As a criminal defense lawyer who has tried over 200 jury trials, thriller author Ed Rucker has a few tips to share on writing a legal thriller.
- Focus on authenticity
People read fiction for a variety of reasons: to escape into an imaginary world, to live alongside a book’s characters, to learn about a subject or a time period, and to enrich their minds with new ideas. In any case, I find that first and foremost, readers want an engaging story with believable characters.
Still, readers of legal thrillers often seek more: They want authenticity. They want a trial that adheres to legal procedures and evidentiary rules. They want a police investigation which is realistic and they want defense lawyers, prosecutors, and judges in the story to behave as they would in real life.
To be sure, there are readers of legal thrillers who enjoy a larger than life plot where the lawyer/hero must chase down a serial killer who turns out to be the president of the United States. And there is no denying the popularity of the television series Law and Order, which depicts defense lawyers as unprincipled and prosecutors as unfairly handicapped by the ‘technicalities’ of the Constitution. Even so, I think there is often enough drama and tension in an accurate rendering of a criminal trial to satisfy the reader.
In my decades of experience practicing criminal law, I have found that the defense lawyers, prosecutors, cops, and judges in our justice system are comprised of the same amount of corruption as any other population. So writing a legal thriller with corrupt defense lawyers who coach their clients to lie or advise drug cartels would be realistic. Just as it true to life that some prosecutors hide evidence of innocence from the defense. And police officers will often tailor their testimony to skirt certain Constitutional protections, but rarely will they lie about the facts to convict an innocent person.
- Compose multifaceted criminals
In writing a legal thriller, one often feels the urge to draw up the perpetrator, or villain, as completely evil, vile thorough and through. But what I have learned in my legal practice, to my surprise, was that no matter how abhorrent the acts my clients committed, I was always able to find a vein of humanity in them with which I could identify. Like all of us, these criminals were people, meaning that they carried with them a bundle of complex and contradictory impulses, both good and bad. Most had backstories which made their life choices, while not acceptable, at least somewhat understandable.
Needless to say at this point, characters are not one-dimensional, even if they are criminals or primarily taken to be villainous. Not only is it realistic but it is also far more interesting to write an antagonist with a few redeeming characteristics. I have found that even the most law abiding citizen, one who might be seen as a pillar of the community, is capable of committing the most unforgivable crimes when under pressure or a certain set of circumstances.
- Review the impact of the media
We are saturated in this day and age with a barrage of news, not only from such traditional outlets as television and newspapers, but also from social media. Never before have we had such a vast amount of information available and waiting at our fingertips. Therefore, to write a realistic contemporary legal thriller involving a sensational case, the author must address the impact that widespread media coverage might have on those involved. In my experience, if a case attracts media attention it greatly affects how that case is handled by the participants.
Under the public eye, police detectives are put under pressure from their superiors to quickly solve the case, which could result in a rush to judgment. In the glare of publicity, prosecutors might feel their future careers depend on a successful result and this might drive their mentality to win at all costs. Judges, who stand for re-election, may fear a backlash at the polls if their rulings do not obtain media approval.
Even defense lawyers are often affected by seeing themselves in the media. I once represented one of the defendants charged in the case involving the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, a story that received some of the most intense national media coverage of its time. Every morning when we defense lawyers met, my colleagues felt their most pressing concern was the proper wording of a press release for the day. In court, some felt the need to pontificate for the cameras rather than advance the defense argument. None of this served the client’s best interests–but at the time, the pressure of a nation holding its breath was enough to make the commonplace seem lackluster and the unusual seem necessary.
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