Hail, the Competent Hero

There are a few careers for heroes in Romancelandia that are decidedly non-wonky. Rock star, movie star. Doctor, lawyer, FBI agent. Navy SEAL, billionaire tycoon. We see them over and over again, in a kind of shorthand for character. These careers seem universally appealing, and often are used as defining characteristics for our heroes.

There are a whole slew of reasons these jobs are so common in Romanceland– they exemplifiy something about traditional male gender roles; the people who do them are often physically fit and conventionally attractive; most imply some kind of power, whether it is physical or financial.

But there is one more element to these careers that I think is even more necessary than wealth, or power, or abs, and that’s competence.

For the moment, I’m going to leave aside the discussion of the problems inherent with using a character’s job as a kind of shorthand, because it does seem to be a common practice. We talk about the “kindergarten-teacher hero” in Tamara Morgan’s The Rebound Girl; entire series lines are devoted to heroes in a particular career path. There’s definitely an interesting discussion to be had about this labeling, though.

Most of us do our jobs in a certain amount of anonymity. Sometimes that anonymity comes from the private nature of our work, done in a cubicle or from a desk at home or on a line in a factory. Sometimes it comes from the specialized nature of the work itself: I, for example, have absolutely no idea what the work of a competent claims adjuster looks like, nor do I know how to assess the performance of a lab tech. What I can appreciate, though, is an excellent performance from an actor or (if I knew anything about sports) an athlete.

For those occupations that aren’t performed in the public eye, but are so common in the romance world, there is a presumed competence. Of course there are incompetent doctors, lawyers, or billionaires. But the fact that the law or medicine requires years of rigorous study means that many of us assume that only the capable go into those fields in the first place. The very financial success of the billionaire tycoon is a signifier not only of wealth or power or security, but of the assumption that said tycoon is good at what he does. There must be incompetent FBI agents or Navy SEALS; but when the job is physically dangerous, the hero’s mere existence is proof that he must be good at it. After all, he’s doing something terrifying and is still alive.

So, what about those of us who want to write about heroes who are janitors, or roofers, or unemployed llama farmers? (Note: if anyone writes a romance featuring an unemployed llama farmer as a hero, I will die of joy.)

Let me tell you a little story.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m married to a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. His work is bound by ethics guidelines that ensure clients’ privacy, which means that while I have a general idea of what his day might be like or the kinds of problems he might deal with, I cannot know the specifics. Intellectually, I’m aware that my husband must be pretty good at his job, and I’m sure that no one can talk about the philosophy behind what he does so well and not be good at it. But, of course, since I’m not a social worker myself, and because I’ve never seen him at work, all of that knowledge remains in the abstract.

Then, one night during dinner at a sidewalk cafe, a highly intoxicated, probably marginally housed, man passed out on the sidewalk near our table. My husband stood up, and I watched, fascinated, as he called an ambulance, and with a smoothness I would never have expected, removed a bottle of vodka that had been secreted somewhere on the man’s person and disposed of it. By the time the ambulance arrived, the man was conscious and had agreed to go to a detox center, and yet the whole interaction was so subtle that most of the diners in the sidewalk cafe had no idea any of it had taken place.

Seeing him in action just utterly swamped me with how good he is, really, at what he does, in a way I hadn’t fully understood before. And of course, that made me appreciate him even more. I saw him through a lens I’d never used.

It’s easy to write competence into a billionaire Dom story; but writing it into a broke-ass submissive’s story is much harder. We have to work at finding out what makes our characters shine, search for the right lens for them. If that unemployed llama farmer is secretly awesome at building robots in his garden shed; if the cashier at a garden center is raising his daughter alone and tells the very best bedtime stories; if the hero who hates his job as an accountant can bake a mean brioche, readers need to see it happen.

In many of the books where a protagonist has rung false, I’ve noticed that sometimes the problem, for me, is related to competence. If the hero or heroine acts in a way that is grossly incompetent, I find it difficult to overcome– especially if the reader is told that the character is supposed to be good at what they do. And in the books that are most memorable, the protagonists’ competence is deftly drawn. Think of Christy from To Love and to Cherish by Patricia Gaffney. He’s a vicar, and a good one, and we know this because we see him in moments large and small, struggling but serving the people of Wyckerly. Or Tamara Morgan’s kindergarten-teacher hero, Matt, standing in front of twenty-five five-year-olds and silencing them just by raising his hand.

As a reader, have you had similar moments when you’ve read about competent heroes? As a writer, how do you create those moments? And, maybe most challenging of all– what about an incompetent hero? Is that possible? How would a writer pull it off?

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29 Responses to Hail, the Competent Hero

  1. I love this.

    I mean, I know we talked about it, but it’s so important to see this discussion formally brought into the romance community.

    Competence and occupation, for the hero and heroine is something really important to me as a reader and writer, and should not be, as you point out, lazy characterization shorthand.

    Vocation and advocation is such a part of how we use our brains, move our bodies, make decisions that make-up our days and so, then, our *lives*, that if competence, or the striving for some competence isn’t woven into what I am reading or writing, I’ll be completely unable to connect to the character’s arc.

    Or at least, the character will seem so compartmentalized as to be completely unable to engage with the story, or will have seem forced to engage with the story. For example, the character with what is understood to be a demanding job (police officer, nurse, attorney, parent) who never *works.* I understand that the cardinal rule in romance is to keep the couple together on the page, but I also feel that if this is accomplished to the exclusion of the profession, first, I start to lose trust in the character because this is a character who neglects his/her work and so will eventually neglect other things in his/her life, like love, and second, the profession fails at the characterization that the author wanted the job to accomplish because we never see the character actually do it. Finally, it is just more satisfying if we are presented with a character who is competent and passionate at his or her work and we see this character ALSO work to find room in his or her life for love. We see, then, the competence work in multiple ways in the character’s life and can trust the HEA. A character who is competent, who we are shown is competent and works hard and well, and who we are shown to make room in their full life for another, is a character who will stick by their love.

    I tend to write competent characters (both protagonist and secondary characters) or characters who are striving to discover what their competence and durable strengths are. I certainly show then at work, will happily devote plenty of scenes to their work, and show, also, their own satisfaction or others’ satisfaction with their work. Sometimes the competence is vocation/advocation, sometimes it is some interpersonal occupation of the character. I also try to be very *precise* in identifying the competence–to me, it is not enough to write an attorney, for example. My upcoming features an attorney but it is a very particular vocation in law, that he chose for very good reasons–not all of which make him happy. He is also a caretaker, and in this he has significant psychomotor competencies and struggles with the interpersonal ones. There’s a lot of layers and dovetailing; aspects of the same work are performed competently *and* incompetently, depending on the setting or where he is at in his struggle for competency in other areas. Obviously, this is true for all of us.

    I think competency, too, is evaluated by both the person and others’ perception of the person’s work. So we have to be shown that the person feels or appreciates or relies on their competence, and that others recognize it. Competence suggests, actually, external evaluation or tests. To write a competent character is to give yourself, as a writer, many rich opportunities to draw your character with these tests. Merely *telling* me that a character is a *good nurse* means nothing if he or she is never tested in the text. What’s more, it gives us a chance to connect to all the times, ourselves, we’ve been tested for competence, and to feel something with this character.

    You’re right, often vocation/advocation is the urchin of the story. Mentioned, described just enough to make it adorable, and then abandoned in such a way that the author clearly hoped we would forget about it. Unless, of course, it is suddenly needed for some late plot twist.

    Meanwhile, readers read in break rooms, over lunch hours, while our children play in the bath. We fit reading into the competencies and incompetencies of our lives. It would be nice to see characters work and strive to fit love among the competencies and incompetencies and theirs.

    Thank you. This is awesome.

  2. rube says:

    This is such a perceptive observation! I think it will change the way I read.

    One area where I’d particularly like to see incompetency is in depictions of sex. Maybe it comes from reading a lot of historicals featuring rakes. It gets irritating to read about what wonderful lovers these gentlemen are, and how ladies chase them into gardens and conservatories and libraries and courtesans weep fat tears when they’re given their congé.

    I nearly applauded when I read Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War because the first time the hero has sex with the heroine, it isn’t spectacular. I became even more invested in the characters as a result.

    • Shelley Ann Clark says:

      Oh, yes, that’s a good one. Isn’t it refreshing to read about characters who have to figure out each others’ likes and dislikes, instead of just automatically being awesome in bed? But it’s such a balancing act; how competent do we need our characters to be? And how incompetent can they be before we lose all investment in them?

    • This is so interesting. I always become more interested when things aren’t perfect/kismet/etc.

      And, the “we’re perfect in bed” trope is really getting on my nerves.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Oh, fail-sex. BEST.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this in terms of character development. People work. Some of us have work we’re passionate about and others of us mostly work to participate in life and pay the bills, but we all work. I’m not really interested in healthy humans in their prime who are not contributing in that way, so what characters do and how they do it IS part of the romance as it makes their motivations, moods and interactions grounded in realism, and I like realism in plot.

    I like what Mary Ann says about readers too: a good book wants us to put aside our work to read. I guess the same is true of romance. When one is newly in love, work seems like a distraction from the truth. But, it’s a necessary and very real distraction.

    Could someone please write a book called “Broke-Ass Submissive.” I’d read that.

  4. Cara McKenna says:

    Love this topic! More often than not, my protagonists—and indeed the concepts of entire books—spring from an occupation. Psych pro, gym manager, bar owner, survivalist, male prostitute. It’s so defining, the field someone commits to…whether that commitment is made with ambition and intention, out of desperation, or entirely by accident.

    When I’m crafting a protagonist, I look at four key adjectives—rich, happy, talented, beautiful—as bowling balls. You can keep a decent hold on two, maybe three of those suckers, but probably not all four. Like Didier, the manwhore from Curio: he’s a super-talented, stunningly handsome prostitute who enjoys his work and is somewhat stable, financially, but he’s a psychological mess. He dropped that ball. Straight through the floor. Or Mercer from Making Him Sweat: he’s well-adjusted, good at his job as a trainer and it fairly strongly defines him, but he’s never going to get rich doing what he loves, and let’s just say he doesn’t exactly have a future in modeling.

    Then there are guys who sample from each of the four desirable qualities—Kelly from After Hours is great at his job, but not especially passionate about it; he’s an acquired-taste sort of handsome; and though he makes enough money to support his modest lifestyle, people who value material comforts would probably say he’s poor. He’s got a finger in each of the four bowling balls—financially stable by his own standards, content if not happy, kinda handsome / kinda scary-looking, and more capable and resourceful than talented—but he doesn’t have a firm grip on any one trait.

    Now imagine a character who boasts all four of those traits in spades—he’s successful, happy, gifted, and gorgeous. He has it all, right? Everything except a reason to improve. And without that, you’ve got no arc. Without that, the reader doesn’t have a reason to care, and without a reason to care, you simply don’t have a story worth telling.

    I’m not sure all those things carry the same weight, though, which is why I think this is such an interesting post. We can root for a homely hero, we can root for a hero who’s got emotional issues, and we can totally root for a broke-ass hero. But the guy needs to be not-incompetent, I think. He doesn’t have to be wildly talented or a genius, but he can’t be hopeless. I just wrote a hero who’s a properly incompetent—borderline dangerous—electrician, and if he weren’t actually a really talented carpenter who’s simply hustling until the building market picks back up, he’d be as hapless as a baby. And that’s just not attractive. Would we say the same of a heroine? Is competence a requisite? I hope so. I think the Wonksters who post here and the Wonkettes who further enlighten via the comments most certainly would say so, but society at large…? I’m not convinced we’re quite over our tiresome affection for the damsel-in-distress tripping over her crinolines and falling blushing into the hero’s burly arms. But someday, baby.

    • Shelley Ann Clark says:

      Cara, it was actually conversations with you about your WIP that got me thinking about competence and its necessity. And in that case, how much I needed it in the heroine.

      I also was thinking about Mark from Thank You for Riding, and how we get all these details about him that add up to competence, and desire to do what he does well. It’s also why those of us who have professions that are often featured jobs for romanceland characters can get so frustrated; if the job is inaccurately portrayed, not only do we lose trust in the writer, we lose trust, I think in the *character.*

      • Cara McKenna says:

        Yeah, that conversation was good for me, too! Though I’d been framing more as “unethical” versus “incompetent.” But tomayto, tomahto—either one would’ve been the undoing of a heroine to the tune of, “What a dumb ho!”

        I’ve been thinking about incompetence lately too, but in a larger-than-occupational sense. Because of the hot-mess hermit book. He’s basically incompetent at being a productive member of human society, but quite high-achieving as a human animal. Like, he completely imploded his old life, but you’d totally want him in your post-Apocalyptic survival party.

    • Re: your last point. Shelley and I had a sidebar conversation this morning about how shorthand occupation characterization works for heroines. In the very broadest strokes (with notable exceptions), heroines, when lent competency via occupation are given occupations with palatable competencies (designers, bakers, florists, artists, teachers) that are shorthand for “creative,” “caring,” “beautiful.” A heroine who is what I would call “competent-competent” is given an occupation that has been traditionally held by men (high-level corporate position, defense attorney, military officer). To *lazily* characterize, then, a “competent-competent” heroine, give her a “man’s career.” To make her “heroine-competent,” give her a creative or caretaking career.

      HOWEVER, the caveat is that there are important exceptions and tensions to everything I just said. A good writer will play with all of this, and work harder than the h/h occupation to delve into both characterization AND competency AND gender. Also, this is less and less true all of the time. What I like about Shelley’s post is that it actually takes away this clunkier argument I’ve set up and focuses on what we’re really trying to get at, which is competency and how we show that to the reader, how we acknowledge it. Like your four-pronged method, actually.

      It’s interesting, as you develop your four-pronged method, that it DOES work so well for heroes (and for YOUR heroines), but that you see it unevenly applied to heroines in romancelandia–though I agree with you, the shift has been happening almost from the very start.

      I think where romance really snags us is that it is actually having these conversations where, so often, there is the lack of them many other places. Or maybe that romance really goes deep into these conversations, even when a particular book isn’t quite where we’d like it to be.

    • This whole thread is fascinating. Me just lurking and learning.

  5. Amber Lin says:

    God, that was the most awesome story ever about your husband. That is totally, exactly romance hero material right there.

    Hmm… you said, “It’s easy to write competence into a billionaire Dom story,” but I’m not sure that’s true. Oftentimes the competency of a billionaire is not shown but is instead an assumption inherent to the story. You need to accept that he is competent at his job in the same way you need to believe magic exists in order to enjoy a paranormal.

    I think showing a billionaire Dom being truly competent in a tense boardroom or negotiations or etc etc would be about as hard, and basically the same as, showing a kindergarten teacher who is good at his job.

    • Shelley Ann Clark says:

      I think *showing it* would be as hard. I also think, though, that there’s a weight of tradition? Expectation? Assumption? behind the competence of a billionaire Dom that isn’t there for a middle-class kindergarten teacher.

      But, absolutely, a good writer will humanize a billionaire tycoon just as much as an unemployed roofer.

      • Cara McKenna says:

        I love that “billionaire” has become a job title in Romancelandia.

        “So what do you do?”
        “I’m a billionaire.”
        “Oh, that’s interesting. Does it pay well?”

        Then again, I suppose there are plenty of heroines from olden times whose job titles were basically “virgin.” Like a billionaire, either you are one, or you aren’t. So I follow Shelley’s logic about a billionaire’s implied competence. A billionaire is, by definition, a success at being a billionaire.

        That said, he could still easily be the shittiest Dom you ever met.

        • Amber Lin says:

          > I love that “billionaire” has become a job title in Romancelandia.

          It’s disconcerting, for sure. I was reading a blog post earlier today about Amazon categories and they have a new subset for “characters” under Romance, and they are all mostly professions, like firefighter, politician, cowboy. And then there’s “wealthy.” Oookay then.

      • Amber Lin says:

        Yeah, and I don’t necessarily think it’s better to show that boardroom type stuff, if that’s not what the story is about, but I also think it’s really interesting to tap into… like why the hell are you so damned driven that you couldn’t stop at half a million bucks, hmm? There’s definitely something there. And the same goes for Navy SEAL (and I have a SEAL hero, disclaimer) but it’s sort of… *insane* what they have to do. There has to be a reason for that insanity, or if there’s not, just the fact that he’s insane is interesting on its own. These are sort of extreme sport professions, which I suppose is what makes them interesting to read about. So I wouldn’t expect a good writer to necessarily “prove” competence in those cases, but I would expect them to unpack it emotionally.

        A very timely post for me, actually, because the hero I’m writing right now is currently unemployed :)

        • Shelley Ann Clark says:

          Amber, I was actually thinking about your janitor hero as I wrote this post. And heroes who are on the wrong side of the law, too. What if competence at the hero’s job means other people get hurt? And if a hero isn’t defined by his job, in what other ways do you show competence? You do that really well. Actually, you tend to ruin all my theories, but that’s because you do it by being awesome, so I guess I can forgive you.

        • Ruthie says:

          Growing up, the boy I had a crush on for most of elementary, half of middle, and a good third of high school was someone who wanted, quite desperately, to be a Navy SEAL. This aspiration was deeply embedded in his identity, and even as a girl I could tell that it was important, slightly insane, and set up in opposition to and in aspiration to all sorts of things. Ultimately, in high school, he went to some kind of brutal boot camp thing for teens and was stripped of his aspiration. I don’t know the story. I do know that he seemed broken and rootless afterward, and I suspect it took him a long time to locate a different thing to shape his identity around afterward. I’ve often thought he would make an interesting hero — but in the context of Amber’s comment I wanted to mention him, because I think she’s right, for some of these traditional “hero” professions you have to be striving at a level that isn’t actually all that balanced.

          • Amber Lin says:

            OMG I totally would have had that crush too. And kinda sad but… statistically inevitable? It is interesting. You should totes go to your high school reunion and report back!

  6. Liz Mc2 says:

    Amber made the point I was going to make about billionaires: we usually only get to see them being competent at the Dom part. Half the time, I don’t even know how a billionaire made/maintains his money. He’s a . . . bidnessman, who does bidness-stuff?

    I have never really loved a Nora Roberts book, but I do love the competence of her heroes and heroines. They usually love their jobs–they have found or are finding vocations–and we see them working and how that work is part of who they are. Work is a fully imagined part of her world.

    Gaffney’s Christy (I just finished this) is such an interesting example, because he doesn’t feel competent, but we and the heroine can see that he is far more competent than he thinks, and see him growing in competence and understanding of his vocation. I’m not surprised that he’s the one historical reference here, because I think in general historicals are really bad at anything beyond social competence (dancing at Almack’s). Being an aristocrat was a job, but very few historical romances show their heroes–or heroines–doing that job.

    I think I’m partly tired of dukes and billionaires because it is, as you say, shorthand for competence and I want to see that demonstrated. As Ruthie said when she tweeted that great video of bakery work, there’s something very attractive in a person fully engaged by work they love and do well.

    • Shelley Ann Clark says:

      We see that growth of competence in Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened, too. Theo learns how to be good at what he does, learns to care about it. It’s one of the ways the reader falls in love with the character just as Martha does, and for the same reasons.

  7. I adore this post. Competence as you describe it is exactly what I discuss in my post on “being a reformable rake” (the second lesson in becoming a romance hero). The one thing I think is possibly even more important than competence itself, however, is what you describe as “striving for competence.” It’s why it’s not enough to be a billionaire…the guy has to have something he feels he cannot do, some goal he is striving toward, some area in which he feels incompetent even if he is not.

    I am not a fan of the billionaire dom genre, but I am a huge consumer of romantic suspense in which competence is always an issue for both the hero and heroine. For the most part, these books concern themselves with people who usually feel competent being thrust into situations in which they are out o control, which is probably why I enjoy them so much!

  8. Ruthie says:

    This is a lovely post and a really interesting comment thread. The only thing I have to add is that I’ve noticed that it seems impossible for a hero/heroine to be *too* competent — I’ve tried to write a hero (cough CALEB cough) who works too much, takes on too much, and is someone who in real life I would consider a workaholic. (Virtually) no one noticed. Instead, they praised him for being so awesome. Maybe I did it wrong, or maybe we just don’t think it’s *possible*, in our fantasy romance world, for people to OVERdo their love of work.

    • Amber Lin says:

      That is an interesting point. I think partly it’s because of the nature of scenes. They’re like this series of dioramas designed to give only the information I want to give. So even in a Harlequin Presents, with a super workaholic hero, we still spent 95% of our time watching him interact with the heroine. So we hear about him going but we’re not sitting up waiting for him, doing the dishes and wondering when he’ll be home, and answering “where’s daddy?” because that’s not in the diorama. Well I have read a few “waiting” scenes but they tend to indicate the hero is avoiding the heroine, not just randomly working. Whereas like for Serena’s Ticket Home, there was a magnifying glass pointed to that aspect and I think it was really relatable.

  9. Jessi Gage says:

    Some fabulous educational content here. Shelley, thanks for getting the ball rolling. Cara, thanks for talking about bowling balls. Mary Ann, thanks for having the balls to remind writers not to be lazy with that occupational shorthand.

    I love a good contemporary romance where the H or h (ideally both) get a chance to shine at their occupation. I always find this to be the case with Cara/Meg, and I’m finding it to be true of Ruthie and Amber too. This is one of the reasons I think you ladies are pioneering a smarter better breed of romance. Your characters are so multidimensional and real that I’m that much more drawn into the story. So, props to you all.

    • Shelley Ann Clark says:

      I know, aren’t these ladies good at it? Just wait until you read Mary Ann’s work– she does this really well, also.

  10. Laurie Evans says:

    I love contemporary romances where the heroine is not just good at her job, but actually *likes* it.

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  12. Lynn Rae says:

    Ooh I LOVE this post! This is one of my nitpicky/make-or-break criteria for any type of fiction book. I’ve never been able to take a ‘perfect’ protagonist very seriously. If they are that great, how is there any tension in the story or opportunity for character growth?
    I think I made my critique partner crazy because I kept mentioning how the hero wasn’t very good at his job. I don’t even have any real-life experience at that type of work and I cringed at his decision-making and poor work ethic.
    I try so hard in my writing to have it ‘make sense’. All of it from the timing of scenes to how someone is sore the day after they get in a bar fight. It all has to make sense to me as a writer and a reader or my disbelief falls right off that suspension bridge.
    My characters have jobs to do and I like to write about how they do them and how they have to struggle to find time with their love interest. I write what I know, either from my own careers or from what friends and family do for a living. None of them are SEALs or billionaires. They are teachers and accountants and greenskeepers.
    I’ll never forget reading a query on a romance publishing FB page asking readers who they thought a hero was. Readers responded with the usual first responders and military professions, but someone included ‘cowboy’ as a hero. I still don’t understand that one. I grew up in an agricultural community and working with livestock isn’t heroic. At all. But at least no one said being a billionaire was heroic.