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.

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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 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.