We all have our favorite tropes, and our pet peeves in the books we read. One of my biggest pet peeves is the professional character who does something that is really a no-no in his stated profession. You know the kind – the cop who picks up a new piece of crime-scene evidence with his bare hands and takes it off to look at it. The paramedic who scoops up his injured lover in his arms without checking for head and neck injuries. The pilot flying an urgent mission who is suddenly short of fuel in mid-air because he somehow didn’t look at his fuel gauges before he took off.
Especially when there’s no believable excuse for the mistake. It’s occasionally possible to motivate a break in protocol in a way I believe, especially if the guy involved is injured, or if he stops and acknowledges he’s going to break his own rules for a defined cause. (After all, in Tracefinder I have Nick, a cop who does some pretty unprofessional things, but I hope the motivations and thought that he gives to why he’s breaking the rules make it feel plausible.) Unfortunately, being insanely hot for another guy doesn’t feel like a believable excuse for simply forgetting a professional’s basic training.
I was trying to figure out why those types of character mistakes bother me so much when they just “happen”. One possibility was that it makes the character look stupid. But, while I do have a weakness for smart MCs, I also love some books where the main character isn’t brilliant.
Muscling Through by J.L. Merrow has my favorite example of a character who doesn’t read people and situations well and who makes mistakes because of a lack of intelligence. And yet, Al is a very sympathetic character and I never get impatient with his failings. He’s very consistent – his mistakes happen because he believes the best of other people and doesn’t read cues. He’s not smart one moment and acting dumb the next, and I don’t need him to be clever to be wonderful. So it’s not having to downgrade a hero’s basic intelligence that bothers me.
And it’s not simply doing something incompetent. One of the most fun tropes can be someone who has skills and brains, but is in a situation where they don’t know what to do. The banker who inherits a ranch. The top cowboy trying to deal with a legal court case. I enjoy watching people striving to fit untrained skills to a situation. So it’s not just the screw-ups that bother me.
I think the problem with the unprofessional MC is that it makes me believe in them less, as real people. Part of being real is having consistency. A character who is supposedly a sharp FBI agent, but who doesn’t bother to check for danger before opening a safe-house door, is like an actor falling out of character in a play. They damage the illusion of the story’s reality. They make themselves into a manipulated cut-out, tweaked to fit the plot. I think that’s why each unprofessional move pushes me further out of the story – unable to empathize with someone who doesn’t feel real – and why it’s the one pet peeve likely to make me walk away from two hot men in love, in an otherwise competent tale.
On the other hand, I do love competent professionals who are not superhuman. The ones who make mistakes because a problem is hard, and because all their skills aren’t enough to find answers easily, or because a problem is outside their skill-set. So I’d love to know – which books do you enjoy where a professional is truly believable – but out of his range? Have you read a good story where that smart, competent guy is just in the wrong place, but stays true to himself? Maybe like Zero at the Bone where a kidnapped doctor acts like a doctor, even though it’s not much help in his situation? Any suggestions of books where mistakes are made because a guy is true to his own profession and misreads a situation because of it, not because he falls out of character? I don’t like unprofessionals, but I do love a smart fish-out-of-water.