Some of the most compelling characters in literature also have the most interesting careers. Their working lives drive them and their stories. You’ll find plenty of firefighters in novels, but there’s no one quite like Guy Montag, the fireman in Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel, “Fahrenheit 451.” Montag’s job is at the top of my list of the most memorable jobs in fiction.
What a “Good” Job Means
In novels, an interesting job is not necessarily a “good” job with medical insurance coverage, 401(k), and a quarterly bonus. I chose the jobs on this list for their literary impact—how they helped in defining characters and advancing the conflict in the novel. If you haven’t read these books, check them out. You probably won’t apply for similar positions, but you’ll remember these characters and their jobs for a long time.
#1 Guy Montag, Fireman, “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury
In the futuristic society depicted in “Fahrenheit 451,” books are illegal and intellectual pursuits are considered dangerous. Guy Montag is not your typical fireman who extinguishes fires. He burns books and the houses where they are hidden. His huge transformation at the end of the book makes him an extraordinary hero.
#2 Vanessa Munroe, Informationist, “The Informationist” by Taylor Stevens
Vanessa (aka Michael) Munroe secures and sells critical information for big bucks to governments, corporations, and anybody who can afford her special expertise. Munroe is a kickass heroine in the mold of Lisbeth Salander, except better in every way. This book is often compared to Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but Stevens is the better storyteller and writer. See number nine below for more on Larsson’s characters.
#3 Amelia Stern, Pediatrician, “Other Women’s Children” by Perri Klass
Dr. Amelia Stern, a Boston pediatrician, is intelligent, sensitive, and conscientious. She’s one of the few doctors in literature who’s female (Dr. Zhivago hogs all the limelight) and not evil (read: Hannibal Lecter).
#4 Mark Watney, Astronaut, “The Martian” by Andy Weir
Many kids dream of becoming an astronaut. They might think twice if they hear about Mark Watney’s story. The astronaut is left behind on Mars by his crewmates who think he died in a storm. To survive, Mark produces from scratch things we tend to ignore, like water and food. Mark is smart but not nerdy, intense but not in a depressing way. As an astronaut, he’s resourceful, persistent, and resilient.
#5 Atticus Finch, Lawyer, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
Atticus Finch is a lawyer with an indefatigable sense of justice. He’s a patient and loving father, and a Southern gentleman in the best sense. He sacrifices his peaceful life and jeopardizes his family’s security to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman in a small town rife with racism.
#6 Sam Spade, Private Investigator, “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett
Sam Spade is the best thing about “The Maltese Falcon,” Dashiell Hammett’s quintessential detective novel. He fights the bad guys bare-fisted and outwits the cops and the villains alike. Although he romances the ladies, he’s decidedly an anti-romantic hero.
#7 Stevens, Head Butler, “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro
Stevens is the hardworking and loyal head butler of Darlington Hall. He’s a perfectionist who performs his job with the gravitas of a brain surgeon. His sacrifices in the name of duty earned him a place on this list.
#8 Deborah Samson aka Robert Shurtliff, Soldier, “Revolutionary” by Alex Myers
Deborah Samson, the 22-year-old heroine of Alex Myers’s literary novel, not only dresses as a man but fights as a soldier during the American Revolutionary War. As Robert Shurtliff, she learns how to march, shoot, and displays special courage in the battlefield. The character is based on a real woman who served in the Continental Army as a man and was honored for her bravery.
#9 Mikael Blomkvist, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson
Mikael Blomkvist is a crusading journalist who exposes corrupt financiers. He also uses his investigative journalism skills to solve the decades-old mystery of the disappearance of a wealthy young woman. As a former journalist myself, I can’t help but admire Blomkvist’s temerity.
#10 Karim Issar, Computer Programmer, “Kapitoil” by Teddy Wayne
Karim Issar, an immigrant from Qatar, is a financial analyst whiz who invents a computer program that predicts oil shares based on the news. He’s the perfect computer-nerd hero for this brilliantly humorous novel about Wall Street, love, and life.
#11 Clarice Starling, FBI Agent, “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris.
Clarice Starling is tenacious, intrepid, and ambitious. Although a rookie, she’s sharp and methodical in gathering evidence and following clues, making her the perfect match for the übervillain, Hannibal Lecter.
#12 Mae Holland, Customer Service Representative, “The Circle” by Dave Eggers
Mae Holland is an entry-level staffer at the Customer Experience department in a mega successful tech company called the Circle. She’s hardworking and ambitious, but naïve. These traits propel her to the spotlight at her monolithic company, revealing its inner workings in the process.
Note: I’ve updated this post, first published on my old blog on Sept. 28, 2016, from a list of 10 to 12 jobs in literature.