Pressure your characters with the law — criminal charges aren’t the only option

I haven’t commented much on the child sex abuse convictions of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, although the issues offer the fiction writer much fodder. The case illustrates a deep irony in the law–and no doubt in medicine and psychology as well: the most interesting issues tend to arise in the cases with the most horrific facts. That conflict offers the fiction writer and reader terrific opportunities for page-turning tension.

Today, the NCAA announced its sanctions on the Penn State football program, for a years-long pattern of secrecy that tolerated horrible abuse and allowed it to continue. That action–which I applaud–prompts me to comment on other legal means to pressure your characters–because it’s pressure that forces both the good guys and the bad guys to act. It’s pressure that reveals their true nature, creates further conflict that advances the story, and keeps the reader up past her bed time.

The criminal system itself is a great pressure cooker. But it’s not the only one. Give your character a professional license that’s at risk if she can’t clear her name. Lawyers convicted of felonies are all but automatically disbarred, and in some situations, may be ineligible for reinstatement. Lesser discipline such as a temporary suspension may damage, even destroy, a lawyer’s practice and professional reputation, as well as his livelihood, self-esteem, marriage, health, and more.

As I wrote last week, a judge convicted of a felony will likely be removed from the bench. A state court judge may face other discipline that could trigger a resignation, or feel forced to resign because he or she can no longer be effective. It’s hard to restore community trust once it’s betrayed.

Social workers, doctors, and other health care professionals also need professional licenses to work. What will they do in your story to protect them?

Heck, even a house cleaner may need a business license to work. What if she loses it–or fears she will? Many an employee has paid a judgment rather than have his wages garnished and lose his employer’s trust. What other action might that fear prompt?

Use a hint of scandal to raise the stakes. Is your bad guy a city councilman or a deputy sheriff? A teacher or a school administrator? What institutional pressures will he feel? What administrative procedures and internal discipline could stop him in his tracks–or send him down a different road? How will he strike out, try to lay blame elsewhere, misdirect both professional investigators and your amateur sleuth?

What about public safety? A restaurant or market must pass regular health department inspections. While it’s not easy to close a place down, lesser sanctions have a great impact. (My county requires all food service establishments to the certificate showing the letter grade received on their last inspection near the front door and publishes the grades in the paper–a mighty incentive to raise that C+ to an A. But there’s still one owner who just doesn’t seem to get it. …) Many factories, mills, and other employers are subject to regular inspections, heightened after an accident. What might a routine or special inspection uncover? How will your characters respond?

Civil claims are another great option. Remember the Goldman family’s lawsuit against OJ Simpson?

The NCAA, of course, is not a government agency–it’s a private body. But it does have great power over its members. Is there a similar entity that could influence your characters?

Just the hint of trouble, a whiff of an investigation, can be a powerful motivator. How will those sources of tension weigh on your characters, and increase story conflict?

13 thoughts on “Pressure your characters with the law — criminal charges aren’t the only option

  1. Indeed, give your protagonist MORE problems besides “just” solving a murder (or whatever your protagonist sets out to do)!

    In my upcoming book Courting Murder, the protagonist is a judge who thinks he’d rather be a detective than listen to boring stuff on the bench all day. Naturally, this idea he has does not sit well with the law enforcement agents he runs in to. Trust me, Sheriffs, state cops, city cops, on and on, don’t want a judge mucking up an investigation!

    Plus, the problem of giving your protagonist the choice of pursuing his quest even though he’s faced by possible severe consequences will make the book a lot more interesting. Imagine that your hero is given the choice between untying Nell from the railroad tracks in the face of the oncoming train OR facing a firing squad for committing a crime!

    Another example is S. J. Rozan’s novel On The Line. Without spoiling anything, let me just say that the protagonist is put into exceptionally difficult straits that leave him with no good choices. (Except that S. J. Rozan, of course, pulls off the trick of winding things up satisfactorily.)

    As the old saying goes, get your hero up a tree and start throwing rocks at him.

  2. Leslie, the extra fun tied to these positions and requirements is the opportunity for temptation and a “small” crime to blow up into a bigger one. Bribes, coercion, turning a blind eye, an “exchange” for services….

    Hey, if slipping a couple hundred to the whatever inspector will make the process go faster, and everybody does it, and your protagonist is new in town and is told to just go along with the status quo, does that make your MC a skeeve? Or a realist in a tough dilemma? Or the victim of a law enforcement sting? Or a person who did something stupid that will hand over them forever? Or…or…or…A writer who learns to see the opportunity for moral and ethical dilemmas, especially in the gray areas, can broaden the scope of trouble for a character or story.

    Nice post!

  3. Wow. Great food for thought, Leslie. Gives me the inspiration to spend time with my antagonist today. Although I have to admit, I am still foggy on why/how the Goldmans could sue someone who was acquitted of murder. What were the charges and why were they allowable in a civil court (or does civil court listen to all complaints regardless of whether or not they might be frivolous before they are heard, so that such a determination is made only by the court and not by lower authorities and that if the court determines it’s frivolous there are penalties against those who brought it to court)?

    • Thanks, Di. The Goldmans could prevail because the elements of a civil claim are different from those of criminal charges (note the difference in terminology), and so is the burden of proof (preponderance of the evidence vs. reasonable doubt).

      Who determines if a claim is frivolous or can go forward? There’s no test at the courthouse door; the process itself is the test. There are opportunities along the way to request a dismissal of some or all civil claims or criminal charges. Many civil claims involve a “motion for summary judgment,” asking the judge to decide as a matter of law that there is insufficient basis for the claim to proceed. Sanctions are rare, though, and typically limited to completely groundless cases brought with the intention of harassing the other side. Why such latitude? Because preserving access to justice is so critical to our system.

    • To convict a person of a crime, the state must produce evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. To win in a civil lawsuit, the prevailing party must have a preponderance of the evidence.

      The Goldmans were the victims in the civil suit. Society at large was the victim in the criminal case.

      If you punch me in the nose, you may be convicted of an assault and be fined or imprisoned. But I could also sue you for damages, such as my medical bills.

      • Right-o. Civil suits often follow criminal cases, so crime victims can get a judgment for their damages. No doubt many of Jerry Sandusky’s victims will sue him and Penn State for civil damages. Criminal sentences do often order restitution, but that rarely enough to cover medical bills, lost wages, etc., and often hard to collect. And in car accidents that result in criminal charges, for ex., the injured person may need to sue civilly to get to the insurance, although insurance companies often settle claims before suit is filed.

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