Tuesday, May 18, 2010


C’mon, You Know You Did It. Eight Ways the Law Affects Teen and Children’s Stories
by guest: Donna Ballman

What Happens After You Kill Off the Parents in Your YA/Middle Grade Novel?

Young adult writers are the first ones to tell me the law has nothing to do with their stories. But the first thing we usually do (yes, I write YA and middle grade too) is kill off the parents or have them divorce. Why do we do it? Because we want the focus to be on the teens in the story, not on the adults. We have to provide a reason why someone that age is running around doing stuff their parents wouldn’t normally let them do in a gazillion years. I actually heard of a group of children’s writers who called themselves something like, “Let’s Kill the Parents.” Sad, but true. Adults don’t fare well in most kid lit.

So now that they’re orphaned, lost at least one parent, or are in a split home, you think the law doesn’t affect your character? Think again. Below are ways it affects your story.

1. Divorce. Which parent makes the decisions relating to the child? Where your character lives? Is the divorce acrimonious or amicable? Are they still fighting? These issues can add depth to your character, angst, conflict, and relationship issues. With older characters, divorce can affect every romantic relationship they have. If Bella’s parents weren’t divorced, would she have moved to Forks in Twilight or became obsessed with Edward?

2. Custody. Who has custody? Are parents alive or dead?. Did they seek emancipation? Do they live with a distant relative they’ve never met? If Harry Potter hadn’t had an awful custody situation, would he have been as sympathetic?

3. Inheritance. If one or more parent is killed, did they inherit? Is there a lawsuit over an accident or medical malpractice? Does your character come into a bunch of money from an inheritance? Who’s the beneficiary? Your character’s financial situation is key to how they live. The entire Series of Unfortunate Events book series related to issues of custody and inheritance.

4. Siblings. Do the siblings live with your character? Do they even know they have siblings? What would The Parent Trap have been had the custody arrangements been different?

5. School. Do they write an article for the school newspaper that gets suppressed? Criticize a teacher on Facebook? Bullying issues. Discrimination. Civil rights (maybe a locker is searched). Everything that happens in school is regulated in some way.

6. Dating. Dating can turn to stalking. What a different story Twilight would have been if Bella had sought a court order after Edward showed up in her room the first time. If your character is the victim of date rape, do they come forward? What happens when they prosecute or choose not to prosecute? Do they get falsely accused of stalking or rape? How does that affect them?

7. Injuries. Do they sue? Do they have to testify against a friend? Are they beaten up by a bully? Do they prosecute or sue, or do they stay quiet?

8. Work. Is your character savvy or clueless about workplace rights? It makes a difference to your story.

If you use the law in your story, do the research. Make sure your plot is believable and rings true. There are lots of resources available for your research. You can also ask a lawyer for advice on how to handle an issue in your story.

So there you have it. The law affects your story whether you like it or not. You can use it for ideas and inspiration, for background, for characters or settings, and to establish your characters’ personalities.

The truth is, the law is all around us. It touches everything we do from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to bed. That means it touches your story. You can use it to your benefit or choose to ignore it. But get it wrong at your peril. There are 1.1 million lawyers in the U.S. alone. Most of us read. If you do it well, we will be your biggest fans. Don’t make us throw your book against the wall.

I hope I’ve provided you with some inspiration for your stories, and some ideas on how to get your stories right. If I can help even one novelist keep from having their book thrown down in disgust, or one TV writer from having the channel changed, my work is done here.

About Donna Ballman:

Donna Ballman has practiced employment law for 24 years. Donna’s book, The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers, is part of Behler Publications’ award-winning “Get it Write” series. Her website: http://www.donnaballman.com; blog is The Write Report, http://writereport.blogspot.com. The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers, by Donna Ballman, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and many other stores online.

1 comment:

E.J. Wesley said...

Nice post, LM!

We so often do things in stories in sort of a vacuum without thinking about the real world implications. It's simply a tool to elicit an emotional response from the reader or characters, and/or move the story. However, it's so important to ground these events in some reality.

You don't have to have 14 chapters of custody hearings to explain what's happening to your mc. (Although believe me, for any real kid that's gone through that stuff it is THE big thing in their lives. Even if there happens to be giant killer robots chasing them.) However, failing to address it at all can take the reader out of the story and (even worse) cause you to miss an opportunity to reach a reader who's gone through something similar.

Death, divorce, and family drama are things real teens deal with every day. Consequently, they are topics that deserve to be presented with some thought/depth in our stories.