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?