Harnessing the Power of Characters in Your Legal Writing
Explore the power and purpose of characters, whether they are fictional or real, in legal writing.
Readers always care about the characters. Your client, the other players–we all need to imagine someone carrying out a case’s events so that we can follow along (and care).
But many legal writers don’t take much time to consider how they want to introduce, and build up, each of their story’s characters. The truth is, you have lots of options in how you describe your client and everyone else involved in the case. And those perceptions matter. Let’s look at some simple tools you can use to boost (or detract) from the key players.
First, introduce context for a character’s actions or decisions
You know you need to share the key, relevant events with your readers. But we often forget that readers want to know the why: Why did your client cancel the shipment? Or show up late? Or otherwise do what they did? It helps if you offer context about what led the characters to act as they did. Check out this example from an elite litigator:
“When Mr. Samps showed up to sign the license, he did not know that Terry Corp. had already entered into three nearly-identical licenses with other artists. Mr. Samps had been negotiating in good faith with Terry Corp. for more than nine months at this point–and no one had ever mentioned other licensees.”
The author wanted to offer some context leading up to the critical signing–these details weren’t legally relevant. But they helped the reader understand something more about the client’s headspace at the time.
Second, set up characters' motivations when helpful
Related to context, often you’ll want to shed light on the characters’ motivations. Why did they make the decisions they did? What was going on in their head? This is just as important for the bad actors in your story as it is the good ones.
Usually we will shed light on motivations by sharing select details that naturally lead readers to draw conclusions about what folks were thinking.
For example, this pro legal writer wanted to suggest that her client had good intentions even though he ended up breaching a contract term. These facts didn’t really matter–there was no intent requirement here so it didn’t matter why the party breached. But humans care about characters–and those perceptions shape the decisions we make, legal or otherwise:
“Ms. Terry was in a pickle: If she went forward with the concert, she would be contributing to a health crisis that was all too personal for her. She had lost her mother weeks before to COVID, and with the rising rates in Dallas at the time, Ms. Terry genuinely worried what would happen at a large gathering. On the other hand, Ms. Terry had committed to put on the concert, and she knew that canceling would affect some vendors and promoters. So she did what she had to, coming down on the side of promoting the health and safety of everyone.”
Third, deliver general facts that make a character look good or bad, sympathetic or unsympathetic
Sometimes you may want to insert some pure reputational details. You’ve likely seen good lawyers do this when drafting complaints. Inserting a line or two about the great things a company does for the world, or how critical a company’s product is for everyday folks.
But tread carefully here. Inserting some contextual facts or shedding light on real-life motivations for what is legally relevant–is one thing. Sharing general good or bad facts with no connection to the case at all is much more likely to distract or annoy busy legal readers.
So keep these sorts of pure reputation facts minimal, and whenever possible, subtly weave them into discussions of the relevant stuff. That way readers won’t mind and you still get the payoff.
For example, this lawyer managed to slyly insert some good details about their client, and some bad details about an opposing party–and although they were entirely irrelevant, they were done so quickly and subtly that most readers likely wouldn’t mind. Hint: That VOLT works with charities had no relationship to anything here, but it was a convenient way to slip that fact in. Same goes for the Defendant’s tantrum (this case was about a licensing agreement–and all that the attorney technically needed to convey was that the Defendant objected to VOLT’s presence at the trade show generally).
“VOLT advertised its new products at the trade show prominently: Hanging banners, displaying life-size cardboard cutouts, and handing out hundreds of flyers. VOLT representatives had just finished discussing their education products with a representative from a large charity organization that helps children access books for free at school–when the Defendant’s representative cut in and demanded a personal meeting to discuss VOLT’s signage. The Defendant’s representative raised his voice several times, loudly proclaiming that VOLT was ‘violating the show’s rules.’”
Fourth, illustrate how outside forces affect a character (or will affect a character)
In most stories, we get to know characters not only by what they do and say, but also what happens to them. Often sharing things that happened to a client or party–whether good or bad–can help readers identify with them and understand them more personally. The same goes for the consequences of our actions, which is particularly powerful when bad actors don’t get punished.
This legal writer knew these lessons well, sharing some details about their client’s experiences to help shape our perception of why they are:
“Ms. Johnson had been rear-ended in a car accident the prior day. She had been accosted by insurance claim adjusters all day. She had meetings at work starting at 5am and continuing until she drove home after 7pm. Then she arrived home to find a letter in the mail demanding that she ‘pay her bill or lose her house to foreclosure.’”
Most of these details were not strictly relevant, but showing all that had happened and been done to this character can’t help but build some sympathy with readers.
Fifth, illustrate a character through their interactions with others
Another common character-building technique is to show readers how a character interacts with others. Even showing that your client was courteous and respectful in dealing with an opponent can go a long way.
There are many, many other details you can share about character, these are just some of the most common categories. The main takeaway here is: You can do quite a lot to build up, or tear down, the characters in your legal story. The characters are just as important here as they are in any other story you’ve heard before.
And a bonus tip: You should think of characters when discussing the law, too. But here the judges or legislators are the stars of the show. You can build up the credibility of a court or judge so that readers pay more attention to a piece of authority. You can downplay one of these characters to suggest that authority isn’t all that important. And the players in past decisions can also be characters: You may want to build up a party that’s sympathetic to your own. Or you may want to downplay a bad actor that has parallels with the opposing party in your case.
Write.law co-founder Joe Regalia combines his experience as both practitioner and professor to create exciting new ways to teach legal skills. Learn more about Joe
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