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 FinalistWhen 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. WeilandSometimes, 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?

Write Away One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing LifeBestselling 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.

Tell me your opinion: What is your character’s career?

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

  2. 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!

  3. 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!

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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…

  9. 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.

  10. 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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  1. […] post I read recently is from K.M. Wieland, discussing why your character’s career may be one of the most important decisions you make. I like to talk about character development a lot. It’s one of my favorite things about writing, […]

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