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?