J. W. Judge

As a lawyer, I have observed that sometimes judges do things in the courtroom that make you look sideways at everything. They enter orders that run contrary to established precedent. They allow things into evidence that never should have been. And mostly there’s very little you can do about it in the moment. So when my protagonist lost his mind as I was writing a scene and let a judge have it, it was a really cathartic experience for me. It occurred to me in that moment that our characters can say things that authors can’t.

Set Characters Free From Your Inhibitions

We can set characters free from the inhibitions that constrain us. Now what we enable them to do may be a bad personal choice, just as it would have been for us. And they may then have to deal with the consequences of it, just as the protagonist in my story will, but it’s really nice to have that freedom.

Writing fiction is a way to explore the cause and effect of interpersonal relationships. You get to play out the results of your character’s choices in a way that provides insight and wisdom, that may be applicable in your life outside your manuscript.

Give Characters License to Make Poor Decisions

Here’s the snippet from my scene where I let my character say what I can’t [or at least, haven’t yet]:

Judge Stuart held up his hand and cut Jim off, “Just to be clear, you want this court to believe that your guy wasn’t impaired when he was all hopped up on crystal meth?”

“That’s not what I’ve said judge. What I said is they don’t have the expert testimony necessary to—”

“No. I’m not having this. What it sounds like to me is we need to continue this trial out to a later date so y’all can have time to work through these issues. I’m going to deny the Motion to Exclude and continue the trial setting.”

Something inside Jim that controlled his restraint and better judgment broke. “Well, what it sounds like to me is I should have contributed to your re-election campaign.”

Now it was Judge Stuart who was visibly reddening. A gallery full of lawyers who were waiting for their cases to get called was silent. The court reporter’s keys and stopped clacking, and she sat there mouth agape.

“Excuse me?”
“You heard me. You sit up there like a tiny tyrant ruling over your fiefdom. You disregard whatever laws don’t suit your agenda. Acting like you’re the heir of the divine right of kings.”

Jim didn’t let up when Judge Stuart leaned over and instructed his law clerk to get one of the sheriff’s deputies into the courtroom.

“But I can’t say your rulings are arbitrary. They do always favor the folks who either contributed to your election or helped with the campaign. So at least you’re consistent. I was wrong about you being a tyrant. You’re more like Pappy O’Daniel. When we all walk in the courtroom, you might as well ask, ‘Is you is or is you ain’t my constituency?’ Because that’s the way the wind’s going to blow. Except there’s no reason for you to ask the question. You already know the answer.”

Jim seemed to run out of steam at that point. He had been standing still about three seconds when a deputy entered the courtroom through the side door. The phone that were out and recording in the gallery were hastily put away before anyone noticed them.

“Mr. Henton, you’re being arrested on civil contempt of court. Deputy.”

You’re probably thinking right now: it wasn’t Pappy O’Daniel who made that statement in O Brother, Where Art Thou. I know. And Jim figures it out later. He’s going to dig his hole a little deeper when the judge asks him to apologize, and he says he’s sorry for attributing the quote to the wrong person.

You may also have thoughts about whether the dialogue is any good. Maybe it is and maybe it’s not. This is the first draft, so it’ll get some more attention later. The point is that we need to set our characters free from the things that would hold us back. They have to make their own decisions, their own mistakes. And eventually, their own reconciliations.

Let Your Characters Say the Things That You Can’t

We authors have life experiences that our characters don’t have. Our story is not theirs. They have to make their own choices. We are the conduit for that. I had a moment this week where I realized characters can say things that authors can’t. I have envisioned delivering different versions of the speech Jim gave. But I’ll never do it. Probably.

But Jim can. And did. Now we’ll see what develops out of that. If I had imposed my own sensibilities on my protagonist, this would be a much more risk-averse story. But I’m trying to separate myself from him so he can do the things that are inherent to his character.