‘The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.’ Proverbs 18 verse 17
Follow any court case – or even any debate, and if you’re undecided, it’s who puts the most convincing case, which is both logical and consistent. The facts, set out by either party, from their point of view, lead to some conclusion. It’s not what they tell you, it is what they show you. It helps if one of the two is someone you are disposed to trust. For instance, if you have to get a nurse or a paramedic (both right at very top end of every poll on trust) against say a lawyer or a politician or a used car salesman (usually at the bottom), the former will ALWAYS get public support, whereas instinctive distrust follows the others like a close encounter with a skunk. Now, there are crooked nurses, and possibly lawyers who are the soul of integrity, and whose work is purely for the benefit of mankind. But you have a hell a job on your hands to convince anyone they’re not the stereotype.
Still, in the end, in the court of public opinion the credibility of anyone can be undermined, and the audience decides – regardless of what the court decides (very different parameters, courts require certain legal standards, the public has its own standard. Some can skate – perhaps being really not guilty – in court. The public however may still condemn them, or vice versa.)
If you think about it, this really is at the core of the novelist’s work. We write to convince that court of public opinion. And we’re working to get them to like or even love our heroes and care about them and want them to triumph, and wish a miserable end on the villains. Now, of course, it is a piece of cake to ensure an awful end for the villain and final victory (even if the hero doesn’t end up alive, it can still be victory) as a writer. A piece of cake compared to real life, anyway, where, depressingly, the villains skate and the good guys get shafted – a situation that no-one in the court of public opinion is happy with.
But I have read a good few profoundly unsatisfying books where I either ended up not caring or actively loathing the supposed ‘heroes’. Or struggling to tell the difference between the heroes and the villains (GoT?) and not really caring if any of the a**holes win or lose. This tiny part of the court of public opinion anyway, doesn’t buy another book from that author — which as the guy constructing the ‘case’ for that public support says you’ve lost your case.
You do have construct a good case. This, however, if you’re not an idiot, is quite do-able. Some of us do it much better than others. The key of course is that you don’t TELL your audience ‘so-and-so is the villain, and such and such is the hero. You can, I suppose. But it is worthless to counterproductive. If you tell me ‘Joe is honest’ and then proceed to show Joe to be lying through his teeth by writing a story-fact that show this, or ‘Fred did not do that’ and then set out the facts showing that it is incredibly unlikely that Fred did not do it, you’ve made things much worse.
As the author, you are in charge of the ‘facts’ (you’re making up the situation – this is fiction). You cite the ‘facts’ you want cited. You’re also in charge of how (and what of) the character gets seen. If it was a real court case, you, as the first one to address the court, might set your nurse up to be viewed as a ministering angel, and your lawyer as the kind of scum who preys on the weak and poor, leaving them impoverished and homeless in his wake. Your questioner might then establish that the nurse had a drinking problem, and the lawyer did a large number of pro bono cases for the weak and poor. IN THE AUTHOR’S WORLD, IN THE BOOK, THERE IS ONLY THE FIRST POINT OF VIEW. If the author is clever, he does put in the ‘other’ point of view… and he puts it badly. He shows the character through the actions and situation, and even their own estimation of themselves. He lets them look bad, just as he lets the good guys look good. He does not tell you they are either. It’s a court of public opinion… only you, the author, are the bad guy’s lawyer too, and you want him to lose.
Imagine a real court case run the same way. I dunno – say the recent Depp/Hurd case. Imagine if you could put only the nice facts the side you want to win, to be the hero, and put in the worst of the other side’s facts. You can listen to their and other testimony and, before you put it up to public view, choose the sections that favor the one you want to win, and the converse, for the other side. Here’s the thing: which ever side you were on is very likely (like 99.9999%) to win that court of public opinion…
Or are they? Mostly the answer is yes. The exception — for an author — is the temptation to go too far. If you lean too far, too hard one way (or both ways) you run into the danger of the court of public opinion thinking ‘no one could be that much of an a**hole.’ or contrairiwise ‘No one could that decent, kind, generous etc.’ It is a judgement call we (me too) often fail at. Real life, is in a way less problematic in judging the degree. I’m dealing with some petty bureaucrats where I keep failing to believe their actions. I could not write a fictional character like that and expect to suspend disbelief. Yet… there they are. Fiction, however, needs to make sense.