Wednesday, August 03, 2005

So, What Do You Do For a Living?

What's in a profession? I mean, how important is the job that your characters do to the story you want to tell?

I ask this because I'm starting to wonder. As you all are probably aware by both my raving about the works of Suzanne Brockmann and my outright admitting that I want to write books that involve military-type heroes and heroines, most of my characters, especially the male ones, have jobs of a military nature. Or some security/law enforcement/rescue-hero type profession. I can't resist the appeal of what I see as modern day knights in shining armor, and today's warriors are the closest thing to chivalrous as I can manage.

However, I'm also sure that you're aware of the waning popularity of books that feature military guys/cops/firefighters/FBI agents. Or at least, it seems that the market has peaked in this specific subgenre and perhaps agents and editors are not so much looking for these types of stories unless it's by a Suzanne Brockmann whose best success came from them.

So, in the interest of keeping up with market trends and not wanting to waste months of my time writing a hero who has no chance of seeing the light of day simply because he wears a particular type of uniform, I figured I'd roll around the notion of what would happen to my stories if I gave these people new jobs. If instead of Navy SEALs they were science teachers or instead of ex-CIA operatives they were CPAs. What would happen to my story? Could I make it work?

Thing is, what a person does for a living gives people an immediate impression of what that person must be like. Saying someone is an accountant instantly brings to mind pasty white business guys in suits, who may also sport a bald spot, glasses, and of course, a pocket protector, huge briefcase and outdated adding machine. Now, for the record, my husband is a CPA and that description couldn't be farther from the truth, proving that what you do for a living doesn't define the kind of person you are.

Except this maxim won't work when it comes to writing romance fiction. You have to assume that the stereotype image, no matter how incorrect it is, is the one that the reader will bring to the game. If I want to invoke the image of a steel-bodied, hardened man of action who can stare down a charging herd of elephants with a single glowering glare, I don't imagine this would sell if I've told the reader that for a living he owns a bakery.

Not that some writers haven't managed to make so called non-traditional-for-a-romance-hero professions downright sexy. Jennifer Crusie comes to mind. Even though I didn't love Tell Me Lies, she made CPA hero C.L. Sturgis pretty dang hot. Except even Jenny cheated a bit. She made C.L. an accountant, but he wasn't portrayed doing the normal accountant-type work. He was in Frog Point investigating the possibly shady business dealings of the heroine's husband. He was an accountant, but he was a private eye accountant. A lot more sexy than one who spends the end of the month stressed about getting all of the reports out on time.

For the sake of argument, assume that the stereotypes don't exist and an accountant can be perceived in the same way as a small town sheriff. Can you change the hero's job in order to make your story fit the current need for more business tycoons/sheiks/cowboys/vampires/whatever is currently in vogue?

I'm still thinking not so much. Because what if the premise of your story is heavily contingent on the professions of the protagonists? What if your story is about a doctor who is being wrongfully sued by the family of a patient who died after said patient took too much of a prescription drug despite the doctor's warnings against doing so, and so the doctor has retained Sexy Attorney to defend him because if he isn't allowed to practice medicine any more, the free clinic he runs will shut down, leaving hundreds of indigent patients without medical care, including little Betty Sue who needs a lung transplant the next day? The story kind of falls down if instead of a doctor the hero accountant. I suppose accountants get sued, too. Look at the Enron debacle. But somehow you lose that life or death sense of doom. The external conflict doesn't quite hold the same punch.

Too, I believe it is true that certain types of people tend to gravitate towards certain types of jobs. People who don't like physical exertion certainly aren't going to join the police force. People who can't stand to sit in one place for more than five minutes aren't going to take office jobs. People who don't like confrontation aren't going to be business magnates and people who can't handle the sight of blood are not going to be found driving an ambulance around.

So if your character is a confrontational guy who spends as much time as he can competing in Iron Man competitions or working on his classic 1967 Firebird convertable, chances are having him be a customer service operator for JC Penneys isn't going to work.

I think I might simply be stuck with my military men. I think that the kind of heroes I most enjoy reading and writing are the type of guys who are most likely to find themselves in the superhero-professions. I don't know that I'm capable of writing an appealing hero who owns the local pet store. Yes, he's sweet and sexy and smart and obviously ambitious enough to run his own successful business. He's true hero material. But I don't have any ideas of how to show this. My brain can't concoct any scenarios to place him in where he can shine.

Which makes me respect even more so the writers out there who can take any profession and build from it a great story with to-die-for heroes. Hats off to the Jenny Crusies who can make every-man into someone exciting.


Anonymous said...

I think occupations are important - to the reader as well as the author. For example, I've been reading a lot of romances involving firefighters recently and loving them (Kathryn Shay is *excellent* in this sub-genre!), so now if I pick up a book and see that the hero or the heroine is a firefighter chances are that I'll buy it. If the hero and/or heroine are in some branch of the military, it takes something *very* special to stop me from putting the book back as quickly as I picked it up - military scenarios are a huge turn-off for me.

Teachers, especially male teachers, appeal to me. Give me a male, otherworldly university professor and I'm sold. Heroes who are in politics intrigue me. Doctors and other medical professionals appeal, too. Construction workers, farmers, ranchers etc are a complete turn-off.

Interesting post!

Lynn M said...

Ooh, this brings me to ask a question of you. You say that military sitations are a big turnoff (and I have to say that freaks me out in a big picture way *g*). Does this mean that you'd be okay with a book that has a military guy as the hero but does not feature a military situation? So example, what if the guy was an Army Ranger on leave for a month, and he goes home to meet his high school sweetheart. He helps her save the family farm or something non-military in nature. Would that be okay (assuming the story was well written and not stupid)? Or is it something bigger - that you generally don't prefer military types as far as characters go?

Really, I may ask this in a blog entry because I want to know very much.

Steph T. said...

"I think I might simply be stuck with my military men. I think that the kind of heroes I most enjoy reading and writing are the type of guys who are most likely to find themselves in the superhero-professions."

*waving* me too. I went through this same type of thing a while back. Milrom is what I love to read and love to write - and if I'm not happy with what I'm writing, there's no point.

And whenever I think that milrom is waning, I head on over to one of Suz Brockmann's message boards and look at all the readers who are clamoring for authors who write about the same type of books.

I think there's always room for a good book in he market, no matter the subject.

And I'd love to see what anonymous says in answer to your question about mil settings vs. mil hero home on leave.

Lynn Raye Harris said...

Say it ain't so! Milrom waning? B-b-b-but! I write it too. Heck, I'm married to a military guy, so I love those types of heroes. There's just something about a guy in combat boots and camis that makes my heart flutter. So far, in the two military romances I've written, the hero has been on leave and back in his hometown. But, I do want to write an adventuresome "in the field" story. I just read Take No Prisoners by Gayle Wilson. It featured ex-CIA types on the run in Afghanistan and I thought it was well done. Nice to run into other milrom writers!