Young adult and children’s 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. Here are just some of the ways the law may come up in your young adult or middle grade story.
1. Divorce. Which parent makes the decisions relating to the child, or do they both make the decisions? Where your character lives, whether they shuffle back and forth between parents, is a major part of their life. Is the divorce acrimonious or amicable? Are they still fighting or is it resolved? Does the child have to face testifying? All these issues can add depth to your character, angst, conflict, and relationship issues. Even for older characters, divorced parents can affect every romantic relationship they have. Their world view of relationships may depend on how that divorce went. If Bella’s parents weren’t divorced, would she have moved to Forks in Twilight? The fact of her mom’s new relationship set the whole story in motion.
2. Custody. Who has custody? Is it joint, shared, or sole? Whether the parents are alive or dead, your character has to have a home. 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? If not, who did? Is there a lawsuit over an accident or medical malpractice? Does your character or their family come into a bunch of money from a suit or an inheritance? Do they lose a suit and suffer financial devastation? Is there insurance? Who’s the beneficiary? Your character’s financial situation is key to how they live, how they get around, what resources they have at their disposal. The entire Series of Unfortunate Events book series related to issues of custody and inheritance.
4. Siblings. Do the siblings live with your character? Or were they separated? Are there disputes over custody or an inheritance? Do they even know they have siblings? What would The Parent Trap have been had the custody arrangements been different?
5. School. Even if the parents are alive and well, the law might still come into play. At school your character might run into issues of free speech. Do they write an article for the school newspaper that gets suppressed? Criticize a teacher on Facebook? There could be bullying issues. Discrimination. Civil rights (maybe a locker is searched). If your character is disabled, there may be issues of accessibility to facilities or materials. Everything that happens in school is regulated in some way.
6. Dating. Dating can turn to stalking. Does your character need an injunction? 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. Is your character in an accident? Do they sue? Do they have to testify against a friend? Can they pay their medical bills? Do they get the medical treatment they need? Are they beaten up by a bully? Do they prosecute or sue, or do they stay quiet? If they don’t sue, who pays the bills for medical treatment?
8. Work. Did your character get a summer job? Many young people new to the workplace encounter discrimination, unpaid wages, unpaid overtime, whistleblowing issues, and other workplace problems. 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.