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What Do Your Heroines Do?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

While on vacation last week, my mom and I got into a discussion of fictional characters’ jobs. We both agreed that up until ten or fifteen years ago, in Christian fiction, characters (especially females) had “soft” to almost non-existent jobs; partly because most of what was being published was historical (they lived on a farm or ranch or they were part of a wagon train), and partly because whatever the person did for a living didn’t have much, if any, impact on the story. (And I’m not talking about those who are mail-order brides who work hard at keeping the home and raising children, I’m talking about actual paying work.)

On the forums at school yesterday, one of the romance writers pointed out that of the novels she’s read or looked at the summaries of recently (mostly from Harlequin), she’s found three main themes when it comes to the heroine’s job: (a) it’s a job the author doesn’t have to do a lot of research to be able to write about (baker, child care, housekeeper, etc.); (b) it’s a job that has a very flexible schedule, allowing the heroine to go galavanting around all over town where she’s more likely to be able to run into the hero; or (c) the character has inherited/earned a windfall or a built-in “job” which leaves her extremely wealthy and not having to actually be seen doing a job—for example, she’s widowed and inherited her husband’s multi-million-dollar estate, she is the CEO of the company her father built from the ground-up and only has to attend a couple of board meetings a month, or she inherited her family’s very successful farm/ranch, or she’s written one book that became a best seller and she’s living off the royalties and money from one or two public appearances a year.

One of my favorite series is Dee Henderson’s O’Malley series, where each character holds some kind of “heroic” job—both hero and heroine—which plays a large part in the plot of each novel. This was the first contemporary inspirational romance I’d read, and it was also the first where the heroines had jobs they had to go to every day, jobs that dominated their lives and shaped who they were as people: police hostage negotiator, assistant to a U.S. senator, crisis counselor, fire fighter, medical examiner.

Because I’ve always worked for a living, my heroines all have to do it too—not to mention the fact that my heroines are all still single into their thirties, and each one has pursued a career she enjoys and is good at (well, except in Meredith’s case, which is part of her conflict in the novel).

In Stand-In Groom, Anne owns a wedding and event planning business, and she works round-the-clock for her clients. It’s George who’s in the flexible, didn’t-take-any-research-to-create job.

In Menu for Romance, Meredith, who has a master’s degree in Art History, became the Executive Director of Events and Facilities Management for her parents’ corporation—one of the largest congolmerations in the Southeast. She’s good at the job, but she wonders what her life would have been like if she’d pursued her dream of working with historic home design . . . which she might just get the opportunity to do.

In A Case for Love, Alaine is a journalist—she’s the anchor of a noontime “news magazine” program (basically the social-scene show) on one of the local stations in my fictional town which, yes, gives her a somewhat flexible schedule. But when her parents’ company is put in jeopardy of being run out of business by the hero’s parents’ corporation (see explanation of corporation above), she puts her job on the line by broadcasting stories about the issue on her show.

I’ve also written a sportscaster, an architect, a physical therapist, an archivist/archaeologist with the state historical society, and a restaurant owner.

I can’t even get away from it in the Ransome trilogy—Julia runs her father’s sugar plantation, and Charlotte disguises herself as a boy and signs onto a ship and works as a midshipman for the nearly two-month journey from England to Jamaica.

While I understand that not every novel needs to have the story centering around the heroine’s job, in this day and age, it’s unrealistic that a woman beyond college age isn’t going to be working if she isn’t married. Because I didn’t start my actual career until I was thirty-five (I worked for thirteen years in assistant-level jobs before starting a career at a small publishing house), I enjoy characters who are faced with decisions about jobs/careers in their thirties or later—a character who’s been doing what was necessary to pay the bills who then is given the opportunity to chase the career of her dreams. Does it have to be as a high-powered attorney or a police hostage negotiator? No. It can be teaching, setting up her own bakery, or walking dogs. But I really want to read about characters for whom work isn’t just a necessary evil but an outbranching of who they are, what their dreams and goals are, and what they enjoy doing.

  1. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 10:44 am

    It’s interesting your friend’s findings regarding the harlequin novels. In the LI’s I have seen waitresses, architects, teachers, dance instructors, journalists, etc. Some work to survive, others work to survive and have real ambition in their chosen career.

    The LI’s are so short that if a lot of word count was devoted to the actual career of the heroine, or hero for that matter, then I think it would take too much away from the “romance” aspect of the story. I like it best when their chosen work provides conflict, but doesn’t fill the page. Know what I mean?


  2. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 10:58 am

    I hadn’t really thought about this before. Guess even Cinderella had to work before she found her prince.


  3. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 11:00 am

    I read a lot of Harlequins, mostly LIs but some others too. The vast majority have working heroines. I just finished one with an entrepreneur, owner of a image consulting business, and the one I’m reading now has a television investigative reporter.

    I think the unemployed heroine was very common years ago but is very uncommon today, with the exception of exotic lines like Harlequin Presents and others like that. I still see a lot of stay-at-home moms but that’s cool too. If it doesn’t factor into the storyline, the author doesn’t give the heroine’s job a lot of attention.


  4. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 11:23 am

    I hadn’t really examined all of my heroines as a group – but the one thing they seem to all have in common – entrepreneurship.

    One is a freelance travel writer/photographer, another a newspaper owner, and the third is a private detective opening her own agency. For the 4th book, my main character is male- a school teacher with a heart for struggling kids, and looking for a way to help them. Each job is a major factor in the storyline. Interesting.

    I love the O’Malley series myself. Very realistic, powerful, and memorable.


  5. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 11:24 am

    Ah, the O’Malley series…I’m feeling nostalgic all of a sudden. 🙂 Need to re-read those…of course at the rate I’m going, I’ll be lucky if that happens in the next five years. LOL

    Interesting post about careers…I’d never really given it much thought. But seeing it spelled out in this post makes me realize that I do respond more to novels where the heroine is doing something she’s passionate about…where that “work” helps form her character (this is probably a large part of why I can’t stand “prairie” type romances. Work is so integral to my life I have trouble relating to heroines who don’t have that factor…

    My heroine is a reporter…who is about to be recruited into the O.S.S. …here comes spy school…LOL!


  6. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 11:40 am

    My protagonist typically being of the age 12 never have jobs, but I do try and decide what the parents job is, just so I know even if the reader never learns.

    It’s funny the one job that I go crazy whenever I read or see (tv/movie) about is an architect. Maybe because I am one, but it’s so not as glamourous as it’s made out to be. Mostly every sits in front of a computer drawing all day with site visits and meetings thrown in, but it’s never in my eyes portrayed properly.


  7. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 11:46 am

    @Jennifer– you’d probably hate my story where the character is an architect, because I pretty much made it up as I went along. But I do have her doing site visits, working on renderings for jobs (to pitch jobs as well as changes for existing clients) and giving a talk about historic preservation, which is her area of expertise.

    I have the same problem when I see a TV show/movie set at a newspaper. If the desks aren’t completely piled up with stuff, with some of it spilling onto the floor, I know the set designer has never been inside a real newspaper editorial office.

    The truth is, most jobs can be pretty mundane; it’s the job-holder’s passion for it that will make it interesting to a reader.


  8. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 12:03 pm

    I think there might be one other category for heroine’s professions: anything that involves working in the same office as the hero, or a job that constantly brings her into contact with the hero, whether or not it’s flexible.

    In fact, it’s often better in these scenarios if her job is anything but flexible, forcing her to spend as much time as possible with the hero (eg she’s an assistant to an executive and his company is acquiring hers, so he’s there a lot).

    In my most recent stuff, I’ve had a heroine who was a store clerk and then a telephone operator, and a heroine who is an artist (talented but as-yet-unrecognized).

    In the former, her jobs weren’t integral to the plot, but in the latter it’s her career (or lack thereof) that introduces her to the hero (a newspaper photog on the art beat), drives much of her actions and creates conflict with the hero.


  9. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 12:13 pm

    Oh, and Kaye—the newspaper photog’s best friend, a reporter for the same paper, has appropriated an extra desk to fill with the rest of his papers 😀 .


  10. Emilie permalink
    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 1:51 pm

    Hi, Kaye–I was a newbie at SHU the residency you graduated (which makes me the same class as Jennifer, who has been dubbed my “residency spouse” by Lee). I’ve been meaning to leave a comment here for awhile, but I loved your post today so much that I wanted to get in on the conversation! I totally agree with you about the newspaper reporter thing–I did that for a little while, and if I could see the pictures of my fiance (now husband), it was a slow day:) I also spent so much time just sitting at my desk waiting for people to call me back. There were days I was super-busy, but most were pretty boring until I was able to get in touch with the right people. NEVER see that one in a movie:)

    As with Jennifer, I write for kids, but my protag of my SHU thesis novel, Evelyn, wants to be a linguist like her father was. It’s her dream and it uses a gift she has, and her language ability plays huge roles in all three of her books. Even though it’s not her job, it’s her passion, and it comsumes her at age 14 in many of the same ways it will when it becomes her job.


  11. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 2:36 pm

    The heroine’s job is always front and center in my books. In Table for One, Lucy is a stockbroker, and it’s essential to the plot and who she is. Of course, this came from my personal experience. In Honey Do Inc., Molly is a professional homemaker, and there wouldn’t even BE a book without her career. I love exploring this aspect of a hero or heroine because it’s huge in real life.


  12. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 2:39 pm

    Haha, this is kind of interesting because my lead woman in my main screenplay I’m working on right now is jobless to her own dismay, but that’s a big drive to some of the other character interactions, so it works out. It is kind of the exact opposite of what you’re talking about, so I found that amusing.

    Also, Kaye, just so you know, I’m attempting my own blog again to talk about movies and such. Last time I tried one was two years ago before school started, but it didn’t take long for me to become too encompassed with meeting new people to forget about it.

    So I’m trying again.


  13. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 3:12 pm

    I love the O’Malley series, too. In fact, I love all of Dee henderson’s books! About occupations, most of the books I read while growing up had the heroine as governess or nanny to the hero’s child–Jany Eyre was my favorite. My current WIP has a heroine who is a teacher which is easy for me because I taught for 25 years. The hero is a newspaper editor, so I had to do quite a bit of research for his part, tho. Interesting topic. I wonder if anyone has ever compiled a list of all the occupations most-used in fiction?


  14. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 3:34 pm

    I would like to see a book whose fictional characther is transitoning from stay-at-home mom with children to a working outside the home mom as they get older. It would be nice to see a fictional book that takes the reality of those of us that stay at home for years and then re-enter the work place. Anyone know of a book like that? It is almost like going into a alternate world when you have gotten used to being at home and living in a bubble then transition back into the work force.


  15. greyfort permalink
    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 3:43 pm

    I’ve been struggling with my historical for a job because I didn’t want the heroine to be a teacher – all I’ve ever really seen in historicals. I actually posted the question to a loop and got some great answers back. Still deciding.

    On my contemporary – I have the heroine as a teaching assistant for now. The hero is another college student.

    Not really a lot of research necessary – but that’s because I’ve been in that environment.

    I enjoy novels where the characters have “different” jobs than the norm, but doesn’t mean I feel ready to write them yet.


  16. greyfort permalink
    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 3:43 pm

    P.S. greyfort is Leslie – I guess its remembering my wordpress name…….


  17. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 5:00 pm

    Writing historicals means there were fewer options for heroines to have unusual jobs and still be historically accurate.

    In my stab at ‘lit’ my heroine was a stained glass artist.


  18. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 6:44 pm

    Kaye, like you, I’ve worked all of my adult life.
    I didn’t go to college, but worked my way up and am now a payroll manager. Someday I hope to put away my numbers hat and be able to work with my words!!

    My first book naturally had a heroine who worked. It was a necessity. I did pick an easy job (an accountant) that I was familiar with. It’s not that I didn’t want to do research, but the job fit Jenny. She was a ‘play it safe’ girl and liked all her ducks in a row. Being an accountant fit her lifestyle perfectly!

    It also made me be creative in giving her time to be with the hero. Usually a heroine at ‘work’ isn’t fun, especially when it is an 8-5 boring job.

    Thinking back to most of the books I’ve read, they either have 4 weeks of vacation coming to them, which they use during the time they just happen to meet their soulmate, or they, like you’ve said, have a flexible job where they might work alot, but they can come and go as they please.

    My book 2 has a heroine who is a teacher, so she has the summer off. WOOHOO!!!


  19. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 7:15 pm

    I am so bookmarking Caleb’s blog!


  20. Thursday, July 10, 2008 9:37 am

    The heroine in my WIP is a slave. She washes a lot of clothes. Her hands are red and chapped.

    My male MC is a cabinetmaker turned fur trapper turned southern planter, still doing cabinetmaking on the side.


  21. Friday, July 11, 2008 6:57 pm

    I enjoyed the O’Mally series. Each member of this “family” had a different personality type. That was my original goal when I turned to fiction writing but I doubt I could pull it off like Dee Henderson did.


  22. Saturday, July 12, 2008 11:19 pm

    I write a lot of historical, so no heroines with jobs and careers for me.

    But even in my contemporaries my heroines reflect my desire to be a wife and mother. I don’t write contemporary romances, I’m still not quite sure what exactly I write on that front. Even though I know all about the courtship of the H&H that’s rarely the main part of the story. Usually the part of their story that I want to tell is after they’re married so a job for my heroine isn’t even something I think about.

    But I have such a different ideal of what a woman should be from most other women, and most certainly from most other women my age. I really do think that part of my calling as a writer is to portray this different desire in fiction and to hold it up as the Biblical ideal that it really is. Far too many young women today are told that just wanting to be a wife and mother is a waste of her time and talent and that’s just not true.


  23. Tuesday, July 15, 2008 1:40 am

    My protagonist is a weaver. She started out as a shepherdess, running her father’s flocks after he’s died (because she was brought up to it and her stepmother wasn’t).

    But since it’s a plot-point she has a clubfoot, I finally decided it wasn’t realistic, and gave her a job working with the wool still but not in the field.

    I wanted, too, for her to be a weaver because I wanted to use the images from a Twila Paris song: “Like a tightly woven garment, like a metal alloy, we are put together in the strongest way,” for my main couple.


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