10.08.2020

What Is Sardonic

Criminal law is a good background if you want to become a novelist. These lawyers work in a field that probes crimes, especially murder, a rich source of storytelling tension. They deal with the seamy underbelly of society, both criminals and cops, which provide antisocial models for characters. They have to do a lot of reading and writing in their profession, and skill in writing is gained through the practice of writing. So why isn’t the world flooded with lawyer novelists?

I believe the answer, ironically, is judgment. Not so much in the usual equation of an author’s ego vs. talent, although lawyers as a rule have a mighty good opinion of themselves. I mean more in terms of sitting in judgment. After all, many lawyers aspire to be judges, to perch high on the bench and pronounce on the unfortunates that flow in and out of the courtroom.

That lofty distance can be married with a lawyer’s hard-bitten view of humanity. That produces a narrative that is sardonic in tone: can you believe someone would be so . . . ? This viewpoint can be humorous, often of the slight-smile category, and the story can ring with authenticity. So what is the drawback?

The culprit is the ironic distance. Such a perspective is to be expected from someone who long ago adopted a shell to protect themselves from the violence and indignities of the criminal life. Yet because a character is only as deep as the emotions the author inserts, that distance is a form of self-protection. Like a criminal client, a character remains “out there,” to be remarked upon. The author can hide their own passions from the reader.

You cannot become the next Michael Connelly without realizing that he creates terrific characters. The sardonic tone is voiced from within those characters. Passion is a better first stage for a writer. Devise a character willing to jump into the fray beyond all decorum or even decency you’ve ever seen in a courthouse. The polished veneer can be added after connecting with the animal inside. What an aspiring writer might find is they will penetrate that long-adopted shell to find their younger, passionate self. 

Exercise: When first scheming a plot, set all of your old experiences aside. That stuff can be realistic filler you insert later. Think of outrageous crimes, with braided leads that lead to a number of characters. Some are obvious early on to the reader, and some are deeply hidden. If you want to use your own past cases, you probably will need to turn the amp on them up to 10 and then keep shrieking.

“A lawyer is a person who writes a 10,000-word document and calls it a "brief."   —Franz Kafka

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.