I Know She Saves the World, but What Does She Do?

Why doesn’t genre fiction deal more with work? Not the triumphant whatever-the-protagonist-does-to-save-the-world work, but what the protagonist does to pay the rent.  Too often work is set-dressing, a garment that the character puts on and takes off at will.  And that irritates me because most of us–whether we love our work or hate it–are profoundly shaped by it.

In the olden days almost all heroes of SF were scientists, engineers, or military men, because the point was, well, nuts and bolts and theory and solutions and science.  (Oh, and they were most often male, too, but let’s put that aside for now.)  But as SF broadened, mixing ingenious solutions and with emotional experience, work became weirdly less important.  And I think that’s a loss.

“But I read for escape!” says my theoretical reader.  “I don’t want to read about work.  I get enough of that…well, at work!”  But without a real sense of what a character does–what process engages him or her, what skills she brings with her, that character is unmoored, and the reader is too.  Even if the fantasy protagonist is a princess…what does a princess do?  These days, open shopping centers, visit hospitals, provide another public face for the Family Business.  And it’s hard work (if you’ve never seen Roman Holiday, go watch it now–it handles the question with a deft, light hand).   Work colors how you experience the world: an architect might see things that a cook misses; a cook will pick up tastes that a masseuse might not; the masseuse has a distinct tactile approach to the world…and so on.  And work confers status, and status shapes who your character is and how she deals with the world.

When I wrote Mules, my story about life extension, I made the protagonist a history teacher, because I wanted to play with how easily a person whose job is to study human behavior through the lens of history can be distracted by love and forget all the lessons of his own past.  The protagonist of The Stone War, John Tietjen, is an architect–he loves New York City even as it lies in ruins, and he sees it in a very particular way; he also understands some useful things about building and systems, helpful to making a small oasis of livability in the city.

Perhaps I’m a little crazy on this topic: in my family the first thing one asked about anyone was what he did.  And very often genre fiction depends on the protagonist moving away from his normal, accustomed world of work and home–going on a quest, being kidnapped by aliens, whatever.  But you take your experience and skills with you: Taran, the hero in Lloyd Alexander’s wonderful Prydain books, starts as an Assistant Pig Keeper; he carries that experience and training with him when he’s learning to become a king and a warrior.  John Craig, the protagonist of an old SF fave of mine, Space Relations, is a diplomat, and despite all his adventures, its his skill in sussing out undercurrents and politics that helps him survive and save the day.

Are there books you like where the protagonists’ work is central?  I’d love to make a list…


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


I Know She Saves the World, but What Does She Do? — 28 Comments

  1. I noticed that way back when I was waitressing my way through grad school: I could tell when an author had never had to punch a time clock and when they had. When they hadn’t, the characters might be said to have a job, but they never worried about being on time, or who would cover them, or dreaded the impact of office politics or a crabby boss on their sekrit life.

    This only bothered me in what became urban fantasy, or science fiction that was extrapolated from the present. In fantasy, I was bothered if cities seemed to exist on the unthought-out “fairy tale” model, that is, a huge castle with a town around it, surrounded by forest (or desert), but no sign of a river giving that town its water, and what did all those hapless, dirty peasants do all day, besides act as target practice for dark lords? Yet more often than not, for a long while, those cities full of unemployed rabble still supported a successful Thieves Guild.

  2. After agreeing with you that the topic is way underexamined, two books come immediately to mind:

    Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand may not be primarily about work, but it spends a lot of time and energy on work, the complexities of work in that society, and the role of work in the main characters’ lives.

    Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It is a book about a woman whose work is more important to her than her romantic life. (Many of Piercy’s books are like this, but most of them are not SF.)

    Philip K. Dick also wrote about work a lot, but he tended to write about it as dehumanizing.

  3. A number of works I can remember seem to conflate Sherwood’s point about writers who haven’t held jobs with the Philip K. Dick model: what you get is a writer who writes with veiled contempt about day jobs because any day job must, by its nature, be dehumanizing. (And of course, since I’m only half way through my first cup of coffee, I cannot give a name. Soggy brain.) But there does seem to be a subset of fiction in which work–all work–is posed as a sort of punishment.

    I can always believe that Marge Piercy’s characters do the work she says they do: they inhabit their jobs.

  4. Maureen McHugh is brilliant on this — Zhang in _China Mountain Zhang_ is a construction tech foreman and then an architect in exactly the way that so few people in books are. And this is true of all her books, they inhabit their jobs as you put it.

  5. That’s a good point about the dehumanizing aspect of work (which seems to me to be a part of allegorical or thought-piece fiction, in which characters tend more toward the chess piece in service of the Idea)

    There’s also a sense (maybe only in my own mind) in which writers will write about writers as if their work is the only meaningful work, sometimes drenched with artistic meaning. Other types of workers are drones, lacking imagination.

    As I’ve gotten older I’ve found myself dropping out of stories in which the protags seem (unlike all the worker bees around them) free as the air, never worrying about such mundanities as the rent, the car insurance, and making sure Aunt Betty gets to the podiatrist because Mom had to take in Granny. Eternal twenty-somethings (or thirty-somethings) with no inconvenient ties or obligations or responsibilities don’t hold much interest for me. Yet I don’t want to read fiction that focuses solely on those obligations or responsibilities. I like my heroes being heroic. I guess I like a heaping helping of both . . . which was, um, your original point.

  6. Even in medieval fantasy societies someone has to gather the food, cook it, put it on the tables for the warband and the heroes. And spin, weave, and sew. And forge the weapons and gather the wood and make the charcoal that allows the blacksmith to forge the weapons. It’s something I have tried to put into my epic fantasy books, because without all this labor, there’s no epic, just a lot of cold, hungry people fighting with rocks.

  7. @ Kit–absolutely. One of the things I noticed a long while ago about certain fantasies is that the peasants are always just coming in from the fields (but you don’t see the fields, or the budget of chores they do even when they’re not outdoors); the scribes may have ink on their thumbs but they’re rarely seen writing; and while the mighty-thewed smith may be working away, there’s little mention of where the iron or the charcoal comes from. Maybe it’s my process-driven self, but I like that stuff.

  8. Robin McKinley’s ‘Sunshine’ has a lot in it about the protagonist’s work as a baker. It’s useful because it grounds her in the middle of her increasingly strange ‘other’ life.

    It also has me wanting to start to bake, but that’s another matter XD.

  9. I seem to spend a lot of my time Elsewhere complaining about the rackety financial underpinnings of LOTR. If the Elves enjoyed jewels, wine, and grand clothing so much, exactly how were they paying for this? Is there such a boom market in Elven lore and songs of the Eldar? If Aragorn spent so much time in the Wild, what was he living on — nothing but hunted venison?

    I always try to find my heroes work to do — it’s good for them, and develops character. I wrote a novel once in which my hero combated large internal difficulties with woodworking and minor home repair. You cannot get too lost in the Eldritch, if you have to replace the guts of a toilet.


  10. I’m a fan of Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden Universe stories which revolve around the Clan Korval. Despite everything else that goes on; the work of pilots, ships and trade is central to the Clans existence.

    Plus you’ve got to love the idea of Clutch Turtles whose work involves the “growing” of knives that take literally decades to shape.

    If you can’t believe in the work of the world an author creates
    why would anything else matter.

    Another case in point. I believe in Sarah Tolerance because you made me believe in her work.

  11. This work / making a living thing is another reason why so many television series make our Heroines/Heroes kids . Or lose them on mysterious islands. Shamans, magicians, elves, vampires etc. don’t need jobs either, so they’re great fantasy protagonists.

    A military person, a mercenary, a cop, a detective can all plausibly have adventures that are also work. Unless you watch The Wire which shows how drudgery-oriented those jobs are too, including those that are the criminals’, from the corner slingers to the top of the hierarchy.

    That’s another fine storytelling elelment of Buffy — when after saving the world AND being brought back from heaven, the Slayer has to work shit jobs and deal with unpaid bills. The first words Buffy speaks after returning to Sunnydale are, “Is ths hell?” Little did she know what was waiting. Contrast this with the kids in The Vampire Diaries (nevermind that they don’t remotely look young enough to be kids). So many are missing parents yet they have mansions and cars and perfectly clean rooms and well-stocked refrigerators. Well, some have parents, but they’re missing or you never ever see them and have no clue what they do, other than the sheriff who is a mom to one of them, as well a member of the Council.

    Love, c.

  12. I’ve noticed that a remarkable number of fantasy protagonists–especially in urban fantasy–are artists of some kind. Painters, writers, singers, dancers, what-have-you. People who don’t have a 9-5 and whose job problems (deadlines, writer’s block) can be neatly folded away with a frantic call to or amnesia spell cast upon their editor. Some writers have the decency to give them part-time day jobs to pay for their craft (Charles De Lint comes to mind.), though those are usually window dressing.

    Maybe it’s because it’s easier, as writers, to write about creative types; after all, they have largely the same issues and lifestyle we do.

    On the other side of the continuum, we have the whores and assassins, the decadent and morally iffy careers which tend to produce agonizing amounts of angst. But, still–hardly the 9-5.

  13. The non-job plus being an adult thing: perhaps that’s the reason all these really old vampires are determined to go to high school?

    Love, c.

  14. One of our writers once published a science fiction story about some IT guy using Trojans to beat back evil invaders. Sadly, though, said writer himself could barely use Microsoft Word. The result was far from realistic. (His best bet would have been the useless town drunk just plain out-drinking the invaders; he’s got plenty of experience at that.)

    Vague jobs don’t bother me much if the rest is written well. Jobs depicted all wrong are worse.

  15. I’ve noticed that a remarkable number of fantasy protagonists–especially in urban fantasy–are artists of some kind.

    I’ve noticed that too. My own tendency (in stories like “Boon” and elsewhere) is to give my urban fantasy protagonists non-art jobs: in “Boon” Mia is a waitress; in The Stone War John’s a project architect (he manages the construction process rather than designing the buildings). There were story-related reasons for both those choices; I’d never have made them artists–largely because art is hard to write convincingly (for me, anyway. But I grew up around artists).

    I’m outlining a San Francisco-based urban fantasy now in which the protagonist is a graduate student–not because I wanted her free to roam around having adventures, but because of her age, who she is, and who her family is. I suspect she may be going for an MBA or something equally practical, but I haven’t found out what yet.

    That’s one thing about artists-as-protagonists: they are often written as impractical beings, a little superior to the great run of practical, mundane humans. But just as often adventure requires practicality, so either they have to learn practical skills–or the character fails to convince.

  16. I could care less what a fictional character does to put bread on the table. As you quoted in your post “I don’t want to read about work. I get enough of that…well, at work!” It is an escape….let it continue to be one.

  17. The main reason for the lack of jobs in fiction is that it’s hard to justify a character having an adventure (solving a mystery, fighting evils hordes) if he’s chained to a desk between 8 and 5 every day. Unless the adventure is somehow tied to the job, the character is nearly guaranteed of getting fired.

    In the olden days (and still today, come to that), authors got around this by killing off the hero’s family or destroying his home town, thereby freeing him of the annoying responsibilities and letting him become a hero. George Lucas used it in STAR WARS.

    Nowadays, authors give their protagonists freelance jobs–artists, private eyes, writers–all people who can drop what they’re doing for a few hours or even days to handle an adventure, and then work madly (off-stage) to finish whatever work keeps him or her in gumshoes. No worries about the character getting fired when there’s no boss, and as an added bonus, the author can use a lack of business (and money) to create conflict.

  18. Chad: ‘All “regular work” is dehumanizing in the modern world.’

    Care to try stone-age or iron-age agriculture? As in medieval peasant level of living, regardless of specific culture?

    There is at least one profession whose (pre)occupations dovetail effortlessly with SF/F concerns: scientists in SF who morph into alchemists, magicians and shamans in F. They (we) work around the clock anyway and research is self-directed as long as we can get grants. Plus we are encouraged to investigate anything that arouses our curiosity and usually have the mental flexibility that goes with the exploring mindset.

  19. As you say, a protagonist’s character is reflected by the job he/she does, and it’s hard to ground your character without that kind of background. But I’m apparently reading different urban fantasy than you. I’m particularly fond of Patricia Briggs and her main character is a VW mechanic. It’s very reflective of the character herself and totally makes the story.

    In many other urban fantasies I’ve read, the characters are trained in whatever superskills they’re using–witchcraft, assassins, whatever. Maybe not the most believable of jobs, but they’re fantasy and it gets them out of the house. I guess I’ve been avoiding the more fantastic tales.

  20. I have a copy of THE INTERIOR LIFE by Dorothy Heydt here on the TBR pile. It’s a fantasy novel about a housewife. It sank like a stone, which seems to indicate a very small market for realistic-work F&SF.

  21. Pat–I love Patty Brigg’s Mercy Thompson books, specifically because what she does for a living says something about her character and the way she approaches the world. This isn’t always the case, though.

    Chad–I’ve had jobs I loved and jobs I hated; “dehumanizing” is pretty strong language. Even the best job will drive you nuts sometimes. And I’m not convinced that being a peasant, a millworker, a soldier, a sailor in the olden days would have been preferable.

  22. I’m going to ditto the ‘Sunshine’ comment. There’s one scene in that book that’s stuck with me. After she’s gone through some supernatural events, she goes home, goes back to work, makes killer cinnamon buns, and has a conversation with her boss. It goes, paraphrased:

    “I don’t really want to run off and become a secret agent fighting evil. I want to be a baker, and stay here. Is that… okay?”
    “Yeah, honey. You can stay here as long as you want.”

    She liked her job. She valued it. I liked that.

  23. Any work is dehumanizing if you let it be. The entire point of the James Bond novels (as distinguished from the movies, which are entirely different) is that being a secret agent is dehumanizing; Bond is a crippled human being.

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