Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Unemployed Protagonists

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?

Theresa

13 comments:

Serena said...

I think that these types of stories can be interesting, but overdoing these types of stories can be related to the current economic climate, which may be why you are seeing a ton of them...many writers may be writing these stories as a catharsis.

Jolie said...

I wouldn't be immediately interested in the "how will s/he survive" idea. It could turn out to be too much Lifetime movie melodrama, especially if the protagonist is portrayed as a victim of the economy or of a cruel-intentioned employer. The protagonist would automatically become a hero who endures fear and suffering and defies the odds and finds redemption, blah blah blah.

Maybe in the hands of a very skilled writer, it would be a compelling story, but I'd rather read about the "did s/he deserve to be fired" idea. I predict that story would require a more complicated/flawed--and therefore more interesting (to me)--protagonist. It would be a story with grit and anger, which I find more gripping than mere grief or struggle.

Take for example Darin Strauss's More Than It Hurts You, which I read recently. It's about a family in which the mother is accused of injuring her child; a doctor believes she suffers from Munchausen syndrome by proxy. The story is concerned with how the family will sink or swim (fear! grief!), but it's equally concerned with whether the mother deserves punishment, whether the doctor will be vindicated, and whether the husband will ever see what his wife truly is. Talking about right and wrong, justified and unjustified, adds interest to a story that would otherwise fall into the category of "inspirational." I'm not into inspirational.

Patricia W. said...

Unemployment as an impetus to do that thing she's always wanted to do works for me.

Trying to get her job back and prove that she really was competent doesn't, unless there's some underhanded, suspenseful stuff going on. (Think Disclosure by Tom Sanders, movie starring Michael Douglas.)

People get fired. Lots of folks are getting fire now. So it can be a good jumping off point. Just depends on what the author does with it.

jwhit said...

Two points before reading the other comments:
1. I was just talking with a friend this week about themes that relate to the current times. This corporate bogeyman or conspiracy is showing up everywhere. The revolt against unfair authority idea is I think bigger than someone losing a job. The job thing may be how an individual expresses a personal view of what is happening on the larger stage, the little guy taking it in the neck because those in power are corrupted absolutely now.

2. How this concept is used in a story could end up as revenge, whining, a protest polemic, a thriller, a sobby romance, or any number of things. I think the worth of the starting point isn't a problem, but how that condition is played out: does the character find the depths of his own being to survive? Does he start a small business that ends up buying out the big one and firing his tormentor, remaining 'invisible' until the end when he shows up in the board room to gobble up the old boss? Does she end up in a relationship with the boss's disenchanted playboy son and make a pact with the kid to knock off the old man?

Point: the story can go anywhere the author wants to take it. If it's too 'reality', my guess is that would be boring and an essay or a memoir instead of a novel. Whether it functions or not as a novel is all in the execution of the plot.

My $.02.

Serena said...

I wonder if writers could use the firing or laying off of a worker should not turn into a story in which the fired worker accepts their plight and agrees with the reasons behind the firing and evolve the story from there...in another direction.

magolla said...

BORING! Why would I want to read a story about someone losing a job? That's reality. I read to escape reality.
Now, if the character was taking the fall for the big boys and decided to take matters in her own hands, oh, let's say with a Bushmaster AR15, THEN I would read it.
Margaret

Nancy D'Inzillo said...

I kind of tend to side with Magolla on this one, except for one point: I think the protagonist starting off losing their job could be fascinating, but particularly if it's done in an exciting way and we SEE them lose their job (then the question of "was it just or not" wouldn't come into play). I don't want to spend a whole text exploring why a person was fired, but what they proactively are going to do now that they are fired, and taking action against the company isn't really a topic that would interest me as a reader.

Anonymous said...

The stakes are too low if it's just about proving they were wrongly fired. Anyone can find another job, even in a tough market. Maybe youahve to go on unemplyment for a while, but you'll survive. So it's a boring premise.

Diane said...

In the story I'm currently polishing, my protag doesn't lose her job, but she doesn't get the promotion she had her heart set on. So this gives her the impetus to look elsewhere. I could have gone down the losing job route (still remember how that feels) but decided that she would be looking for a better job if she was still employed, rather than 'any' job.

Jeanie W said...

How about a Kafkaesque story about a man who gets fired with no explanation. Then he spends the entire novel trying to figure out why this has happened, but he never does and never gets hired anywhere else either.

Nah, forget it. That book would suck.

Adrian said...

Getting fired seems like a good twist once you're into the story, but not a way to launch one.

If the firing happens later in the plot, then we don't start with questions of your protagonist's competence.

@patricia w.: Wasn't _Disclosure_ by Michael Crichton?

Writer and Cat said...

I would be less interested in finding out whether the job performance was correctly assessed. As a reader, I'd rather know that up front. I can see a good story seed in the protagonist having to own up to his or her job performance being lacking, but I am not as intrigued by an unreliable narrator.

benwah said...

Funny. From the title of the post I thought it was going to be about protagonists who don't have enough to do in their stories, eg, standing around while the secondary characters get all the fun lines.

Theresa nicely breaks down why job firing is not quite as dramatic or interesting as a jumping off point. Unless you're looking corporate thriller, I suppose. Although I guess you could throw some vampires in there and make it work. It's all about fangs these days, right?