Sunday, November 18, 2012

Scams, cons, and writing fiction

Terry Ambrose
Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr made a great protagonist in my opinion because he was simultaneously good and bad. If you’re not familiar with that particular Bernie, he was a burglar and his profession (stealing) put him into situations where he had to take on the role of amateur sleuth.
In real life, there’s another Bernie who wasn’t quite as lucky at avoiding capture as Block’s fictional burglar. This one was the con man who created a scam that cost investors, both large and small, millions of dollars. In this case, of course, I’m talking about Bernie Madoff. I’ve said this before, but whether you admire or hate the man, you must admit that he created one helluva scam. 
The typical scam works by creating a stimulus strong enough to entice the mark to take action. The expected response might be to turn over money, confidential information, or do something illegal. For instance, a Rhode Island man was recently arrested for passing counterfeit $100 bills. Forget the fact that the man made huge mistakes—he put Lincoln’s face on the bill, not Franklin’s, and he attempted to pass the bills in the same Target store on multiple occasions. Let’s just not go there. Instead, lets look at the stimulus and the response.
The stimulus is that the man needed or wanted money. The response was that, when given the chance to make money quickly (he’d buy items for less than $25 and get change for the $100), he took it. Right or wrong, his story serves as a model for those of us who like to put our characters in temptation’s way and make use of the stimulus-response model.
Nobody forced Bernie Madoff to steal the life savings of all those people. Most likely, no one forced the Rhode Island man to pass counterfeit bills. But, they both saw temptation and they both succumbed to their desires. It’s how I like my characters to respond and why I look at a story as a con job—provide the right opportunity and a character who is in a bind or has a weakness will take the bait. 
Con artists know that scams typically succeed or fail because of the emotional responses they evoke, not the logic. Even the most ridiculous and farfetched scam that pulls on the heartstrings or offers quick riches will succeed if that’s what the mark wants most. For Bernie Madoff, apparently no amount of money was enough, but he saw riches on his horizon. For the Rhode Island man, the riches were far less, but still something that had him willing to take a chance on being caught. And isn’t that what fiction is all about? The bad guy sees the potential reward as being worth the risk? And the good guy sees the same thing. They’re just on opposite sides of the problem.
The beauty of Block’s novels was that his Bernie was compelled to steal, but when he was in danger of being arrested and convicted for a crime he didn’t commit, he was compelled to investigate on his own. His risk and his reward escalated as the story developed. In Bernie Madoff’s case, his greed and methods might inspire crime fiction writers to create a story about a big con. In the Rhode Island man’s case, perhaps the story goes far deeper. His attorney claims that the man has a history of drug abuse and mental-health issues. True or not, this reasoning offers us another stimulus and another response and more food for a fiction-writer’s imagination.

Terry Ambrose started out skip tracing and collecting money from deadbeats and quickly learned that liars come from all walks of life. He never actually stole a car, but sometimes hired big guys with tow trucks and a penchant for working in the dark when “negotiations” failed. 
Learn more about Terry on his website at or on his Facebook author page at


Billie Johnson said...

Great comments, Terry! These are the contradictions which blend to create compelling, memorable characters.


Terry Ambrose said...

Contradictions are one of the reasons I enjoyed Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone novels so much. Unfortunately, they grew somewhat repetitious after a bit, but initially, I loved Jesse's character.

Sally Carpenter said...

The TV show "Mission Impossible" was nothing more than the MI crew running cons on the bad guy to get him to reveal the location of the hidden money or confess to the crime. Cons are successful because people are greedy. In LA, scam artists will post ficticious real estate listings on Craigslist for a far lower price than market value. People looking for cheap housing will wire in the deposit and never hear back. They don't even go look at the property in person. Buyer beware.

Terry Ambrose said...

Hey Sally, so right you are. Greed is really the bottom line and the reason the con works. For a con artist, greed is a beautiful thing!