Monday, July 13, 2020

A Character’s Occupation Is More Important Than You Might Think

by Guest Angela Ackerman


Confession time: when I was a somewhat green writer, I didn’t think much about a character’s occupation. In fact, if I needed one, I’d assign the first thing that came to mind which worked for the situation (say, an after-school gig). And then like a checkbox, I marked that “sideline detail” done and moved on to “something more important.” 


Far from being an afterthought, a character’s job is a powerful opportunity to showcase many things about them.


I didn’t know this back then, but I do now, and so as you can imagine, I weigh potential occupations much more carefully! 

In the real world, work is a big focus for all of us. Consider your own job. How many hours a day do you spend working? Do you bring it home with you, obsess about it, spend hours thinking about it?

Characters are mirrors of us, so work is a big part of their reality, too. Like us, if possible, they will choose a job they are interested in, good at, and it pays the bills…meaning that if we choose a job with care, it becomes a goldmine of characterization and plot opportunities.


 

Here are some of the things a job can reveal about your character.

PRIORITIES: 
Jobs almost always shed a light on what your character cares about and will sacrifice for. If they work two jobs, forgoing sleep, time off, hobbies, and socialization, there’s a reason for it. Maybe they are supporting their family as a single parent, are trying to put themselves through school, have younger siblings to support because their parents are deadbeats, or something else. So, ask yourself: is my character all about money? Do they crave power and influence? Whatever it is, make sure their job choice reflects this.  

PERSONALITY TRAITS:
Certain traits make it easier for someone to succeed at their job, so when a reader sees a character working in a specific field, they’re going to naturally draw conclusions about their personality. A character who is a server in a restaurant likely relies on tips to supplement their income, so a reader would expect they would be friendly, respectful, and hard-working. Likewise, if you introduce your character as a pickpocket, right away a reader will start imagining someone who is observant, calculating, opportunistic.       

ABILITIES:
Obviously natural abilities and skills can make someone good at what they do. A surgeon will have steady hands. A psychologist will be a reader of body language. A police officer will notice details and be able to recall them immediately, on duty or off. Skills not only make someone unique; they can also help a character achieve their goal. For example, if your special needs teacher is taken hostage, maybe her experience with deescalating volatile situations and ability to persuade might help her convince her captor to let her go. 

MOTIVATION: 
Characters, like people, are driven by unmet needs. An occupation can represent a steppingstone to what they want (a personal trainer who is working to become a professional weight lifter), or even be a sign of an emotional wound (a bounty hunter who brings criminals to justice because his parents were killed and the murderer was never caught). 

HOBBIES AND PASSIONS:
Careers may grow from a favorite activity. Does your character love stand-up comedy and so makes a career of it? Do they have a passion for dollhouses and so they build a business that sells dollhouse-making supplies? 

PHYSICAL DETAILS:
A construction worker is going to be rugged and strong. A mechanic will have stained, calloused hands. Whether it’s the uniform or expectations that go with the job, an occupation can provide many unspoken clues about how a character looks and behaves at work. 

LIKES AND DISLIKES:
What does your character’s job say about their preferences? A professional athlete will enjoy exercise, being part of a team, and setting stretch goals….and they probably wouldn’t like to be around people who are lazy, unmotivated, and whine about how tough life is. 

ETHICS, VALUES, AND BELIEFS: 
Did your character choose a job that aligns with his deepest beliefs? A military career communicates patriotism and respect for one’s country. A doctor or judge will have strong ethics. Careers can be a great way to shed light on the character’s beliefs system and moral code.

EDUCATION LEVEL:
Some occupations will give readers a good idea of your character’s education. For example, a scientist, educator, doctor, geologist, or nurse clearly has a great deal of education. Likewise, a cab driver, bartender, or retail worker may not. (Note the may; plenty of situations exist where someone with a higher education chooses a job that requires less: a career pivot to something less stressful or that aligns more with their interests, a character who has trouble finding work, etc.



As you can see, you can get a lot of show-don’t-tell mileage from your character’s job choice! So, don’t make the mistake I did long ago and take your time when choosing the work they do. (This list will get you started.) If you would like to explore more ways to utilize a character’s career, check out The Occupation Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Jobs, Vocations, and Careers.


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A note from Missy: I'm really excited about this book! I have the hardest time deciding on a career for my characters. Now I know better how to use their job choices in characterization!  

 

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus and its many sequels. Her books are available in eight languages, are sourced by US universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. To date, this book collection has sold over half a million copies.

Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction. Find her on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

 

44 comments:

  1. Angela, good insight into something I know I don't think about enough. I've been letting my characters' jobs evolve organically, I do Oregon Trail and there's always something that needs doing and someone willing to step into the slot. But I can see a time coming when I will need to be more specific about people's work, and also research it more. Especially if I get into contemporaries.
    One other point, we should make sure the jobs are relevant to today. Sorry, typewriter repairmen and video store owners. Or print journalists, sigh.
    This looks like a good week on Seekerville, not that there's ever a bad one. I hope to be around for all of it. Not going too far, it is 90 degrees in most of New England.
    I will be on Carrie Booth Schmidt's blog Friday. Stop by and say hi.
    Kathy Bailey
    Keeping the AC on in New Hampshire

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    1. Kathy, that's a good point about writing contemporaries. It seems like job research is sometimes the most research I do for a story (since I usually make up the town).

      Please remind us on Friday about your blogging day with Carrie!

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    2. I look forward to seeing you on Carrie's blog!

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    3. With jobs where people sort of "fill the gaps" it's another great way to show your character's personality, skills, strengths and mindset. A strong tracker might scout ahead, a natural hunter might offer to forage for dinner. Someone who wants a break from the group might collect firewood or head off to try and get some fish, set snares, etc. And imagine how someone who was angry at himself or believing they deserve to be punished might volunteer for the most difficult, dangerous, or off-putting jobs like digging a latrine. Likewise, someone who believed themselves to be above manual labor might try to avoid such tasks, which also will show readers who they are. ;)

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  2. This book is going on my wishlist.
    And your little section about "likes and dislikes" basically describes my characters from the book I wrote this spring. She is a part-owner and fulltime instructor at a women's gym--uber organized and motivated. He works for his dad's company because he prefers to just take life as it comes and enjoy it to the fullest. Great post. Thanks.

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    1. Amy, it sounds like you've already done a great job of picking jobs that fit the characters!

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    2. I'm so glad this post is helpful. If she's really invested in the job and wants to excel at it, you might want to give her a flaw that holds her back, something tied to the emotional wound she's trying to get over in the story. For example, if she once went bankrupt in a previous job, maybe now she's very miserly, to the point where her tight-fistedness is causing problems with those who work for her or means the equipment isn't being refreshed as often as it should. Lots of ways how a character's flaws might get in the way of their career aspirations. :)

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  3. This is a great post. I suppose I never thought about how an author chooses a job for the characters. I really appreciate all that authors put into their stories. And all the research that can go into a lot of the books. Thank you.
    quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

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    1. Lori, thank you! I'm glad you stopped by. :)

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    2. It's funny, because it seems like maybe an afterthought in some stories, but really it's an opportunity to reinforce the authenticity of the character through characetrization and even bring their struggles and goals into the plot, tying the character and their arc more firmly into the outer events. :)

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  4. We've had a couple of our blogger having trouble commenting. If any of you reading is having trouble commenting, please let us know on our FB page. Or if you're not on Facebook, you can contact me through my website. Hopefully, you're all able!

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    1. typo fix: a couple of our BLOGGGERS

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    2. ROFL!! Oh my goodness. I cannot type today!! Can't even get it right on the typo fix. :) Y'all just ignore me. haha

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    3. I've had no issues, but this is an opportunity for me to say THANK YOU for having me here today! :)

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    4. Angela, I'm so glad you could be with us!

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  5. Angela, thanks for a great post! I'm brainstorming a new story and trying to decide my Amish heroine's occupation...so the timing of your post is perfect! Perhaps I need to make a list of possible employment opportunities and then note the pros and cons for each one. Or I could get your book! :) Do you feature an Amish section? Just kidding.

    Congrats on the success of THE EMOTION THESAURUS. How did you come up with the idea to write that book as well as THE OCCUPATION THESAURUS? And how did you come up with all the various jobs mentioned in your current release. A huge task, no doubt! I'm impressed and so glad you could be with us today in Seekerville!

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    1. Debby, a good question about an Amish section! :)

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    2. Seriously, I should add that it's a great list. So much info!!

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    3. Hi Debby:

      I know a profession I'd like to see one of your Amish heroines have and that is 'stain glass maker/artist/restorer/teacher'.

      I had an advertising client who owned a stain glass shop who make his own works and also gave very popular classes. The whole process was fascinating to me. I think readers would find it interesting as well.

      Of course, for an Amish woman making and restoring stain glass could well get her logically out into the Englisher community. She might even have a commission to restore a church stain glass window where the young minister just happeded to grow up in an Amish community.

      I like this because the hero and heroine will have ample time to interact without it seeming forced.

      I'd pre-order this story right now. :)

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    4. Hi Debby! I'm so glad this was a helpful post. We don't have Amish jobs, but there's a lot of interesting possibilities, I think! I'll second Vince's idea for a glass maker. We have "Glassblower" on our list, actually. Or working as a vet for the community, a cabinetmaker, or maybe there is a heritage recipe that has been passed down in her family that she alone knows the secrets to and so she makes it and sells it to local stores or at a farmer's market?

      Thanks so much for the congrats <3. The Emotion Thesaurus (and all our books really) came out of a need we had...we wanted to write stronger description and master show, don't tell as this is really such a key skill. We pick topics that are struggle areas for most writers and then dive in, learning as much as we can about that topic and how it can be used better in storytelling. :)

      Great questions :) If you want to ask more, you should consider signing up for the HOT SEAT event we will be doing Live on Thursday. We've never dome one before but thought it might be a neat way to pull the curtain back on the job Becca and I do, seeing as this latest volume is all about jobs!

      Here's a bit more about it if you are interested: https://writershelpingwriters.net/2020/07/ready-to-put-angela-becca-in-the-hot-seat/

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  6. I love these books and this one sounds like it needs to be part of my collection. Lots of great info here, Angela. Thanks for joining us today.

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    1. Mindy, I'm excited to add it to my Thesaurus collection.

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  7. I loved reading this post. It gives me things to think about. A lot of times my sparks start as a career- what would it be like to design figure skating outfits? What would it be like to name makeup colors? Things like that get me excited and then I bang my head against a wall because I have no plot!

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    1. Tonya, people start in lots of different ways. I love how careers kick off story ideas for you! If you start looking at the characteristics of a person in that job, maybe some story ideas will come to you. :)

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    2. So much can be down with jobs, and I love how you think about ones that are really a bit different. That makes it really fun and original, I think. I'm not a huge "buy my book" sort of promoter, but this book will probably help you as it shows you how a career can be tied to a plot in many different ways. When it appears on Amazon, check out the look inside as that usually gives a lot of the "teaching information" which will show you what I mean and you can decide if it's a tool you might need. :)

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    3. Thank you! I will keep my eyes out! Im not sure why careers draw me in, but they do. It always seems to be a more creative career, too!

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  8. Great post, Angela. In the book I have written, the occupations came naturally. It is about a tornado that destroys a town, and focuses especially on the historic little church that is destroyed. Occupations of my characters include the meteorologist of the TV station who must put out the warnings for the tornado and the pastor of the church. The father of the college girl who is another main character is a construction worker because that is needed as part of my plot. But I might write another book where the occupations won't come so naturally to the story and this would be useful.

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    1. Sandy, you're right about how naturally that works for your story! Good job!

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    2. Yes, sometimes the plot or the setting dictates what the jobs will be, and then it's making sure the personalities, interests, and strengths of your characters match those positions so it all works well. Whether you know the occupation out the gate or the character, making the two mesh is really important so they feel like real people to readers. :)

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  9. Hi Angela:

    As a marketing person, I look at location/setting and hero/heroine occupations as powerful selling tools which are very often over-looked by authors.

    I've bought at least 20 Nevada Barr books because the heroine, Anna Pigeon, is a park ranger and the locations are all national parks. I bought three romances because the hero or heroine was a bee keeper. I've bought many K9 police romances because I had that job in the service.

    I would advise selecting a profession that many people would find interesting. Be sure to have inside information about the skill, like rules of thumb, and make the profession a key part of the plot. I've read books where the hero was a doctor and you could have turned him into a lawyer by changing about 200 words in the manuscript. That does not work for the reader.

    In short, make the profession important to the story and give a good inside view of the job so that the reader feels smarter for having read the book.

    One profession I'd like to suggest is an engineer, college degree, who inspects amusement rides at famous amusement parks like Six Flags and Disney World. (My father was a safety engineer who had to do this as well as inspecting the George Washington bridge from the highest levels!)

    If you can do this it would be like killing two birds with one stone: an interesting occupation that takes the character to wonderfully attractive locations.

    If an author is mostly writing indies, then this powerful location/occupation duo could provide an edge producing much welcome plus profits.

    Vince

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    1. Vince, I think you need to write that safety engineer for an amusement park story!

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    2. Vince, you hit the nail on the head. I so agree we should fully use locations and occupations, weaving them into the fabric of the story rather than treat them as window dressing. And that's sound advice to take a well-known occupation (or one that many people would find interesting) and customize it. Even with something common like a teacher, you could customize it by having them teach a specific language or topic, different age groups, on home or foreign soil, teach students of a certain socioeconomic status, private/public/boarding/alternative/homeschool/online schooling, teach kids who have handicaps or learning disabilities, those who are gifted...on and on it goes.

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    3. Hi Angela:

      I think teaching offers fantastic opportunities to create powerful stories but not necessarily classroom teaching which is very common in romances. The classroom conflicts are also very predictable as well.

      I'm thinking of teaching very interesting activities like, flying, sailing, golf, tennis, stain glass making, photography, diving, and so on. These offer the potential for meeting a lot of rich single guys or girls. (No wife to object to your flying lessons.)

      With these professions the instructor gets a lot of time with the student, especially with one-on-one teaching, and the instructors often have other jobs which increase their opportunity to meet interesting people. (I told a beautiful cocktail waitress at the Holiday Inn how I wished I could have flown when I was in the Air Force. Well, she was also a flight instructor and singed me up for flying lessons right then and there!)

      Best of all, the author could justify taking such courses as research for her books. The readers also get to experience what it would be like to learn one of these activities. The romance would be a bonus. :)

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    4. Vince, hi! I started re-reading the Anna Pigeon series. Now there's an unusual occupation, National Park Ranger.
      I'm just loving it.
      I'm also going to read Jance!

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    5. 100% agree. As I said earlier, teaching can have a thousand differentiators and not all need to be that traditional "classroom" setting. And if they do, it can still look different. Aside from the topic/type of teaching, there's also how the style of teaching, the materials used, the communication, and the environment will reflect the individual's interests, passions, values, belief system, sense of humor...it's endless how we can tie what one does to who someone is.

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    6. Mary:

      I got "Destroyer Angel" from the library and my wife took it and told me to listen to the tape when it comes in. Yes, park ranger is a good job for a writer to write about but it seems that poor Anna sure gets transferred around a lot! I believe in real life Nevada Barr was stationed on the Natchez Trace for ten years. That's a national park that is hundreds of miles long and only about 50 feet wide! Also, on St. John's there is a national park that is totally under water. Lots to write about.

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  10. Hi Angela! Thanks for visiting Seekerville. I'm kinda stumped on this one. What other occupation is there but a rancher??????????????????????????
    :)

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    1. Haha! Well, good news for you, the book contains that entry (wilts in relief) :) You'll have to tell me how we did!

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  11. Thank you Angela for this post. I find I fall back on careers I've dabbled in for my characters, but I find other occupations fascinating yet difficult to get the details just right if it's a stretch for me (something like an astrophysicist!). I've found your Emotional Thesaurus to be an excellent tool so I'll have to pick up a copy of the occupational thesaurus.

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  12. Yes, some characters require a lot of research to get their careers accurate on the page, I'm glad the Emotion thesaurus helped you and I hope the Occupation will as well!

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