Today, I’ll touch a bit on the day job, the one that almost pays the bills so I can come home and write until three or four in the morning. I am a manager for a national pharmacy chain that will remain nameless (although a lot of our checks are mistakenly made out to Wal-Mart). There are several things about said position that I don’t enjoy, but one of the few perks is the six feet of books directly across from the toilet paper. Don’t ask me about why this sort of adjacency makes sense–I don’t know.
Instead of taking the smoke breaks enjoyed by other members of management, I use my few moments of idle time to browse the selection of paperbacks. Almost exclusively, we carry bestsellers by the biggest names, usually long after the buzz over the novel has passed. I enjoy going through the new arrivals every Friday, but my frequent browsings have left me with one question.
Does anyone write about a protagonist that is not a:
–former/current agent of the FBI/CIA/NSA or some other government agency
–other form of law enforcement officer
–former Navy SEAL/Special Ops
–erudite professor ala The DaVinci Code?
Of the fifty or so titles we carry at any one time, over half (yes, I counted) revolved around protagonists of this sort. Are we so enamored with Dirty Harry and Clarice Starling that we must have a million novels about them? I understand the thriller/suspense story is hot right now, but I want a change from these cookie-cutter characters. Give me the same stories as told by Elmore Leonard, whose characters represent more shades of gray, usually dark gray. Give me Harry Dresden from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, combining magic with the noir. For that matter, give me Encyclopedia Brown–at least he never had to overcome some tragic failure in his past to solve mysteries.
Give me original characters, or give me death.
I’m sure some of the books are great reads. I also can’t deny the marketability of such works occupying the top of the bestseller lists. Still, this process of browsing books in my store has caused a fundamental change in the way I look at my own writing. Instead of developing an idea and just plopping any (pick one of the above characters) into it, one of the first things I look at is how the story might be different, or better, with an unlikely protagonist. I’m not looking for some POV character the reader won’t relate to, only to expand the reader’s scope. One of the reasons Agatha Christie was so successful with Miss Marple is because, at the time, the archetype detective was more like Sherlock Holmes, not an elderly lady as concerned with her garden as solving murders. Tolkien could have focused his Rings trilogy on the warrior-king Aragorn, but instead he focused on the docile, diminutive hobbits, making the story more interesting by giving us characters more like ourselves, but in extraordinary circumstances.
Perhaps this bias of mine will decrease my chances of publication. So be it. I could write a story fitting this mold, but what can I write that hasn’t already been published in the last five years in some form or another. Instead, I would rather focus on the unexpected–both in what I read and what I write.