What gives rise to this cynical observation, you ask? It was a Twit, asking one of those faux-interested questions on everybody’s favourite social media platform. (Well, Elon’s favourite platform, anyway.) The actual question ran along the lines of, “What’s your protagonist’s job? And what was their first job?” Aside from the fact that I doubt the Twit really wanted to know --- I highly suspect the ultimate goal was merely engagement stats --- I thought it useful grist for the blog mill. Hence, here we are today.
Employment (aka indentured servitude) is just one of those necessary things we must all engage in, once dearest mama and papa toss us fledglings from the comforts of the nest --- sometimes before, too. For most, I suspect those first jobs don’t tend to have a helluva lot to do with what we ultimately wind up doing --- in my case, I fervently mutter, “thank God” --- and while writers don’t necessarily need to go into copious backstory about a character’s first job, it can be a useful exercise in character development.
Case in point: my first job was as a car jockey at a Ford dealership, back in the Dark Ages. I was newly 18, it was the summer between high school and university, and I was desperate for a job, because yes, Virginia, even then, universities charged tuition. No, I don’t particularly want to hear boomer jokes about how cheap it was and how easy I had it. Yes, he said wearily, tuition was a helluva lot less back then, (though wages were also a lot lower), and yes, I’m aware the fact my summer pay was enough to cover my tuition for the following year isn’t something which routinely occurs nowadays. But it was still a lot of money to fresh-faced little ol’ me.
Yes, you heard me right: car jockey at a Ford dealership. Pretty much the lowest rung of a very blue-collar ladder. Like, we’re not talking periwinkle blue here… more along the lines of whatever shade of blue is closest to… well, black. Car jockey was a dignified name for a job that entailed just about anything and everything, including the shitty stuff nobody higher in rank than me (read: everyone) wanted to do. I was, as I said, 18, sheltered-ish, sensitive-ish, nerdish, bookish and a whole bunch of other ishes… and it took me until about morning coffee break on the first day (I was going to say ‘lunch,’ but nah, that merely confirmed what I already knew) to reach the conclusion I was terrifyingly waaaay past the archetypical fish-out-of-water scenario. But I stuck with it for the whole summer. Didn’t have a lot of choice, really, if I wanted to keep that date with academe in the autumn, because jobs were scarce, and I got mine the old-fashioned way, by nepotism: my dad took pity on me and called around his list of business contacts to see if anything was available. This was. End of story, son.
Looking back on it now, close to five decades later (excuse me while I go and scream into a pillow at that anguished realization), it really was one of those what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger situations. A real crucible. Character development, like I said. In fact, if I wanted to take a cheap shot about my eventual career, I could say it was rather like teaching… except that educating 30-40 hormonal adolescents at a time for 35 years was, if you’ll pardon the awful pun, child’s play in comparison.
So. Your protagonist’s job. I’m thinking the Twit referenced above must’ve been thinking ‘day job,’ because as we all know, our protagonist’s primary job, at least as far as the plot goes, is ‘hero.’ No, no, no… that doesn’t necessarily mean the traditional concept of hero, complete with bulging biceps and/or more magical abilities than you could shake a stick/wand/staff at. Hero is just someone who’s prepared to sign up for the booby prize. They can be the most unlikely candidate for hero-hood in terms of skills and abilities. Like Frodo. (I mean, really… this dude’s ostensible qualifications for an all-expenses-paid, one-way trip to Mordor are essentially… well, nil. As Peter Jackson has him say --- because it’s not in the book! --- he doesn’t even know which direction he’s supposed to take.) But on Ye Olde Official Hero-Candidate Qualification Checklist, there’s one box, and one box alone, which needs to be checked: willing. Once that’s done, we have a winner, ladies and gentlemen!
But day jobs… yeah, protagonist day jobs can range from the utterly irrelevant to the uncannily prescient, according to the author’s peculiar whims and twisted sense of humour. I’m not sure one is any better than the other, from a writer-creator’s point of view, except that ‘utterly irrelevant’ does introduce much greater possibility for surprise and uncertainty --- not to mention humour, gallows and otherwise --- which is pretty much always a good thing, story-wise.
It’s worth some thought, when you’re sitting down to flesh out your protagonist: what do they do to pay the bills? Because what they do for a living does say quite a lot about their personality. Or, if they’re sufficiently wealthy to be divorced from that mundane reality… what do they do to pass the time? Though that, paradoxically, can be a rather tedious situation to place a protagonist in. For example, Mr. Darcy’s life seemed to revolve around endless, mind-numbing balls and social visits to a lot of simpering women searching for a wealthy husband… though it ended pretty well for him… and Lizzie, all things considered. But for most of us, that isn’t an alternative. Toiling away in the salt mines for a good portion of each day is mandatory. If we want to eat, that is.
So, remember, folks: the job’s the thing, wherein you’ll catch the conscience of the… schlep who’s your protagonist. (Sorry, Will.)