Sad news today. Sue Townsend, British author of the Adrian Mole book series and a delicious book about the Royal Family called The Queen and I, has died at 68, of complications from a stroke. We’ll miss you, Sue. Rest in peace.
J is for Job.
If your character were a real person, what kind of job would he have? In the U.S., we tend to define ourselves by what we do for a living. When we meet someone, one of the first getting-to-know-you questions we ask is, “What do you do?”
Here are some questions you can ask yourself when choosing a profession for your character.
Why does/did he decide to do this work?
Tunerville’s protagonist Chris owns his own landscaping business. Although he’s college-educated, he likes being outside, working with his hands, caring for his clients’ outdoor spaces. He’s no Einstein or Donald Trump. He’s just an average, everyday guy who works hard. He has expenses and lives in an inherited house. He didn’t go to school for it, but he enjoys what he does.
Though Chris is doing all right, he doesn’t make big bucks. This makes him vulnerable to a TV network’s offer to buy his ghost tuner—a few million dollars is enough to blind him to what they are actually planning to do with it. Not only that, but he loses clients over the tuner. While he no longer needs the money, it affects his reputation, and that is troubling to him. Once he can see his mistake, mitigating the damage becomes more urgent.
Your character’s job could also just be something he does to pay the bills. Whether he loves it or not can make a difference when conflict arises. If he does, he’s going to be a happier person than someone who dreads going to work.
If the conflict results in his losing the job or abandoning it, who is more likely to struggle with that—a protagonist who likes going to work, or someone who runs out of the office at five o’clock like the building is on fire?
What time of day does he go to work?
Most of us work during the day, but a whole lot of people go to bed when we’re just getting up. The night shift shows you a different perspective on the world. Though it’s not for me, I’ve done it, and it is a little weird.
Rotating shift work is hazardous to a person’s health (all that readjusting your body clock). In the dark, you can’t see the monster coming. And all the bad people like to come out at night, when there aren’t as many witnesses to their shenanigans. You can punch up a cop story just by setting your detective’s shift (or certain activities) after sunset.
This affects the kind of crimes he would investigate. Most bank robberies, for example, happen during the day when the bank is open. The detective isn’t likely to work one at 2 a.m., but he might handle vice cases and certainly will deal with murders after dark.
Does his job relate to the events of the narrative, or are they secondary to the plot?
Writers like John Grisham and Michael Palmer (also RIP, dammit) root the stories and characters of their best-selling thrillers in the worlds of their own professions (Grisham in law and Palmer in medicine). By doing this, they provide their protagonists with ready-made conflicts they can mine for dramatic effect. It’s easy to manufacture hair-raising scenarios in either job.
If a character’s job is sufficiently varied, you can set up a whole series around it. Real detective work, public and private, can be pretty mundane, though it does carry the potential for mayhem. There is a lot of uncomfortable conversation with witnesses and suspects, far less espionage and gunplay than most people think, hours spent combing through records both digital and on paper, boring surveillance, etc.
But everybody loves a baffling mystery. Add an unusual protagonist and a juicy villain or two, and you can have a series many people find tremendously exciting.
Will his job enable him to find resources on his own, or will he need to get help from someone?
The protagonist of a techno-thriller is going to have a much easier time tracking down an evil sentient computer bug if he already knows everything about computers. A character who can barely work his smartphone is going to have to find an expert. If the gap is too big between what he knows and what he doesn’t, you’ll waste a lot of story time while he tries to figure it out.
Some writers get around this by dropping experts into their character’s laps, but you shouldn’t just make them appear out of nowhere. The deus ex machina died out with classical Greek drama. There has to be some reason the protagonist would know to go to that person, and any character who tells him to do it should have a sensible reason for being there.
Try different hats on your characters. Make them more interesting with non-traditional jobs. It might require some research on your part, but that’s one of the things that makes writing fun. Switch up gender stereotypes—a male nanny, a female dock worker, etc. You can do it as a writing exercise, or use it to drive the plot of your story.