistance to survive, while others face foreclosure on their homes or bankruptcy.”

If you’re looking to bring a despicable character such as this into your writing, remember the three elements of fraud: (1) the fraudster has an “unsharable financial need,” meaning he or she is under pressure to come up with money.  Gambling debts, drug addiction, credit card debt – any of these could contribute to that financial need.  (2) “Rationalization,” meaning that, in the fraudster’s mind, the perceived benefit of committing the fraud outweighs the perceived punishment if caught.  And finally (3) “opportunity,” a situation enabling the fraudster to commit fraud (lack of oversight, etc.).

White-collar criminals are big in books these days, thanks in part to Bernie Madoff.  And we can read about fraud and corruption every day.  The three elements described above will help you to create a believable character.  If only they were relegated to fiction.

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