Push the Boundaries to Create Believable Scenes and Characters in the Legal World

Today’s post wraps up our extensive series taking a hard look at some of the professions fiction writers might choose to include in their stories. We’re covered posts that delve into law and legal systems and procedures, police proceduresmedical practices and forensics, judges, and now writer and ex-lawyer Jim Steinberg shares some great tips on being real about characters in the legal world.

“It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do, but what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I ought to do.” —Edmund Burke

Should you have in mind a story about people embroiled in a legal battle, these plain words of a towering figure in philosophy and political theory are worth remembering.

They hint that Burke, who gave up law school to travel and write and never plied the trade, might advise you to let your story cross the legal, moral, and ethical boundaries that the adversary process is intended to assert and protect.  He might say that to insist on your characters—the parties, lawyers, judges, investigators, and witnesses (both expert and lay)—keeping their conduct within those boundaries will not represent how things actually happen.  Nor will doing so guarantee an interesting story. 

The adversary process, alleged to achieve justice by a fair fight characterized by rule-following and decorous behavior, is rarely that.  Much more goes on (much of it unseemly) than respectfully phrased rational arguments, easy-to-enforce rules of evidence, and “just the facts, ma’am.”  In the real world of litigation—and even its planning and preparation—both sides are often coming at each other with their deadliest guns.

So here are some tips for creating believable characters and believable scenes in the legal world:

  1. Put Your Characters under Stress

To engage your readers in the ambiguity of a real-life drama left to a court to resolve, it can be helpful to show the guns and the dirt they are intended to expose or conceal.  I urge you to keep that in mind and encourage you to fill your point-of-view characters with plenty of human frailty, not just pure intentions.

After all, they may be making life-altering judgments and calculated moves under stress.  Some of those judgments and moves may get them in trouble in ways that will enrich your story.

  1. Have Your Characters Struggle with the Boundaries of the Law

You would do well to welcome the occasional or not-so-occasional pushing close to and even past the ethical boundaries of the law.  Consider that the legal system—because its players are fallible humans with vested interests, blind passions, and axes to grind—cannot guarantee justice to those who play strictly by the rules.

There is not a lawyer in town— your town or mine—that does not push against the edges of the rules and sometimes beyond.  It is an expected part of the game.  Nor is there a judge or jury that makes the fairness decisions based solely upon the law and the facts. Sometimes one side has all the law and the other all the facts. Sometimes both sides have plenty of both.  Sometimes both have little of either.  I beg you to mix it up!

  1. Show Me the Dirt

You can see that I am encouraging you to bring the dirt into the thoughts and conduct of the characters you want your readers to care about. For example, should they err under the stress of a painful dispute over the custody of children, you have a grand opportunity to nurture compassion in your readers.

  1. Show Me the Resiliency of the Human Spirit

This also gives you a chance to show the resiliency and creativity of the human spirit, though in the law, cleverness may be a better description.  When your characters believe they are in an “against all odds” situation, they may choose a road that, though it may not look fair, might actually be fair. Trust your readers to be capable of seeing the big picture that the court and its players don’t often see no matter how hard they try.  Returning to Burke once more, what the law thinks one ought to do at a time like that doesn’t count as much as “what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I ought to do.”

  1. It’s All about the Characters, not the Systems

I hope you will put the emphasis upon the “I.”  Remember that your legal story is about people, not systems.  Your people.  The ones you care about.  Show your stories through them with all of the biases, urgent needs, and complicated backgrounds that influence the choices they make.

When you write with these considerations in mind, your stories will avoid sentimentalizing ambivalent situations, will show the uncertain truths of being alive, and give your readers a richer, truer experience of the law, however fictional it may be.

  1. Create Great Bad Guys

A word or two of caution.  First, good stories about the law must have “bad guys.”  Leave them in, for they are a big part of what is real, but give them some nicer colors too—some ground for a bit of empathy, or at least understanding.  It’s not always possible or desirable, but you will do well to avoid the stiffness of stereotypes.  It isn’t easy. Make the bad guys as real as your point-of-view characters.  You might find reasons that they too deserve empathy.  Perhaps not much, but a little.

  1. Don’t Be Afraid to Push the Envelope

Though you may need to do some research about your legal dilemma and the court’s processes of trial preparation, presentation, and procedure, remember that your artistic license permits you to take risks.  Of course, you will want to be as “real” as possible with the technicalities of the law, but it is worth remembering that even in court, things often happen as they shouldn’t, and the court must deal with it.

With that in mind, don’t expect to learn the law the way lawyers are supposed to know it.  You won’t be able to.  Even they can’t nail it completely.  At some point you may want their help, but don’t invest too much value in their authority.  They can’t write your story for you.  Give that authority to your characters.  Let them tell you the story because, in fact, it is theirs.

Jim Steinberg headshotJim Steinberg is a former attorney and now a mediator and writer.  As a lawyer he handled several difficult domestic cases involving the welfare of children.  One of these is the basis for his debut novel Boundaries.  Jim has also written two collections of short stories: “Filling Up in Cumby and Other Stories” and “Last Night at the Vista Café.”  You can join his conversation about writing at “Follow Your Nose Fiction: A Blog about Writing by a Guy Who Writes.

Feature Photo Credit: Curtis Gregory Perry via Compfight cc

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  1. Great advice. As a writer who feels somewhat threatened by getting or not getting legal issues right, this is very freeing. Like others, I too figured lawyers and other legal professionals knew it all inside and out.

    When I think of my favorite books about courtroom battles, they are all bursting with ethical dilemmas and the “pushing of boundaries.” Reflecting, I realize that is indeed what made them so compelling.

    This was helpful.

    1. Mashaw,

      I hope you have a chance to try a legal scene. It is an opportunity to create drama and tension; it’s fun to write; it’s rewarding to succeed. If you are at all uncomfortable about the effort, a talk with an attorney friend, particularly one who likes stories, can help. If you can submit a rough draft to such a person, you might find that the “artistic license” you seek is something they will encourage. Of course, some will criticize. It’s a matter of finding the right advice.

      One attorney friend who only recently retired reminded me that she regarded each dispute as a story to be told. She tried to tell a better story than opposing counsel. That, she says, is as important or more important than getting the law just right, particularly when there is a jury. This was my experience, even in a criminal case and almost always in a custody battle. It was most encouraging for me to hear this. And in my first legal scene I made an unconventional choice that she applauded.

      So, go for it!


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