It’s Personal Every Time

I have been using Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited to listen to audiobooks recently.  Now, you can search for e-books that are both KU eligible and have an audio version available, but if there is a way to search for books where the audio version is included in KU, I haven’t been able to figure it out.  That means that I do a fair amount of hunting through the lists, clicking on titles to see if they are labeled “Read And Listen For Free” or if they want me to shell out for the audio version. (Most are of the latter variety.)

However, I have found a fair number that I can listen to as part of Kindle Unlimited.  Or that I can start listening to, anyway.  Because of how I am finding books I am taking chances on a lot of books that I wouldn’t have tried otherwise.  Some of them were fun, exciting finds, and I intend to do a post on the “diamonds in the rough” that I have stumbled upon.

Some of them… not so much.  I don’t like writing negative reviews, so I won’t be mentioning titles in this blog, but I have noticed many of the same issues cropping up time and again, and I want to talk about one of them today.

I call it the “This Time It’s Personal” bit.  It works like this:

A main character is faced with a professional issue–a lawyer has a client charged with a crime, a structural engineer has a building to survey, a soldier has an objective to overtake. Then the author hits you with the kicker reveal–the main character has a personal connection to the job.  The client is the lawyer’s ex-wife’s twin sister.  The building is where the engineer’s parents were murdered. The soldier lost his best friend in an earlier assault on the objective.

The interesting thing is that it didn’t really click for me what exactly was bugging me about that particular trope until I started listening to Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities and met Jarvis Lorry.  In his own words:

“And you will see how truly I spoke of myself just now, in saying I had no feelings, and that all the relations I hold with my fellow-creatures are mere business relations, when you reflect that I have never seen you since. No; you have been the ward of Tellson’s House since, and I have been busy with the other business of Tellson’s House since. Feelings! I have no time for them, no chance of them. I pass my whole life, miss, in turning an immense pecuniary Mangle.”

Now, Jarvis Lorry does have a history with Lucie Manette, the young woman to whom he makes the above speech.  But it is a professional history. He is dedicated to her because he is dedicated to Tellson’s Bank.  Dickens didn’t invent some other connection because he didn’t need any other connection. Mr. Lorry’s professional dedication was the strongest possible motivation for that character.

And that got me thinking about Philip Marlowe, one of my literary heroes. When Marlowe went to the wall for a client it wasn’t because the client was Marlowe’s sister’s boyfriend’s cousin, it was because the client was a client (and sometimes not even that.  Marlowe frequently puts his life on the line for innocent bystanders.)

The problem that I have with “This Time It’s Personal” is the implication that professional dedication isn’t enough of a motivation for a protagonist.

“Ordinarily I wouldn’t care about a teenager getting gunned down in cold blood on my watch, but since the kid is related to an old friend, I guess I’ll go ahead and investigate the case.”

And I think that’s a relatively new trend.  I don’t see “But this case threatens to reveal the detective’s own shadowy past…” type descriptions on older mysteries. There was a mystery, and a detective whose job it is to solve mysteries, and that was all you needed.

Science Fiction Disasters weren’t about a scientist having to save the town because his estranged daughter lived there, he saved the town because thousands of innocent people lived there.

Which is not to say that loyalty to a friend or a family member is a bad motivation for a protagonist. It’s just that loyalty to an employer or client and commitment to upholding the standards of a profession are also perfectly valid motivations for a protagonist, and what I see in much of modern fiction is the assumption that those things are not enough without some kind of personal connection.

In fact, in many works of modern fiction I see protagonists who are willing to betray employers and violate professional standards for personal reasons and the authors present that as being a positive trait. It’s as if the concept of a workingman’s honor–“If I take your silver I owe you my loyalty”–isn’t considered a virtue in modern fiction.

Something to think about.



About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to It’s Personal Every Time

  1. The post-modern trend is all about deeming the individual more important than the group /society that PRODUCED the individual in the first place. This is not conducive to heroism or self-sacrifice, just “what’s in it for me?”

    The stories I’ve written start out with professional / societal expectation of doing the right thing because that’s who the protagonists ARE! A personal involvement may come into play later to raise the stakes for the protagonist, but it’s his JOB / ROLE in society to catch the murderer or protect the innocent from space outlaws or whatever.

    This is probably the greatest appeal of the pulp-era fiction up to the mid-1950s to me – a setting that is a morally-ordered universe.

  2. Suddenly reminded of how much Larry Corriea’s Tom Stranger kicks that trend in the face. The man is merely the consummate professional.

  3. Pingback: Solomon Kane | Nixon Now

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