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?

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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.

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