What’s the Perfect Job for Our Characters?

by Jami Gold on April 29, 2014

in Writing Stuff

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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19 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Serena Yung April 29, 2014 at 7:42 am

This blog post is so cool! :D 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 hero has friendzoned and familyzoned the heroine for a very long time. And being a matchmaker could be a realistic job for him because the story is set in ancient China, where matchmakers are much in demand, and from TV shows, I’ve seen male matchmakers before, haha.

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Jami Gold April 29, 2014 at 7:50 am

Hi Serena,

LOL! In your case, it sounds like some of your characters could have unofficial “jobs” or roles to play, rather than have careers–simply because of their ages. But that’s a similar idea of trying to fit what the character does in with the story.

In either situation, it’s about adding depth to the characters and meaning to the plot by tying story aspects together. :) I wish your characters luck in figuring out their futures, and thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung April 29, 2014 at 11:28 am

Ooh unofficial roles! I like that idea. So would things like being the protective/encouraging older brother, or the cool older sister, be examples of unofficial roles/ jobs?

And I also really like the idea of using relevant careers to make the plot or characterizations even stronger and fleshed out. :D

BTW I have an unrelated writing question. In one of your blog posts, you recommended that in each scene, we should have at least three of the following:

a plot point
a character’s goal
action to advance the plot
action to increase the tension
character development
a cause of character conflict
an effect of character conflict
how stakes are raised
a reinforcement of the stakes
character motivation
character backstory
world building
story theme
foreshadowing
the story’s tone or mood

However, what if the scene has something to advance the RELATIONSHIP between two characters? I.e. relationship development? E.g. during a heart to heart talk, the hero and heroine get to know each other and one another’s values and beliefs, and in the process like and respect and maybe even trust each other even more? After this scene, their relationship deepens one step further (because they understand, know, respect, like, and trust each other more after their mutual self-disclosures). For such relationship developments, would we call this a plot development (if it’s a romance arc), a character development, or should this be in a different category, called “relationship development”? Intuitively I would enjoy and find these scenes important just because I adore “shipping scenes” and scenes where characters’ relationships improve (or deteriorate), lol.

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Jami Gold April 29, 2014 at 5:06 pm

Hi Serena,

Obviously, those unofficial “jobs” aren’t quite what we’re talking about in the post, but they’re related to the idea of tying everything together in a story–making details relevant. :) And you could certainly have teen-aged characters who think they’d want to be a matchmaker (as an adult) want to practice their stuff now. That desire for a future career could be the motivation for why they choose to get involved.

Ooo, great question about relationship development! As far as what category that development would fall under though, I think it depends on the genre. For example, in romance, the relationship development is a major part of the plot, so scenes like that could be a “plot point” or could “advance the plot.” However, in other genres, those scenes might just be “character development” or “character backstory,” which would mean the scene needs another (more major) reason to exist. Does that make sense? :) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung April 29, 2014 at 7:06 pm

Yay! Then for that particular scene I have in mind, since my novel is mainly romantic comedy, it’s got:

-action to advance plot
-plot point sort of (e.g.the hero and heroine exchanging some beliefs about feminist issues is a “plot point” in their relationship arc? Does this count as a plot point in a romance arc since the hero and heroine’s attitudes towards gender equality and sexism will influence how their relationship will be like?)
-character development definitely
-some character backstory
-story theme yes! (the theme is gender equality/ feminism)
-it MAY be foreshadowing (the hero’s attitudes towards feminist issues discussed in this scene could influence how he treats the heroine when she becomes his wife)
-story’s tone or mood? It’s lighthearted with a mixed friendship/ romance mood, which is the main mood of the novel
-character motivation, perhaps a little bit (maybe the hero’s open-mindedness towards gender equality and gender atypical behavior, in the midst of this very misogynist society, could be a motivation for the heroine to choose to marry him? I’m not sure if this is what you mean by character motivation, though.)

So yay it seems like I have more than three reasons for this scene to exist! I was worried because this was a low tension, no conflict, and no mystery scene, so I was afraid of boring the reader. But I really love scenes like this one (a will-be lovers’ mutual self-disclosure scene) because they are shipping and romantic (to me), so maybe the real reason why I love this scene is because it contains more than three scene elements! So maybe this is why, in novels that I read, there are scenes that are happy and peaceful that DON’T bore me at all, but instead make me feel happy for the characters too! Don’t know if you remember my comment a long time ago on Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery, where there are chapters of happy and peaceful scenes that were not at all boring and only made me happy for the hero and heroine. Maybe the secret to making no conflict/ negativity/ suspense/ mystery scenes nevertheless still engaging, is for them to have at least three of the scene elements!

Let me try to analyze Blue Castle’s happy and peaceful but also engaging scenes:

-action to advance plot (it’s a romance, and these scenes are about their exciting activities together, I.e. relationship development)
-plot point sort of
-character development (their choice of activities definitely shows what kind of people the heroine and hero are)
-story’s mood/ tone: the happy, fulfilled, carefree mood that is one of the main moods of this novel
-story themes–these scenes celebrate freedom

So yes, there does appear to be more than three scene elements!

Okay just want to analyze one more scene: this is from my novel about a secondary couple (I.e. not the heroine and hero, but another couple), where the two still friends but will be lovers have a bunch of drawings in front of them and are talking about drawing. Both the girl and boy are passionate about drawing and draw a lot:

-character development, quite obviously, since it reflects a major side of their personalities (their passion for art and drawing)
-character goal SORT OF. The boy in this scene is trying to please the girl whom he is sort of attracted to or captivated by. So he tries to make his comments as impressive/ insightful/ interesting/ thoughtful as possible.
-character motivation sort of? That this boy is demonstrating much insight and interest in the girl’s drawings is a great motivation for her to choose to marry him. (And for him to choose to marry her.) Does this count as a character motivation element?
-story’s tone/ mood: same as my first scene analysis, this has a lighthearted, friendship/ romance mood, the mood that suffuses most of the novel.
-action to advance plot: this scene of talking about one of their favorite things in the world, drawing, and sharing their thoughts and feelings on art, deepens their friendship that will eventually blossom into romance (yay for romantic comedy!)
-plot point? It’s their first time talking about one of their favorite things in the world (drawing), and sharing ideas about a favorite topic deepens a relationship, so this advances the romance arc.
-foreshadowing? Not sure about this one. That they enjoy themselves so much chatting about drawing foreshadows how their married life would involve a lot of happy art discussions too. But I’m not sure if this would be considered foreshadowing…
-story theme:….that people who share a passion will be more likely to have a happy relationship? Not sure if that counts as a theme or just a premise/ my opinion/ argument, haha.
-character backstory: sort of because the hero does talk a bit about his past drawing/ art interpretative experiences that made him interpret artworks in this way today.

So once again, it SEEMS like there are more than three…Maybe that’s why I love this scene, haha.

In other words, maybe the reason why I find happy shipping scenes (in both my and other people’s novels) so attractive, is that happy shipping scenes often, if not always, already have action to advance plot/ plot point, character development, often character backstory, character motivation, sometimes character goal, often story theme, story mood/ tone, sometimes foreshadowing. So happy and peaceful shipping scenes often already have at least three of the scene elements, and that could explain why I enjoy reading shipping scenes that much in others’ novels as well as my own, haha.

Actually, about the story’s tone or mood, do you mean this scene needs to be a CHANGE in the mood already set, or can it be a scene that just CONTINUES the story’s mood? E.g. my scene has the same lighthearted yet mixed friendship/ romance mood that pervades most of the novel. So it’s not a NEW mood, but it just CONTINUES what has been there already.

Also, what counts as a plot point in romance plots? Do scenes where the girl and boy talk about their core beliefs/ values, and scenes where they talk about or enjoy a shared passion (e.g. art/ drawing) count as “plot points” in relationship arcs? Since these things do advance/ deepen interpersonal relationships, after all.

And after rereading your blog post on making the most out of a scene, you talked about an interesting point: that we should think about what emotion we want our readers to have during this scene. Well in these shipping scenes I would definitely want the reader to feel HAPPY, first and foremost, but also hopefully a bit excited/ nervous in anticipation of how the girl and the boy’s relationship will develop and end up. So I could think about this too.

An unrelated note: I happily got an A in my Interpersonal Relationships psych course, so HOPEFULLY this bodes well for my writing my very first romantic comedy novel/ series—since romantic relationships are what we mostly talk about in class. *crosses fingers* lol. Some of the theories discussed in my course appeared in my novel too, so that also made me happy. :D

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Jami Gold April 29, 2014 at 10:58 pm

Hi Serena,

A plot point would be a scene where something happens to change the direction of the story–meaning that the story would be heading toward X except for this scene, which makes it head toward Z instead. Character motivation means that we see insights into why the character acts the way the do, they reveal why something is important to them, etc.

A scene that addresses the story’s tone or mood means that it includes elements that get the reader into the right mindset for the story (or for a change in the mindset). In other words, if the whole mood of a story is happy and light, then a light scene would follow an argument or other conflict, just to return to the happy mood–or vice versa.

Ooo, yes, a huge part of tension in many romances is what’s called sexual tension (even in sweet-style romances). The tension is basically the anticipation for the couple to get together. :)

I hope that makes sense. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung April 30, 2014 at 7:30 am

Thanks for your answers, Jami!

Ooh then plot point sounds like turning point. Hmm then I guess my above examples were SORT of character motivation–explaining WHY she would choose to marry him later. Though this would be motivation for a distant future action, not for a present action, but I guess it’s still good. A friend of mine advised me when she read a novella romance of mine, to specify WHY the heroine choose to marry the hero, so e.g. it would be good if the heroine tells the hero WHY she loves him so. It doesn’t have to be as direct as that, but I agree that a romance is more satisfying if I get to see SPECIFICALLY WHY the hero loves the heroine and vice versa. So I suppose that’s kind of a character motivation, haha.

Story tone and mood—hmm to restore the novel’s mindset or to change mindsets…That’s an interesting way to think about it. One of the many things I haven’t thought of before but would be very helpful!

I LOVE the idea of sexual tension! I think I can sort of see why people named it sexual tension rather than romantic tension, lol, especially if lust or sexual desire is mixed into it as well as love. Yeah my story is basically sweet style, lol.
And oh! That means shipping scenes for characters who are still friends but will become lovers have action to increase tension! Action to increase sexual tension! :D Yes! That makes me feel even more hopeful about writing shipping scenes in the future, haha.

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Jami Gold April 30, 2014 at 8:52 am

Hi Serena,

Yes, plot point = turning point. The trick with making quiet, character-revealing scenes work for these points is showing some sort of epiphany or realization (in other words, something where their motivation for why they think this might be the right person for them, or why they think “if only…xyz” a relationship would be possible, etc. is addressed).

Often this is handled with internalization. It could be as simple as “Huh. Maybe he wasn’t the jerk she’d assumed he was. She might have to give him another chance.” ;) That shows a decision/change: turning point.

Yep! Sexual tension = romantic tension too. It’s the same basic story emotion for the reader as far as anticipation. I said sexual tension, but especially if the story is sweeter, “romantic tension” might be a better description for you to think about what that means while you’re writing. :) Thanks for the comment!

Angela Ackerman April 29, 2014 at 8:31 am

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

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Jami Gold April 29, 2014 at 10:33 am

Hi Angela,

Very cool! I shared some brainstorming links in the post, but I haven’t used any of them, so I don’t know how helpful they are. Thanks so much for sharing that link and for the comment!

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Carradee April 29, 2014 at 11:50 am

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 she learns fast and can follow directions. It isn’t something that particularly interests her. Main thing that interests her is protecting others, especially from herself.

Do you have any tips or other techniques to share?

Personalities and jobs influence each other, as does the actual work environment. There is a lot of fodder there, much as there often is with parents in MG/YA. If you consider it and build it into the story, it’ll make the story seem a lot richer and believable. :D

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Jami Gold April 29, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Hi Carradee,

“If you consider it and build it into the story, it’ll make the story seem a lot richer and believable.”

Exactly! :) And that’s why I think even if the character’s job doesn’t seem to be relevant to the story, we still want to think about how their job affects them and/or the story.

Do we need to pick a job with flexible hours so they’re not getting in trouble for dealing with the plot? Or do we want to create more conflict by adding in job issues? Do we want them to like their job and desperately want to keep it? Or do they not care if they get fired for flaking? Etc., etc.

Even if we never have a scene of them at their job, it still affect their life, so it can affect their approach to the story. In your slave girl example, the job is a source of stress and an insight into her priorities and sense of responsibility.

Great point about job interest vs. hire-ability! That can definitely add another layer of complexity in figuring this out. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Sharla Rae April 30, 2014 at 1:42 pm

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

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Jami Gold April 30, 2014 at 4:01 pm

Hi Sharla,

Thanks! I couldn’t think of a post about this topic either–which is why I was so excited for the idea. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Steffi April 30, 2014 at 2:59 pm

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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Jami Gold April 30, 2014 at 4:04 pm

Hi Steffi,

Interesting! And great point about how group dynamic scenes (like in a job situation) can reveal so much about our characters. As you said, it’s a way to show their traits without having to be as direct. Thanks for the comment! :)

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