Careers/Jobs for your characters

by Darcee
(New York, NY, USA)

Question: How do you find and decide on a good career and/or job for your character to have? I have my characters set up, and am halfway through my story...but have one character left who I can't quite figure out an appropriate job for. I've been trying to write around it, figuring the answer would come to me as I kept moving through the story, but I still haven't come up with anything.

Are there good traits to pay attention to in the character that can help lead me to this answer?

Or should I pick something that plays well into the plot and then mold the character from there?

Any thoughts or ideas on places to go, books to look at or websites to check out that will have a long list of options for careers or jobs? I've poked around a bit online but haven't found anything thus far.

Answer: In some situations, a character's occupation matters a great deal. For instance, Dramatica has a term called, "unique ability," which applies to both the main and the impact character.

In the case of the main character, it refers to an ability which only the main character possesses that makes him or her the best person to pursue the story goal. Sometimes that ability may be connected to the character's job. For instance, if a murder occurs in a remote wilderness camp, the best person to solve the crime might be the character who is a detective or a doctor in his day job, and therefore has the needed skills.

Similarly, the impact character may be able to pressure the main character to change because of a unique ability related to his job. For instance, a social worker might be uniquely able to make a politician think about how certain legislation might affect disadvantaged people.

Of course, the unique ability does not have to be connected to a character's job. But if you ask yourself why your character is important to the story, an occupation might suggest itself.

Also, who does this character get into conflict with? Who
is he/she compatible with? Could their occupations heighten the relationship? For example, the old sitcom, All in the Family, portrayed a great relationship between a university student and his father-in-law who worked on a loading dock. Their perspectives differed on just about everything. They argued constantly. Yet they needed each other as well.

It can help to give characters occupations that represent a variety of perspectives on the story goal. For instance, if your goal is for the characters to stop a plague, you may have a medical researcher or doctor whose job it is to find a cure. You might have a representative of the government such as a policemen or the head of FEMA, who wants to avoid civil unrest resulting from the plague. You might have someone who carries the plague and has a job that brings him into contact with many people (a waiter, teacher, or bus driver). You might have someone from a pharmaceutical company whose main interest is profiting from the plague, or a father whose children are dying from the plague, or a wealthy hypochondriac who will resort to violence to protect himself from the plague, etc. So you might ask yourself if there are any important perspectives missing from your story and give your character a job that will help him fill in the blank.

Sometimes it is also interesting to give characters jobs that stand in contrast to the story goal. If you are writing about characters looking for greater authenticity in their lives, you might create a character whose job is all about image, such as an advertising executive, fashion model, or politician.

Jobs too can be part of the setting. For instance, if you are writing a Western, the reader will expect certain occupations to be represented. Homesteaders, ranchers, prospectors, bartenders, barbers, blacksmiths, sheriffs, etc. are typical occupations in these stories.

And it doesn't hurt to throw in a character with an unusual or unexpected job – one that stands out from the setting and gives him a unique perspective or forces other characters to look at things differently.

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