One bit of advice given to a writer starting a series about a character is to have a good reason why that character constantly has adventures; the character should be a cop, Slayer, professional treasure-hunter, reporter, etc. It’s not believable that the character frequently just happens to stumble into adventures, monster attacks, mysterious murders, or whatever their specialty is.
But is it true that that’s not believable? I’ve read numerous stories and seen numerous movies and TV shows where the main character DOES just stumble into adventures all the time. And many of these stories are quite popular. Even when the character has a day job that gets them involved in adventures, they still stumble into adventures when they’re not working, while on vacation for example.
Is it TRULY important that a character have a reason to have adventures and not stumble into them by coincidence? Or is that the sort of thing only writers and internet critics notice or care about?
Thank youDave L
Hey Dave, great to hear from you again!
From a zoomed-out perspective, we can find numerous, popular stories that make just about every mistake in the book, and a few that haven’t even made it into the book yet. Those stories are popular despite making such mistakes, not because of them. They might be really good in other areas, tapped into the zeitgeist at a particular moment, or just have a huge marketing budget. If we conclude that mistakes don’t matter because popular stories make them, there’d be no reason to ever improve our writing at all.
Looking closer at this specific mistake, I actually can’t say that I’ve seen many popular stories make it. Usually, when writers want a character who has a different medical drama every week, they make the character a healer, whether that means an MD, an EMT, or just someone who provides aid to their neighbors. Otherwise, it would be pretty silly for a character to encounter a new injury every time their weekly game night rolls around. When authors want a space-adventure story, they make the hero a space captain. For mystery solving, a detective. Often, those detectives don’t have a specific job title (Nancy Drew, Miss Marple), but they’re known in their community for solving mysteries, so it has the same effect.
I’m sure there are stories that make this mistake; it just doesn’t strike me as especially prevalent. The most common version I see is when the writer mixes up their premise and main character. They want a story about commanding a ship on space adventures, but they focus on the cook rather than the captain, that sort of thing. Or, as you touched on, the characters encounter so many unplanned adventures that it strains believability. We had a comment thread recently about how Poirot can’t go to the grocery store without stumbling over a dead body and how the Enterprise seems to encounter a strange anomaly every time it starts its warp engines.
Episodic stories can get away with that more easily because their premise treats each installment (whether it’s a TV episode or an entire novel) as a separate story, only marginally related to previous adventures. When Poirot finds a body, this is supposed to be a rare occurrence, not something that happens to him every day. Same with Star Trek, though the novel Redshirts is a great exploration of what would happen if we took Kirk and Picard’s adventures literally.
Even in those scenarios though, it’s still very helpful if it’s the hero’s job to solve the problems in question. Poirot finds a body and investigates, where a non-detective would just be upset. If Star Trek were about a civilian freighter, every episode would have to explain why they don’t run away at the first sign of trouble.
So yes, if you want your hero to have repeated adventures, it’s best to make them the kind of person who would credibly have those adventures. That might be an official job, a well established passion, or it might simply be the hero’s responsibility as the only one with super powers. This is actually a good idea in most stories, come to think of it. That way you avoid questions of why someone else isn’t handling the adventure.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!
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Comments on Does My Hero Need a Specific Job?
If you have a character who has one adventure, you can just have them stumbling into it. That’s believable. We all could meet a dying secret agent on the street who entrusts a strange object to us once (don’t tell me we can’t!). If you can’t leave your home without it happening, though, it should either be because you’re in a parody of adventure stories or because you have an occupation which makes it likely.
One good example of ‘it got ridiculous’ would be “Murder, She Wrote”. The series has 12 seasons and, according to people who actually counted them, 700 bodies. Jessica Fletcher is a writer of crime stories, yes, but she is not a detective, current or retired. That she stumbles over so many criminal cases with one or more bodies is just horridly unlikely.
If you look at Agatha Christie’s work, you will find that Miss Maple has fewer cases than Hercule Poirot. Poirot is a detective who used to be high up in Belgian law enforcement, so not only is it more likely that people would ask him for help, he’s even making a job out of it and he probably has a lot of acquaintances who are or were in law enforcement. His most well-known cases all include him stumbling into the murders, but quite some other cases (including the ’12 labours’) are brought to his door by clients who hire him to solve another crime – the murder happens during the investigation and is usually connected to it.
That said, it doesn’t always have to be that obvious. Henry ‘Indiana’ Jones is a professor of archaeology, after all. Despite what his movies suggest, that’s not a job where you’re expected to fight Nazis and find legendary objects. Yet, with the time the stories are set in, it delivers a reason for several adventures.
Christie’s worst offender for just stumbling into cases was Parker Pryne. The first set of his stories had people coming to him with problems (although they weren’t criminal cases, but more like life issues) – but the second set had him on a holiday where he ran into crimes everywhere he went.
(I honour of the themed worldbuilding podcast that preceded this, I thought I’d throw in Poirot, Miss Marple, the aforementioned Pryne, and almost all of Christie’s other recurring detectives are all in the same setting. The only ones who I think aren’t are Tommy and Tuppence Beresford).
perhaps it’s time for a comic about how the internet gets stuff wrong? I’d really like to see that on Mythcreants.
Yes! Why does the internet in stories so often have detailed, clear, correct information, when in real life it’s a mass of contradiction and stupid hacks? … That is, I know why (it’s useful for the story), but just once I’d like to see someone use internet intel and have it just not work, or actively make the situation worse. Especially if it’s some obscure situation where it would be quite likely the average person wouldn’t immediately know they have the wrong info.
When i read the title i thought it was about where does the hero get sustainance while on adventure, that is a matter on its own. Adventurers are always fighting dragons or twarting schemes to overthrow the kingdom, but without a job, their resources to keep living are short. While it is true that Adventurer is a paid job most of time, other heroes do it for free and are even expected to refuse any reward for their efforts.
On the topic of the post, i watched some shows that, while the protagonist pursue the mysteries on their own volution, all of them end up being related to them like they stop being puntual occurences and be part of an overarching plot. Which felt so contrieved to me.
I also wondered whether it was about how the hero finances their life for a moment. That is a legitimate thing you have to address at some point in a series.
Are they rich and can do as they want (like Batman)? Are they hired for this kind of work and it simply is their job to be the hero (Brian Helsing comes to mind)? Are they freelancers usually hired for that kind of work, even if we don’t see every case (Harry Dresden, for instance)?
In the early Supernatural episodes, Sam and Dean committed credit card fraud
Later they just sort of glossed over finances
I think addressing the financial element can add a lot to the story too, even if its a small detail!
Like in The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater the fact that a couple of the characters have afterschool/summer jobs really grounds it in the high school setting and helps show the difference between them and their independantly wealthy friends. It contributes to the setting and character dynamic in addition to being like a useful bit of world trivia.
Yeah, where the hero gets basic spending money can be an issue
This reminds me to the 90’s SNES videogame with Spiderman and the X-Men. Somewhere in the game, you could navigate to the bio info page for each character. There was a field called “Occupation”. Amusingly, only Spiderman had an actual occupation as a photographer, while the rest of the characters (all X-Men), were only listed as “adventurer”. I suppose all just lived off Charles Xavier’s fortune.
Most of the adult X-men work as teachers on Xavier Institute. Avengers have an annual stipend and a lot others work for SHIELD occasionally as advisors. Then you have Luke Cage and Danny Rand as the Heroes for Hire; Daredevil is a lawyer and Spiderman went from freelance photographer to teacher at Columbia University. Back in the day Captain America was an illustrator for an advertising company.
It also helps if your hero is someone inclined to get involved. In the Saint story “The Gold Standard,” Simon Templar hears shots while getting ready for bed at a hotel. He recognizes they’re gunshots and, once he’s sure they weren’t shooting at him, goes to find out what happened, tracks down the source of the shots, finds the victim, and gets the tidbits of information that he follows up as his entry into the plot.
Most people would leave it as “that sounded like gunshots,” but as the narration explicitly notes, “if Simon Templar had been given to minding his own business, there would have never been any stories to write about him.”
This sort of thing happened a couple of times on Monk, where he was the only on who realized that a murder had been committed
This is something I have been thinking about as a trouble when writing YA in more realistic settings. While you can do episodic stories that are academy settings in which there isn’t much in the way of real danger, this makes it harder to actually have an interesting story. It also still at least slightly strains credibility because real academies that train would be adventures only use adults for a reason.
On the flip side you can have stories that are about a single specific conflict in a fashion that is essentially Die Hard, but then you run into the problem that the setup only really works once. If your hero finds danger more than once in what are supposed to be extraordinary circumstances, it starts to feel extremely odd.
This is probably why YA chosen ones are so common, because then you don’t really need to worry about problems like this.
I made a hero who is a freelance plumber/electrician. He has some morphic powers and is immune to energy which helps him in his day job. People will always need these two jobs. From what I understand, they pay well. It also gives him practical knowledge when infiltrating a building. Since it’s “blue collar” work, he’s underestimated and ignored.
What i see is that plumber or electrician are full time jobs. A freelancer can’t just close every week to go on adventures. Unless he is also a security advisor and gets paid for infiltrating buildings.
While useful to explain his perks, i don’t see plumbers involved in adventures often (unless it is Mario)
Plumbers and electricians still have some free time. The problem of work-adventure-balance is a slightly different, though related one. It’s often very unrealistic how much free time protagonists have to go adventuring and how little time they need for sleep, chores, etc. (Similar to how big their apartments are…)
I would like to see some slightly more realistic depictions of that, though there’s also a danger of being too realistic. Don’t want your hero’s adventures be cancelled because their coworker got sick.
In any case, having a blue collar worker for a superhero is neat! I’d read that.
Speaking of academies that train adventurers or monster hunters, I’m wondering if the university setting would work better? The students are technically adults at that point. If monsters attack the school and any of the students have prior military experience, it’s easier to justify getting them involved. We don’t even have to go for the chosen one storyline that way. Maybe some of them have prior experience as police interns, too.
The protagonist of Charlaine Harris’ ‘Grave Sight’ series has ‘finding dead bodies’ as her actual job! She has a psychic sense that allows her to detect them…
Choosing a job for your protagonist can be a problem – few nine-to-five jobs allow time for tracking down suspects, interviewing witnesses, or collecting clues, so either they’ll have to do it professionally as a policeman, private detective, or possibly investigative reporter, be self-employed (possibly with an assistant or two to keep the business running while the protagonist’s investigating), or have a private income of some kind.
I have this problem in my stories where my characters can’t work because employment would disrupt the story flow or prevent them from engaging in the plot altogether. But I also can’t make them unemployed because how are then able to afford anything? Most of the time there isn’t a specific job I can come up with that works with the story nor any way to involve the plot at the protagonist’s place of work.
The solution for my current story is to have my protagonist work part-time and then make financial issues a sort of background conflict, but I can’t use that for everything. It’s just an annoying problem.
Depending on your setting, they could live off benefits. It’d be cool to see this group represented as heroes for once. Would be tricky though because you’d have to avoid making “living off benefits” seem like a fun romp that people do for reasons other than the officially allowed ones (i.e. spreading the message that benefits fraud is a widespread problem) nor do we want the restrictions and obligations imposed by the bureaucracy to stop them from having adventures…
Maybe they could live off a small stipend from a friend or relative who probably pesters them about finding a job every now and then. Could be a good background conflict and an interesting relationship dynamic.
Or they have a benefactor who knows about their heroics. Like how the watcher’s council should have paid for Buffy’s expenses…
Both “Secret Agent X” and the “Brian Helsing” stories actually have that benefactor thing in the background. There’s a group of rich people paying the expenses for Secret Agent X and Brian gets a 1,000,000 Pound stipend a year for expenses (personal and professional, such as travelling costs).