I think we’re all familiar with the dashing starship captain and the powerful wizard who battles evil. These are both prime examples of the kinds of heroes we run into to science fiction and fantasy all the time. Their heroic friends include the squire who becomes a knight, the bodyguard who saves the world, and the rebel soldier who overthrows the empire. On one hand, these can become the same old and tired heroes, boring caricatures lifted straight from the manual of 101 protagonists. On the other hand, there’s a reason we see them so often. They are where the action is. It’s much the same reason we have so many police and doctor shows on TV. Those jobs regularly put them in the exciting places of jeopardy, where life and limb can fly off in unexpected directions.
And in truth, there’s nothing wrong with that.
I enjoy watching Captain Kirk as much as the next fan – though I do come down on Picard’s side in the classic debate – and that doesn’t automatically stop him from being an interesting character. Ancient wizards and cyborg bodyguards can have all the charms and foibles that endear us. Having an exciting job does not prevent that from happening, as long as the writer avoids using it as a crutch.
But there is a bit of a crutch built in. These protagonists with exciting jobs also come with some stock abilities that are useful in resolving the crisis. The starship captain does something with his ship. The wizard uses his magic. The bodyguard gets down and dirty with her fists. We readers expect that kind of thing, and writers typically deliver. You accept that the knight will summon up one last dreg of strength to finish off the hellion because that is what we’re used to. He’s a heroic figure, and you expect heroic figures to have heroic abilities.
But what about the garbage man? What does he do?
The garbage man is just a guy like you or me. He doesn’t command a starship with lethal weaponry. He can’t throw fireballs or summon demons. And unless he’s been studying martial arts for the last decade, he probably can’t fight his way into a high-security complex either. But he can drive his truck to the back of that complex and say the company switched schedules, and they’ll likely let him right on in. He can rifle through someone’s trash – did you remember to use the cross-cut shredder on that incriminating file? He can move through society with virtual invisibility, and if he does decide to kill you with something as mundane and boring as a gun, he knows where to hide the body where it’s never going to be found. He’s not a superhero, but he does have unique skills at his disposal, so to speak.
I’ll admit the garbage man is a contrived example, and I don’t know if anyone could build a series on William’s Waste Management of Wrath, but there are a lot of other jobs out there for our protagonists, and personally, I would like to see them more often.
I recently read the start of the Ishmael Wang series with a space opera hero who started off working in the galley and then moved into environmental systems. It wasn’t a story of heroic combat tactics, but it was still a very good read.
One of my favorite characters in the Harry Dresden books is Butters, a meek coroner who loves polka but has no deep reserve of magical power. And yet, he has still been known to kick to some serious metaphysical ass.
The protagonist in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series is an interpreter. His training is primarily in such things as grammar and culture, and he spends a great deal of his time worrying about the impact of cell phones on the civil manners of his society. And yet, he still rises to the occasion, fighting for the worthy mutiny, putting down the usurpers, uncovering the secret plots, and in general saving the world. And of course, he does it all with the proper conjugation for each of those verbs.
And then there was a lonely mid-level administrator in Jack McDevitt’s The Hercules Text who did what he was told until it was time to make the moral decision, despite all the threats against him. He had no real power base. He had no political patrons. He was just a guy like me, working a job with only the authority to do what they told him to do. But he still found a way to be the hero.
I think that’s what I like most about these heroes with the unusual jobs. They’re not obviously heroic characters, cut from the mold of legend. They’re like me, but they’re the best possible me, doing what I tell myself I would do in their place. And in doing so, they give me hope.
How about you? What are some of your favorite protagonists who did not come equipped with their own starship or magical staff?