July 20th, 2020

A Secret Weapon for Characterization: The Character’s Job

by Angela Ackerman

Writers are no stranger to pressure. In fact, the entire process of story creation is laden with it: pressure to craft characters that readers will relate to and fall in love with, pressure to pen a story that is fresh and new, pressure to market the story well so it sells and we can keep doing what we love. No problem, right?

*passes out paper bags*

Got your breath back? Good.

Sure, we all wish this career was a bit easier, but the truth is that pressure puts our feet to the fire and that’s when we do our best work.

The more we know, the better our writing becomes, so today I’d like to help with a specific point in the story that is really do-or-die: the opening.

The start of a story is a massive juggling act. We need to… 

  • Introduce main characters in a compelling way
  • Show the protagonist’s ordinary life & hint what’s wrong with it
  • Make sure genre elements are present so readers know exactly what type of story they are in for
  • Pace it tight. In other words, make every word count (and don’t infodump!)
  • Intrigue the reader so they feel compelled to read on and get answers to their questions
  • Etc. Etc.

Clearly overall goal is to hook the reader, keeping them focused on our book. We can accomplish this by making sure the reader “clicks” with the protagonist and wants to follow them deeper into the story world. The challenge is we only have a limited amount of words to achieve this, and as you can see from the above, there’s a lot of ground to cover. So, a powerful opening means writing smart, thinking economically, and bringing our show-don’t-tell A-game, especially when it comes to characterization.

So how can we fast-track this critical “get-to-know-the-character” phase? Well, let’s look at what we do in the real world when we first meet someone.

Let’s pretend you’re at a neighborhood block party. A new neighbor just moved in next door and so you strike up a conversation to find out more about them. What’s one of the first things you’re going to ask?

“So, what do you do?”

This question almost ALWAYS comes up, doesn’t it? The reason is that in this context, jobs characterize. Like it or not, we tend to size people up and put them in boxes. And a person’s chosen field of work can reveal a lot about who they are.

Let’s say your neighbor says he’s a paramedic. I’m betting you immediately feel safer, right? You know if there is ever an emergency with one of the kids, or an accident of some kind, he’s there. He’s trained, and when seconds count, he’ll know what to do.

As with as your new paramedic neighbor, a character’s job can help your readers make certain associations, providing a baseline of things that are probably true. Here are a few things your reader may infer about a character simply by knowing his occupation.

Personality Traits

Certain traits will make it easier for a person to succeed at a given job. And usually people want to be successful; that’s one reason we gravitate toward careers that play to our personality. So when a reader sees a character working in a specific field, they’re going to draw some conclusions. This gives authors a leg up when it comes to characterization, enabling them to show personality simply by revealing that cast member’s job.

To test this theory, what positive qualities come to mind when you think of a kindergarten teacher? Traits like compassion, gentleness, and patience probably top the list. It looks different, though, for an ER physician, who might be pegged as intelligent, decisive, and calm under pressure. There are exceptions, but certain traits do help make someone a good teacher or doctor or farmer.

Talents and Skills

Every career requires a skill set that goes beyond personality. Talents and abilities are special aptitudes and areas of exceptionality that can make a person good at her job. A chef is going to be skilled at cooking or baking. A bouncer is likely adept at self-defense. When readers are introduced to a professional poker player, they can surmise that the character will know how to read people.

Unless an unmet need or other motivation is steering them, characters will pursue jobs they’re good at and enjoy (just as we do in the real world). Because readers make associations about what it takes to succeed in various occupations, your character’s choice in this area will naturally showcase his aptitudes, no infodumps needed.

Hobbies and Passions

Many careers are born from a favorite pastime. This may be the case for a museum docent who knows every possible thing about ancient South American civilizations and wants to share his knowledge with others. A geologist may pursue that career because he’s spending his free time studying geology anyway, so why not get paid for doing what he loves? This is the reason many people choose a creative or artistic field of work. In cases like these, a career can loudly proclaim the character’s interests and preferred diversions, offering insight into what sets them apart from others.

Physical Details

Some jobs can give readers a hint about the character’s appearance. Models tend to be attractive by society’s established standards. Laboratory technicians wear lab coats. Professional athletes are physically fit. 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.

Preferences

Sometimes a character will work in a field because he’s forced to or it’s the only thing available. But when he’s free to choose, a job will usually indicate certain preferences. An outdoor guide will be a nature enthusiast who would rather work outside than in a cubicle. A personal shopper should enjoy shopping. A nanny hopefully likes working with kids. While characters in each career will have their own personal passions, their employment choice will often reveal something about their basic preferences.     

Ideals and Beliefs

Another reason a character may choose a profession is that it aligns with his deepest beliefs. A clergy member may follow this path because, to him, helping people find God is the highest possible calling. A career in the military is often preceded by a strong sense of patriotism and respect for one’s country. Careers like these can immediately say something to readers about the character’s ideals and values.

Economic Status

As indelicate as the subject may be, many jobs are associated with economic status. A character who is a successful lawyer, doctor, or business tycoon is going to read rich while someone in an entry-level or blue-collar position (cashiers, car drivers, babysitters, or bouncers) may be perceived by readers as being less privileged.

Final Thoughts

Even without any fine-tuning or individualizing—which is always a good idea, to avoid clichés or stereotypes—an occupation can suggest many things about a character. And if the scenario is one where the character hates what they do, readers still learn something valuable: the job might reveal a lack (of education or opportunities), showcase their priorities (to provide for their family, to fulfill an obligation, etc.), or indicate a limitation (a physical or mental condition).

Need help choosing the right job fit for your character? Here’s a list of all the professions you’ll find information about in The Occupation Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Jobs, Vocations, and Careers. What jobs do your characters have?

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Angela

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 Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

20 responses to “A Secret Weapon for Characterization: The Character’s Job”

  1. Terry Odell says:

    Most of my main characters are cops, covert ops field agents, etc. I do have a cowboy series, but they're all ex-cops, covert ops agents, etc. However, I always struggle with occupations for the secondary characters they are going to be sharing center stage with in my romantic suspense novels. Many times, I've been tempted to ask people I encounter why they've chosen the jobs they have. "What do you like about collecting garbage?" "DId you always want to deliver mail?"

    One bit of "advice" from an author workshop was "eventually you're going to have to write a scene showing that character at work" so I try to choose jobs that 1) I know a little about; 2) are relatively interesting to read about. Or, I can pull them away from their job and avoid much of the 'hands on' such as my current manuscript where my heroine is a caregiver, but she's on vacation in the UK and doesn't need to use her skill set--too much. It's there, but it's not "a day at work with Heather."

    • angelaackerman1 says:

      Yes, definitely if you want authenticity, you need to show your character at work, because it confirms information put in place or has been hinted at. But honestly, so much more can be done with these scenes. Work is always a huge part of our own lives and it makes sense it will be part of our characters'. There will be all sorts of conflict opportunities that tie into work: relationship friction, power struggles, biases and discrimination, competitive coworkers, work-life balance struggles, moral or ethical conflicts...and that's just to name a few. If you know what your character's character arc is, what's holding them back, and how they must grow, think of how easy (and natural to their everyday life) it would be to use their work to show problems play out that shine a light on this internal story. And, their job (and the skills and qualities they help them do it) can help or hamper the character when it comes to their story goal. Just a few ideas to play with 🙂

      Really, there's just so much that can be done with a job, and so that's why we chose this as our next topic to explore as a book. Thanks for commenting, Terry!

  2. ecellenb says:

    Using a hobby to add dimension to the character and the story is a great idea.

    It never occurred to me to use a job that one actively dislikes in the story. Interesting!

    • angelaackerman1 says:

      Yes, whether they love it or hate it, the fact that they do it says something. Are they forced to do it? Do they have responsibilities or burdens that come first? Are they in debt to someone, is it a point of honor, or a way to punish themselves for a past wrong? Has fear pushed them to this work because they are afraid to go after what they really want? All of these things will add interesting layers to the character and handled right, give readers secrets to chase down, acting as a powerful hook to keep reading. 🙂

  3. How about volunteerism as a quick insight into a character? In my WIP, within my first chapter readers learn in a quick conversation that the main character not only volunteers to support veterans (dresses up in Pin-Up Girl outfits/hairstyles and visits veteran hospitals) and hunts thrift stores for used wedding dresses that she refashions into angelic outfits for babies of in-need families who have passed away and desire a burial outfit. Quick way to learn about my main character, huh? But those are just tips of icebergs until the reader finds out WHY she volunteers for these two causes. Great post, Angela!

    • angelaackerman1 says:

      Yes, absolutely! We have a few job entries that could be paying ornot, like an Animal Rescue Worker. Whenever a character puts their time and energy into a cause, that's a big signpost to their morals, values, beliefs, and passions. I think the key is to reinforce that "why" - why animal rescue work, not another cause, why veterans and not another group, etc. The why will always be a specific puzzle piece to a deeper side of the character, and why this work is rewarding. 🙂

    • angelaackerman1 says:

      I do remember! And I think this is a great example of the conflict inherent with some jobs and how it can lead to inner turmoil. She may not agree with the lifestyle choices but she goes where needed as her moral beliefs and values steer her. Many things can be cast aside when life turns upside down, but the most closely held beliefs rarely do.

  4. Jenny Hansen says:

    I don't know if you remember this, but I have a series that is set in a clinic that caters to the adult industry (aka "porn"). The heroine in the first book is a nun (at least at the beginning of the story) and the first scene is her walking into that clinic, where she ends up working as a nurse. Her place of work is a daily value-question for her and it drives a lot of the story conflict. I literally cannot imagine that series set anywhere else.

    The interesting thing is this setting is modeled on a real clinic where a friend of mine worked. The behind-the-scenes details she shared always fascinated me. So the setting came first in that story, and then the characters walked in.

  5. jamesr403 says:

    Angela, great post. Thanks, and it makes me think of the way people answer the question, "What do you do?" "I'm a writer, accountant, teacher . . . " The very language reflects the importance of occupation.

    • angelaackerman1 says:

      I agree--good point. The order, how it's phrased, how descriptive the speaker is, etc. All important. It can even show a sense of humor or lightness in their personality - does a person say they "I'm a surgeon" or "I fix people when they break down"?

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I didn't know you're an accountant! I hang out with tons of those guys and they are sooooo much more fun than I ever knew. 🙂

  6. dholcomb1 says:

    I try to pick an occupation I know about or can research thoroughly. I want my characters to be believable.

    denise

    • angelaackerman1 says:

      That's terrific. A job shouldn't be stage dressing...readers will sense something's off if their job is glossed over and mot really part of anything.

  7. When I was fresh out of college, I moved to Greenwich, CT to work as a live-in nanny (something I vowed NEVER to do again... loved the nannying, hated the live-in part). Anyway, I would do my own social experiment when meeting people for the first time in a setting away from my job, like in church or in a cafe or something where they wouldn't immediately know what I did for a living. I'd noticed that people either accepted or passed over me or reacted to me differently depending on how I answered the question of what I did for work. If I answered "nanny", I was put in the lowest esteem out of the categories I'd tried and on par with the immigrant nannies in the area and assumed to not be a college graduate. I wasn't as exotic as an au pair and whoever I was talking to would quickly find an excuse to be on their way, almost without fail. If I answered that I was up there as a "writer", I could see them put me in the artist category and they'd inevitably ask about my projects and such. Like an exhibit to be studied, but lower in esteem than them. It would go either way on the assumption of my education levels. If I answered that I was just up there staying with friends or family, I was close to being on par. Not quite priviledged enough to be "in their world" but enough to be connected. It was pretty fascinating and I couldn't help but try it out in all of my new introductions while I was there with pretty consistent results. None of it was technically a lie, just dependent on which side of my life I wanted to show, but it did give me some interesting insights to the opportunities that would open up or close down dependent on perception of my worth and what I could bring to the table.

    • angelaackerman1 says:

      That's an interesting experiment although it must have been disappointing to be viewed as uneducated, unimportant, or uninteresting at times, depending on the information you shared. Ugh. It is unfortunate that as a whole we do judge people, especially on a first meeting, and we do need to be made aware of this so we are on alert for this behavior. But, also because of our desire to put people in categories or boxes, we can use this to our advantage in fiction, helping readers made certain connections based on the work a person does and other details. We just need to be fully aware of what we're implying by connecting someone to a job...including certain biases some people have. And, we need to work hard to avoid stereotypes...what we do in fiction has an impact on the real world.

  8. Kris Maze says:

    Hi Angela,
    I loved this quote: a powerful opening means writing smart, thinking economically, and bringing our show-don’t-tell A-game. Being precise with a character's profession helps in crafting compelling writing. It can be fun to go against those traditional views of certain jobs, too. The terrible coach who bands together a ragtag group of amateurs, the failed musician who is a better manager, the airport worker afraid of heights... job expectations can add vital layers to your story.

    Thanks for the thesaurus series, these have been an important part of project that I've worked on for the last few years. They're great!

  9. […] character’s job can reveal about him or her and then also see how these details can become a secret characterization weapon, especially at the start of your […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


2014-2020

Subscribe to WITS

Categories

Archives