Fantasy stories tend to focus on the sword-wielding heroes and wise queens, an arrogant princeling or two, dashing superheroes, gruff wizards, maybe the odd monster who’s misunderstood by the humans at the base of the mountain. But none of those archetypes would get very far in their adventures if not for the shop clerks, cooks, nurses, and janitors who actually keep society chugging along—even in a fantasy realm.
With this in mind, we have assembled an appreciation post dedicated to some of our beloved under-sung working-class characters in SFF. Join us in the proletarian utopia of the comments to add your favorites!
Joyce Byers, Retail Clerk (Stranger Things)
At the start of the Stranger Thing juggernaut, Joyce Byers was (A) a single mom who supported her family by cashiering in a crappy general store, and (B) The Triumphant Return Of Winona Ryder, Amazing Actor. A few episodes in, however, she also became (C) Joyce Byers, Genre Hero. She alone held onto hope that her son Will was alive, and it was this hope, and her openness to the strange, that allowed her to communicate with her son in the Upside Down. And how does she communicate? By using her employee discount to buy extra Christmas lights. In Season 2, she attempts to return to Single Mom Normal, as she hand-stitches a Ghostbusters Halloween costume for Will, at work.
Ugh, Joyce, we love you.
But of course the Upside Down has other plans, and she has to set her regular life aside to battle the Mind-Flayer, investigate nefarious Russkies, and, basically adopt Eleven into her already-financially-strained family before she pulls the quintessential working-class move: convincing herself it’ll all be better once she starts over in a new town.
Hot Pie, Baker (Game of Thrones)
Game of Thrones may have focused almost exclusively on the emotional lives and political alliances of elites, but obviously the elite can’t really function without a working class. (Perhaps someone should mention that to them?) Arya, disguised as “Arry”, escapes King’s Landing with a group of Night’s Watch recruits, including the orphaned Hot Pie. After a series of unfortunate events, Hot Pie actually goes on to live what seems like a good, regular life as a baker, genuinely enjoying his job and staying well clear of the drama of Starks and Lannisters. He is also one of the few genuinely good, thoughtful people in the epic. In the midst of all that horror and bloodshed, who else would think to make Arya a loaf of Direwolf Bread? Who would take the extra time to brown the butter? Hot Pie, that’s who.
Ava and Jules, Swedish Big Box (No, Not That One) Retail Workers (Finna by Nino Cipri)
Ava and Jules should have known better than to date. Sure, they were into each other, and in those heady first days it felt like nothing could ever possibly go wrong. The fact that they work together at an enormous, anonymous store was part of the fun—they were the bright spot in each other’s boring workdays.
But then they broke up last week.
Now, when they see each other, it’s terrible. There are still so! Many! Things! They like about each other, but so many other petty resentments standing in the way of a genuine friendship. And as if all that wasn’t enough? Some kind elderly lady took a wrong turn, fell right through an interdimensional wormhole, and Ava and Jules are the only two people who can traverse spacetime to try to get her back, and they have to work as a team. And they have to do it all for minimum wage.
Rose Tyler, Shop Assistant (Doctor Who)
The first time we meet Rose, she assumes that the living mannequins attacking her are students—because only students would have the free time and money to do something so silly just for fun. She, meanwhile, is working late at a shop when weirdness, and the Doctor, show up in her life. She speaks in a harsh cascade of London slang, she says “Oi!” loudly and often, she is underestimated by snobs, and she the kind of person who would probably get really drunk and scream-sing “Common People” at karaoke night at the pub. And that is all, in a word, fantastic.
Because Rose Tyler is a hero, vibrant and caring and absolutely determined to do the right thing and see the best in people—even when those people are Daleks. She is the person, time and again, who inspires the Doctor to be more compassionate, and who most likely inspires the transformation from the rather gruff Ninth Doctor to the much warmer Tenth. She made a whole new generation fall in love with Doctor Who, and she saved the universe at least twice. Sing along with Rose Tyler, she might just get you through.
Eleanor, Caregiver (The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson)
Eleanor has been an in-home caretaker for years, nursing her dying mother while her sister was able to move out and start a family. Now, since her mother has passed on, she lives with her ungrateful sister, completely at loose ends. She doesn’t want to be a nurse, but having given up her youth for her family’s needs she hasn’t developed either the social or practical skills that would allow her to go out and find a job. She takes the gig working at Hill House in the same way a middle class person might take a gap year or a study abroad program–she thinks it will be a time for her to reflect on herself, far from her past and family entanglements, until she can create a new path for her life. Of course, this is a Shirley Jackson story, and things don’t really go according to plan.
Eleanor Shellstrop, Telemarketer (The Good Place)
This Eleanor is the true avatar of our age: holding on to youth long past a point where she should have tried #adulting, following every crumb of celeb gossip like celestial manna, lying about her birthday to score a free marg, and working a parasitic telemarketing job in a fluorescent cubicle. She’s willing to humiliate her friends to further her t-shirt sidehustle. But of course there’s more under there, just as there’s more under all of our carefully-maintained exteriors. Faced with eternity, she moves from trying to game the system to figuring out how to reform the system to help others, but she never, at any point, stops being the person who loves nachos and cocktail shrimp and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Jaskier, Freelance Bard (The Witcher)
He’s a bard, traveling from gig to gig. He isn’t very well-respected—even when he has a hit song people are dismissive and rude to him. And yet he channels his own stress of living in a gig economy into what may be the ultimate freelance anthem: Toss a Coin to Your Witcher.
Melanie, Retail Clerk (The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter)
In Angela Carter’s dark fairy tale riff The Magic Toyshop, happily middle-class Melanie and her siblings are orphaned and forced to live with their Uncle Phillip, an abusive toymaker. Melanie is put to work to earn her keep, and her days go from being defined by school and family to being bound by a grinding work schedule, as she becomes the toy shop’s main clerk and janitor. Within weeks Melanie has gone from being a carefree, romantic teen to an angry young woman who recoils every time the shop’s door opens, as it means she’ll have to stop whatever she’s doing to deal with a customer who will almost certainly look down on her, and consider her worth less, simply because she’s working at a low-wage job.
Patty Tolan, MTA Booth Attendant (Ghostbusters)
Patty works for the MTA as a booth attendant, which means that she spends her days in a cramped box in a dimly lit subway station in New York City, and watches people as they attempt to commute on our clogged, unreliable transit system. And since (at least if my life in New York is any indication) people only talk to her when there is no other choice because each of the Metrocard machines is flashing a variation on the message: “You can’t buy a card from me, go to hell”, she only sees people at their worst. This is not a fun gig. Despite this, Patty spends her free time researching the history of our beloved grimy-ass City, and joins the Ghostbusters not because has any stake in paranormal experiments, but simply because she stumbles across a ghostly terrorist attack, and wants to be a part of stopping it. For all of Abby, Erin, and Holtzmann’s expertise, they would not have been able to save New York without Patty’s deep knowledge of New York.
Joel Robinson, Janitor, and Mike Nelson, Temp (Mystery Science Theater 3000)
Tor.com’s favorite Space Janitor and favorite Hapless Temp! Although to be fair Joel’s a janitor on Earth until he’s shot into space against his will, and we’re not sure if watching movies in the Satellite of Love will count as a temp gig on Mike’s resume. However, even as reluctant astronauts they’re both staunch defenders of the working-class, with Joel rhapsodizing about how great service stations used to be, and taking the side of poor characters in each of the movies he riffs, while Mike never misses a chance to celebrate the hardworking decency of the American Midwest.
Elisa Esposito, Janitor (The Shape of Water)
Not a space janitor, but a Dark Fairy Tale janitor! Elisa is a perfect del Toro heroine: intelligent, compassionate, and severely underestimated by the powerful people in her world. She lives alone in a modest apartment above a movie theater and takes the bus to her job at a government facility, where she and her fellow workers are herded through the punchclock line like so many unwanted sheep. She and her co-worker/BFF Zelda Fuller are utterly insignificant to their higher ups, which is why they’re able to slip beneath notice and free the Sexy Fish-Man held captive at the facility. Like all of del Toro’s work, this movie is a love song to outcasts and classic movie monsters, and an elegantly signed “Fuck You” to those who use their power to crush love and creativity.
Dinah Lance, Nightclub Singer (Birds of Prey)
In Birds of Prey, Dinah Lance makes her living as a nightclub singer. Yes, she drives a sweet car, but she also lives in a pretty rundown building, seemingly the same place where she grew up with her mom, the first Black Canary. She doesn’t trust cops, and pointedly refuses to take up the Black Canary mantle because she thinks the Gotham police got her mother killed. She also immediately empathizes with Cassie Cain when she sees the girl hiding from her foster parents in the building’s stairwell. Basically, despite the glamour of her life as a singer, and her actual superpower, she moves through the world like a poor person who is used to being screwed by life. This comes through most clearly in one of the film’s best scenes, when Roman Sionis humiliates a customer at his club, and Canary has to keep her mouth shut. Apart from the fact that the volatile Ronan might just kill her for insubordination, he’s also the one signing her paycheck, and she literally can’t afford to cross him. Until, of course, she does, and steps up to be a hero alongside Harley Quinn and Huntress.
Kris Pulaski, Hotel Night Manager (We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix)
Kris used to be a rock star—or at least, a right-on-the-edge-of-stardom rock guitarist. She and her friends in Dürt Würk met as scrubby, working- and lower-middle-class kids in Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt, and were just at the beginning of a career that looked like it might bring them fame and fortune. One of them, Terry Hunt, did become rich and famous, and the other guys live boring, comfortable middle-class lives now—but not Kris. For reasons that we’ll avoid spoiling, when we meet Kris she’s toiling as a night clerk in a run down Best Western, fielding exhausted truckers and the occasional drunk, and barely making ends meet. When she discovers some horrific truths about Rock God Terry Hunt, and realizes she’ll have to go on a dangerous quest to confront her old bandmate, she also understands that she has to do it with very little money, and no guarantee she’ll be able to put her life back together…if she even comes back alive.
Buffy Summers, Fast Food Worker (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
As a younger teen, Buffy lived what seemed to be a comfortable middle-class life. Her mom worked in an art gallery, They had a nice large house in what looked like a safe neighborhood (aside from the vampires, of course), and both she and her eventual magical little sister were able to wear trendy clothes and pay their cover at the Bronze.
But after Joyce Summers’ death, Buffy has to step up to be the main provider for Dawn, and years of slaying can’t exactly go on a resume. She leaves school, taking a minimum wage gig slaying arteries at the DoubleMeat Palace, and basically forms a parenting collective with Willow, Tara, Xander, and Anya so her little sister can finish high school with relative stability. In our opinion we don’t see enough of this aspect, but for a few seasons Buffy has to go full Peter Parker, balancing her supernatural life with a thankless, exhausting job, and being the main caretaker of her family, and the added tension is great.
Mama, Nurse/Housecleaner (Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi)
Mama does her best to shield Ella and Kev from the violent, white supremacist country culture that surrounds them, but with few resources, little money, and a functional moral compass, that proves impossible. (It’s almost like being an upright player doesn’t matter when the game is rigged against you.) She balances being a mother with her work as a nurse, and then supplements her nursing career with gigs cleaning people’s houses when the money isn’t enough. She moves her kids across the country from Compton to Harlem, hoping that they’ll be safer in the iconic heart of Black New York City, but despite all her work they still scrape by in a tenement. And this would be a depressing entry in this list, were it not for her gift to Ella. After a lifetime of love and patience and grace and all the things women especially and Black women especially especially, are taught to cultivate, she allows her daughter to see her rage, her endless fury at a system that would crush her and her children. And Ella takes that rage and changes the world.
Peter Parker, All Kinds of Thankless Gigs (Spider-Man)
Occasionally Peter Parker is a whole adult, married to model/actress Mary Jane Watson and making enough money to be comfortable. Sometimes he’s even an Evil CEO! But the version of Peter Parker that we like best, and the one that made the character a comics icon, is the scrappy kid juggling a couple of jobs to put himself through college while he moonlights as a superhero. Basically, our sweet spot is the second half of the first Raimi Spider-Man up until about the last two minutes of the second Raimi Spider-Man, plus of course the original classic Lee/Ditko comics.
Vanessa Carlysle, Sex Worker/Waitress (Deadpool)
Here’s why Vanessa’s a hero: she’s smart and funny and incredibly hot. She gets up every morning and goes to a physically demanding job that we’re just gonna assume involves an enormous amount of sexual harassment. And when her hitman boyfriend is diagnosed with cancer, she keeps going to work, she keeps making him laugh, and she throws herself into helping him find a treatment. She doesn’t let him feel sorry for himself, she refuses to let him give up. And when he runs away from her to try the mysterious treatment that turns him into Deadpool? She keeps going to work, because what else is she going to do? She doesn’t have the luxury of hiding herself away to grieve—someone has to pay the rent.
Rose Tico, Mechanic (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)
Rose is a mechanic, but she is much more than that. What she really is is the first time a background character in a Star Wars movie got to step into the center of a scene and become a main character. Every other character is glamorous–a hotshot pilot, a Jedi scion, a princess, an escaped Stormtrooper, a Lord, a Darth, a Master. Even in Rogue One the characters are assassins, mystical Temple Guardians, and engineering geniuses. Rose, though, is just a cog, an anonymous Resistance member who has never fought or flown or watched a lightsaber soar across a forest to rest in her waiting palm. She saw that the First Order was wrong, and she made a thousand tiny choices to try to make a better world with no fanfare or destiny. Rose is the best.
Originally published in March 2020.