The Working Protagonist (and Antagonist, Too)

Phred wrote “Nope. This is the one with a PR person and a neurology professor,” and it made me think of how we remember romances (and Friends): Protagonist and the Love Interest. Which makes sense, although we don’t think of mysteries as Detective and Victim, we think of them as Detective and Murderer, which makes sense: the relationship is the key, the push and pull of both sides as they get to know each other, zero in on each other. Love and death.

Where was I?

So then, because my mind has the focus span of a fruit fly and I am extremely self-centered, I started thinking about the careers of protagonists in my books.

PR person and resort handyman.
Teacher and cop.
Teacher and lawyer.
I forget and detective.
Editor and ER doc.
I forget and professor. (Jewelry designer? Storyteller?)
Journalist and agent.

I forget and accountant.
Teacher and mechanic.
Videographer and mayor.
Muralist and conman.
Secretary and detective.

Video store clerk and mechanic.
Professor and resurrected god.
Director and military guy (Army?)
Food writer and hitman
I forget and professor/agent
Restorer and retired military

Teacher and lawyer.

And then WIP:
Teacher and cop (Zo)
Waitress and cop (Cat)
Ghost writer and cop (Liz)
Poison expert and lawyer (Zelda)
Jewelry store clerk and thief (Courtney)
Jewelry store clerk and thief (Darcy)
Lepidopterist and magician (Alice)
Gallery manager and agent (Nadine)
Waitress and artist (Lily)
Museum educator and agent (Anna)
Cop and Satan’s fixer (Nita)

Okay, it’s a little disconcerting that the most common profession for my heroine is “I forget,” but probably more disconcerting that there so many crooks–well, thieves and conmen–in my heroes list, not to mention the magician and the guy who’s pretending to be a detective for a year. I may have issues.

But it does remind me that careers/jobs are important, and not just because they say so much about the character. They also provide a community (good and bad) and an explanation of economic power and a recurring setting. I think my favorite will always be Mare from The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes, ruling over that Value Video!! with a iron fist and the sure knowledge that she’s Queen of her Universe. She was so much fun to write when she was on the job, especially when the frog from corporate showed up. That’s the best character/job matchup I’ve ever done, I think. Although I’m good with teachers, too; I taught for decades so it’s something I know. Everything else I have to make up. Well, not waitressing. I was a car hop/waitress at the Happy Humpty in Wapakoneta Ohio between high school and college (picture a giant egg sitting on the sign).

Where was I?

Right, careers for heroines. Super important. Heroes equally so. So let’s talk about this. What’s your favorite protagonist/career match-up?

28 thoughts on “The Working Protagonist (and Antagonist, Too)

  1. I really like that Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson is a mechanic and all her struggles to keep her garage open and earn a living while lots of things happen to her because of her involvement with the werewolves.

    1. Did I get it wrong? Was I meant to chooxe from your list of protagonists?
      In which case, my favourite would be muralist/ex forger and conman!

      1. I do also like very much Phîn’s reluctant mayor/ bookseller/ would rather play pool.
        Hard to choose really!

    2. Yes. I like careers that actually intersect with the plot in some way so they’re not just a descriptor.

  2. Wait…what? There are no comments? is something amiss, or am I truly the first person to attempt a response at…. 4:13 pm Toronto time???

    Okay, okay. So I looked at the list — and I have read (some multiple times) every single Crusie book and novella, whathaveyou, except Sizzle– and I have to admit I’m not clicking on all of them instantly. But sometimes the guy’s profession is the giveaway.

    And notice how it’s never Girl Profession & I Forget?

    * Videographer and Mayor. Ha. Dead easy. My all time Crusie Fave.
    * I forget & accountant (would that be reluctant housewife or something? Gotta check that. How about Frozen Brownie Lover? Oh wait… Isn’t she a teacher too? It’s summer.)
    *Teacher & Mechanic. Check.
    *Editor & ER Doc (easy, but only because ER doc. Plus dog)
    *Muralist & Conman – too easy, though I thought Artist.
    * …. & Detective. Damn, there are 2 detectives. I can’t remember which is which.

    Okay, enough of that. I just realised, this isn’t a contest.

    My favourite career match-up is a story I’m working on, mystery & romance…. Anglican minister and Women’s Studies Prof, ca 1970s. Uh, that’s him first, then her.

    1. Oooh, interesting mix. Especially women’s studies in the 70s, not that I’d know anything about that.

  3. Of yours, I admit to a soft spot for the professional liar and the professor. I loved the way she sucked others into her stories. “Rat snacks.”

    Would the I forget with the detective be “office Manager” or “Not Just A Secretary”? Or was that May Belle? I thought Mabel was a teacher, too.

    1. For some reason, I thought Maebelle (Maybelle?) had something to do with a museum. I know, I have the book, I could go look.

  4. I didn’t see Actuary and Trainer on your list – that’s how I remember Min and Cal from Bet Me.

    I love all the female astronauts in Mary Robinette Kowal’s series that starts with The Calculating Stars. But Elma, the protagonist of the first book, is a mathematician who loves to fly. When astronauts are needed who can do both, she is the perfect fit.

    1. I remembered them as Actuary and Teacher. Though the office scenes imply manager and organizer as well. The story seemed to me to suggest the three worked together because they all had different teaching styles.

      I don’t tend to remember character by job or career. I do know that I enjoy stories with shifts from “job okay” to “this is me”.

  5. Resort Handyman and Hero who was a PI for a year were investment/stockbroker types as well. Charlie All Night had Charlie who was being forced into Radio and his girlfriend who was a Radio Producer

  6. Technically, Daisy Flattery was an artist — the paintings were her main thing, with jewelry and storytelling sidelines.

      1. My husband found The Cinderella story for me. He has your name automatically checked for and found it for me in a used book store. Excellent reading during a pandemic. I love how the heroine creates a family. She was an artist, a storytellers an epic recycler of previously loved objects. Kind of a really cool homemaker in a neat old house.

      2. I may have reread it more often than you have!

        My cousin pulled out an old book of hers because we were discussing The Eloquent Peasant, an ancient Egyptian story, and she reminded me that she’d adapted a reference to it in the story. So she found the place and read me the passage — it’s been a very long time since I read it, too — and then went on reading it to herself, finally commenting that Hmmm, she’d done a pretty workmanlike job all those years ago.

    1. Right! I was looking for this comment. I love that book. I often give it as a gift. So good.

      Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman write a great thesaurus series, and they have one called The Occupation Thesaurus. Worth getting!

  7. Hmmm. I think the “I forgets” is because they are your protagonists. The male characters in your books often have opposite goals to them. So you think in terms of Me vs This Guy. (I do not plan to send people back to therapy when I comment, promise.)

    It’s not like FMC and MMC – female main character and male main character. It’s female main character and the guy in her way…at first. He sees/learns something and joins forces with her against a different Big Bad. Example Tilda and Davey against Clea, Cal and Min against mothers and exes, that sort of thing.

    1. You know, I have no idea why I remember the guys’ careers. Maybe because those careers bring the love interests into the realms of the protagonists, whereas the protagonists are just there because that’s their stories?

  8. Of your books, the teacher-mechanic combo stuck best in my memory, maybe because he was so he was a rounded personality and not defined by the cliche of the profession.

    Tilda the artist made me want to get all my furniture out and paint them. A pity that I don’t have her talents. At least I realized this in time so didn’t have to replace all my chairs…

    Sometimes the profession is the source of competence porn – great when it’s done well. I have no real preference there. But an abundance ot competence be better balanced by some “weakness” (for a lack of a better word) otherwise it’s rather hard for me to keep connected. E.g a Miles Vorkosigan wirhout any weaknesses would be too perfect to stomach.
    Which is very probably the reason why I didn’t get the Book of First’s appeal…

  9. I don’t see jobs as defining characters in Crusie books. I think jobs/careers (1) show/don’t show characters’ strengths and (2) illustrate/don’t illustrate their personalities.

    For instance, North Archer has work on his mind 24/7: a lawyer is often that way. Similarly, Phin (WTT), Davy (FI), Nick (CAY), and Nick (SB) all have jobs that reflect their personalities. Sam in Dogs and Goddesses is the ultimate in this.

    Shane in A&H and Ethan in WR have to grow from their jobs as they grow as men.

    I think Jenny’s heroines are more centered than some of her heroes; but, at the same time, her heroines are less tied to their jobs than her heroes. Daisy (CS), Tess (SB), and Andi (MTT) are women who can take different jobs or seek jobs that will fulfill them. A Crusie heroine is more likely to stake her job on a moral point than a Crusie hero.

    Anyway, that’s how I see it. This is fun to think about. Almost . . . lit-fic.

  10. Favorite protagonist-career matchup? I don’t know that I have a particular favorite. Although I’m partial to anthropologists/archaelogists. They’re used to researching and solving historical mysteries and this lends itself to solving mysteries in the present. For example: Ruth Galloway in the Elly Griffiths mystery series.

  11. Ooh, fun. When I think about my favorite romance writers and their MCs, the professions are significant mostly to the extent that they either facilitate the MCs meeting or present obstacles to the HEA. I prefer the professions to be front and center only if the MCs are co-workers or colleagues,* and thus sharing a professional experience but from different perspectives, which gives the writer an opportunity to dig into the technicalities of the profession at the same time we’re learning about the characters through their engagement with the profession (e.g. Lucy Parker, or as noted above, Charlie & Allie in ‘Charlie All Night’). Otherwise very often there’s too much time spent on Work Stuff and not enough on advancing the relationship.

    *the exception would be where the profession itself is something I’m deeply interested in.

    In a mystery series, the profession is more important for me. Archaeology worked as a profession for Amelia and Emerson (Elizabeth Peters) because that setting presented countless realistic opportunities for MC-adjacent crime and a realistically haphazard official investigative apparatus (meaning an argument could be made that these amateurs were justified taking investigative steps). The ‘amateur detective’ generally leaves me eye-rolling because let’s face it, the average person who’s not a law-enforcement professional simply doesn’t encounter crime IRL with that sort of regularity. Or if they do, let me run away from that town super fast. /digression

    Dick Francis (we keep coming back to him) was rare, if not unique, in writing for a long time about different MCs from book to book. The professions of those MCs were all an integral part of the characterization, all key to the core mystery (and its solution), and generally not the sort conducive to repeated use of the same MC. As much as I’ve read by and about DF, I still don’t know if he did that because each book was inspired by a profession, or he had an idea for a certain character who would do a certain type of work, or if he was intentionally avoiding the Series Protagonist. (Maybe all three!) In any case, he is the one mystery writer featuring amateur investigators who never caused me to roll my eyes and say ‘oh FFS why would this person think they could/should not simply turn this over to the police.’

    My own books follow two paths. One path features MCs who meet in the ordinary sort of way and whose professions are primarily on the page as Life Architecture and Character Definition. The other path features people in the entertainment industry, or adjacent to it, who are involved in some kind of creative project. Those are my ‘fantasy’ stories, because I love the arts but I can’t make a living doing that (as most people can’t), so I give my characters the kinds of projects I’d love to do. Their professions have to be a reasonable base for that (availability of time and money).

    Where two MCs are involved in the same project, the project is very much on the page. Otherwise I have to work at not letting it take over. 🙂 ‘Face the Music’ is a decent example; both MCs work as legal assistants. Both are also highly-trained dancers, and their dance projects play a much more important part in the romance than the law office does. On the other path, ‘A Few Kisses Ago’ features MCs who are both employed in law offices, and one of those jobs is a huge part of the story. The career-evolution arc has more to do with the romance in that one.

    I’ve been working in law since 1989 so it’s not surprising a lot of my characters are in the legal field too. 🙂

  12. Technically, isn’t it scriptwriter and mayor and secondarily videographer and police chief in WTT?

    Also, pretend dj and professional radio producer are missing. (Charlie All Night was my first Crusie, so I have a soft spot for it.)

    I don’t usually remember the jobs people have, other than detective because that’s usually a significant point in stories with a detective. I mean, when was the last time you read a book with a detective who wasn’t a main character and also detecting?

  13. There was a romance I ultimately semi-hate read this year because it was a workplace romance and the work was in a field related to mine … and the way the “professional/work” part unfolded just strained all & any belief for me as someone with real industry experience to be able to take the character seriously…despite the book telling me she was a Total Girl Boss! at her job…everything the book revealed to me was that she was actually only reasonably competent at her job, and possibly a little deluded about the extent of her abilities.

    So I think it’s probably hard to be super specific about jobs unless as a writer you really do know the profession…or you’re gonna have jerk readers like me who are gonna get thrown out of the story if your protagonist isn’t walking the pro walk to match their pro talk.

    Other than that comment, I feel like the biggest thing I notice is that most romances are set up with characters who seemingly have a lot of scheduling flexibility with their jobs. And/or that it’s a lot easier to take off time/get babysitters/ focus on just one big thing at work, etc. then it seems to be in the real world or at least in my world.

    But you know…it’s fiction for a reason…I read it to escape into the relationship not into the career. So as long as you aren’t forcing me to incorporate something I just can’t believe about a person’s profession into the story, I expect/tolerate a little bit of hand waving on some of it. (of course the problem is…there will be SOME reader who knows the specifics…so try to make sure you vet it out with someone who could help point out the obviously wrong stuff that will yank the pros out)

    For stories where I can remember the profession – It’s mainly writers/artists running into detectives/”security professionals” for various Reasons that seem to stand out in my mind. And then a lot of soloprenuers too – launching their dream businesses (often bake good related?).

    Probably because those are careers that have that key mix of potentially exciting events/interactions plus location & time flexibility where you’re not as tied into the idea of doing the same repetitive things shift after shift in the same location?

    Not sure any of that is helpful….but that’s what I notice.

Comments are closed.