Day Jobs in Novels

His Secretary

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When you read a book, does it matter what the heroine or hero’s day job is?  Probably yes, if you’re reading a crime drama or urban fantasy, probably not if you’re reading a contemporary romance.

Contemporary and historical romance novel jobs tend to parallel the times in which they are set, but aren’t that interwoven into the larger plot.  In the older contemporary romances especially, the protagonists were secretaries, nannies, librarians, nurses, chefs—jobs little girls wanted to have when they were growing up in the fifties, sixties and even the seventies—but only temporarily until the ultimate job of marriage and family could be secured.  The men were business tycoons, doctors, princes, architects, lawyers and detectives–all strong providers.  They were also very rich, very commanding and very fertile.

I’m a business woman, a certified public accountant or CPA.  My pedigree means I understand numbers and finances.  If I had a penis and a lot more testosterone, I’d be the hero the ladies swooned over, uh, once they got past the glasses and the pocket protector, of course.

Such a background means I can sniff out an author who knows next to nothing about business.  She (“she” is used in a gender-neutral way) often creates paper doll facades of her tycoons.  These alpha male heroes read reports and create spreadsheets that allow him to decisively make bold alpha moves and prove his prowess in the business jungle.  Meanwhile his underling female takes dictation (haha…all hail the dying art of Gregg shorthand), makes copies, files, and types his words of alpha genius.

Sometimes the heroines have been the thankless invisible trooper so long, they take a stab themselves at whipping up a business plan or removing an appendix.  Riiiight.  That always makes me laugh, like through the mundane processes of typing and copying, they have through osmosis learned how to compute internal rates of return and payback periods, while applying the proper accounting rules to the transactions so they can anticipate the impact on fully diluted earnings per share.  If the heroine was going to night school for her MBA, maybe I’d buy it, but that’s rarely the case.

Does this knowledge gap between me and the author prevent me from enjoying her book?  Nah.  I’m willing to suspend my disbelief over the heroine’s latent head for business (and “bod for sin”, to throw a nod at Working Girl) as much as I’m willing to buy that every tycoon and prince works out in the wee hours honing his finely sculpted muscles so he can drive his obedient secretary into short-circuiting her keyboard with a tsunami of lust-induced drool.  Riiiight.  I buy that they all drive very fast, expensive cars (and drive them with manly skill) and have villas in Italy.  I am easily convinced they have a live-in housekeeper (who practically raised them under the austere eye of the paterfamilias) to whom they give handsome benefits and full pensions.  (Arnold Schwarzenegger anyone?)  I’m totally convinced they are skillful lovers as generously endowed as the charitable foundations bearing their philanthropic names.

I buy it all because these details are the window dressing there to show me that, yes, the hero is a worthy alpha male and yes, the heroine is deserving of his attention, and yes, they will be a well-paired match, if only they can get past obstacles A through Z, whatever they may be.

And really, if I lay a contemporary romance side by side with a paranormal romance, I see very few differences other than what the A through Z’s are.  Tackling an Excel spreadsheet can be just as commanding as facing down a three-headed hellhound.  Convincing the bank to extend a loan’s balloon payment can require just as much verbal finesse as inciting a pack of shapeshifters into attacking the king’s evil guard.  The main difference is would readers rather pour over prose about Excel spreadsheets or three headed hellhounds?  I know what I’d pick.

Assuming I’m not the only one who chose spreadsheets, hellhounds, I’m hypothesizing that the more compelling the complicating factors A through Z, the less conflict in the buildup in the relationship between the hero and heroine is necessary.

Watch any guy flick vs any chick flick.  While both will have a love interest, the guy flick will be more, “I’m bad. You’re hot. Hey? You wanna? Followed immediately by: kiss, tussle, smoke a cigarette, then “LET’S GO GET THE BAD GUYS!!!”  KABOOM!!! AND EVERYTHING IS IN CAPITAL LETTERS UNTIL WE’RE READY FOR ANOTHER LOVE SCENE, then we’re back to lower case and even a few cursive letters”.

The chick flick will be, “Let’s have a series of encounters that will show in turn how lovable I am, how lovable you are, how there is someone detestable standing in our way or someone pushing us who might also be lovable, and while we’re at it, let’s make sure we have thorough debriefings with our BFFs over the pros and cons of succumbing to our desires, blah, blah, blah, lather, rinse, repeat, break up and start over, oh and hand me that Excel spreadsheet, will ya?”

I like both types of films, and both types of books.  Sometimes I want to focus on what the characters DO when they aren’t interacting with each other and sometimes I mostly want the interaction.  The believability and/or interest level of the day job is inversely proportionate to the character development.  The most boring day job parts of Jane Eyre were the scenes with her pupil, Adele.  The most exciting day job part was where she frightened Rochester’s horse into rearing up and unseating him only to discover hours later he was her new employer.  But let’s face it, the governess aspect of the story would never stand alone, so Jane needed a hell of a back story to make her interesting to Rochester, and that’s what Bronte gave her.

So, after all this rambling, I circle back to my main point.  If you have a strong, character-driven romance, an author can put her characters in milquetoast or Mary Sue day jobs and readers probably won’t notice or care.  If the author’s romance is weak or is an especially long, slow burn type (which I love), the protagonist had better blow up stuff, kill bad guys, or behave recklessly.

What kind of stories do you lean toward?  Character-driven or action driven?  How tolerant are you of Mary Sue or ho-hum day jobs?

6 thoughts on “Day Jobs in Novels

  1. Totally action for me. Though if I can fall in love with the girl or guy in the first 5 pages of a character driven novel, you’ll have me at hello … I mean for the rest of the story. 🙂

  2. I’m greedy. I need action AND deep, worthy characters. (my editor would laugh if she could see this – I’m even using double-adjectives in my blog comments!) 🙂 I don’t really care what jobs the hero and heroine hold, as long as that isn’t the dominating factor in the book (=boring) and the parts that are included are believable.

    • er…what’s wrong with double adjectives? (nervous since we probably have same editor). Most jobs ARE boring to third parties (and to their holders) unless they are the focus of a good urban fantasy tale a la Laurell K Hamilton (Anita Blake), Stacia Kane (Chess Putnam) or Ilona Andrews (Kate Daniels).

  3. I`ll read a lot of different things for a lot of different reasons, but what I tend to like the best is strong REAL characters. I do not like ‘Mary Sue’ type characters at all. I don’t typically read romance but knowing the authors has forced my hand 😉

    I just read The Great Gatsby, and while I really slogged my way through it and constantly thought how boring it was and how two dimensional the characters were, when I finished the last page, I didn`t hate it. Carraway was a bondsman but F. Scott Fitzgerald never went into details of his work.

    I like the idea of knowing a MC’s job. They don’t have to talk any more about it other than mentioning it in passing. It makes them real and it gives me a mindset to help build the character’s portrait in my head.

    A good friend of mine said “it’s fun writing fiction because literally anything can happen.”

    • I hate Mary Sue’s too but they and deux ex machina are the caveats to “literally anything can happen”. True it “can” but it shouldn’t if it’s pulled from either of those two playbooks. Jobs to me are kind of like hair color / eye color — not all THAT important in the grand scheme but an interesting fact.

      I read Great Gatsby so long ago, I don’t even remember what it’s about.

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