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April 29, 2014

What’s the Perfect Job for Our Characters?

Employee Only sign with text: Finding the Perfect Job (for Our Characters)

This past weekend, a student from my upcoming “plotting for pantsers” workshop asked me a question about characters, and I offered to blog about the topic with an answer. I always say I’m happy to answer people’s questions, and this is why: easy blog post ideas. *smile*

So thanks go to Karen Aldridge for this great question that I haven’t seen discussed before:

“Have you ever blogged about choosing careers for your characters? … I’m familiar with Michael Hauge and Save the Cat. I love it when…it just seems like the writer has chosen the perfect career for the hero and heroine, based on this identity and essence, etc. … But even with those tools, I struggle.”

Karen’s absolutely right. If we write our story well, every aspect of the story will contribute to the overall picture and create an impression for the reader. There aren’t any unimportant details in a well-written story. And that means the careers for our characters shouldn’t be an afterthought either.

Does Our Story Require a Certain Career?

Some genres or series are strongly tied to certain careers. For example, military or legal thrillers need characters with military or legal system ties. Some contemporary romance series are based on Navy SEAL heroes, NASCAR drivers, firefighters, etc. Some mystery or suspense series follow a private investigator, bounty hunter, etc.

But if our story doesn’t fall into that category, we shouldn’t assume our character’s career would be just a footnote to their backstory or something to justify how they can pay for that apartment in a nice neighborhood. We can create a more three-dimensional character and a tighter plot if we tie their career into the story.

So if the requirements of our story leave the options wide open, we have to come up with other ways to decide on our characters’ careers.

7 Ways to Tie Characters’ Careers to the Story

  • 1) Job as Story Trigger

A character’s career can be used to kick off the story, either as the page one “hook” or as the inciting incident in one of the first chapters. This method is common in some series—think of noir private detective stories, where a “dame” walks into the PI’s office with a request for help on a case. However, this technique can be used for any career.

For example, a caterer can sign up a new client, an office worker can meet their new boss, or a starship captain can be assigned to a new ship. Any one of these new situations could be our story, as characters adjust and grow.

In many romances, the “meet cute” between the characters is driven by one or both of their jobs intersecting. This could be anything from the trope of a billionaire and his assistant to the florist heroine who helps the hero pick out flowers for the (soon to be ex-) girlfriend.

  • 2) Job Informs Backstory

A character’s career can be used to explore why characters are who they are. This is different from just using the character’s career as a backstory footnote. In this case, the career ties who the character is today to who they were before.

For example, a character might follow in his father’s footsteps or be involved in the family business. This detail can provide clues to readers about his relationship with his family over the years. Or a soldier might suffer from deployment-related trauma that affects how she interacts with others.

  • 3) Job as Motivation

A character’s career can be used to provide motivation for their actions. Some characters will have careers they consider a “mission” or “calling.” For these characters, their job is what drives them.

For example, many bodyguard characters endure threats and risks that would have the rest of us throwing up our hands and calling it quits. But they stay with their assignment, regardless of how crazy things get, because they believe in the importance of their job.

  • 4) Job as Conflict

A character’s career can be used to provide conflict, both internal and external. In real life, jobs can create endless stress and tension, and the same can happen in our stories.

For example, co-workers or bosses can provide external conflict as story antagonists or villains. Or job requirements could trigger internal conflict by making characters question their priorities.

In romances, the characters’ jobs might make them believe they’d be incompatible as a couple. Think of a land developer and an environmentalist, or the movie You’ve Got Mail, with the small, independent bookseller against a mega-chain bookstore owner.

  • 5) Job as Goal

A character’s career can be used for a story goal. This method could apply to two different situations. In some cases, like in the Motivation angle, the job might require that characters succeed at a story goal. Other times, future benefits tied to the job could be a goal.

For example, in the first case, a federal agent has to catch the bad guy if she expects to keep her job. In the second case, a story goal might include getting a promotion or raise, or maybe the goal is to find a new job.

  • 6) Job as Resolution

A character’s career can be used to provide the resolution to the story problems and questions. Throughout our lives, we often have to learn specialized knowledge or skills for our jobs. These abilities can be the key to overcoming the story’s obstacles.

For example, a firefighter might recognize the buying habits of an arsonist during a weekend trip to the hardware store. That insight might prompt him to follow and catch the bad guy in the act. (Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, the team behind The Emotion Thesaurus and the Positive and Negative Traits books, are working on a new thesaurus with ideas for our characters’ talents and skills.)

In romances, the couple’s jobs might encourage them to overcome the obstacles by helping them see how they’re the perfect match. Maybe they both have unusual (but compatible) work hours or travel schedules. Or maybe their jobs require compatible personalities or skills.

  • 7) Job as Characterization

A character’s career can be used to provide insights into their Essence. A character’s essence is who they are behind their mask, who they have the potential to become. So their job can reveal what characters care about or value, or it can expose their vulnerabilities.

For example, a ruthless businessman might not take the opportunity to put his rival out of business if he recently learned of his rival’s severe health troubles. That choice reveals the caring human behind the corporate mask and exposes how he values compassion in addition to competition.

Obviously, we can use more than one of these techniques to tie a character’s career to the story. A character’s current job could be the conflict and the new job could be the goal. A romance hero and heroine could meet through the “job as trigger” device and encounter conflict because of their positions. Etc., etc.

For brainstorming help, the U.S. government offers a “list of careers,” which includes links to the median pay, educational requirements, etc. Several job hunting websites provide information as well, like this compilation organized into categories or this list of jobs with the outlook and description for each. We can also use career placement tests, answering the questions as our characters, to find good matches for their personalities.

The more ways we can make every aspect of our story feel relevant, the stronger our story will feel overall. A career that isn’t just an afterthought or a footnote can add dimension to our storytelling and characters and can increase the sense that our story is a full, well-rounded experience. *smile*

Do you try to make your characters’ careers relevant to the story? Can you think of more examples for stories or genres with relevant careers? Have you ever struggled to come up with careers for your characters? Do you have any tips or other techniques to share?

Join Jami in her Upcoming Workshops: Learn all about Beat Sheets on 5/8 & Become an Expert in Story Planning with “Lost Your Pants?” on 5/13. Click here to learn more and save money!

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23 Comments on "What’s the Perfect Job for Our Characters?"

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Serena Yung
Serena Yung
This blog post is so cool! 😀 And I totally agree that making it relevant to the story would make it feel more interesting and less tangential or tacked on. My characters are almost all pre-job aged though, haha. Most of my oldest characters are like 20, and many are just teenagers and some are even younger than 10… (I do have SOME exceptions of characters who are older than 20 and have jobs already. Sometimes the jobs are integral to the plot, sometimes it reveals their personalities, etc. but I’ll have to look into it because I’ve never thought about this before.) But I do enjoy thinking about what ideal jobs my young characters could do. Like I have this character who could become a matchmaker, because he is SUPER interested in other people’s romantic goings-on, and he is generally very accurate in observing who is in love with/ attracted to whom, and in predicting who will eventually fall in love with whom. He feels very proud of himself in being accurate most of the time. Right now he is contemplating whether he should help the hero and heroine, because both have realized that they are in love with each other, but both believe that the other only sees them as a friend or sibling. So my character wonders if he should tell the hero or heroine or both that the other reciprocates their love! He is very happy that things have turned out this way, though, because the… Read more »
Angela Ackerman

Thanks for the shout out! The Skills and Talent Thesaurus is certainly a hit with writers, so I think this really is an untapped area of exploration. People have asked us to create a thesaurus for jobs, so who knows, we just might! A month or so back, I found this link where you can put in the personality traits/ideals of a character and see what sort of job they are best suited for. A writer could do this and find their character’s perfect job…or the opposite–use it to find a career the character is NOT SUITED FOR, so we get lots of friction and conflict! 🙂 I’ll leave the link here in case anyone wants to take a peek. http://www.careershifters.org/expert-advice/matching-your-personality-to-your-career

Carradee
Do you try to make your characters’ careers relevant to the story? When that fits the story, sure. But sometimes the job itself is less relevant to what’s going on and more something that the MC has to juggle with all that’s going on. For instance, my runaway slave girl character both attends high school and works a part-time job. Part of her struggle in book 1 is figuring out where homework and paying rent fits in with someone from her past showing up. (She does call out sick once.) But then in another series, the one particular character’s occupation changes multiple times just in the first two books in the series. She starts off working as a maid in the castle, and she actually quits (after more than 5 years of working there) because the prince annoys her. Her next job as a seamstress ends when she’s invited to be a lady-in-waiting, which kinda ends when she’s maneuvered into being bodyguard for the person to whom she’s lady-in-waiting, and then her actions as bodyguard ultimately result in her being ruler of 3 distinct peoples, 2 of which she can’t even communicate with. Have you ever struggled to come up with careers for your characters? Yeah, especially for things like temporary jobs. What jobs someone would be good at vs. who would actually hire them doesn’t always match up, and figuring that out can be a bit tricky. For instance, that runaway slave girl? Her job only suits her because… Read more »
Sharla Rae

Loved this blog and I think it’s the first of it’s kind that I’ve seen. Great job, Jami.

Steffi
Steffi

Interesting post (once again) 🙂 The meaning of a character’s job for story and character development is different in my (few, nowhere to be read) works. In my latest story for example, it is an instrument in many ways. The main character’s memory has been altered/ erased in parts. Now she has a job she wouldn’t have attended before because it requires patience and sensibility. Before, she was a cynical, battle-scarred warrior, full of hatred for her clan – unthinkable back then, to attend a normal job, when revolution was all she could think of! She got this job in order to “ease” her mind with something peaceful (inofficially) , so she would not start questioning the way things are again. But here comes that “quiet” job again – her contact to a certain customer makes supposedly erased memories come back again :p

So, in general I use my job selection to stress satisfaction or dissatisfaction of a character… oder maybe even apathy. The group dynamic at work and/or the work itself in contrast to the family and friends surrounding (behavior towards each other; other jobs of people known by character) can show a lot “between the lines” without literally naming the traits of a character.

PS: Sorry for mistakes, English is not my mother tongue 🙂

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[…] how I mentioned last time that I love questions because they make for easy blog posts? I’m lucky enough to have another great question for today. […]

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[…] Character is the reader’s key to the novel. Janice Hardy tells us how to choose our POV character, Kristen Lamb uses character arcs to propel the story and capture the reader, K.M. Weiland gets even more specific and examines character arcs in the 2nd half of the 2nd act, and Jami Gold explores how to pick the perfect job for your character. […]

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[…] a post by Jami Gold on the perfect job for our characters. She talks about if our stories require a certain profession. Certain mystery/suspense series will, […]

Sophie
Sophie

I do try to make my jobs fit the character, and I realise how I can get them to tie in. While most of my OCs are young teens, I do have a few adults in there somewhere (The ones I can think of are Risa, Maeda, and Ikeda. Maeda is an agent for the big sanctioning body in the show I write for (Metal Fight Beyblade; the organisation is known as the WBBA), while Ikeda is one of the big shots in said organisation. Risa… I think she moved to Japan to teach English.)

I just haven’t thought of what said young teens/older teens might do, yet. It’s something I’ll bear in mind!

Anne
Anne

I’m 2/3 of the way through my current work and today had to stop the writing to do some plot-line repair. In looking for some help, I came across this post. While I haven’t solved *all* my problems, I think I did learn something by reconsidering my main character’s career.

Instead of being a programmer for the space program, she is an Imperial Guard at the Imperial Palace, where her father, the Emperor is one of her charges. She’s hidden, connected to the Palace, through her *mother* who was an Imperial Guard who was the Emperor’s lover at one point. That just tightened things up nicely.

Now, I ‘m off to do a little more learning about stakes, consequences and trying to get mine to come into better focus (and also flesh out the history and science for this SF story). Thanks for a great post!

Anne.

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