I'm noticing a new trend in my inbox lately. An awful lot of manuscripts are starting with the protagonist getting fired. I can't decide what I think about this trend.
On the one hand, this would seem to be a good, emotional starting point. It's inherently dramatic -- drama is rooted in change and in conflict, and losing your job encompasses both. An event is in motion, and that event creates change in the protagonist's life. And people hardly ever accept the reasons for which they're being terminated as good or legitimate reasons, so there's always a tendency to fight back. Conflict.
It gives the heroine an instant problem to solve. What will she do? How will she continue on in her life? Jobs are hard to find these days. Will she lose everything, or will she manage to survive?
It provides the added opportunity for a little bit of character set-up. The reasons for the termination are backstory -- that is, they happened before the present moment of the storyline -- but their presentation comes about naturally through an active scene. "Joe, when you went to that convention and sent a strippergram to Acme's lead buyer, you might've thought it was funny, but he didn't. We lost our biggest account because of this. I'm afraid we have to let you go."
And, sad to say, this taps in to our current cultural zeitgeist. Nationwide, we've been in net job loss territory since May of this year. Unemployment is always a serious problem for the people and families dealing with it, but lately, it seems to be on the public radar a little bit more than usual. I know there are a lot of pundits out there who want to talk about "mental recession," but leaving politics aside, it doesn't really matter for fiction purposes whether these things are born from facts or from perceptions. When people start paying attention to a topic, that topic finds its way into creative works of storytellers. So job loss is topical, and it's entirely possible that a lot of people out there in this current climate would want to read stories that deal with this precise problem.
But, with all that said, I'm still not sure that getting fired is a good opener for story. There are two basic patterns for when people lose their jobs. The first is when it's part of a mass layoff or layoff for economic or similar reasons unrelated to the person's job performance. The second is when an individual is being fired for cause. The main difference between these two scenarios is that under the first, the employer is not going to refill the job -- the job itself is being eliminated, and the person is just a casualty. Under the second, the job will have to be refilled. It's not the job that's been eliminated, but the individual.
The first is inherently more sympathetic. It falls under the category of bad things that happen to good people, and might actually enhance the amount of sympathy a reader feels for the protagonists -- although, of course, much depends on the way it's written. I think we can probably all agree on the increased sympathy factor, though if you have other ideas, I'd like to hear about them in the comments.
But this is not the scenario that's been popping up in my inbox. What I've been seeing instead are stories about people who are terminated for cause, but the reasons for their termination are either incorrect or unfair. If incorrect, the story then becomes about proving that the big bad employer was covering something up, made a mistake, or failed to get an inept manager under control before that manager committed the ultimate blunder. If unfair, the story then becomes about lawsuits and revenge.
In either case, though, I'm out of step with the protagonist right from page one. The protagonist was not a victim of the economy, not a sympathetic bystander. Our dramatic question is not, "How will the protagonists survive?", but, "Was the protagonist fired for good reasons or bad?" And I think that's a far less compelling dramatic question.
But I could be wrong. That does occasionally happen -- I know, I know. Shocker. ;) Maybe the dramatic impetus provided by this big, compelling problem is enough to propel the reader through the first chapter and get them deeper into the plot. And the deeper they read, the more bonded they become to the protagonist. That's just the way it works.
I'd like to know what you all think about this. If the protagonist is fired because of job performance issues, are you going to want to read a story that's essentially about whether the job performance was correctly assessed?