Your Character’s Career: Why It May Be the Most Important Decision in Your Book

Your Character’s Career: Why It May Be the Most Important Decision in Your Book

In the 1998 movie Ever After, the character Prince Henry (played by Dougray Scott) complains that “to be so defined by your position, to only be seen as what you are. You don’t know how insufferable that is!” To which Drew Barrymore’s character responds, “You might be surprised. A gypsy, for example, is rarely painted as anything else. They’re defined by their status, as you are.”

Ever After Dougray Scott Drew Barrymore gypsy camp

Like it or not, that’s the truth. We’re defined by what we do, by our jobs and our career choices. Mention a profession (mechanic, stock broker, bull rider) and definite images and presuppositions pop to mind. As writers, we can hardly afford not to take advantage of those presuppositions when crafting our characters. In the September 2009 issue of The Writer, Andre Dubus III pointed out:

I once heard a writer say that the last thing he does in the creation of a novel is to give his character jobs. How, I wondered, can he ever begin to know them in their downtime if he doesn’t know what they do all day (or night) first? [O]ur jobs say an awful lot about us on so many levels. They also influence what kinds of lives we end up living, what kind of people we’re around, how we feel and think about ourselves in the world, etc.

When Your Character’s Career Affects His Entire Personality

Choosing your character’s career should never be a slapdash decision, made on the fly and based on little more than impulse. What your character does for a living, even if it doesn’t feature prominently in your story, will profoundly affect who he is and how he responds to the world around him.

Dreamlander NIEA Finalist

Dreamlander (affiliate link)

When writing my portal fantasy Dreamlander, I struggled for months with my main character Chris Redston. As a simple beat reporter, he just never seemed to have the guts and the panache I needed from him. But as soon as I tweaked his profession to make him a foreign correspondent, his entire personality was instantly beefed up—even though he is never shown on the job in the book.

When Your Character’s Career Defines the Book

Behold the Dawn by K.M. Weiland

Behold the Dawn (affiliate link)

Sometimes, a career choice is so inherent to the plot that it’s immediately obvious. In A Man Called Outlaw, my characters couldn’t have been anything but ranchers. In Behold the Dawn, the story would have been entirely different had it focused on anyone but a competitor in the medieval tourneys.

How to Choose Your Character’s Career When It Isn’t Obvious?

Sometimes your character’s career won’t be central to your tale. In such instances, how do you select a career that will both define him and add to his character?

Bestselling mystery writer Elizabeth George, in her fantastic book Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, explains that she tries

…to give my characters either a job or a sideline that gives the reader a hint as to who they are.

She encourages authors to look beyond obvious (and often stereotyped) occupations. Instead of a doctor, why not a prosthetics manufacturer? Instead of a stock broker, why not a debt collector?

  • Browse the Yellow Pages for possible job matches for your character.
  • Keep your eyes open for interesting business signs as you drive through town.
  • Make a list of the careers of people you run across.

Choosing your character’s career is a fun process that can open up subplots and facets of personality you may never have thought of otherwise. Force yourself to look beyond the obvious, and don’t always settle for the first notion that pops to mind. Just as you choose your own career with care, put the same amount of attention into choosing your characters’ professions.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is your character’s career? Tell me in the comments!

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Your Character’s Career: Why It May Be the Most Important Decision in Your Book

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Great post. As I love books so, I have always envisioned my main character as a savvy business woman who owns a book store or has something to do with books…. that has always been my dream job anyway… 🙂

  2. Yes, indeed, that’s one of the best things about choosing a character’s career: we can often live our own dream occupations through them!

  3. This is a great post! Since I write YA, most of my characters aren’t in a career, but their parents are, and that has a direct effect on what kind of home life the character has, and in turn, what kind of person he/she is. I’ve never thought of it that way before. Thanks for pointing it out.

  4. I’ve never written YA, but I can see, too, how the career ambitions of the characters would influence them. E.g., a character who wanted to be a doctor would need to be diligent at school.

  5. Interesting post! Love the covers of your books….

  6. Thank you! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post!

  7. Lorna G. Poston says

    As always, wonderful, thought provoking post. I agree that careers define who we are. At the job that pays my bills, I multi-task, make decisions and get high blood pressure and several headaches. At the job I love (writing), I’m moody, reclusive. I talk to myself and invisible people. Some of my friends find that strange. I don’t get it. 😀

    I always try to pick strong careers for my female characters in particular, having them in an executive position at a company, a small business owner or something similar because I want them to be seen as strong and independent. But the male characters have been everything from mechanic to doctor to lawyer or unemployed high school drop-out depending on how I want readers to see him.

    BTW, cute stick figure in the picture.

  8. For the most part, my own characters’ careers have been deeply inherent to the plot. Deciding what these people do is often one of the first decisions I make… though “decision” may be too conscious a word, since the characters often come to me with careers in tact!

  9. Great ideas here!

    Before I write my books, I write a complete bio for my characters. Sometimes it’s just a rambling thing, but it covers pages and pages of backstory – their jobs, exact looks, personality, family background, fears and hopes, friendships, careers, education, medical history, clothing preferences, etc.

    Most of that never makes it into the book, literally, but it helps formulate the characters in my head, and gives them motivation for acting certain ways.

    Most importantly, once I’ve gotten it out on paper, I don’t feel the need to add it into the story if it doesn’t need to be there. Letting it direct the characters works much better than trying to squeeze something out of them that isn’t there.

    I love that you point out how we should take advantage of the stereotypes about some careers. Sometimes just letting the readers fill in the blanks is the best way to describe!

  10. I write extensive “interviews” (or “sketches” as I often call them) for my characters too. For me, it’s a vital part of the process of figuring out just who these people are. But I had never really about how writing all these things out beforehand freed me from the need to discover them *in* the story and allowed me to focus instead on only what the story *needed.* Good point.

  11. Terrific work, as usual. I think some of us are beginning to expect nothing less! 😉

    As for careers, I can’t agree with you more about how ingrained in oneself ones career choice is with our characters. My WIPs reflect that all too well. In ‘Cora’s Song’ my CEO female inventor lead is handy enough she runs rings around her P.I. male counterpart, but she still needs him despite her abilities.

    In ‘Homebody’, my MC is a former journalist, now real estate investor, and soon-to-be candidate for Congress. Somehow, all three ‘career’ choices fit her and feed not only the main plot, but the subplots as well. Couldn’t ask for much more than that!

    Anyway, great post! Keep up the terrific work!

  12. Yikes. Pressure! :p

    I like the notion of an extremely competent person who is blindsided by certain inabilities or lack of skills. Dichotomies like that fuel the best of fiction!

  13. Sorry I haven’t commented on your blog posts for a bit. I have been reading and loving:) I am like you, when I write what the character’s do presents itself with the character. sometimes I find myself saying, “Oh, no. You don’t want to do that. This is other job over here that I am picking for you is much better.” But they know what they want. And they usually get it! Great post.

  14. I agree! I saw a query on an agent’s blog about a book with a character who drove an ambulance by day and a getaway car by night. Love the symmetry.

  15. Sounds great! 😀

  16. That’s great advice in your last paragraph. Thanks!

  17. Glad you found it helpful! Thanks for stopping by.

  18. That’s great advice and I actually like the idea of choosing the career last. It takes me a while to get to know my characters so its hard for me to imagine them until I’ve seen them in action for a while.

  19. Oh, yes, there’s definitely more important character decisions than career. After all,you have a whole twenty years or more of the character’s life that will influence his career choice.

  20. Annie Lynn says

    Woohoo – glad to find another “Ever After” fan. I think it’s interesting to see what different jobs characters do in their books, I know you can learn a lot about different types of jobs just by reading about them.

  21. Yes, isn’t that a great movie? One of my favorite chick flicks! And I absolutely love learning about occupations I would never get to experience outside of a book.

  22. Although I’m not a writer, one thing that I think might be helpful is to research what personalities of people work in certain types of jobs. For instance, an engineer or surveyor is going to pay a lot of attention to detail, while a photographer will be more affected by moods and settings. A book that might be a helpful introduction to such research is “Do what you are” by Paul D. Tieger.

  23. Never heard of Do What You Are. Sounds fascinating though! I’ll go check it out. Thanks for the suggestion!

  24. I like Elizabeth George’s suggestion; throws a twist into the mix. Great post, Katie!

  25. I can’t recommend Elizabeth George’s Write Away enough. Probably my favorite book on the craft!

  26. I love the concrete examples you give to encourage us to look past our own limited worlds (phone book, business signs, etc.). I’m excited about reading one of your books. I am WAY past due to read a good fiction book.

    Your Dreamers Come sounds way cool! And Behold the Dawn looks facinating, as well.

    How much time do you spend writing a week (just curious)? I bet your mind continuously stings together storylines!

  27. I’m so glad the post was helpful to you!

    I schedule two hours of writing time five days a week. This is strictly fiction writing; blogging and other such odds and ends have to be crammed in wherever they can be. And, yes, my mind is continually working on one story or another! Wouldn’t have it any other way!

  28. Great post! I never gave it much thought but my characters are born from their career path (or lack of). I couldn’t imagine understanding the true depth of my “people” and portraying them honestly without knowing how they spend their days and live their lives. For me, it would be a very hollow work–I think. I’ve never started any of my books without first having a career in mind, so I can’t really say for sure. I love the rush I get when I dig into (and research) a job field that many times I have no knowledge of. It helps so much with character development. Thanks for the insight!

  29. Most of the time, my characters’ careers are in-built – one can’t exist without the other. I think those of my characters that have been the strongest have always had a very strong sense of who they were within their careers.

  30. I have delayed writing an entire book for half a year now because I haven’t the faintest idea where one of my main characters, Wesley, works. It’s SFF and in the story, he essentially has a form of anterograde amnesia where he retains episodic memories for only a week and not very well. Because he retains semantic memory, he CAN work if it’s a job with a routine built in. Problem: I have no idea what he does or how to make that affect him when he’s got enough trouble relearning who he is at all every seven days or so.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Interestingly enough, I also had an amnesiac character whose stickiest point in the conception stages was figuring out what he did before the amnesia and how that affected the story.

      • It’s always surprising to me how much little things like that matter, but I really couldn’t make myself plow ahead without rounding out his life first.

        I’m glad to know I’m not alone. 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I’ve learned the hard way not to let the details slide at the beginning. The more we know about our characters before we start writing, the better we’re able to understand and guide their stories.

  31. thomas h cullen says

    Representatives “represent”.. But what does this mean?

    To react, is the root instinct. I picture Croyan, being the Representative to his Community (I have no issue, picturing him representing his Trokan: the iconography of space and planets has that effect), and instantly, I react; what a “physically awkward” notion!

    Yet then, it can happen: for all its outlandishness, and all its awkward implications elsewhere – I accept the idea.

    When you read “represents”, and you first picture that outlandish image.. That’s how Croyan exists.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One of the great things about science fiction is that we get free reign with the characters’ careers! Anything is possible.

  32. Melanie Pike says

    Believe it or not, I’ve picked up some different career possibilities from watching Discovery or Animal Planet. Unusual ones. Now to actually do the writing…

  33. If your character is well defined, is it bad form to have your main character’s profession the same as yours?

    Thank you

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Not at all. Write what you know! As long as there’s a good reason for the choice of profession, that’s all that matters.

  34. The biggest issue I am having right now is figuring out the best way to research a career and precisely what type of details I need to make it authentic in my book. How extensively do you research a career and how when the career will have an impact on the character of course, but will be rarely featured to the story?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If I felt it would make a big impact on either plot or characterization, I’d research it pretty thoroughly. How I researched it would depend on what it was, what time period, etc. But the Internet provides so many resources these days, it’s pretty easy to find information.

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