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?