IN THEIR SPARE TIME
by John M. Floyd
Since most of what we discuss at this blog involves crime fiction, it makes sense that most of the series protagonists we discuss are connected in some way to law enforcement. Detectives, beat cops, marshals, sheriffs, lawyers, federal agents, etc. They’re the heroes because they’re in the best spot to regularly experience the kind of action required for that kind of story.
That’s what we do, as writers, when we choose our viewpoint characters: we create people who are in a position to best observe—and be most affected by—the sequence of events. As a result, our protagonists are usually not plumbers or accountants or shoe salesmen.
But sometimes they are. Some protagonists do have conventional jobs and live normal lives, at least until trouble finds them. Especially if you roam beyond the bounds of mystery/crime fiction and into the area of thriller/adventure. Know what Luke Skywalker was, before signing up at the Jedi draft board? A farmer. Alex McKnight’s occupation? He owned a bunch of vacation cabins in the north woods. Tony Soprano? His business card said “waste management consultant.” Jane Marple? Well, I’m not sure about Miss Marple’s line of work. But she sure didn’t carry a badge, or even a P.I. license.
Anyhow, the more I thought about this area of series action/suspense heroes and their occupations, the more I wanted to—you guessed it—make a list. (I need to find some kind of pill I can take to suppress that urge.)
NOTE: I tried not to include any law enforcement tie-ins, but I couldn’t resist the occasional hit man or M.E. or bounty hunter.
Here’s what I came up with:
Cliff Janeway—bookstore owner
Myron Bolitar—sports agent
Chili Palmer—loan shark/movie producer
Han Solo—trader/smuggler/starship pilot
Travis McGee—salvage consultant
Clark Kent—newspaper reporter
Jason Bourne—CIA assassin
Henry (Indiana) Jones, Jr.—professor/archaeologist
Anna Pigeon—park ranger
Jack Foley—career bank robber
Stephanie Plum—bounty hunter
John Keller—assassin for hire
Vito Corleone—owner of family business
Kay Scarpetta—medical examiner
James T. Kirk—starship captain
Michael Dundee—crocodile hunter
Marty McFly—college student
I suppose the only real requirement for a series protag in the suspense genre is that he (or she) must be a trouble magnet. He doesn’t necessarily have to search for or create the problems, as long as the problems can easily locate him and turn his world upside down. And if you happen to be a friend or relative or colleague of these lightning-rod characters, well, good luck—you might find it difficult to obtain life insurance.
I think I wind up enjoying that kind of story more, sometimes, than the routine adventure or crime drama. Protagonists with “average” jobs can seem more interesting because those of us who also have average jobs can relate to them. And if the occupation is fascinating in itself (park ranger, explorer, movie mogul, whatever), that can add more depth to the story—and can even teach the reader something in the process.
As a matter of fact, the crimefighting protagonist of the little mystery series I’ve been writing for Woman’s World is not a detective but a retired middle-school teacher. (I just reached a milestone, of sorts: I sold my 40th story to WW a couple weeks ago—and 31 of those have been Angela Potts mysteries.) She works closely with the county sheriff, who’s one of her former students, but she usually ends up correcting everything he does and solving the case.
Can you think of other series suspense heroes who had non-law-related occupations? I’m sure I left out a great many.
One final point. All of us know the ideal character traits for our protagonists: courage, honesty, intelligence, sense of humor, etc. Well, I’d like to add another one. It usually helps if they’re unlucky.
Look at poor Alan Grant. A mild-mannered paleontologist, happily digging for bones in Montana. Then he got invited to Jurassic Park. Little did he know . . .