Protagonists With a Plethora of Abilities

A number of fictional characters have two or more talents that readers see simultaneously or consecutively.

For instance, Adam Dalgliesh of P.D. James’ mysteries is both a detective and published poet. In the consecutive realm, Charles Strickland is first a stockbroker and then a struggling genius of a painter in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence.

Having more than one talent can obviously make a character more interesting, admirable, unpredictable, etc. — and can open up lots of dramatic possibilities. An example of that is the way Strickland coldly abandons his wife and children to pursue his art — trading a comfortable existence for a life of intense privation that involves starving for his fame as well as actually starving (almost).

Then there are the amateur detectives who do other things for their “day job” — as is the case with Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen running a small-town post office when she and her pets aren’t sleuthing in Rita Mae Brown’s mysteries. An often-seen personality “hook” for many fictional detectives is doing another thing well in addition to ferreting out the bad guys.

Other characters have a job they hate or at best tolerate, and then do something more fun in their spare time. Dave Raymond is a courier in Tom Perrotta’s The Wishbones, but gets his real enjoyment playing guitar in a wedding band (when he’s not agonizing over which of two women is best for him).

In Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog, former Iranian colonel Massoud Behrani is working as a trash collector and convenience-store clerk in the U.S. when he buys a house as a first step to becoming a real-estate investor. Unfortunately, havoc ensues. Behrani is also an example of immigrants forced to take less prestigious jobs in a new country.

Chance, necessity, or societal events can cause people to put their different talents to use. In Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, Fritzi Jurdabralinski is an expert car mechanic and stunt pilot who joins the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II.

The not-admirable Briony Tallis becomes a nurse during that war and later a novelist in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

Then there’s Renaissance man — actually Renaissance orc — Mr. Nutt in Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals. That intellectual character is a “candle dripper,” blacksmith, soccer coach…

Who are your favorite fictional characters with two or more talents and/or a diverse job history?

If you’d like, you could also name real people with multiple talents and/or jobs — such as Leonardo da Vinci (painter, inventor, architect, etc.), Paul Robeson (singer, actor, activist, etc.), and Hillary Clinton (lawyer, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, etc.). Actually, I prefer Bernie Sanders, but that’s another story. 🙂

Authors who had other jobs before, during, or after their writing careers? See this post.

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

Odd Job Is Not Just a James Bond Villain

Literature is full of professions such as doctors and lawyers and teachers, but some protagonists have more unusual jobs. What are some examples of that?

Well, Tom Sherbourne is a lighthouse keeper in M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, and priests Lankester Merrin and Damien Karras of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist double as exorcist guys (the priests between oceans…of pea soup).

Of course, fictional characters’ unusual jobs are only a small part of what makes a fascinating novel fascinating, but they do add some…fascination. Heck, readers are curious about the logistics of jobs they never or rarely run across in real life. And of course what protagonists do for a living sheds some light (not just from a lighthouse) on their personalities and needs. For instance, Sherbourne at first welcomes the isolated nature of the lighthouse-keeper position after being traumatized by his war experiences.

Another isolated and relatively rare profession is held by Jean in Morag Joss’ Half-Broken Things. She’s a long-term house sitter — who’s not alone for long in her managed mansion of the moment.

The job of park ranger is not super rare, but it’s certainly not as plentiful a profession as many others. One memorable person holding that position is Deanna Wolfe in Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer.

Then there’s Robert Paterson’s job (actually, more a hobby) that takes him to cemeteries rather than parks to re-engrave the tombstones of Covenanter martyrs. Based on a real-life person, Paterson appears in Sir Walter Scott’s Old Mortality.

There are also fictional professions in fiction. Ephraim Gursky is basically a Jewish Eskimo (if one can call that a profession!) for a while in Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here. His mom might have plaintively asked, “Ephie, you couldn’t have been a doctor or lawyer?”

Or how about the “fireman” in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? Nope, not the kind of firefighter who puts out blazes, but the kind who torches books — as Guy Montag does in the novel until he questions his role in obliterating literature and other accumulated knowledge.

Another fictional (in more ways than one) profession is that of “literary detective” Thursday Next in Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. Ms. Next even pursues a criminal into the pages of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre by traveling through “The Prose Portal.”

In sci-fi and speculative fiction, professions can get real interesting. Crake of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is a geneticist — a normal-enough job — but he’s actually more of a mad scientist who practically wipes out the human race while creating a new race of beings called the Crakers.

There are also jobs that are not so unusual, but only occasionally found in works of fiction. For instance, Anne Lamott’s Blue Shoe includes an exterminator — who’s so averse to killing living things that he quits after arriving at the house of protagonist Mattie. Daniel basically ends up working as a handyman after that.

And there are jobs that now seem unusual but weren’t so offbeat back in the day. An example of that would be Queequeg as a harpoonist in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Or how about jobs that were formerly almost always held by men and thus catch our attention when held by women — as was the case with circa-World War II characters who ran a filling station in Fannie Flagg’s appropriately titled The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. (Well, a better title would have had “Woman” in it rather than “Girl.”)

What are some unusual jobs you remember from your fiction reading?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.