What if the good guys lose?
July 6, 2012
My favorite Paul Newman movie is the 1982 classic, The Verdict. In it, Newman plays Frank Galvin, a washed up, alcoholic lawyer, who takes on a loser of a case and in the process rediscovers the things that really matter.
Sometimes, the losing case is the best one. If it was easy, anyone could do it, right?
But the thing that is important for the writer is not whether the case is a winner or a loser. What is crucial is that the lawyer hero is on the side of justice and fairness. His own flaws become unimportant, maybe even endearing, in the light of the purity of the cause he champions.
This is a critical point for writers of legal fiction. If your hero is a has-been representing a scumbag, then you are writing comedy. If your protagonist is a washed up alcoholic David fighting Goliath on behalf of a saintly client, then you have the possibility of writing a work that touches people’s hearts.
People can’t pull for a charlatan. If your hero is not committed to the battle, readers will sense it. If it is just a game for him where winning doesn’t matter, then who cares? Rather, the hero has to be all in. For him, it must be a life or death struggle where he is the client’s only hope. When people pull for him, they are rooting for good to win the battle against evil.
But, one of the most intriguing issues to me in this type of drama is whether it is important that the lawyer win the case. I understand that readers feel better about the book if the jury comes back with a big verdict for the good guy. It produces a moment when the little guy blackens the eye of the evil behemoth.
But I sometimes wonder if the more powerful ending is the one where things work out just as they almost always do in real life. In the real world of litigation, good doesn’t always triumph. Maybe it’s a fifty-fifty proposition at best. If you add an incompetent lawyer who goes against a well-heeled opponent, then those odds go way down.
So, an alternative approach to the loser of a case is to set the conflict on another level. Make it a matter of principle where losing isn’t the worst thing that can happen, where the courage to fight a hopeless battle becomes a badge of honor.
The men who fought at the Alamo knew they would lose, they understood they would die. They fought and died anyway.
Did that make them losers?